Michael Foreman is one of the UK’s greatest children’s illustrators. He is also amazingly youthful; aged seventy-seven he could easily pass for twenty years younger, says Nicholas Tucker.
We talked together at the opening in Newcastle of a new exhibition put on by Seven Stories: Painting with Rainbows – A Michael Foreman Exhibition. Made up from illustrations taken from some of his best-loved books, this runs until next June before going on tour. It is a beautiful and often moving show but with plenty of visual jokes thrown in as well.
Some of the illustrations come from his memoir, War Boy: A Country Childhood, winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal 1989. This superb book comes over with such intensity I wondered whether he views this time in his life as particularly formative.
‘Well of course, as a child I didn’t realise how unusual a time it was. Air raids, running across the street to the shelter, that was normal. I never remember being frightened, because my mum was there and if she was around everything was bound to be okay.’
His mother ran the local shop in Pakefield, on the Suffolk Coast. His father had died a month before his son was born. One picture in War Boy shows the shop crowded with young service men wearing paper hats and drinking cups of tea on Christmas evening wishing ‘Good Night’ to the young Michael unwillingly going off to bed.
‘I can still remember how much I resented having to miss more of the fun. But what makes that picture more poignant is that some of those men, so happy on that particular night, would not be alive one year later.
Michael’s hatred of warfare was evident from his first picture book The General, where soldiers decide to make their surroundings look beautiful rather than war-like. He continues to promote a broadly pacifist message.
‘Because of the constant flow of truly graphic images of war and suffering available almost every day on television, I now feel that there are no subjects I can’t touch on in my picture books. But of course anything you do also depends on how you leave your readers at the end of a book. I can’t see any point in producing a book for children, however realistic, that also deprives them of any sort of hope. I have never felt myself that there is nothing left to live for, so why would I put that message into any of my work?’
He also has strong feelings about our natural environment. Does he ever get disheartened when he hears about rainforests still being chopped down?
‘No, you must fight harder, work harder, struggle on. People can’t continue indefinitely to be so reckless about the environment. I have been lucky earlier in my career to have worked for magazines that have sent me all round the world. I still get ideas from the sketchbooks I kept at the time. So I can set a story in a real location which can then become as important as any character.’
Michael is predominantly a water-colourist, with a special ability to paint landscapes where colours merge into each other. Was there any particular influence upon him when he was first developing his style? And has he ever used computer technology in his work?
‘I was trained as a painter and for a while I liked the abstract work of Mondrian and Ben Nicholson. But I was also fascinated by the American social realist artist Ben Shahn and his wonderful jagged drawing line. He had a great influence on me and I named my son after him. As for computers, I don’t know one end from the other. And frankly, doing artwork on them doesn’t appeal to me in any way. I like going to the art store, I like buying pencils, crayons and paper, and finishing the day with colours under my fingernails. Working on a screen would have none of that.’
He has, over the years, produced many picture books. How does he feel about the amount of work this must have entailed?
‘I’ve worked in factories and things – that’s real work! But for me there’s nothing nicer than what I do. In the morning I can look from the bedroom down the passage to the workroom where I’ll be spending most of the day and I think how lucky I am. I don’t have to trek anywhere, I don’t have to get to be polite to anyone, I can just sit there and do it. And then I can go for a walk up to Putney Heath through the woods and see the changes and so forth and then go back to work feeling refreshed. And when you look at the work again you can spot where it’s not coming off or what’s boring about it. And if it’s really boring I will put it in a drawer and work at the other book I am also engaged on at the same time.’
What about the future?
‘I am beginning to get more and more driven, to not waste a moment, because there is an awful lot of stuff I want to do and there’s less and less time to do it. And now I’ve got grandchildren, I get so much more material from them and the way they see things. And every day there are stories in the press you also want to respond to.’
The exhibition also includes examples of the initial preparation Michael makes in the course of producing the picture book he has in mind. It can be a long business before he feels he has finally got it right. This artistic perfectionism makes every one of his books special, well worth poring over again and again to get some idea of the skill that has gone into their creation. A nice man and such a fine illustrator – we are lucky to have him.
Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University.
The General, Janet Chartres, illus Michael Foreman, Templar Publishing, 978-1-8487-7160-4, £6.99 pbk
War Boy: A Country Childhood, Michael Foreman, Pavilion Children’s Books, 978-1-8436-5087-4, £9.99