Monday, 13 July 2009
How it all began
The things that happen to us as children have a lasting effect on us. Our early years are when we develop into the people we are as adults. And memories have always been a huge inspiration for my work. Here I am, aged five with my mischievious seven year old sister...Katie. In 1969 we spent the whole day in London with our parents, which was quite an event as we were living in a tiny village in Suffolk, called Blundeston, miles from anywhere. The picture shows us with our mother outside the National Gallery. We didn't go in the gallery that day, but London certainly made an impression on me. I have no idea who is sitting on the lion...something Katie and Jack end up doing in Katie in London. But the first Katie book was Katie's Picture Show which began even earlier...
So many people ask where the idea for Katie came from. Obviously my sister Kate was an inspiration! But also, I remember my parents had a big "coffee table" book called Art Treasures of the World, which I still have to this day. It had all the usual art from Pre-historic man through the Renaissance to Impressionism and to Picasso and the Twentieth Century. I happily scribbled in this book as a toddler, as you can see in the photograph. I had no idea what the paintings were about; I couldn't read. But the paintings were illustrations to me, and I imagined the stories that belonged with them.
Who would have thought that looking through an old book of art would be so important to a little child?
Here's a drawing I did when I was about 4 years old, of a train. I was crazy about trains then, largely due to an old Sixties tv serial, Casey Jones, which I loved. The locomotive in that (The Cannonball Express)was a typical American engine, with cow catcher and bell, both of which found their way into the drawing. We also lived near the main line to Scotland and I remember waiting by the track for the Flying Scotsman, which would roar past "like a great green dragon" to paraphrase The Railway Children. I loved to draw and I was fortunate to have parents who encouraged me. The best Christmas I recall was when I was, I think, 11 years old. My father made a large wooden box and it was filled with everything a young artist could want: paints, paper, pencils, transfers, felt-pens in magnificent rainbow colors, stickers, glue, scissors, palettes...everything. Even today, when I lift the lid, the faded smell of wood and varnish is just potent enough to send me back to that magical Christmas day when I first opened my treasure trove of art. From that moment there was no turning back. I knew it was what I wanted to do.
I always knew I'd end up being an artist. Even though my teachers told me I'd never make a living at it (!!!). That only made me more determined of course. Here's a picture of me aged around 10 years old (on holiday in Devon), and a couple of paintings done around the same time (give or take a year). Happily my mother kept them carefully all these years.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang became something of a childhood obsession with me. I first saw the film in an enormous cinema in Lowestoft (long since demolished) when I was five and vividly remember the ice-cream interval at the very moment the car plunges over a cliff! Cinema was a form of theatre in those days. Of course I couldn't see the film again until it was broadcast on TV (no videos or DVDs then!), which took several years to happen. So I played the L.P. of the songs and painted pictures to remember it all. Oh, and played with my Corgi toy, with it's jewelled headlights and automatic flip-out wings. Happy days...
The donkey in the snow was a school project, executed at middle school. I distinctly remember the art teacher there explaining how the snowflakes needed to be blueish in order to show up against the snow-covered field. I used a pencil dipped in paint to do the snow. He must have liked it as it was hung on the wall. One of those little things that mean so much to a child!
Here is a picture of me sketching amongst the ruins of Tintern Abbey during a family holiday. I was around ten years old and I've sketched ever since. It's such an important thing to do, to really learn to LOOK. Around this time (mid 'seventies) I entered a Blue Peter competition ("Design a train of the future"). I didn't win, but I did get a letter from Valerie Singleton AND a Blue Peter badge! Such accolades are of huge importance to a young child and I know I felt galvanised to continue drawing.
Later, at the Benjamin Britten High School (which, as I write, is about to be demolished), I was the "art editor" of the school newspaper and the first issue's cover is shown. I was a founder-pupil, for the school was then brand new. The newspaper cover shows Britten together with a scene of the Suffolk coast and Dr. Who with a portrait of ABBA (it was the 'Seventies!). While not all my teachers encouraged me (most did the opposite) this newspaper was a wonderful (and useful) introduction to publishing! And lastly, here is my very first published illustration - and not many people can claim that it is to be found in an issue of the ABBA magazine!!! But here it is - another competition runner-up - a poster for "The Winner Takes It All". For many years I had no record of this but recently the owner of a brilliant and fascinating ABBA website kindly helped me out, for which I am extremely grateful. Seeing this again kind of makes up for all the years of ridicule I faced for liking ABBA in the first place...
