James Mayhew is the renowned author and illustrator of the Katie and Ella Bella series of picture books. Madelyn Travis spent an afternoon with James talking childhood dreams, the importance of failure, drawing to music and much more.
It’s quite a step from doing a picture book about art to effectively becoming a champion of the arts for children. Was this a plan at any point or do you sometimes look back and wonder how it happened?
There wasn’t a plan in a literal sense, but in a broader sense there was. I didn’t grow up in an artistic background. My mother had some watercolours and dabbled occasionally. She was a stay-at-home mum, and my dad was first a pilot and then a banker. We lived in a tiny village in Suffolk near Lowestoft, which was a down-at-heel town in the 1970s. It wasn’t an extravagant upbringing by any means, but my parents had books, and they had one called Art Treasures of the World, which was full of the obvious ones: Mona Lisa, Sunflowers – you name it, it was in there. And I loved looking at that book even before I could read. I had no idea what the paintings were about or what the words said. I just loved looking at these paintings. Some frightened me, some fascinated me. And that’s where it started. All those paintings were like illustrations for a story yet to be told. At least, that’s how it was to me as a four-year-old.
Following on from that, I loved art and it was clearly something I was going to use as an adult – in what capacity didn’t become clear until much later. I thought I would be a fine artist and paint canvasses and starve in a garret, and that didn’t happen. I applied to fine art degrees, but they didn’t accept me. They told me my work was too literal, too figurative, and they wanted more abstract at that point – it was the 1980s. And they suggested I look at illustration or theatre design. I fell in love with the idea of theatre design, I wanted to design sets for grand operas. In my teens I had found some LPs that my parents had, and I loved listening to them and imagining the stories the music told. The key one that turned my head was Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov. Even at that age – 14, 15, 16 – I was drawing along to the music. So the idea of doing set design for operas and ballets really appealed to me. I fell in love with the world of Diaghilev and set designers like Leon Bakst and Natalia Goncharova, and read biographies of them. But my parents didn’t want me to go into the world of the theatre because they thought it would lead me astray. So I chose illustration. I did a degree at Maidstone in Kent. It wasn’t children’s books, it was general illustration.
I had been a pavement artist one summer and I chose to draw those famous paintings from when I was 4, in chalk, on the ground. And kids came past on their bicycles and were interested in what I was doing. I remember thinking then, I’ll bet these kids have never been to a gallery. They ought to be encouraged to go. Then I was in London and a memory came of going to the Natural History Museum with my grandmother and my sister Katie. It was one of the very few times I went to London before adulthood. The Natural History Museum made a huge impression on a nine-year-old who was crazy about dinosaurs. So: my sister Katie, the pavement drawings, the art book – all these things came together. So going back to your original question, was there a plan? Yes, there was. I was quite grown-up for my years and in an altruistic sense I really did write that book [Katie's Picture Show] because I wanted to try and encourage kids to go into galleries and engage with art. Though I never knew I would get that book published!
It sounds like you were an unusual child, and the degree wasn’t exactly what you were hoping to do. Was it a difficult time?
I always had a sense that I didn’t quite belong and I was a bit of a loner. I was very happy with my own company. I was always the shortest kid in the school. I didn’t go to very nice schools. I hid away and went into my own world. I drew and drew. Middle school was really bad. I was unhappiest there. Later, in sixth form, I was told I couldn’t make a living as an artist, that I needed to pass my A- level in maths and maybe become a teacher. Although I was painfully shy and picked on, they did me a roundabout favour. I thought: I’ll show you. I didn’t say anything to anyone, but it made me very determined.
You must be very strong to have persevered.
I think I learned to be strong because of the experiences I had at school. I have a quiet integrity to what I believe in. At art college, the picture book project was to enter the Macmillan children’s book prize and mine was Katie’s Picture Show. My book was never entered because it was felt that it wasn’t good enough, so it was shoved to the back of a drawer and forgotten about. It’s quite satisfying now that it’s been in print for 26 years.
So you were a fish out of water at school and art school.
Well, my work wasn’t very good. I remember reaching a point in the second year where I was unhappy and the tutors said to me that maybe I should think about leaving because it wasn’t going well. I came home in the summer holiday and burned all my artwork because I was so unhappy with it – I do have the capacity to be dramatic! -- and I started over. I spent the whole summer pushing myself, experimenting, trying new techniques, and I turned it around and I went back with a whole new folio of work for the third year and they were blown away. I came away with a First in the end.
What changed in your approach?
