Not many illustrators get to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their very first book. But Michael Foreman was an early starter – a student and an active member of CND – when he created an anti-war story for children. The General is about a powerful military leader who finally sees the light, and sends his soldiers home to turn their swords to ploughshares. Like that other famous pacifist, Ferdinand the Bull, the general ends up in a field, quietly smelling the flowers. Half a century on, in a handsome anniversary edition published by Templar, Foreman's illustrations reflect not just his graphic wit and his gift for political satire, but also the fact that even then his artwork had the "lit from within" quality that illuminates so many of his books.
With around 250 titles to his name, Foreman's range is impressive: he moves effortlessly from Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm to Beowulf, from The Arabian Nights, Shakespeare and Dickens to Chicken Licken. Because Foreman grew up in a house "without books, though I did read comics", he was able to approach the classics with a fresh eye, unencumbered with remembered imagery. There's also an abundance of contemporary children's fiction, and, of course, the 70 or so books for which he has produced both text and illustration.
A glittering career then, of unusual breadth and integrity, and Foreman has regularly been garlanded with illustration's top awards and honours – but it's a career that was almost extinguished before it began.
Born in 1938, in a fishing village in Suffolk where his widowed mother ran the local shop, Foreman was three when an incendiary bomb smashed through his bedroom ceiling. Missing him by inches, it ricocheted around the room and exploded up the chimney. This accounts for his firm belief that each day is precious and, he says, not just his prodigious output but also the fact that so many of his books focus on matters of conflict and injustice as well as the political and environmental issues he tackled in early thought-provoking books such as War and Peas, and Dinosaurs and All That Rubbish.
It was years before he felt able to draw explicitly on his own wartime experiences, but War Boy (1989) is one of the most valuable works of non-fiction for children in recent times, an absorbing, perfectly pitched child's-eye view of the war, with line drawings, watercolours and diagrams of bombers, barrage balloons, doodlebugs and bleak seascapes, with beaches sealed off with barbed wire. There's comic relief too, and affectionate period detail; but the image that lingers is the ghostly outline of a bombed church trembling against the operatic incandescence of Foreman's fiery watercolour sky.
In War Game (1993), perhaps his finest book, four newly recruited young soldiers set off to fight in the first world war. It's a heartbreaking story, with the weight of the subject matter carried by the quality of the drawing. Foreman tenderly conveys the nervous energy of the soldiers, and the physical release they find in the Christmas football game in no man's land: leaping and diving for the ball, their feet seldom touching the ground. He then contrasts that innocent optimism with the soldiers again airborne, this time blown off the ground by an exploding shell. The figure drawing has a subtle authority and under the atmospheric watercolour washes, the honesty of the pencil line adds immeasurably to the impact.
Foreman was obsessed with drawing as a child but materials were scarce, so in his mother's shop he always saved the loose sheets of packing paper from the biscuit tins to draw on. But, as he likes to explain, it was his inability to ride a bike that led to his becoming an artist: doing his paper round on foot, he got to know one of the customers – an enthusiastic young art teacher named Tom Hudson. Newly appointed at Lowestoft Art School and inspired by Herbert Read's Education Through Art (1943), Hudson spotted young Foreman's talent and invited him to join free Saturday classes at the art school. This was a turning point – Foreman still remembers the thrill of being given a sketch book and starting to draw from observation, rather than memory.
His luck with enlightened teachers continued at secondary school, where the headmaster Michael Duane (soon to be the head of the controversial early comprehensive, Risinghill) gave him further encouragement. Foreman left school at 15 to study fine art at Lowestoft. He's grateful for that early start, and for the intensive study of anatomy, perspective and life drawing that was customary in those days.
Foreman is quietly vehement on the importance of drawing. "It's vital. Drawing teaches you to look at things properly, and to understand form and structure. But that's all changed now," he says ruefully. "For art students today, drawing is just an optional subject."
But for Foreman it was a lifeline. In London, while studying "commercial art" and "graphics" (no illustration courses in those days), he sought freelance work drawing for magazines, and even for the police, drawing female suspects "because 'Identikit' in those days only did men". He learnt to respond instantly to a text by drawing for local papers, then tackled Fleet Street, where he would ring from a phone box outside one of the national newspaper offices, offering his services.