People often ask me how to motivate their children. Taking risks (for example, entering competitions and NOT winning) and, above all, being encouraged at home AND ideally at school... Give them the time to be creative and celebrate the outcome, no matter what they achieve. These are the things that matter. If your child is keen, get them a variety of materials, and get them drawing - sketching - from life. Let them know you value their pictures. Create a gallery at home, on a wall or on a door. And keep the pictures for posterity!
Although it was glaringly obvious to most people that I was destined to be an illustrator, as a teenager I still imagined I would be a Great Painter, creating magnificent canvasses and starving in a garret. I do still miss those days; I would go off on my bicycle, across Blundeston Marshes, painting in a thoroughly impressionistic manner, but without the sheer genius of the Impressionists, sadly. But I learned a lot about different techniques and to this day the smell of oil paints can still quicken the pulse. I fell in love with nature and the whole idea of capturing the effects of light. Some days I would do five or six paintings. The self-portrait (with hair!)was painted when I was 16. You can see how seriously I took myself by the stern expression.
A few years later, after a very serious illness, my perspective began to change. I still loved the Old Masters, but I could see I wasn't going to be one of them. My Foundation Course at Lowestoft School of Art had been severely interrupted by health matters and at the end of it I was refused a place on a Fine Art degree at Camberwell School of Art, for being too illustrative. That summer I attempted pavement drawings for some consolation (and much needed cash). Together with a friend from my course, I transformed Station Square in Lowestoft (hardly the most promising location) into a regular Art Gallery. Here you can just make out Mona Lisa, and a couple of pictures based on Turner's paintings... and a glimpse of the Hay Wain by Constable. I had such fun copying these famous paintings... and in so doing, a tiny seed of an idea began to grow in my imagination...
Here are the very first sketches for the book that would become Katie's Picture Show. So many people have asked: Where did you get the idea for Katie? Ideas grow from many things. Memories, words, people and experiences. I have shown the books and the pavement drawings that were part of inspiration, and they came together in this dummy book. As a student, at Maidstone college of Art, I was invited, with my colleagues, to enter the Macmillan Children's Book prize, for which students have to submit an idea for an illustrated picture book. This was my intended entry. Unfortunately my tutors hated it so much it was never entered. This was the only project related to children's books on the whole three year course. I was naturally disappointed by their reaction. And this dummy was shoved to the back of a drawer and forgotten...
In 1987 I graduated from Maidstone College of Art with any dream of working as a children's book illustrator firmly crushed. One tutor, Wendy Smith, did suggest (in those last few days) that I might investigate children's books. But it all seemed a bit late. I had a folio full of images for novels by Elizabeth Bowen (The Hotel is shown here) and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nothing for children. I began the depressing task of contacting publishers and attempting to get work. My first interview - for Pan books - was typical. I was told my work was "too small, too dark and rather suicidal". Which was exactly how I was beginning to feel!
Working my way through an alphabetical list I thought I'd try Faber and Faber, renouned for their stylish covers. But I accidently called Franklin Watts - a children's publisher - and by the time I realised my mistake I was far too embarressed to admit it. And so I went to see them - and took with me my ill-fated Katie's Pictures dummy. Astonishingly, the junior designer I met rather liked it and asked to hang onto it. The company had recently set up a new imprint: Orchard Books, and she thought it might work on their list. I agreed to let her keep it - what did I have to lose? The next day, managing director Judith Elliott called to make an offer!
Here you can see my first typed manuscript (produced on a type-writer!!!) But I wasn't out of the woods yet. First of all, Picasso's Child with a Dove had to go (see picture below). I quickly discovered I could only use out-of-copyright artists (back then it was those artists who have been dead for fifty years).
