Since I began championing children’s book on this website I’ve had a lovely game I indulgently play in my head: Who would I interview if I could interview anyone?
Over the years one name repeatedly popped up, but I didn’t dare act on my daydreams until very recently. It all started earlier this year when Dick King Smith’s The Rats of Meadowsweet Farm arrived on my desk. Published in a fantastic new edition by Barrington Stoke as part of their covetable Little Gems series, it featured illustrations by none other than the subject of my aforementioned daydreams: Victor Ambrus. Victor turned 80 this year, and I hadn’t realised that he was still working and so the flame on my candle of hope burned a little brighter, but my bravery still stumbled.
Then last month another Barrington Stoke book made its way into my hands. The Seal’s Fate by Eoin Colfer is also illustrated by Victor Ambrus, and I was so moved by the visual and verbal storytelling, it gave me the courage I needed. It’s a powerful book I’d really like to tell everyone about and it provided me with the final spur on to make an interview request.
Victor Ambrus has won the Kate Greenaway medal twice (for ‘The Three Poor Tailors’  and ‘Horses in Battle') and has illustrated more than 300 books. His historical illustrations showing archaeological interpretations were featured on Channel 4’s Time Team for 20 years. Indeed, his passion for illustrating history has been central to his career, both in children’s book illustration and also in adult non-fiction. Ambrus’ animal illustrations are also especially highly regarded and have formed another constant strand in his work, from his illustrations for K.M. Peyton’s Flambards series right up to his two newest books with the grimy humour of the rats and the soft, sweet eyes of the seal.
And thus the time came for me to interview Victor over the phone. Victor was born in Hungary in 1935 and I started by asking what sort of reading life he had had as a child, what books he had loved. I was all ready to look up lots of Hungarian authors (and quite keen to do so, as I studied Hungarian literature at University) but “no, there were numerous books, but they were all English books – in translation of course. I was bought up on things like Winnie the Pooh!” Many were given to him as presents and one of his favourite books was Ursula Moray Williams’ ‘Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse’. It was, however, the books of Arthur Rackham that in many ways changed his life forever. “He was a huge influence on me… and he meant that I’ve been drawing ever since I could hold a pencil!”
Victor’s immediately family weren’t especially artistic (though he grew up with tales of a particularly talented uncle who had died young during the influenza epidemic following the First World War), but they were immensely supportive of Victor’s growing interest in drawing. Victor’s father, an industrial chemist, was especially encouraging: “He was convinced I was going to be an artist when I grew up.”
Victor’s passion for historical illustration was laid down as a child: “I just drew and drew and drew and enjoyed it. I illustrated anything that I read – books on history, poems… in fact I did a vast number of drawings of the fights we Hungarians had with the Turks in the 17th century.”
“But then there came a point where I had to enter grammar school. But I still kept drawing and drawing and eventually I got to a point where I could apply for the Academy of Fine Art, a very fine, traditional school offering a classical training in drawing, including anatomy and all sorts of things you don’t often get these days. But illustration per se didn’t come into my training actually. It was all terribly straight-laced. Illustration was just something I did for myself.”
Victor’s education and training at the Academy of Fine Art was cut short in awful circumstances. In 1956 the Soviet Union invaded Hungary and life in Budapest became very hard. There came a point where Victor had to make what he himself describes as “a kind of life or death decision”; to leave Hungary and seek refuge abroad.
“It was very demanding physical conditions. There was heavy snow you had to walk through all night to get across the border. It was a kind of life or death decision. I had to leave family behind. I actually had no choice. They had a list of people who were attempting to hold the Academy building against the Russian tanks. I was one of these people… but I did a very bad job at it. It was terribly frightening. Eventually they cornered us in the basement of the building and they executed eight of us on the spot – four students and four regular [Hungarian] army soldiers. I was lucky to survive it.”
Victor eventually made his way to the Austrian border and from there he chose to make England his new home, with the much-loved books and illustrations from his childhood very much in mind. He ended up in Farnham and from there applied to the Royal College of Art. Education there was quite different to that Victor had experienced in Budapest’s Academy of Fine Art: “The Royal College was very much more liberal. It was a kind of a loosening up process.”
Victor’s early work included a lot of lithographs and etchings. “Etchings have played a big influence in my life because they produce fine quality lines and nice deep tones which appeal to me, even though I haven’t made any for quite some time because of you need quite sophisticated machinery, making it hard to do at home. Still, I was almost addicted to using very fine lines and my early illustrations are very like etchings except that they were not actually printed etched into glass plates – rather, I just used a very fine nib.”
I’m very curious about this passion for etching and how that tallies with Victor’s style now which to me seems much more fluid, looser and more vibrant than is typically achieved with the precise lines in etching. Was this something Victor himself recognised? “Yes, I turned away from this approach, probably because of the subjects I was getting – I was getting a lot of free flowing, fast action historical illustrations, where people might be riding a horse or fighting, and to start using very fine etching lines was not practical. It took a long time and gave the wrong effect. It became very laboured.”
“And then at this time when I was getting going, colour illustration came in in a big way and so I got into colour and my approach changed somewhat. I’d draw things up very quickly in pencil making sure everything moved the way I wanted it to and then I’d apply colour and more sweeping lines. But thinking about colour… funnily enough I think black is a very important thing in my drawings. I like to have the impact of black in an illustration – once I have heavy black lines I can use more intense colours. In a way the black boosts the colours I use, it makes the colour really work.”
Victor uses ink and also water soluble pencils for his black lines and part of the secret to the way he uses them is that “the most intensive black goes down when the illustration is done – then I can see exactly where it is needed, where it needs a punch.”
