Tuesday, 29 September 2009
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.
Friday, 25 September 2009
For the last two years I have been lucky enough to present children's concerts with the de Havilland Philharmonic Orchestra in Hatfield. Maureen Irving of the St Albans Children's Book Group was the innovative organiser of this opportunity. She had seen me tell stories and illustrate them, and as many of my tales link to pieces of music, she wanted to find a way of bringing the music into the equation. Of course, 80-piece orchestras are not easy to find. But find one she did. The opening concert featured Peter and the Wolf and the Firebird. For the latter score I wrote a narration that fitted around the music. But what really made the concert a bit different was that I illustrated the stories live on stage while I narrated and the orchestra played. The images were projected in real time upon a huge screen behind the orchestra.
It was a huge gamble, and I was literally terrified. But it worked, and last year we followed it up with Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. This was another challenge. I wrote, in verse, an introduction to each of the ten pictures created in music, then recreated them as pictures as the music played. As some of the music was very short, this was tricky (Limoge market had to be painted in 60 seconds!). This year the concert is called "Spooky Tunes" and will feature Danse Macabre, Night on a Bare Mountain, Baba Yaga and The Sorcerer's apprentice, amongst others. As before, the conductor will be Robin Browning, and I'm really excited to be preparing another concert with him. Helping children find a way into classical music is something I'm passionate about. Most concerts try to draw children in with orchestras playing Star Wars or Dr Who themes. That's not my way. I want children to hear the real thing: Saint-Saens, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and co. Now I must go and create narration texts and practise the pictures!!!
Monday, 21 September 2009
It's very exciting when various strands come together and story ideas tie up. When I was asked to do a workshop at the National Gallery with Katie and the British Artists as the focus, I tried to think of stories I had that linked to The Fighting Temeraire, stories I could tell from memory. Nothing really worked, so I decided to tell a true story about Pirates and buried treasure. The legend of the Lima treasure on Cocos Island (Believed to be the true inspiration for R.L. Stevenson's Treasure Island) is an extraordinary one, and I have a personal attachment to it as my Grandfather, Henry Leighton, was one of the pioneer treasure hunters in the 1930s who went searching on the island.
Cocos Island is near Galapagos Island, in the Pacific and Henry joined a crew at Lowestoft and sailed all the way in a converted fishing boat called Veracity ("Truth"). He had many adventures but alas found no treasure. Of course his stories were the real treasures to me, something more valuable than any gemstone. He also bequeathed to me a shark's eye, a hard gristly piece from the eye of a shark he caught in the Pacific (he was the galley cook and responsible for feeding the crew). Today the treasure remains undiscovered and the island is now an uninhabited wildlife reserve, and no treasure hunters are allowed upon it. But the big thrill for me was discovering that one of the pirates associated with the treasure, the fabulously named Benito Bonito of the Bloody Sword, was in fact believed to be Captain Bennett Grahame, a veteran of Trafalgar who fought alongside Nelson. That linked beautifully to the National Gallery (which is of course in Trafalgar Square); But there is more. Lord Nelson's ship, HMS Victory, was rescued from attack by none other ship than...The Fighting Temeraire.
It was wonderful to tell this story at the National Gallery yesterday, especially as my Uncle and his daughter and children, all descendants of Henry Leighton, came and heard the story, and indeed saw the shark's eye, which I had brought along as well. In the pictures you can see Henry on Cocos Island, and a practise version of the painting "in the style of Turner" I did for the children, and a picture of the book signing.
Thursday, 17 September 2009
Welcome to Le Theatre de Renoir! This wonderful giant puppet theatre was created last week at Samuel Lucas JMI school in Hitchin. Every year, the National Gallery in London choose one painting for schools to reinterpret. The best work will be exhibited at the gallery in a special exhibition called Take One Picture.
This year the painting is Renoir's The Umbrellas, which I used in the very first Katie story, Katie's Picture Show. Samuel Lucas school in Hitchin have decided to take part, and I was lucky enough to be their artist-in-resisdence. Complete with a proscenium arch and scenerey (which they painted themselves) the theatre was created by year 5 and 6 pupils. They also wrote a play, based on the fact that the Umbrellas was partly repainted about five years after if was first started. To involve more children the actors mimed with masks (to look like giant puppets) and narrators sat either side of the stage. The teachers worked really hard rehearsing the children, while the glorious costumes were created in just a few days by a brilliant local artist Trina Bharwaney.
For a whole school project I wanted to create a stained glass window, using transparancy to symbolise rain. I had a few technical problems with paint not sticking to acetate, and in the end used oil pastels. Over 200 children contributed to the drawing. The result was beautiful, allowing glimpses of trees and children playing through the sketchy rainy drawings on the window, which continually change as the sun moves through the day.
Younger children also wrote and illustrated stories and poems, and other artists also came in and created other wonderful works of art: sculptures and gigantic quilts amongst them.
To achieve all this in just five days was incredibly hard work, but also great fun. It was lovely for me to spend a bit longer in a school and really get to know the children and the staff. Samuel Lucas is a rare school, with vision, imagination and lovely people. Everyone made me feel incredibly welcome and all the children threw themselves into their collaborative tasks with enthusiasm, humour and determination. I hope they are selected; they deserve to be. For me, it was a fantastic experience and I'm very grateful for the opportunity to work on such ambitious and exciting things with such lovely and talented people. Samuel Lucas JMI showed just what can be done with a bit of imagination!
Wednesday, 2 September 2009
No sooner have I returned from the National Galleries in Edinburgh than I have to begin preparing for a big event at the National Gallery in London. The details are in the pictures, and as you will see it is a FREE event open to children of all ages, taking place on September 20th. It promises to be lots of fun and I'm really looking forward to returning to Trafalgar Square and the magnificent National Gallery (London version). Funnily enough, I recently heard (from my publisher) that the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square was invaded by Katie - or at least someone read Katie books for an hour while sitting on it. As her adventures bring her to Trafalgar Square on a regular basis, it makes perfect sense. An unusual honour, but an exciting one!
Tuesday, 1 September 2009
The sun shone and the showers were few in Edinburgh this weekend. It was wonderful to be back in this beautiful city, and in particular to meet my friends at the National Galleries on The Mound, Linda from the education department and Colin the book buyer. It was also a thrill to see a life sized Spanish Princess in the gallery, amongst the Velazquez, Goya, and Murillo paintings. The Royal academy, where the Discovery of Spain exhibition was presented looked magnificent and to sit in such a space to tell (Spanish) stories and illustrate them was an honour indeed. The children came clutching their Katie books and it was a very happy experience. I'm extremely grateful to Linda for all her work organising the event. On the way home I sat next to a very nice teacher, Elaine, who had been to the Book Festival looking for stories about Katie for her Granddaughter (who shares the name). She hadn't found any...so I was able to solve her problem. We had a lovely chat and the journey home whizzed by...thanks Elaine!