A Royal College of Art travel scholarship, and numerous commissions (including a trip to Japan to draw the World Fair in 1970), took him round the world. He can draw "under any conditions", and he never takes any reading matter on journeys – "it's vital to keep the brain inquisitive". The result is a (still growing) mountain of sketchbooks bursting with unique reference material and ideas for new books - "Authentic settings are vital for children's books", he says. Mia's Story (2006), about an impoverished South American family, took him to Peru where he made his drawings on paper he found on the rubbish tips.
He's worked with countless authors, but most productively with Michael Morpurgo. They met originally to discuss a little book about a donkey, but that was shelved in favour of a much bigger project, Arthur, High King of Britain. With its stirring full-on illustrations depicting pounding hooves, clashing steel, magic and romance, this was the first of many collaborations – 25 books so far. It's a very creative, empathetic partnership: they have a lot in common, including (overlapping) memories of the war years which have inspired so many of their books.
Football has always been a major preoccupation for Foreman. A Chelsea supporter, he's also a regular in the club's education/outreach department, where he works with children from the community on literary and local history projects. In Billy the Kid (a Foreman/Morpurgo collaboration), the narrator is a Chelsea pensioner whose football career was ended by the war. The illustrations move from Billy's glory days on the pitch to his darkest memories as an army ambulance driver, when he's confronted with the reality of Belsen.
We tend to take for granted the illustrator's skills and sensibilities, but here you realise the extraordinary challenges they can face – how do you even begin to cope with a subject like this? "Things have to be believable," Foreman says, "not in a literal, photographic sense, but in an emotional sense – capturing the essence of the situation." And with its grainy line and scumbled shadows, it was his compassionate, starkly unsentimental drawing of a dead child that later inspired Morpurgo to write The Mozart Question – again remembering the Holocaust, but this time set in Venice, and seen through the prism of music, rather than football. Those dark drawings are almost unbearably painful – "but children do need to know these things".
Foreman originally set out to be a painter, and now has a second home in Cornwall (with a studio that once belonged to painter Ben Nicholson) where the light is a constant source of inspiration. His illustrations, whether on land or at sea, have a luminosity that can rise from the page like a morning mist, inching the narrative along with subtle shifts in mood and colour – you can see this in his recent version of Treasure Island and, in a rather different, understated way, in his latest with Morpurgo, Not Bad for a Bad Lad (Templar), which is just out in paperback. Set in the 50s, it's a redemptive story of a rebellious teenage law-breaker. It's a finely produced book and the quality of the full-bleed printing is such that you feel you are looking at original sketchbook watercolours. One spread, in particular, stands out; no text, no figures, just a country road and a police van dwarfed by a vast East Anglian sky. But because we know the character is in the van, the narrative spark is struck and suddenly everything in this seemingly empty landscape thrums with significance – from the lively handling of the cloud formations to the promise of the open sea beyond. Combining a painterly and a narrative approach, throwing light on the nature of freedom, this reflective illustration not only captures the imagination but lifts it, and carries it way beyond words.
Next week, online only, Joanna Carey meets the Japanese illustrator Satoshi Kitamura.
Michael Foreman is someone rather special.
He’s often described as a “national institution”, with a 50 year back catalogue of tremendous books for children and young people. I, however, think this is perhaps a little too staid a description for someone who has such sparkle in his eyes and who gently radiates a real sense of joie de vivre, hopefulness, and energy when you hear him speak about his work. Foreman may have turned 77 earlier this year, but his illustration and storytelling continues to innovate and be full of forward looking optimism, alongside the beauty and wonder which was there from the beginning.
Twice a winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal, once in 1982 for the anthology “Long Neck and Thunder Foot -Sleeping Beauty and other favourite fairy tales” and then again in 1989 for War Boy: A Country Childhood, my own introduction to Foreman’s books as a child was through the eyes of a dinosaur and a panda: The copies from my 1970s childhood of Dinosaurs and all that Rubbish and “Panda’s Puzzle” are still much loved, not least by my own children.
