Harold Jones was illustrating children’s books long before I was even born. The last 50 years of his life have been immersed in the craft, so for someone who has only just dipped her toes into the water, it was a wonderful opportunity to be able to meet him at his home in Putney, South London, and talk to him about his work and his career.
You would expect many differences in the work of the old and the young, particularly as new ideas, new styles and new printing processes have all had a big impact on children’s book illustration since the publication of Harold Jones’s first book This Year: Next Year in 1937. Yet surprisingly, I found there were many similarities.
For a start, his work is firmly based in the traditional style of British book illustration, an approach that I very much admire, so I was especially interested to hear his views on illustration. ‘I have a very positive idea what is meant by illustration and a lot of the illustrated books I see don’t fufil that idea. I think that an illustration has to be more than just a representation of facts and things. I think it also has to perform the function of decoration.’ He went on to tell me that he compares this with the fourteenth and fifteenth-century Italian artists who painted the walls with mural decorations to tell stories to the people because they hadn’t the access to books. ‘The artist had a very positive purpose. He didn’t want to, as it were in three dimensional description, bash a hole in the wall. He had to preserve the flatness of the surface, so he married two dimensional pattern with three dimensional description of what was contained within and of course that was the art of the artist. Whenever I’ve drawn pictures for illustration I’ve always thought of them as mural decorations.’
One artist he particularly admires for his sense of decoration is Heinrich Hoffmann, even though he is in a very different cultural tradition from himself. Pointing to a screen standing in his studio decorated with drawings from ‘Struwwelpeter’ he said, ‘Although he couldn’t draw in the mature sense, he could get his story and action over very vividly. He’s rather naive but he’s got a tremendous imaginative sense. I admire his drawings tremendously.’ He also admires such ‘giants’ as Beardsley and Bewick, and his contemporary Ardizzone.
He talks about illustration with a youthful enthusiasm belying his 82 years, and the sound of a mahlstick slapped down firmly into his hands after each point he made seemed to emphasize his strength of feeling about his profession; a profession which he says was never ‘just a job to be done’. It was ‘something much more than that. Something which filled the whole of one’s living.’
His work is based on sound draughtsmanship and a strong sense of design; and is characterized by a firm, yet very delicate, sensitive penline. It is a style that is instantly recognisable and one that has changed little over the years. Although he had no training in illustration, he studied etching and engraving at the Royal College of Art, and the techniques of drawing in line and crosshatching developed in these two disciplines were a fine apprenticeship – when it came to drawing in pen and ink he found that he could translate one medium to another without much difficulty. He is very dismissive of his own talents, but he did tell me that in the experience of drawing he has found that there does come in time ‘a blessed state when you can sit down and watch the drawing making itself. You are purely a spectator.’
He has illustrated such classic books as The Water Babies, The Fairy Stories of Oscar Wilde and Lavender’s Blue, a book of nursery rhymes compiled by Kathleen Lines, which has been in publication for the last 32 years and must have brought pleasure to countless numbers of children. Harold Jones was responsible for the complete design of Lavender’s Blue, which has 170 pages of illustrations in both colour and black and white. It was a mammoth task, taking him a year to complete ‘working from 10 o’clock in the morning until 10 o’clock at night, every day including weekends.’ He made three dummies before he was satisfied with the arrangement, planning it so that when the page opened the design would run right across the page from corner to corner.
It is clear though that the subject matter interested him more than anything. ‘Hey Diddle Diddle is a fantastic piece of imaginative thinking. Surrealism is it not? Well why have some of the greater minds eschewed them? You would have thought they would be tremendously popular. Wonderful subjects. Every one has got a suggestion of extraordinary fantasy about it.’ Very often it is the sound of the words that inspires an illustration just as much as their meaning, and he remembers singing the rhymes to himself as he was illustrating the book, which he believes helped him enter into the spirit of the particular line. Certainly the rhythm and movement of the rhymes is echoed strongly in the illustrations.
The rhymes are depicted in a variety of ways, from fairly elaborate double page spreads, to simple arrangements of delightful vignettes, but they are not set in any particular period of time. ‘A nursery rhyme is something which has got to have a feeling of having existed for a long while. I don’t think one wants to be specific about any particular fashion otherwise you date it, so I just invented it in a vague sort of way. Clothes which one felt they would be dressed in.’
In this particular case he relied on his instincts, but like many other illustrators he has often drawn on his own childhood memories. He told me that initially he made the wrong choice of career, spending a year farming in the Warwickshire countryside. As he was brought up a town child, being in the countryside was a `tremendous pictorial experience’ for him. `Though with great lamentation I ended that year thinking well that’s one year I’ve lost, it was curiously enough the reverse, because those memories of the countryside were so deeply engrained on my mind, that throughout my life as an illustrator I haven’t had far to go. They were all there.’
He has lived through an important period of change in the way that books are printed. Thanks to the recent technological advances I am fortunate to have my own artwork reproduced accurately in every detail. But when Harold Jones started his career it was a very different story. For his first books he drew his own lithographs, a laborious and time consuming process, but one he never found difficult. `There was a time when they didn’t come back so accurately. The colours were wrong and there was a sort of roughness about them, but I find today they reproduce so exceedingly clearly. The last book I did you just did your watercolours on a sheet of paper, handed them in, bob’s your uncle, they came back exactly as your drawings were, which is rather wonderful isn’t it?’
A Happy Christmas published in 1983 was reproduced in this `wonderful way’. It is the third story he has written and illustrated about a toy rabbit called Bunby. The illustrations are imaginatively drawn using his familiar delicate penline washed over with watercolour. I was curious to know where Bunby came from, and responding with almost childlike enthusiasm he brought a small cloth rabbit out of a cupboard. `A bit seared by age but nevertheless quite vital I think. I saw him lying on my table one day and I thought well dash it all, I wonder what he does when I’m fast asleep, so I thought a bit and tried to solve that little riddle.’ Clearly his imagination is as strong as it ever was.
I wondered how much he had the children who were going to read the books in mind when he was doing the illustrations. `Not at all. I never thought about children. I never even thought about them looking at the books, it never occurred to my mind. Do you find that odd?’ No I said, I don’t find that odd at all, and suddenly the age difference no longer seemed quite so significant. No doubt many people will find it odd, but it’s something any children’s book illustrator who draws for their own pleasure and creates books simply because they have a desire to do so will understand, whether they’re 82, 24, or somewhere in between. Technology, styles and ideas may have changed the face of children’s books over the last 50 years, but the underlying and most important factors involved in their creation are still the same.
There is no doubt that Harold Jones still enjoys his work. Resting on easels in his studio were pictures he is in the process of painting; rich in pattern and colour, and full of the decorative qualities in which he has always taken so much pleasure. Summing up his career he said, `Anyone who can take such subjects as children’s literature and go on working all their lives with tremendous interest is one of the lucky people.’ It was a delight to meet one.