An Interview with Robert Ingpen

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Today sees the publication of new editions of two classics in every sense; Peter Pan and Wendy by J.M. Barrie, and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. What makes these new editions stand out from the crowd as we start the run up to the Christmas season is their illustrations; these editions feature the glorious, elegant and enduring work of Robert Ingpen.

Robert Ingpen. Photo by Darren Dunkley-Smith.

Robert’s important and lasting contribution to children’s literature was recognised when, in 1986, he was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration. It’s a testament to the beauty of his work and his dedication to fuelling the imagination of children across the world, that more that 30 years after that initial recognition of “lifelong achievement” Robert is still drawing, dreaming and setting stories free. Next week he will be 81 and in celebration of his birthday, and the publication of Peter Pan and Wendy and The Wind in the Willows, both newly and sensitively abridged and adapted especially for younger readers in these new editions, I interviewed Robert, discussing everything from The Rolling Stones to conserving anchovy stocks, as well as his approach to illustrating and his favourite colours.

Robert Ingpen was born in 1936 in Geelong, Australia. His childhood “was complete and surrounded by books and reading much like other children of my era, but the big difference and influence for me was imaginative storytelling.“. Where Robert uses the phrase ‘imaginative storytelling’ my heart quickens, for this soon transpires to be something very much akin to what my family call ‘playing by the book’; Robert and his siblings were encouraged to use their “imagination fearlessly by acting out the adventures of storybook characters in real life” enacting their favourite stories and bringing their back garden to life as the fictional landscapes they read about. “We turned a big oak tree in my back garden into anything we liked – a castle, a circus, a pirate ship, a space ship, – anything the book demanded. “Swallows and Amazons” by Arthur Ransome was our favourite.

Being surrounded by books during Robert’s childhood was essential fuel for this fearless use of imagination, but a crucial role was also played by a neighbour, Marjorie Wood. She would ‘read’ Robert and his siblings stories and in doing so, she “cast a spell on me which has stayed with me all my working life.“. She would pretend to be reading from a mysterious and very old red book, Tim Pippin in Giant Land, though in actual fact she was making up her own stories and encouraging her young listeners to bring them to life.

Having thus started our conversation about the power and importance of books and stories in Robert’s life I ask him a near impossible question; to select eight books that have been especially important to him over his eight decades.

He starts with The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay. “For me, this is a timeless book. It classically shows how words and pictures combine to be great Australian fiction, and leaves so much magical space for the imagination.” This very funny story about a pudding called Albert, who magically comes back to life every time he is eaten, is indeed a joy, and one which deserves to be much more widely read outside Australia.

Next up, Robert chooses two canonical texts; Treasure Island by R.L.Stevenson and Peter Pan and Wendy by J.M. Barrie. Robert’s career as an illustrator has to a large extent been defined by his work on the great, undeniable pillars of children’s literature (he has illustrated Treasure Island, Around the World in Eighty Days, The Jungle Book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Pinocchio as well as several Dickens’ novels and the books we are celebrating with our interview today), and so it’s fascinating to hear how several of these first lit up his imagination when he was a young child.

Of Treasure Island, Robert says, “the first time I read this I was terrified by the story events, particularly the death of Blind Pew outside the Admiral Benbow Inn.“, whilst Peter Pan and Wendy was the first book Robert remembers reading by himself. He loved it so much he did his first illustrations for this book when he was just 7! (You can find out more about this in the lovely book Wonderlands – The Art of Robert Ingpen.)

Whilst we’re chatting about Robert’s work on illustrating the classics I have to check claim I had heard; that his Ratty in Wind in the Willows is based on Keith Richards… Could this really be true?

Oh yes, because, although I do not know him, he seems to embody not the likeness but free spirit that drives Ratty on the wonderful adventures of Graham’s classic story!

Robert continues, “When illustrator E.H.Shepherd long ago illustrated these characters he admitted to calling upon his friends who displayed like characteristics to the ‘Willows’ animals to become his models. The quirky idea appealed to me. And now, for years, I have been ‘drawing’ upon real people but not famous ones to serve as my inspiration for illustrated storybook characters. Recently I heard that some people in England believe that my depiction of The Mad Hatter is a self portrait. This is not true.

With that cleared up we turn to Robert’s next book choice: Storm Boy by Colin Thiele. This was Robert’s first illustrated book for children, and one that he especially enjoyed working on as it gave “an opportunity to return to seashores and beaches.” (You can find an illustration from this book in this gallery of Robert’s work on the Guardian website.)

Storm Boy is a story about a young boy’s relationships with his father, a pelican, and an outcast Aboriginal man called Fingerbone and is considered to be one of the classics of Australian writing for children. Similarly, Robert’s next choice also highlights an Australian classic, The Nargun and the Stars by Patricia Wrightson, which Robert describes as “the greatest Australian story leading to the spiritual understanding of the First People and their powerful beliefs.” This book was the winner of the 1974 Children’s Book Council of Australia Children’s Book of the Year Award for Older Readers, and (largely on account of this novel) Patricia Wrightson was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 1977.