I’m not a great one for the cult of celebrity, but I’m humbled and excited beyond measure to bring you today an interview with Michael Foreman, an author and illustrator whose stories have become embedded in my life, bringing it richness and – in both a literal and metaphorical sense – lasting colour.
Playing by the book: War Game, War Boy and After the War was Over are gifts to the interviewer. Your childhood home, life and extended family play an enormously important role in your work it seems to me. There’s a real grounding in a location and time that echoes through your work. And yet, alongside this inward reflection, there’s a big, wide-open view onto the wider world – a curiosity about our planet, a passion for travel, a keen interest in sharing this wider world with us your readers, a passion just as strong as for seasides, Suffolk and your family. How has this ability to look generously in both directions come about do you think? I’ve wondered if it has something to do with the way the world came to you during the war, with soldiers and POWs from all over passing through your home village.
Michael Foreman: Absolutely, yes. Family has been enormously important to me. The connections between generations – a sense of Time and Place. The questions my children have asked over the years – heightened now that we have new grandchildren – another rich source of stories.
Playing by the book: A wonderful animation was made of War Game and I understand there were plans for animated versions of War Boy and After the War too. What happened to these plans?
Michael Foreman: Nothing as yet, unfortunately. They are still awaiting funding.
Playing by the book: I do hope they get funded – I think they have such great potential. Having worked on animated films yourself in Denmark, what was the experience like for you to see one of your books re-imagined in another medium? (This stands for both War Game and The General, although I haven’t been able to track down a copy of the latter’s animation).
Michael Foreman: I was, of course, delighted that someone thought enough of the books to devote time and expertise to give my stories another life.
Playing by the book: These three books are all in one way or another about or inspired by your own family. Have you done any genealogical research further back in time, before your uncles’ generation?
Michael Foreman: One of my nephews has done quite a bit of research but it really just unearths earlier generations of fisher-folk.
Playing by the book: How would you feel if the makers of ‘Who do you think you are?’ approached you? Would you consider writing an up-to-date autobiography, including some of the more curious aspects of your career as a writer and illustrator? I’m sure there are some interesting stories to tell and scenes to paint from having worked at Playboy, with JG Ballard at Ambit magazine, for the police drawing female suspects when Identikit only catered for men and even working in the education/outreach department of Chelsea football club!
Michael Foreman: In October, Pavilion Books are publishing a retrospective view of many of the books I have done for them. War Boy, War Game, etc plus collaborations with Terry Jones and Michael Morpurgo, Edna O’Brien, Madhur Jaffrey, etc and classics like ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘The Wind in the Willows,’ and two collections of Fairy Tales. The book, ‘A Life in Pictures’ also touches on some of my travels and working for magazines around the world.
Playing by the book: In the forthcoming exhibition at Seven Stories I understand there will be some sort of re-creation of your studio. Can you share a little bit about your favourite materials to work with – what sort of paper you like (what paper is good for different projects), what pencils and watercolours are your favourite for studio work, or for sketching on location? What is your top tip for anyone (but particularly children) who want to try out watercolour painting?
Michael Foreman: I am reluctant to give tips to anyone – I feel it is important to be able to draw well – but, I’m not sure it’s taught in Art Schools these days.
Playing by the book: Over time it seems to me you’ve used some unusual art materials – here those liquorice comforts pop up again, and I’d be more than game for seeing if they still make great face paint, or can even be used on paper. Then there’s the biscuit tin paper linings you used as a child for drawing on, and I’ve also read you’ve used coffee grounds to create certain effects in your paintings. What other unusual art materials have you enjoyed / do you enjoy using?
Michael Foreman: I often use water colours because it allows the whiteness of the paper to shine through and illuminate the colours. Build up the colour from the back, layer upon layer. Sometimes the colours flow into one another, surprising you, sometimes disastrously, sometimes wonderfully. Go with the flow. You can always revert to a bit of acrylic to paint out mistakes which don’t work.
In some of my early books, I used some collage – ‘The Two Giants’ and ‘War and Peas’ and, in ‘Mia’s Story’ I used scrap paper picked up from a rubbish dump in Santiago in Chile.
Alan Garner’s ‘Stone Book’ quartet, I illustrated with etchings.
