Benedict Blathwayt's picture books have been firm favourites for decades, offering a unique insight into the countryside of the United Kingdom and visually documenting so much about nature and farming practices. It was a pleasure to speak with Benedict about his latest book, The Sticker Atlas of Scotland.
Benedict describes the work of inaugural Kate Greenaway Medal winner, Edward Ardizzone, as being a particular influence admiring the efficacy of his simple line and wash. Although he never read the classics, Benedict was fascinated by the visual worlds in Herge's Tintin books and in Rupert the Bear. The idea of place and childhood runs through much of Benedict's work and influences. 'I draw from a lot of the places I've lived.' Benedict spent a lot of his youth and chilldhood in Scotland and has worked on three farms, including one on the Isle of Mull. He has owned a cow, Bramble, who might be familiar to readers of his books. Even today, he still lives on a farm and, although he occasionally helps with the sheep, is glad not to have the full responsibilities of a far.
Describing himself as not being a naturalist, Benedict nevertheless has a palpable curiosity and intrigue about the world that surrounds him. 'Artists are like sponges, absorbing the things that surround them.' Benedict is likely more astute than most as he spent some years drawing wildlife in Wales for Nature Conservancy. He explains how he loves nothing more than to watch otters and whales on the nature walks he loves. 'I like to observe and then look up in a book what I have seen. It's amazing how much you learn that way, I've even remembered some of the Latin names'. It's no surprise that Benedict also keeps a nature diary where he records his observations, like the swallows that came into his kitchen this summer, perching on the drying rack. He uses these observations to help inform the natural history column his writes for a local newsletter and to pore over during the colder months.
Discussing his creative process, Benedict tells how he creates the idea for a story, beginning by writing down scribbled text in biro. He divides this into the number of pages - usually 12 spreads -and creates a mini storyboard (about the size of a matchbox), in fine sharp pencil. This is how he tests to find whether the continuity and run works. If approved by a publisher, he will then create full size roughs where he makes all the mistakes of composition. Placing the roughs onto a homemade copylight, he then copies these onto watercolour paper before colouring these.
Nature and place play key roles roles in his books. 'Part of this is that I always want to be able to go for a walk in a picture, seeing the horizon in the distance, knowing that even if a road goes around a hill you can still get there.' Place formed a part in his latest project for Birlinn, creating The Sticker Atlas of Scotland. It was an idea Benedict was initially a little sceptical about, seeing it more of a toy than an actual book. Having produced novelty books before, Benedict felt these weren't always satisfactory 'It only takes a lost piece or a broken tab and they don't even really work as books any more'. Seeing the sticker books that his grandchildren play with, Benedict felt there was a place for one that does it differently, 'to create a variety of stickers that, like individual mosaic tiles on a Roman floor, work together to give an overall fair and true picture of the country.' Having visited much of Scotland, there is an authenticity to this.
There's a sense of synchronicity to this project because, as a child, Benedict used to draw invented maps, creating white sandy beaches and tall mountains, delighting in giving them weird and wacky names. 'I always loved maps, the brown bits that show higher ground, the water - wondering whether it is swimmable, if you could sail a boat in it. Sat Navs and Google Maps are blinkered by our specific question and only answer the"now" and miss the excitement entailed in laying out a map on the table when everything and anything is possible.'
As our conversation draws to a close, it strikes me that the wonderfully detailed landscapes and townscapes that Benedict paints act as proto-maps, encouraging readers to explore different areas and the lay of the land, acting too as a places where anything and everything is possible.