But taking a step back, to explore a little further this change in approach, this development in Victor’s illustrative style. It was whilst at the Royal College that Victor had a stroke of luck which led to his breakthrough as a book illustrator. He was commissioned by Blackie and Sons to illustrate a book with a lot of horses – a love of Victor’s since his youth spent working on the great Hungarian plains where he would often witness large groups of semi-wild horses in their natural habitat. That books was White Horses and Black Bulls by Alan C Jenkins and on the back of a review in the Times Literary Supplement which included two of Victor’s illustrations (“It caused quite a stir!”) suddenly a stream of horse-related illustration commissions started flowing Victor’s way.
“Luckily I love drawing horses… why? because they are so complicated… so impressive!”
At that point, Victor couldn’t himself ride but as he received more and more historical illustration commissions he realised this would have to change if he wanted his pictures to be authentic; it was very important to him to accurately capture how people sit when they are riding.
This commitment to detail, this concern for accuracy is another mainstay in all of Victor’s work: “I really enjoy the research. It’s important as otherwise the illustrations don’t feel convincing. It’s got to be right!”
On occasion, however, this drive for authenticity has led him into a spot of bother: “Well I didn’t know how they used a sword on horseback. Now I happened to have a sword and so I took it out and practised with it. I rode in the local forest where there were a lot of pine trees and I would take aim at a branch, swipe at it and see what was the best way of cutting it. Oh I enjoyed it! But then I had to stop because one day a swipe revealed a white-faced mushroom picker who was scared out of his skin. I hadn’t realised he was there and at that point I thought I’d better not do this any more and so I put the sword away.”
Another area of great interest for Victor when it comes to illustration, especially historical illustration, is costume and clothing. Whilst he studied at the Royal College he spent many hours just down the road in the Victoria and Albert Museum. “I’d sooner illustrate any period but the modern because the clothes are boring – there’s no colour – whereas the 17th, 18th century… ah, they are fabulous!” I’m very sorry when later in our conversation I find out that Victor’s own wardrobe at home isn’t full of the colourful and rich outfits he loves to draw.
As well as historical illustrations, Victor has always enjoyed drawing animals. And not just horses. “I’ve spent a lot of time in zoos. One of my favourite drawings I did in London Zoo, of a fantastic male gorilla. He sat there and stared at me for a long time and when I finished the drawing and walked away he came up to the fence, right up to the edge. And other people nearby said, ‘Show him, show him your picture of him,’ and so I turned around and showed the picture to him and it was quite amazing. He took it all in, with his eyes wide open. I don’t know what he thought of it but he was definitely puzzled.”
Animals have not always been so appreciative of being drawn by Victor though. “Once I was drawing a lovely big parrot who was on the end of a long post, at the far end, and I was drawing him and enjoying myself until he started to move up the post step by step. He came right up close to me and then it was absolutely amazing – he looked at me and reached forward and took the pencil from my hand, snapped it into two and chucked it behind him and walked off! I thought it was a devastating piece of criticism of my efforts! I was utterly speechless!”
Being observed whilst drawing is something which has played an important role throughout Victor’s career. For many people, he will be most famous as the illustrator for Channel 4’s Time Team (one of my own favourite programmes as a child), where archaeologists had three days to excavate a site, and Victor would draw interpretations of the site and archaeological finds, being watched whilst he did so not only by members of the public visiting the excavations but also by millions on TV.
And it’s actually all thanks to The Reader’s Digest that Victor became part of the brilliant Time Team crew. One day in a Bristol library, the director of Time Team came across Victor’s illustrations in a history of Britain published by The Reader’s Digest. A phone call later and the two of them met. “‘Can you draw quickly?’ ‘Ah.. yes, I can try’ ‘Well, draw a portrait of me then,’ and so I drew a quick-as-lightning pencil drawing of him and he was suitably impressed and the following week I was invited to go to Oxfordshire…” and the rest, as they say, is history, with the programme running for 20 years.
“It was a wonderful opportunity to see places you’d never get to … all sorts of weird places and drawing all different things. Of course it was sometimes a bit of an ordeal because your hands get so cold drawing outside, but the hand-drawn illustrations brought something special – by being hand-drawn, the image is more alive, it is saying this how it could have been, whereas a computer printout will say this is how it was and there is no argument.”
Did Victor ever get to have a go at digging? “It appealed to me – oh yes – but they never let me near the ground. I used to try to persuade Phil Harding [one of the Time Team Archaeologists] to let me have a dig but he would snarl at me and tell me to keep my hands out of the ground and keep on with my drawing!”
And keeping on with his drawing is what Victor has been doing and continues to do, even as he enters his ninth decade. Recent commissions include creating illustrations for the museum at Athlone Castle in the Republic of Ireland, an opportunity to return to his beloved 17th century, horses and interesting clothes, but also a chance to steep himself in the landscape and people of Ireland – a boon when it came to illustrating his most recently published book for children, The Seal’s Fate. And right now he is steeped in the history of Somerset whilst he finishes off a big project for the Taunton Castle Museum, covering Somerset from its prehistory “up to Butlins!”
But being busy drawing makes Victor happy. “I couldn’t imagine it otherwise. I’d miss it if I wasn’t drawing. I’m just obsessed with drawing. Even when I’m not drawing I might be thinking about drawing.” And with 300 books and a lifetime of illustrating under his belt, what advice would he have for children who were interested in illustrating?
“Draw and draw and draw. And it’s important not just to do the drawing you have to do, but to draw for yourself, just to please yourself.”
I’m indebted to Victor for being so generous with his time and stories from his life. When I asked him to check over my interview notes and make any changes he wished to see, the only thing he wanted to add was that he has “a lovely wife and two big sons.” This, to me, speaks volumes of Victor’s understated modesty, charm and warmth which I hope has come across in this dream-come-true disguised as an interview.