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An Interview with illustrator Ruth Brown

Posted By Jacob Hope, 28 August 2020

It is an honour to welcome much loved illustrator Ruth Brown to the blog and to talk with her about creative, cats and her craft.  Ruth's books have been shortlisted for numerous awards including the Kate Greenaway medal.  Ruth is the author of many favourite picture books including A Dark, Dark TaleGracie the lighthouse cat and The Tale of Two Mice.  Ruth's latest book is A Gallery of Cats an exploration of the world of art.

Some of your childhood was spent in Germany immediately after the war, do you feel this has influenced your work?


I think my work is more influenced by the time before we went to live in Germany after the war. In 1941, my mum and sister moved from the south coast of England to a small cottage in rural Devon, shared with my Granny, my aunt and 2 cousins. I was born there in the May and we lived there until I was 5. We didnʼt have many books, just the usual annuals, but we did have Robert Louis Stevensonʼs “Treasure Island. It was our favourite bedtime story and mum and aunt Nell just read it on a loop, usually in the cousins bedroom. When I was old enough to join in, I was almost too frightened to listen - especially the Blind Pew bit - yet too frightened to go to bed in the other room on my own. Itʼs still my all time favourite book. I remember how it felt to be really small, with things towering above me - inside the tiny cottage and in the fields around. The older kids had the freedom to roam wherever, but the garden was my world, and the allotments next door owned by our neighbour old Mr. England. He dug up big, fat, pink worms and held them, squirming, in his huge hands for me to examine. We chatted ( well I did mostly) and every morning he brought me a new laid egg which he produced, miraculously, from under his cap! In return I made him mud pies decorated with coloured chalk mixed with water which he pretended to eat. So, yes, those first five years of being surrounded by all things country have had the most influence on my books. The contrast between my life in rural Devon and my life in post war Germany, from 1947 until 1953, showed me what it was like to be a foreigner. Strangely, when we returned to England I again felt like, and was treated as, a foreigner when I started a “third life” at a strict girls grammar school. But I did find a home - the Art room.


Your first published book was Crazy Charlie (1979), can you tell us a little about how you came to illustration and this book?


I trained as an illustrator at Bournemouth and Birmingham Colleges of Art and then the Royal College of Art. After graduating in 1964 I got married and a year later had our first child.....great career move! So I started to work as a freelance, mostly for the BBC childrenʼs programmes. In those days they commissioned original artwork for programmes such as Jackanory and Play School as well as many schools programmes. After I had my second child I began to think more about childrenʼs books because of reading to them - especially at bedtime. I found it really difficult to find a book to interest (a) a child who could read, (b) a toddler who couldnʼt read but needed interesting pictures and (c) a mother trying not to nod off after a long day. So, one day, when the image of a crocodile with false teeth came into my head I worked it up into a story. A great friend of mine was the late wonderful Pat Hutchins who kindly introduced me to her publishers at Bodley Head. Although they liked it, they decided it was not for them but they knew of a publisher who had recently started his own list and recommended me to him.....Klaus Flugge of Andersen Press. Iʼve been with him ever since.


You have written many books featuring cats, including your latest, A Gallery of Cats.  What appeals to you about cats?


Although in Gallery of Cats I used my grandson Tom, in most of my books I use animals to tell the story. I particularly like mice, not in my house, of course, but they are good to draw and can be anthropomorphised without sentimentality e.g. my illustrations for The Christmas Mouse  in which Toby Forward cleverly mirrored Dickensʼ Christmas Carol via the mice under the floorboards and my Tale of Two Mice involving mice and a cat, another favourite subject. Several of my books are straight forward true stories of my own cats such as Our Cat Flossie, Copycat and Holly. Lots of children own cats so they can straightforwardly relate to the stories. But the cat in Dark, Dark Tale is of secondary importance and is merely a device to lure the reader all the way through from the moor to the mouse. Gracie, the Lighthouse Cat mirrors the story of Grace Darling. Children will relate to the plight of the cat and then, hopefully, be curious about the background story.


A Gallery of Cats is based around Tom who visits a gallery and encounters all manner of pictures created by cats.  How much research was needed to create each picture and did this require adopting different techniques?


A Gallery of Cats took a while to evolve. It started with the picture of Samuel. I wanted to pay homage to one of my favourite artists, Samuel Palmer, by painting an image in his style. I needed a subject so I chose a cat. I enjoyed doing it so much that I carried the idea forward, still using the cat theme, to pay homage to other artists that I admire. The artists I chose all had very recognisable ways of working e.g. Van Gogh used thick oil paint, Klimt used gold leaf, Escher etched, but I just used the medium that I always use, acrylics, to mimic the media they used. Except for the Samuel Palmer - I also used pen and ink, just to see if I could.


You also draw parallels between some of the cat creators and the artists – Frida Kahlo’s accent is implied and Vincent enjoys chasing crows around the field – was it important to ensure that the text as well as the pictures referred to the artists?


