Picture books that introduce children to art are now a standard requirement in the bookshops of our galleries and arts centres. It wasn’t always so – James Mayhew’s pioneering Katie books, which aim to teach children about art via a story, had to wait to find the understanding and appreciation they now enjoy. James Mayhew explains.
I’ve always loved pictures that tell stories. Even as a child, as I scribbled in my parents’ book Art Treasures of the World, I wondered what was happening in ‘The Hay Wain’, and ‘The Fighting Temeraire’. To me they were [image:Early stages for Turner’s ‘Fighting Temeraire’ surrounded by the usual mess.jpg:left]illustrations for an untold story.
I grew up in Blundeston, the tiny Suffolk village where Charles Dickens set the opening of David Copperfield. It was a rural and in some ways limited upbringing. Yet I learned to love the landscape, and was happiest on my own, with my paints and my bicycle, searching for the perfect place to set up my easel. I liked to imagine that I would one day be a great painter.
Years later, when I spent a summer as a pavement artist in Lowestoft, it was those same Art Treasures that I copied with my chalks, and a seed was sewn. By now I’d realised that I probably wasn’t going to be a Great Painter after all. Illustration – pictures that tell stories – was the obvious route for me, so I went to Maidstone College of Art to study it. While I was there the seed grew into a story about a little girl in an art gallery, who climbs inside famous paintings. It was intended as an entry to the Macmillan Children’s Book competition but my tutors were unimpressed, so I never sent it.
After graduating I dug out ‘Katie’s Pictures’ and I went to see Franklin Watts, who had recently started a new list, Orchard Books, under the skilful guidance of Judith Elliott. She telephoned the next day and said: ‘We love your idea – we’ll take it to Frankfurt and see what we can do.’ But by an astonishing coincidence, Posy Simmonds (established, famous, brilliant) had presented Lulu and the Flying Babies at the same book fair. Its plot? A child discovers art can come alive in a gallery. How could I compete?
Using real paintings in a picture book
Happily, Orchard believed in me – and went ahead. After all, the idea of art coming alive goes back at least to Ovid, and in children’s fiction it’s not an uncommon fantasy. But I think Katie’s Picture Show was the first time real paintings were used in a picture book story for young children. Immediately we were all thrust into a complicated system of permissions. The [image:Child With a Dove.jpg:left]paintings used must be out of copyright (so it was farewell to Picasso’s ‘Child With a Dove’, which was in my original dummy book) and the transparencies had to be hired, at a daily rate, so the delivery of my illustrations needed to tally. I suddenly had to turn my rough preliminary sketches into publishable illustrations, a task I felt woefully unprepared for at the time. At last all the strands came together, and in 1989 Katie’s Picture Show was published.
It wasn’t a huge success. A sequel took Katie to the Natural History Museum (Katie and the Dinosaurs), but after that there were no more Katie books for five years. Then, unexpectedly, Orchard suggested a new Katie book. Since Katie’s Picture Show, there had been many similar art books for children published and Orchard could see there was some mileage in the idea. I have been incredibly lucky in my choice of publisher and Orchard Books have supported me – and Katie – for almost twenty years now. Not all books are an immediate success. Some are slow burners and need time. Orchard kept Katie in print and gave her that time.
With Katie Meets the Impressionists the tide began to turn. Galleries that had previously been cool towards Katie’s methods of art appreciation started to take the books in handsome quantities. Katie has since explored the Italian Renaissance, Post-Impressionism, Spanish Baroque artists, Pointillism and now, with Katie and the British Artists, English Landscapes, fulfilling a long held ambition.
The potential for storytelling
Constructing the Katie stories is an unusual way of writing. Firstly, Orchard Books and I must agree on which area of art to explore (not all art is as marketable as impressionism). Next, I make a shortlist of paintings I think might work. Then I try to find ways of using the pictures in a sequence that will give me a story – but there are always a thousand and one possibilities.
I visit real locations wherever possible. It was a surprise to return to Suffolk, and Constable Country, and discover how much of his world is intact. Willy Lott’s cottage is still there of course, but I also found the dead tree in his ‘Cornfield’ painting. I really did feel as though I had, like Katie, stepped into a painting. Sometimes historical fact and specific settings dictate storylines. But more often there’s an unlimited imaginative world beyond the confines of the picture frame and it’s always been my intention to avoid producing just another ‘information book’. Sometimes I wish I could devote a whole book to one painting, because each has so much potential for storytelling. Then again, I think wistfully of all the paintings I’ve already left out.
The illustrations are another challenge. My usual techniques are based around using pen and ink, but since the first book I’ve experimented more to try to imitate better the techniques of the master painters. Oil paint isn’t practical – it takes too long to dry – and I dislike acrylic. I find household emulsion paint wonderful though, together with coloured inks, watercolours and pastels.
Children don’t see paintings as pretentious
In the spirit of homage I think my own identity as an illustrator gets a little lost. A large portion of the books is pastiche, and people buy them because they want to introduce their children to Van Gogh and Velazquez, not James Mayhew. And that’s fine – it’s what I set out to do. If it gets children interested, if it gets them being imaginative, if it allows them the sense of ownership that familiarity brings, and prevents them from being embarrassed by or afraid of art – like many adults are – then that must be good. Because children don’t see paintings as pretentious or middle class. They don’t have those preconceptions. They see them as illustrations for a story.
I’m not sure where Katie will go next, although Orchard have requested a tenth book. Meanwhile a dynamic independent production company called New Moon are developing an animated TV series based on the Katie books. Each episode will feature a single picture, and a fantastic team of writers, producers and animators is being assembled. The National Gallery are collaborating and it will be a real labour of love and something, I believe, to celebrate at a time when British Children’s TV is in decline.
I have been accused of being high-brow, but all I ever wanted to do was share my passions, to show people – children – that there are all sorts of interesting and wonderful ways of telling stories through the arts. I’m no expert, by any means. I hated opera – until I went to one. I didn’t understand Shakespeare, until I illustrated his stories. Sometimes you just need a way into things, but what rewards there are when you find that spark! Last year I was asked to narrate and illustrate (simultaneously, live on stage) Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’, with a whole orchestra. Easily the scariest thing I’ve ever done – but such a thrill!
I’m sure Katie would approve of our next concert: Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’. I can’t think of anything more appropriate.
James Mayhew’s ‘Katie’ books are published by Orchard Books. The latest, Katie and the British Artists (978 1 84616 736 2) as featured on our cover, is published in August at £10.99 hbk.
Titles also available in paperback at £5.99 each:
Katie and the Bathers, 978 1 84362 035 8
Katie and the Dinosaurs (new edition), 978 1 84362 396 0
Katie and the Mona Lisa, 978 1 86039 706 6
Katie and the Spanish Princess, 978 1 84616 248 0
Katie and the Sunflowers, 978 1 84121 634 8
Katie in London, 978 1 84362 285 7
Katie Meets the Impressionists, 978 1 86039 768 4
Katie’s Picture Show (new edition), 978 1 84362 397 7
Postscript about our cover artwork: Because the landscape format of the Katie books is entirely at odds with the A4 portrait format of the magazine, a composite image has been assembled. The pastiche of Constable’s Cornfield is in fact just a section of an illustration, taken from a much larger double page spread from within the book. A frame has been added to complete the effect.