19 August 1935 – 10 February 2021
Nicholas Tucker pays tribute to Victor Ambrus, who has died aged 85.
László Gyözö (‘Victor’) Ambrus survived a perilous time in his youth before becoming a prolific and hugely successful illustrator. Born in Hungary in 1935, during his third year at the Budapest Academy of Fine Arts he and some fellow students were part of the resistance during the 1956 uprising. Under returning fire from Russian soldiers, eight of them were shot after enabling others to escape. Wading through heavy snow to the Austrian border, he finally decided to come to England. Speaking no English, he arrived at Crookham Army camp just before Christmas. He then enrolled at Farnham Art School, later transferring to the Royal College of Art where he studied engraving and lithography. There he met his future wife Glenys Chapman, also to become a noted illustrator. The couple had two sons.
Already familiar with classic British illustrators, Ambrus followed on in a tradition combining a fine line with strongly atmospheric detail. Early on he illustrated stories by Hester Burton and K.M. Peyton, both published by Oxford University Press with whom went on to have a lifetime association. A fine horseman, winning two rosettes for show-jumping, he once rode a lively steed around a field, slashing with a sword taken from his own growing collection of weaponry. This was in order to get a better idea about what charging into battle was like.
In 1965 he won the Kate Greenaway Medal for Three Poor Tailors. Based on a Hungarian folk tale, Ambrus was now supplying his own texts and alternating between black and white line drawings and full colour. He won the Medal again in 1975 for two books, Mishka, about a boy who runs away to the circus and becomes an expert violinist, and Horses in Battle. This last title drew on childhood memories of the wild horses he used to see driven out each morning during his summer holidays in the Hungarian countryside. Based on true stories about cavalry horses and their close links with the men riding them, this was history brought thrillingly to new life.
He also appeared for over twenty years on Channel 4’s Archaeology series Time Team. Here he would visualise and then draw how the various sites being excavated might have looked in their prime along with pictures of those who may also have been around at the time. Equally at home with primitive man or British nobles, his ability to create instant personalities on the page was extraordinary. Lecturing at Farnham, Guildford and Epsom Colleges of Art for over twenty years, he was an outstanding teacher. There were also six stamps designed for the Royal Mail, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Hans Andersen.
Neatly dressed, courteous, unfailingly benign and with a quiet but mischievous sense of humour, Ambrose was universally popular with everyone he worked with. Speaking with barely a trace of accent and eloquent both in writing as well as in his wonderfully vivid use of watercolour, his contribution to illustration over the years was immense.