I think I was just frustrated with the projects that we were being asked to do. We had more freedom in the third year, which was a huge benefit. There was one tutor, Wendy Smith, who would recommend books to me and I would go away and do cover designs for them. That was when I started to fall in love with the idea of illustrating things that I was passionate about and could visualise. I found it really hard to do without an image in my head. I needed a text, a story. It was no good giving me a brief for an advert for a packet of cornflakes. That wasn’t what I was good at.
Experimentation and failure seem to be out of fashion these days.
Even today I struggle with that. I’ve taught for many years at Cambridge Art School and it’s something I’m always telling my students to do, very successfully, but I find it very hard to do myself. But when you’re working for a publisher they have particular expectations about perhaps continuing a series that they want to be consistent. So your hands are tied: your character has to look the same in this book as she did in the previous book. So that makes it difficult to experiment and evolve. You think, I’ve learned all these techniques with these materials over a 25-year period and I can’t use that knowledge because this book has to look like the one I did 25 years ago. And the other thing is that a lot of the illustrations are pastiche because I’m trying to replicate the world of the artist that Katie has gone into. So now, when I sit down to draw something for myself – and it’s rare that I get a chance to do that – it’s: okay, how do I draw again? I’m not Monet, I’m not Turner, I’m not Constable, I’m not da Vinci. Who am I? And that is a problem.
Is your live drawing to music a way to rediscover that spontaneity or risk-taking?
Yes. It’s a crazy thing to do in many respects, but it’s something I love and believe in. I’ve explained already that I loved classical music as a kid. I remember a music teacher playing Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns and he said when you get to the end you’ll hear the cockerel crowing. And there it was! I loved that, and still find it fascinating the way that composers can do that. One of the great things about working with orchestras is going to rehearsals and hearing the music taken apart by the conductor. It’s quite humbling. There was no software in those days, the composer just knew what to do with 80 musicians. That whole world is something I love and love being part of. When I’m sitting at my desk illustrating a book I feel the pressure that I’ve got to get it as perfect as I can, and it can inhibit you. It makes you less spontaneous. And when I’m on stage painting to a piece of music, there’s no time to do that. The best I can do is choose a damp paintbrush and choose a colour and go for it! Sometimes the paintings are a bit wobbly. You leave your ego at the theatre door. You’re the servant of the music. You’re creating something to give the music a context. It tells a story and has a meaning and a purpose. Sometimes the music lasts longer and I can create something more lyrical, more beautiful. With Scheherazade, there are four sections and each lasts about 12 minutes. In 12 minutes you can make a painting that’s quite presentable. With Carnival of the Animals, some of those are only a minute long. Trying to paint a wild ass in one minute is an interesting challenge.
Do you have a chance to practise with the orchestra?
We tend to choose programmatic music, which tells a story or has a narrative of some kind. I do practise, but there is still spontaneity on the day. Sometimes in the gloom of the theatre you can’t find the brush or the colour that you want. But that spontaneity can happen because you have a really solid base on which to build. I’m working at an easel, so I’m working vertically. You have to use silent materials: marker pens would be ideal but they squeak so you can’t use them. So I use brushes, gouache, sometimes acrylics, inks. Something quick and easy. Anything fluid will run and drip, so you have a lot of potential hazards there. So it is a tightrope walk and I rehearse it and rehearse it and rehearse it. I try lots of different ways of creating a composition in time to the music so I can reach a blueprint that I think will work on the day and allow me to have the confidence to walk on stage! If you take something like the William Tell Overture, it starts very quietly, there’s a storm, then it goes quiet again, then there’s a famous gallop at the end, the Lone Ranger theme. So you try to match the painting to the energy of the music. Obviously there’s a storm, but if I paint the storm I’m going to obliterate everything, so what paints can I use that I can draw on top of? There’s an awful lot of experimenting with paints.
Tell me about Ella Bella. Do you have a pecking order of which ballets you write about?
Well, the publisher does! We did the three Tchaikovskys and Cinderella. They’re the obvious ones to choose in the first instance. I think there are lots of other stories that would work really well, but I’ve got to convince the publishers. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a complicated story with many levels, and fitting it within the framework of a 32-page picture book is impossible. So I looked at different versions of the synopsis of the ballet and realised that the ballets really focus on the fairy world but the lovers were very peripheral. So I thought I could do that if I focused on the fairy world. It doesn’t tell A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shakespeare, it just tells what the child would notice if the child went to the ballet. That’s in keeping with the series, and it has such fabulous music by Mendelssohn. I did enjoy that one.
Do you find it easy to work with the framework of a ballet’s story, or can it cause problems?
