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Picture books: Jan 5
A life in writing
Portrait of the artist as a gorilla
Anthony Browne explains his surrealist children's style to Julia Eccleshare
Saturday July 29, 2000
When Anthony Browne talks about the day his father died, he goes into a reverie of total recall. "I had just been promoted to the first rugby team. It was a perfect, wonderful coming of age. My brother was already in the team and my father had come to watch us. We went home and my father died in front of me. Horribly, in about half an hour. He had a heart attack."
His starting point for My Dad was the discovery of his father's old dressing-gown. "It smelt like him and, hanging on a hanger, it looked like him. It just reminded me of how he was. I'd been wanting to do a positive book about fathers for some time but hadn't found the right way. The dressing gown was my starting point."
Browne's sophisticated style, with its references to surrealism and his use of gorillas as interchangeable with humans, have made him one of the most intensely analysed and highly praised contemporary illustrators. Earlier this year he won the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal - the first UK nominee to win it since Eleanor Farjeon in 1956. The competition included Dick Bruna, author of the Miffy books.
"Winning it has made me pleased that I've stuck to my guns," he says. "I certainly haven't gone for a particular age range or audience and it's reassuring that that's considered to have worked."
It seems odd to think that Browne needs reassurance, but he points out that he wasn't immediately successful. He had published seven books before winning the Kate Greenaway Medal for Gorilla in 1983. "I've always felt that I was a bit of an outsider to the British children's-book illustration scene, because I don't work in line and wash. I work in watercolour and sometimes gouache, so obviously my books look very different from the line work of Cruickshank, Ardizzone or Shirley Hughes, who are thought of as the great British tradition."
Trained at Leeds College of Art, Browne studied graphic design and originally wanted to be a painter. Needing to earn money, however, he took a job as a medical illustrator at Leeds Royal Infirmary. "I was going through a very morbid phase following the death of my father which is probably why it suited me so well. The job involved going into operations and doing illustrations for medical students. I was showing the body as meat. Things like the liver had to look real, not like people think it does. I became very obsessed by fat, the way the globules looked. Technically it was an excellent training, and I learned how to use watercolour in a very tight way."
But nobody was interested in his pictures as art, only for reference. "There wasn't any scope for my imagination," Browne explains, "so after a brief spell training as a teacher I did some work for an advertising agency - which I hated because it was all too literal."
He had spent 15 years as a designer for Gordon Fraser's greetings cards before trying a picture book. The result was Through the Magic Mirror, which was closely based on Magritte. This first, simple story, which had too little plot and too much white space around the pictures, wasn't an immediate success. Nor was his second, A Walk in the Park, though Browne is now amused by the stinging criticism of one of his publisher's reps that he was "on an ego trip because the books weren't for children, like the Mr Men".
He tried to be more "for children" in Bear Hunt, which was much brighter and more child-centred. But he still lacked confidence in his plot. "I put in a lot of background to give another layer to the story. As a child I'd always liked cowboys and Indians stories where there were two layers - gruesome in the foreground but funny in the background. I used that as my model. I now use it more self-consciously."
Both early works contain the references to the surrealist painters that are so much a part of his work, and who were a profound influence on him in adolescence. "From 17 to 21 I was obsessed by sport and art. In art, I loved the pre-Raphaelites and Rembrandt first. Then I discovered Salvador Dali and it was like finding something I already knew."
Many of these images are thought to be too sophisticated for the traditional children's-book market, which is why Browne's books have played a central role in the move towards picture books for older children. But drawing on other artists' work has also caused Browne some trouble. "I've recently been sued by the Magritte estate for my fake reproductions of his work in Willy the Dreamer," he explains. "My French publisher got a letter demanding that all the books be taken off the shelves as well as a lot of compensation. I thought that I was encouraging children to look at Magritte's pictures, but I had to take out all references to him for the new edition."
Browne will not be stopped altogether, though. His future picture books will continue to be inspired by the great artists of the past. He will just be more discreet about how he uses their work.