Then the book had to be taken to the Frankfurt bookfair. And by an astonishing coincedence, Posy Simmons had a new book idea presented at the same fair: Lulu and the Flying Babies, a story about (wait for it) a girl in a gallery. It suddenly looked like this opportunity was slipping away, for how could I, a newcomer, possibly compete with the well-established and brilliant Posy?
Imagine my excitement when the director of Orchard Books, Judith Elliott, returned from the Frankfurt bookfair with good news. It was a yes! they would publish my book and call it Katie's Picture Show! Although the book by Posy Simmonds that had also been shown at Frankfurt was simular, it was evident that Katie would work rather differently by having real paintings reproduced in the story. Indeed it seems this was the first time that a picture book story for children had real paintings incorporated. Of course many other books have adopted this idea since, but I'm rather proud of Katie's pioneering efforts.
And so, while Orchard Books explored permissions and copyrights, I began experimenting with the illustrations. An offer of a contract is one thing, but being able to come up with the goods is quite another. I soon realised that I was woefully ill-equipped by my illustration degree to tackle this book. So I drew and drew and drew. There was no other solution. Slowly the Katie I recognise today began to emerge but it was a torturous process and took many months of experimenting, mostly with line and wash, but on all sorts of papers with a variety of inks and paints.
I had to find an approach that would allow Katie's world to mix with the world in the paintings without jarring too much. I couldn't do anything too quirky or modern as that would just detract from the paintings. I felt the illustrations needed a "classic" quality to them in order for the fantasy to work. Orchard were fantastic, believing in me and standing by me. Never once did they suggest I abandon the project, even though they must have understood how young and inexperienced I was. Their patience gave me confidence.
It was decided that Renoir's Umbrellas (Les Parapluie) would replace the Picasso painting I'd shown in my dummy as that was still in copyright. At the end of the story Katie is absorbed by a piece of modern art. My sketches implied Pollock's style, but he too was in copyright. In the end I chose a piece by Kasimir Malevitch, a Russian avant-garde artist who had been unfortunate enough to die young.
With my paintings chosen, I could now get serious about those pesky illustrations, as well as going through the editing process for the first time with Rosemary Davies, who worked on all the early Katie books.
As I progressed with the illustrations I remember storing the finished pieces under the bed in case of fire or flood. When it was completed I delivered it all by hand (I've never trusted the post, having been a part-time postman myself!).
Finally my first book was approved and sent off to the printers. It was actually real! It was going to happen! I was going to have a book published! Now, where were all those teachers who said I'd never make it?
May 1989. I was living with my parents at the time in a village near Saffron Walden. It was a gloriously sunny morning. A knock at the door - and there was a huge bouquet and a box - containing champagne. A card from Orchard Books read simply: "Congratulations on the publication of Katie's Picture Show".
Of course I'd seen a finished copy beforehand. And these two landmarks in a book's journey - seeing an advance copy and then the day of publication - remain potently thrilling. Here's a letter from dear Judith Elliott (now retired), who had the vision to publish the book and send me on my happy journey into the world of children's books.
The early reviews were not especially kind: "Mayhew's style just about copes with the demands made upon it" said Tony Bradman in The Times. And it didn't exactly fly off the shelves. And yet Katie's Picture Show has remained in print for two decades, thanks to Judith's (and Orchard's) belief in the book.
Over the years the cover has changed with the times, but the insides remain just as they were twenty years ago...
Of course I had no idea that the book would spawn a whole series, and I look back at it now with a mixture of nostaglic indulgence and horror! There are a lot of weak illustrations there; I was only just beginning to find my way. But over the years there have been many kind letters including one from Camp David: Barbara Bush (then the First Lady!) was presented with a copy and was courteous enough to write to me. Usually though the letters and comments are from parents of children begging them to go to a gallery, And this is what the book is all about - celebrating art and artists. I am always so pleased to get these letters and reply to every one of them. I have made some lasting friendships through Katie!
The law of diminishing returns that usually applies to a series has been reversed by Katie. With each new title the series grows in strength and those countries that have not translated her, welcome her into their museum shops in English. She may have begun quietly and uncertainly, but she has grown greatly in confidence (and in sales!) over the years. And the history of art is so full of fascinating and extraordinary paintings, all with stories to tell, that I think the future for Katie is looking good.