It can cause problems. There are elements where your hands are tied. When I was doing Ella Bella and Cinderella, I remember them coming back and saying, Why isn’t there a pumpkin coach? And I’d say, Well, it’s not in the ballet! I love variations on a theme. I love finding variations in a fairy tale. In Sleeping Beauty at the end they have this big wedding and all the fairies come to the wedding, and that’s not normally in the story, it’s added to the ballet. Those twists are quite fun to play with because you are telling a slightly different version of the story. The frustration is the size of the books: you have to miss out so much that you would love to include. You have to keep reminding yourself that this isn’t the definitive guide to Cinderella or Swan Lake, it’s a starting point. It’s for young children who can’t manage the whole story as it would be told in a sumptuous book. They need something simple and accessible to make them excited and want to read the full length version when they’re a little bit older. That’s what Ella Bella does.
How did you approach Ella Bella artistically?
I’ve seen them described as ‘retro’.I think the ‘retro’ thing is overdone, but I do love the way the books were produced in the 40s and 50s because of the constraints of printing at that time. Very often the colour separations were quite limited so they had to be very inventive and clever with the design and how they used colour and they created some unusual and beautiful effects. There was some beautiful typography in that era as well. Because they were the books that I saw as a kid – I saw books from the 50s and 60s – they felt very relevant to me in terms of looking for something with a classic feel. I have books that I cherish from that time aesthetically. So I was looking at how I might be able to do this because I’m not going to be able to do this with lithography because I don’t have the equipment or the time. So I developed a technique where I do create the artwork in three layers. I do a colour layer and then a grey tone layer for depth and then a line drawing for the third layer and then the three things are assembled by the designer at the publishing house. I use gouache and pastels for the colour layer, ink or pastels for the tone and ink for the line drawing. I don’t really know what the illustrations are going to look like until they’re printed. It’s all a bit of a gamble, but it does give them that slightly lithographic old-fashioned, classic, vintage retro feel.
They remind me a little bit of the Madeline books.
Yes, I can see that. That’s definitely part of the world we’re talking about here. Other artists who use this technique are Edward Ardizzone and Roger Duvoisin – his books have been republished recently because of the whole vintage thing. He illustrated a book called Petunia, about a goose, and The Happy Lion. He used exactly this technique that I’m using with Ella Bella. I do the illustrations on a glass table with a lamp underneath so I can register the three layers and get everything in the right place. The whole table is like a light box – it’s actually an old window that I pulled out of the skip and put on table legs – and I have an anglepoise underneath so I put the three layers on top and move them around until they’re in exactly the right place so I make sure everything will line up when it’s printed. It’s a crazy way of making a book, really. I must be mad!
Do you have a particular production in mind when you do the Ella Bella books?
No, not really. I’ve seen many productions of the big ballets over the years like Swan Lake and there are some that I’ve enjoyed more than others. I suppose as a frustrated wannabe set designer I have my production in mind!
Are there any possibilities in that direction?
I did get to design the set for the opera Noah’s Flood by Britten at Cheltenham, which was crazy and wonderful and scary and brilliant. And it did fulfil a tiny bit of that dream, although it was hosted in a church so I didn’t have the benefits of a stage production with the theatre lighting and a proscenium arch. You couldn’t do the things you can do on a stage. But it was a wonderful thing to be involved in. I would love to inhabit that world at some point. I’m so busy and so lucky to be doing these concerts, but every time I go to the opera or the ballet or even a play I think: That’s not how I would have done it. So the spark is still there.
Tell me about your work in schools.
Increasingly I do workshops around painting to music. That works really well. I’ve done murals too. They are collaborative with the children. With the painting to music, I have a CD and play the music and I tell the story. I demonstrate while the music plays and then the children have a go. They produce amazing work. What has haunted me is the effect on children with special needs. Not in every case, but I’ve been into enough schools to see a real correlation whereby the combination of art and music does seem to unlock something. I’ve been in classes where there has been an autistic child who they thought wouldn’t join in and at the end of the session they are glued to the music. Sometimes the art is more abstract, but they will produce a piece of art and they will concentrate for that period of time. Last year in Cheltenham I did a whole outreach series. I didn’t know, but there was an elective mute in the school -- he had never spoken in school. I played the music – The Swan of Tuonela by Sibelius. It’s a slow, sombre, dark piece of music. I did my demonstration and the children had their go, and there was this kid doing his piece of art, and at the end he came over to me and was asking questions about the story and the music. He was just radiant with it. The teacher just burst into tears. He had never spoken before. That is the power of classical music, art and story.