Leigh Hobbs interviewed by Nikki Gamble

Leigh Hobbs was born in Melbourne in 1953. An artist, he has worked across a broad range of media including painting, ceramics and sculpture. Several of his pieces are held in Australian museums and galleries, including the State Gallery of Victoria, The State Library of Victoria and Sydney's Powerhouse Museum. His best known book characters include Old Tom, the star of four paperbacks published in 
Australia and the UK and two picture books, 'Old Tom's Holiday' and' Old Tom Man of Mystery'. Old Tom was recently produced as an animated series and has become one of Australia's most popular children's TV series. Leigh's picture book 'Horrible Harriet' was shortlisted in the 2002 Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards. The Mr badger series is a delightful collection of books about a badger who is special events manager at a very grand London hotel.

I read that London is your favourite city; can you tell us about your connection with it?

I have felt a connection with England since I was a little boy. I was obsessed with visiting London because my passions have always been art and history, especially English history. I first came to London when I was twenty three and I’m fifty three today and this is my sixteenth visit.

The surface of the city - the building - has been knocked around and flawed by war damage and post-war develop- ment. In London you can find an exquisite Georgian terrace next to the most hideous 1960’s or 1970’s building, but my love for London is more than skin deep. Peter Ackroyd put his finger on it in 'London: The Biography', in which he talks about certain people having a connection with the ghosts of London. That’s true for me and there are special spots that I’m particularly drawn to like the steps of St Martin-in-the-Field.

I’ve just spent a week in Vienna which was fabulous because it is beautiful - grand and clean. Despite being bombed in the war, there is a feeling of consistency in the scale of the architecture. In comparison, when I arrived in London last night I was confronted by unbelievable amounts of rubbish. I suppose the emotion is a bit like being irritated by a member of your family: you crunch up your fist with frustrated rage but then your eyes almost water at the end.

That appreciation of 'Englishness' transfers to your books, which have a specifically ‘English’ feel to them……

Yes, my passion for London does relate to my books, particularly the Old Tom books. An English sensibilty runs through them and I resisted any sort of Americanisation. I even wanted ‘the look’or design to be similar to the taste of a 1950’s Puffin: a classic English feel. And I think of my sense of humour as being English.

I read one critic who described your work as John Callanesque but I find them more reminiscent of Ronald Searle. Was he influential in the development of  your style? 

The double whammy of being in London and talking about Searle brings tears to my eyes. I think he is one of the greatest graphic draughtsmen of the past hundred years: the master. I really appreciate his humour which isn’t crude; a lot of it came from his experience as a prisoner of war. I felt so influenced by him when I was in my twenties that I put all of his books away, out of sight. Fifteen years later I brought them out and got the same emotional response from the work. That’s when we corresponded. I wrote an apprecia- tion of him in a newspaper in Australia and he sent me his latest book from France. Another strong influence is Ludwig Bemelmans who did the Madeline books.

Horrible Harriet and Old Tom are alike in that they are both outsiders and some might say unlovable. Is that something that interests you?

‘Old Tom’is naughty but he’s not bad. Horrible Harriet isn’t horrible really; she’s the school freak and has been ostracised because she’s different. She sees herself as horrible when reflected in the eyes of others and then she plays out that role. I know what it’s like feeling alone in the school yard because although I come from a very secure happy home life, I was an extremely shy kid. We moved a couple of times when I was seven to places where Ididn’t know anyone and that was difficult. I think that one of the reasons the Old Tom books have really resonated with readers in Australia and the US, is that they’re based on real charac- ters. The books are quite sim- ply about the relationship between a mother and a son. Angela is the socialising moth- er figure. Tom represents a seven-year-old boy, who loves his mum and always will, but is programmed as boys are to break away. So there is fric- tion. She’s exactly the opposite of him, prim and proper and concerned about appearances. In fact, she’s just as strong a character as Tom because she tries to stick to her principles and she is as eccentric as he is in her appearance.

The pace and emotion of the stories are carried as much by the scale of pictures and change in the way the line is dawn as they are by the words. Do you consciously plan it that way or is it more of an intuitive process?