It was important that the text not only related to the breed and temperament of each cat but also gave some clues to the lives of the painters. I want the readerʼs curiosity to be aroused so that they will go on and find things for themselves. For instance.... Why does René the cat not like water? Magritteʼs mother drowned. Why is Henri the cat a breed called a munchkin? Because they are bred to have very short legs and Toulouse Lautrec had short legs due to a childhood accident. I strive to make my books work on as many levels as possible, so I was also delighted that the designer was able to reduce the the text that Tom is supposedly reading aloud and put it in tiny, proportionally accurate, labels next to the pictures. Think what fun it is for a child to discover that by using a magnifying glass you can read exactly the same text as the in the big type!


How important is it for children to have an understanding of the work of great artists?


The first books that children see are picture books so they are the first introduction to the amazing world of literature AND art. The writing and images in those books should be as good as they can possibly be. Illustration is often seen as the poor relation of fine art, but there were, and still are, brilliant artists who work with print for children - think of Arthur Rackham or Maurice Sendak or N.C. Wyeth ( who incidentally did the definitive version of Treasure Island).Just because their work is in a book and not hanging on a wall doesnʼt mean it isnʼt great art. Admittedly there are an awful lot of terrible books published too and unfortunately some people think that anyone can write or illustrate for children, itʼs sometimes regarded as a sort of hobby. In fact I have been asked several times if Iʼve ever thought of doing a “real/proper book”.......my reply( in my head )is not printable. I cannot comment on the focus on art in schools - teachers are under enormous pressure from all sides and it probably comes down to the methods of individual teachers. But my aim in the books that I publish is to provide enough stimulus for a teacher to get some interesting work out of the children, be it drawings or writing or natural science etc. I like hope my books make children curious.


You’ve created illustrated editions of stories like Eleanor Atkinson’s Greyfriar’s Bobby and Anne Sewell’s Black Beauty, are there any other books you’d like to illustrate?


Greyfriars Bobby was a true story, deeply moving , about the little dog that lived by his masters grave for many years. I later read that terriers can smell bones several feet below ground.........even I didnʼt think that was suitable to put in the book! There have been many written versions of the story but I hadnʼt seen a full colour one. The same reason applied to Black Beauty. Sometimes itʼs good to produce your own take on a story already in the public domain. For a long time I have wanted to do a picture book of Walter de la Mareʼs poem Five Eyes but we shall see.


Could you talk us through your technique for creating a picture book?


Ideas are really peculiar. Sometimes they arrive fully formed in my head and sometimes itʼs bit by bit and they have to merge and cook. I donʼt commit anything to paper until itʼs all there in my head and then I work on the text first. It doesnʼt have to be perfect, just the bare bones will do. In the craziest book there has to be a sort of mad logic. Most books have about 12 double page spreads so the text has to divide as naturally as possible. Then I work out all the pictures, chronologically, on tracing paper......much too frightening to start the real thing straight away.....where I make all my mistakes. I prepare my surface, I use acrylic paints and inks on a gesso primer, and then stare out of the window or clean my brushes.....all the usual displacement activities. I transfer my drawings and begin to redraw usually with a charcoal pencil and then I paint and then itʼs alright and time flies. I always do the cover last - by then I have painted into my comfort zone and I know the book. 


Ten Seeds and A Dark, Dark Tale both feel real classics of the picture book form, what in your opinion makes the ideal text for a picture book?

 

The ideal text for a picture book acts as a counterpoint to the pictures. They should have the same weight and balance and each do what the other canʼt. In Dark,Dark,Tale I make no reference to the cat - the cat is doing its own job leading you to the mouse. In Ten Seeds the text doesnʼt say how the seeds are diminishing, the pictures do that. I also refer to my answer to question 2 - I remember vividly trying to stay awake while reading the most long-winded bedtime stories to my children, so I am forever on the side of the reader, adult as well as child. But if I only have 10 words on a page, every single one has to work really well and justify its place there.


You’ve illustrated a number of fairly frightening books for children, how do you make fear suspenseful but balance this against making it terrifying?


Again I refer back to a previous answer - there was nothing quite so terrifying or exciting as sitting in the safety of a candle-lit bedroom with my family and listening to the adventures of Jim Hawkins on his treasure island adventures. Children call A Dark, Dark Tale a scary book but I explain that the thing that makes them think so is their own imagining of being in an empty house all alone. Nothing scary actually happens but I harness the power of the readers own imaging of their own worst fears, far more frightening to you than mine would be. My childhood nightmare was the thought that I might wake up in the night and find that I was the only person left in the world. My mother died - always traumatic however old you are - just before I started the book and in a way, part of my nightmare had come true so maybe thatʼs why it resonates. I also tell children that the only frightened thing in the book is the mouse who is terrified of you clumping up the stairs etc etc. The fear is reversed. I do enjoy reading it to children though, because in the brightest of neon-lit classrooms you can still create an atmosphere and always make them jump at the end. What fun!

 

Thank you to Ruth Brown for her fascinating and insightful interview and to Scallwayg Press for the opportunity.

Tags:  Illustration  Reading  Reading for Pleasure  Visual Literacy 

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