Before Robert became a children’s book illustrator he spent many years working with scientists using his training as an illustrator/graphic designer to explain new scientific discoveries so they might be used in the wider world outside science. His job was to try “to develop ways of combining pictures and words to explain and communicate ‘strange’ ideas that today we understand. In Peru, for example, I worked with a special team of fisheries and marine scientists engaged in conserving the massive anchovy resources from overfishing. The ‘El Nino’ event of the early 1970s had just about ruined the economy of Peru. I had to find a way to explain to the fishing industry what an ‘El Nino’ was, and what science could do about saving the fishery.

To do this I combined the storytelling in a ‘parcel’ with multiple wrappings. Surrounding the scientific fact that must be understood and adopted, was wrappings in story form of fiction based on earlier Inca Culture folklore that was still being told to children of fisherman today.”

During his years using his storytelling skills (both verbal and visual) to impart scientific facts, Robert started to develop what has become a lifelong interest in conservation issues, and so I’m delighted that the next book he chooses is the book that was his first introduction to conservation and environmental change: The Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.

And then we come to his last two choices, both of which perhaps reflect where Robert is now; taking stock of his life, thinking about what is left that he would like to achieve, and beginning to think about what inevitably lies ahead. He choose The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico as this is “the book I have always wanted to illustrate” and Lifetimes by Bryan Mellonie. This is a book Robert illustrated back in the early1980s, an “enduring tale told to help children cope with death.

As that beautiful book says,

There is a beginning
and an ending for everything
that is alive.
In between is living.

And so, having used books to travel through Robert’s life, listening to different stages in his development as a artist and wing-giver to stories, we return to living, indeed to an event taking place next week; his 81st birthday.

What started in Robert’s childhood – bringing stories to life through imaginative play – continues to feature in his adult life to this very day, though in a slightly modified way; he now quite regularly experiences the authors of the classic stories he has worked on as if they are still alive and able to have conversations with him.

It is true that in my imagination I believe I need to talk to long dead authors about their motives and untold aspects of their stories that I have been fortunate enough to be asked to illustrate. Strangely most people think that this is impossible!“.

With a birthday (and hopefully a party) just a few days away, I ask which long dead (but-still-alive-in-his-imagination) authors Robert would like to invite to celebrate with him: “Ah.. my birthday would assemble my close disbelievers – family and friends – to meet and hear Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens and Kenneth Grahame in conversation that clears some of the unsolved issues not actually covered enough in their written words.” What a party that would be! If I could, I would arrange the menu Robert would most like to enjoy over great conversation: Pea and Ham Soup, Rabbit Pie with Bacon, followed by Pavlova and Passion Fruit.

Once this wonderful party is over and everyone has recovered from the wonderful food and glorious conversation Robert will be returning to work on an exhibition, opening in November, of fifty or so works of his art related to this sixty years of wandering “in what I call ‘The Marginal World’ (a term first used by Rachel Carson in the 1950s when she alerted the world to biological pollution and global instability).”

The exhibition, at Salt Contemporary Art Gallery, Queensclff, will feature large tempera paintings and watercolour studies of natural objects that have been stranded between high and low tide of beaches around Australia and further abroad in the Indian Ocean. It’s being accompanied, explains Robert, by “a modest book where I attempt to explain how I think Art plays a roll in communicating the ‘difficult’ concepts of environmental change we must learn to accept. So in a sense I am still at work on the passion I began with sixty or more years ago.

Firstly, the need I have to use art in combination with words to help tell a story. Secondly, that the story is about preservation of our natural world and its resources; and conservation of our great literature for children by pictorial renewal through careful illustration.

Breathing fresh life into great stories by pairing them with new and attentive illustration is a very accurate description of what Robert does, and it’s humbling to hear about it first hand. Before we go I quickly squeeze in two more questions. First I want to know what his favourite colour is. It strikes me as surely a rich yellow or orange, as so many of his books feature this warm glow.

My favourite colour is Quinacridone Gold watercolour (Winsor&Newton), mainly because children love the name when I answer their question.

It is indeed a glorious name for a glorious colour.

And finally I wonder, given his experience as a parent, a grandparent and a guardian and liberator of stories and the imaginage, what advice he has for others trying to engage children with stories, reading and books. He response is unequivocal, encouraging all grown ups “to read books to their children and grandchildren that can be turned into real life games involving tree houses, gangs and all“. I want to hug him at this point, and take him and my kids and his grandkids out into the woods to make charcoal, set tents, drink grog and hoist flags. I’ll happily be Mrs Walker to his Captain Flint and together we’ll play and play and play with our gang of Swallows and Amazons. Robert, chocolate rations, a book of knots, and a trusty parrot stand ready for you here in the UK!

Peter Pan and Wendy by J. M. Barrie, illustrated by Robert Ingpen
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, illustrated by Robert Ingpen

4 Responses

  1. Victoria

    I concur with Maria-Cristina. And for once when you write I can say I have met this person. What an honour it is to hear Robert speak about his work. He is an exemplary Australian.

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