 It's intuitive, the scale changes in all the pictures when I draw the characters because I’m actually drawing personality and emotion; I’m not drawing the characters. For instance, if you compare pictures of Horrible Harriet, you can see that in one picture she’s calm and she looks kind but in another she’s feeling like a freak again, so I’ve drawn her big and unappealing - she looks how she feels.

The children understand that without having to be told. I was once asked at a big event, ‘Why is Old Tom big in some pictures and why is he little in others?’ I couldn’t think of the answer but a little boy stood up and said, ‘I know, when he’s good he’s small and he’s being naughty he changes’. The changing relationship is reflected in the formality of language is well…. Yes, when Angela is cross with Tom and ticking him off she’s referred to as ‘Angela Throgmorton’, but when she’s warm and loving she’s simply ‘Angela’.

Do you think of yourself as an illustrator or an artist?

I think of myself as an artist: the term illustrator boxes you in too much. I think that in Australia, too many people are focused just on illustration. I create all kinds of art, painting,ceramic teapots and sculptures. It just means that as an artist I express things in a connected way. The drawing and the painting is what I like doing most and creating characters. I’m driven: even when I was little I’d get up at six o’clock in the morning and start drawing. You work in black and white, and colour.

Do you have a preference for either?

I love working in black and white because it’s more immediate, than colour. But I like colour because I can create a whole atmosphere in a picture and use a brush. Big picture books are like battleships, they take about six months and it is exhausting. How do you work on the interplay of text and images in your books? I try and work on irony. I think of a drawing and then I see a ridiculous line of text with it. This initial thinking is followed by a lot of editing. I make lots of drafts to make it better.

You started out as an art teacher, how did you approach teaching art to students?

I took teaching very seriously. I felt that kids needed to feel safe in the classroom and to feel encouraged. Alot of
kids were not particularly talented at art but I saw that as no reason why they couldn’t feel good about staying in my class or good about themselves, so I’d work out a way of including them. I was very, very strict in the sense of making everyone work, driving them. I do believe that you can teach kids skills, For instance, how to make a ball look three dimen- sional. Once kids are shown a technique like that, they are drawn into the process. When I visit schools on tour I often show them how, bit by bit, they can draw Old Tom. All the kids will end up with a drawing of ‘Old Tom’, but all the drawings will be different. The difference between the drawings is the difference in their personality and the kids can see that. My connection and relationship with kids as a teacher was always as an adult, even as an author, I keep my distance. I’m not their friend. I’m not privy to their world; I’m drawing on my own memories of my own childhood. So I write with detachment.

Do you believe in innate talent or can you teach someone to be a good artist?

I do believe in talent. However, I’m not good at everything to do with art: I’ve got a good line and a good colour sense, and I think what I’m best at is creating characters. So when I was teaching I would tell the kids that we would be trying all sorts of things and that I would refuse to believe that anyone in the class was hopeless at everything. Conversely, some people are born with a lot of talent but don’t exploit their potential. They burn brightly earlier on and because they don’t push themselves, they fade. This is why Ronald Searle is so fabu- lous: he was born gifted; you can see that fantastic line in the drawings he did when he was fifteen. But what is inspiring is that he continued to work with self discipline and push his work forward. He is an example of someone supremely gifted with a marvellous body of work.

You have been a newspaper cartoonist. How do the demands of that medium differ from the creation of a picture book?

To work in newspapers requires a different rhythm and produces a different type of pressure. You’ve either got to be fully immersed in it or get out of it. If I had to do a cartoon every week, I would have to re-jig my thinking because I’m working on many projects simultaneously. Another thing about newspaper work is that it’s ephemeral, it’s over by the evening that it’s printed, whereas books can have longevity. I’ve got one book in print that came out ten years ago and another twelve.

Do you have a particular liking for cats?

I can’t stand cats; I’m a dog lover. I chose to write about cats because they are inde- pendent. I don’t think the books would work with a dog. But a cat can pretend to be good, while leading an entirely different secret life.


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