The exhibition I have been creating with local Hackney Primary Schools at National Trust property Sutton House, inspired by Influential Black Londoners, is continuing to grow week by week – it’s a fantastic place to display children’s work, so much more interesting than a gallery. Last week we focused on Ignatius Sancho, and transformed the Tudor Kitchen into a grocery shop. Each child created their own product and made some original packaging for it, complete with some marketing information – I like ‘Have some fantastic peas and sweet corn, also dry beautiful beans’ and ‘These peas taste amazing, they are the best in the world’ as well as ‘Enjoy a block of bread’.
This week we looked at Francis Barber, and inspired by his connections with Samuel Johnson as well as his teaching work, I asked the children to think of their favourite word, make a printing block and then print onto a tissue collage background. It was interesting to see what words they chose: the girls – nice, love, pretty, happy; and the boys – fast, hero, amazing…
This week’s class also made a library of miniature books – my favourite is Francis Barber’s Christmas, where he is given a large parcel by Samuel Johnson. What was inside? A lovely dictionary!
The exhibition will continue to grow week by week until the end of November.
Today is publication day for ‘Twit’, written by Steve Cole and illustrated by me. It’s an early reader from Orion, and is a very funny story about three over-confident, bossy owls and their rather gullible little brother. A lovely way for beginner readers to build up their confidence.
Stop press: Those nice people at Orion have just launched a competition to Knit Twit – craft your own little blue owl, and send in a pic for a chance of winning a prize…all the details are here. Get busy as the closing date is the end of October!
All my life I have lived near the river Thames, and it’s a mighty body of water that I feel a very strong emotional connection to. As a child I used to love visiting the river at high tide and letting it go over the top of my wellies, and I still feel a thrill when I see the water lapping over the towpath. In the last couple of years I have taken up skiffing and punting, so I am spending more time than ever on the water, enjoying seeing the river and its wildlife up close in all seasons. I’m also very involved in one of the tributaries, the Wandle, through local environmental organisation The Wandle Trust which organises monthly river clean-ups.
I’ve now been given a wonderful opportunity to create an exhibition for The Art Cabin, and I think the Thames is going to be my subject. I’ve started a bit of drawing and collaging, observing herons, grebes, grey wagtails and my favourites, the cormorants. I’ve also been delving into one of my most treasured books, Sweet Thames Run Softly, by Robert Gibbings. (there is a marvellous British Pathe film clip of Gibbings walking by the river here). Gibbings was a writer and woodcut artist who built his own small boat on the eve of the second world war, and paddled the whole of the river, from Lechlade back to London. The book is a beautifully illustrated account of the journey. Back in May I did the same journey over four days by skiff, and have been sketching out some ideas for linocuts inspired by my own trip.
It’s very exciting to be at this stage of a project – it could go in any direction, any media and at the moment there are no constraints. I’ll post more news on the project soon.
Today I went to a tea party to celebrate 40 years of the children’s reading charity Beanstalk (formerly Volunteer Reading Help) – and the publication of their first ever book, Jack and The Beanstalk. The charity asked various authors and illustrators to re-interpret the traditional fairy tale – my job was to illustrate Saviour Pirotta’s version, which opens the book. I used pen and ink with a wash, and tried to give it a folkloric feel. Copies are going to be given to all of the thousands of children being helped by Beanstalk’s volunteer reading helpers. It was a lovely afternoon, and a great project to be involved in.
Here’s a sneak preview of some work I have been doing for Orion’s Early Reader series – it’s a lovely story by Steve Cole about an owl family. These three bossy owl brothers were my favourite characters to draw. The book is due out later in the year – I’ll post more details nearer the time.
Every now and then I like to make things in 3-D – it’s a good way of developing a character and getting to know it from all angles. Recently I’ve been writing stories about rabbits and had an urge to make one, and here’s the result. I started with a little plan in my sketch book to match the drawings I had been doing, then made a rough pattern out of scrap fabric and pinned it together to see if it would work. I had a lovely bit of grey velvet and some purple satin that seemed just right to line the ears and underneath the feet. Next I tacked it and turned it inside out to check it was still in order – at this stage I had to make a few adjustments around where the legs meet the body – tricky business, the gusset. Chain stitch made the mouth and nose and detail on the paws, and the finishing touch was the tail. I couldn’t think what to use and finally hit on the idea of an old sheepskin glove which had lost its partner – trim the fingers and turn it inside out, and it makes a perfect rabbit tail. The whole rabbit turned out rather enormous – you can see the scale when he’s standing on my desk! But a nice armful to hug. Maybe he will have a book or two to go with him one day…
I’ve been working on a personal project lately with my mother – her words, my pictures for a giant alphabet book. The text my mum has written is so funny and such a joy to illustrate – here’s the letter J (for Jasmine Jerboa). I had great fun with this image collaging in some giant insects from an ancient French dictionary, and couldn’t resist adding a 70s-style thermos flask – essential equipment on any jungle jaunt, surely? I’d never looked properly at jerboas before – they are very endearing creatures, like miniature kangaroos.
I found out last week that the great children’s writer Allan Ahlberg keeps an ‘ideas box’. Whenever he is struck by a combination of words or a particular thought that has potential, he scribbles it down and posts it in the box, which then acts as a resource for future writing. Apparently, ‘The Jolly Postman’ spent some years in there before emerging as one of the most delightfully original children’s books of the last 30 years.
This struck me as a very good idea – so I have made myself an ideas box, and intend to fill it. I’ve collaged it with bits and pieces, some leftover from school workshops (Grace Carteret was a housekeeper at Ham House many many years ago), then given it a coat of PVA as an easy varnish.
I’ve put a couple of embryonic ideas in there to get it started, and might trawl through some old notebooks: this is where I normally note ideas, but inevitably forget them once the page has been turned or a new volume started. I’m thinking of it as a low-energy slow cooker – I’m going to let a few ingredients bubble away in there and see what happens.
While having a clear-out at home, I came across these three funny characters. I made them a few years ago when I did an MA in Illustration and Animation at Kingston University – they were part of a project about synaesthesia, a strange medical condition in which senses get mysteriously connected, so that people taste shapes, feel flavours, hear colours or any other crazy permutations.
Each of these three has a zip for a mouth, and when you unzip them you can turn them inside out so that they turn into a different character – each one represents a sense so that they are connected, and can also ‘play’ with each other.
Here’s ‘Feely’: (linked to taste)
And this one’s the hearing one, with his listening trumpet:
When you turn him inside out, he becomes ‘sight’, with lots of eyes on curly silver feelers:
Then there’s smell, who comes with a hankie ready to use – there he is, on the right hand side:
As there are only 5 senses but they needed to be in pairs, I had a problem – the inspiration struck – the final one is, naturally, the Sixth Sense, who I named Mr Six. He’s a bit special with a green silk bow tie and crazy antennae, and six velvety toes:
I haven’t looked at these creatures for years, but it’s been great fun getting them out again.
I’ve just received a package from Kensington Palace – the printed version of the concertina-fold family trail I designed, illustrated and wrote for the King’s Apartments there. It’s full of things to spot, things to do and boxes to tick – just in time for half term. The palace is well worth a visit – masses to see and do for all ages. It’s been great working with the Historic Royal Palaces team again – previously I’ve produced a family trail for Victoria Revealed (details here) and a hand-made book for the outreach team (more here).