Playing by the book: Although blue is something of a signature colour for you, I think the choice of “Under the Rainbow” as a title for your new exhibition is wonderfully apt, for your use of the whole spectrum of colours is something very special (a personal favourite is the image from The Day the Sun Hid, where tremendous blues and greys are offset by rainbow coloured weaving in the traditional clothing of the people of Sikkim). With this in mind, I wanted to ask you something about your many illustrations which are reproduced in greyscale, often illustrating longer novels (sometimes by Michael Morpurgo). Are these created in greys, or simply reproduced this way? When you know an illustration is going to be reproduced using greyscale, do you approach it in a different way to when it will be printed full colour? For example, do you make more use of pencil lines?
Michael Foreman: When working in black and white, the line becomes more important. Sometimes, I use only line, building up the form by the traditional method of cross-hatching. Usually, I use pen and black water colour wash. Sometimes a book illustrated in full colour is reprinted later in paperback in grey scale. This can be with disappointing results as the paper used is often inferior to that used for colour printing and some of the strength of contrast can be lost. When setting out to illustrate in grey scale, you can make sure the contrast is strong enough to compensate for any loss in the printing.
Playing by the book: In the recently published 100 Great Children’s Picture Books, Martin Salisbury chose your book “The General”, describing it as one of your “finest achievements”. Whilst a first book will always have a special place in any illustrator’s heart, is it the one book of your own you would pick above all others? (I know asking anyone to choose their favourite book is somewhat unfair; here I am curious to see, from an illustration point of view which book(s) you are especially proud of, particularly challenged you, changed you in some way).
Michael Foreman: I didn’t know Martin Salisbury had described my first book, ‘The General’ as one of my ‘finest achievements.’ Flattering, but does this mean he thinks I haven’t got any better in 50 years?
I wouldn’t want to pick a ‘best book,’ but a favourite would be ‘War Boy’ because it is about my mum and people I love. I am pleased that ‘Dinosaurs and all that Rubbish’ has lasted so long, and ‘A Child’s Garden’ and Michael Morpurgo’s ‘The Mozart Question’ are among my favourites, and were very moving to do.
Playing by the book: And finally… Having watched lots of videos of you, seen you talk about your work, and reading between the lines in your books, you come across as an optimistic person, a glass-half full type (perhaps because of your early brush with death in the form of a near miss with an incendiary bomb?). In all the films I’ve seen, you’ve a sparkle in your eye and a glint of something quite playful (how you talk about crawling between old ladies’ legs in your Mother’s shop, or the delight and shock in Miss West’s periwinkle long drawers). In a day and age where there is much to depress us, especially when we consider conflict and the environment, and our lack of empathy for others – all themes in your forthcoming Seven Stories exhibition – how do you keep the sparkle? How can we help ourselves and our children keep believing in better, keep ourselves hopeful? What would you write on the Tree of Hope which I understand is going to be a central feature to which all exhibition visitors will be invited to contribute?
Michael Foreman: Yes, surviving the bomb at the age of three did give me a perspective on life. I try to appreciate every moment.
The world is full of ideas and people are full of stories and some stories demand to be told, need to be shared. I have been so fortunate to be given the opportunity to share some of my hopes and dreams with children. We must give our children endless hope and love so that they can be at peace with each other and that they can make their world a happy place.
With regard to my message on the Tree of Hope, my wish would be that the seeds from this tree of hope spread far and wide.
I’m extremely grateful to Michael for taking the time to answer my questions. The interview was carried out in celebration of ‘Under the Rainbow’ – a new exhibition opening at Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for Children’s Books on the 19th of July.
Through the exhibition Michael’s books are used to ask readers to consider the consequences of conflict, the fragility of our environment and the importance of friendship, empathy and tolerance through his insightful storytelling and beautiful illustrations. Families will be invited to add to the ‘Tree of Hope’ with messages for the future; explore stories of war and peace through War Boy, War Game, The General and Ali Pasha, build and play in a multi-sensory environment inspired by Dinosaurs and All That Rubbish and One World, and be inspired by Michael’s creative process in his artist’s studio with his own personal artefacts.
I shall be visiting the exhibition in mid August and will report back! I really can’t wait 🙂