Friday, 24 July 2015

Picture Book People - 1: Laurence Anholt

This is the first in an occasional series of blogs about their lives by some of the people whose work we here at the Den very much like and admire.  We're delighted to welcome super-talented Laurence Anholt, whose work has been published all over the globe. He's written us a fascinating piece about his life story, which is one of great creativity and commitment, very influenced by fine art through the years. He's also sharing with us his surprising and intriguing new direction. 

Here he is! Laurence Anholt with hat - Copyright: Julia Mear

Im generally a cheerful person so Id like to think I didnt make too much fuss when I was born on 4th August 1959 in Barnet. In theory that makes me a Norf Lundnerbut its a bit more complicated than that because my dad was a Dutchman with family roots stretching all the way back to Persia.
My siblings and I spent our early years in Holland and we went to little Dutch schools. Sadly I lost the language but what I retained is that celebrated Dutch liberalism along with a passion for Dutch art, especially van Gogh.

Me in my little Dutch Montessori School aged about 5

Our family returned to the UK in time for part two of my education which became increasingly shambolic. I went to a mixed outward bound school where - so it seemed to me - you could choose whether you went to lessons or notI chose not! I left school at 16 with almost no qualifications and a general sense of bewilderment.

My father had many good qualities but he was haunted by some devastating wartime experiences. To give some idea, he was amongst the group that liberated Bergen Belsen - not something you get over in a hurry. Perhaps it was understandable that he wasnt a great mentor; but growing boys need male mentors and when they dont have them they tend to drift into little gangs of other disaffected boys - I must admit I went a little wild in my teenage years and there are gaps in my CV where even Im not sure what happened! I travelled; I worked in factories and kitchens and I had many fine adventures along the way. My most bizarre job was working as a bricky on a model village in Southern France. I laid tiny bricks and I think the wages were minuscule too! My main interests had always been English and Art and eventually I stumbled into the Foundation Course at Epsom School of Art where I grew my hair and threw some paint around.

At 19 I was passing through Oxford when I met a beautiful Irish girl, who became my best friend and partner for the next 35 years. Cathy was one of eight siblings; a student nurse who dreamed of becoming an artist. We had heard about the legendary Degree course at Falmouth School of Art, so the two of us assembled portfolios and hitchhiked to Cornwall. This was the late 1970s and there were only 175 students in that hothouse of creativity. It was an amazing opportunity for self-discovery.

When we qualified we moved to London to take our Masters. Cathy went to the Royal College of Art and I studied Fine Art for three years in the scruffy splendour of the Royal Academy. 
'Houses on Haverstock Hill' - an example of the paintings I was doing at the Royal Academy.

We had not a penny between us, but I discovered a knack for carpentry and spent weekends and holidays building kitchens all over London. Around this time, my parents had settled in Dorset and whenever we visited, Cathy and I felt rejuvenated by the woods and the hills. It was the start of a love affair with the Westcountry - the Blue Lias of the Jurassic Coast gets right under your fingernails!

When our first daughter, Claire was born in 1984 I was over the moon. But I wanted to be a different kind of dad and began to think of ways in which I could work from home. Thats when we started looking at those lovely things called childrens books. Perhaps this could be a way of combining my passions - writing, drawing and inspiring kids.

My lovely wife Cathy with our daughter Claire, on Charmouth Beach.

At the time I was working as an art teacher and I entertained my class with stories about maverick characters such as Picasso, Cézanne and Matisse. This led me to write and illustrate Camille and the Sunflowers, a picture book about the friendship between Van Gogh and Camille Roulin, son of the famously bearded postmaster in Arles.

It was the first in what eventually became the Anholts Artists series published by Frances Lincoln in the UK and Barrons in the U.S. In the last 25 years my series has translated into many languages and sold several million copies around the world.

These books are a first introduction to great artists, seen from the perspective of a real child.  They are fascinating to work on and I have met many relatives and acquaintances of the artists, such as Sylvette David, Picassos iconic Girl With A Ponytail in the 1950s who has become a family friend.

Sylvette David by Picasso portrait. Copyright: collection of Sylvette David

 Im currently putting the final touches to the tenth story in the series, about that great feminist icon, Frida Kahlo and another real child. My working title is Frida Kahlo and the Bravest Girl in the World.

Two watercolour illustrations of Frida Kahlo. Copyright: Laurence Anholt. 

 In 1987 our beautiful twins, Tom and Maddy were born. Here they are face to face in their pram -

 And it was at this time that we discovered our Willy Wonka ticketin the countryside near Lyme Regis, we stumbled upon a rambling semi-derelict house with acres of tangled jungle, various crumbling outbuildings, a walled swimming pool filled with something resembling vegetable soup, and breathtaking views across the valley to the sea. The place was like a dream or a magical fairy tale (although the mortgage felt real enough!) Old Woodhouse had been long abandoned and it took years to put it straight - I lost count of the evenings I spent on the roof with a hammer, but for sixteen happy years this was our family home.

Making a living as an author or illustrator requires huge tenacity, but slowly our business grew. Weve always worked without an agent - negotiating directly with publishers and with the wonderful Society of Authors at our side. Being agentless wasnt a plan, weve just never made that connection, although its something I would consider for the future. One way or another, we were unbelievably fortunate to be working in the late 80s and early 90s. That was a Golden Time in childrens publishing, when the UK led the world with an astonishing range of imaginative picture books. It was possible to make a really good living by sitting in your studio, listening to Van Morrison and dreaming up weird and wonderful ideas for childrens stories. It felt like it would go on forever and barely a day went by without another Foreign Rights deal or an exciting offer from a publisher. Alongside my artist series I wrote the Seriously Silly Stories (illustrated by my good friend, Arthur Robins), Chimp and Zee and eventually more than 200 childrens titles, many illustrated by Cathy.

 Our books were translated into 30 or more languages and they won several big awards. Here I am with Arthur Robins receiving the Smarties Gold Award with Konnie Huq from Blue Peter and two authors called Julia Donaldson and J.K. Rowlingwhatever happened to them!

 I took part in book events in Indonesia, Singapore and all around the world. Once Cathy and I travelled to South Korea to launch a full-scale stage musical of my Van Gogh book.

The Korean stage musical of Camille and the sunflowers. Copyright: Laurence Anholt

 In those days, editors had the authority to accept a manuscript on the spot, but with the advent of Amazon and e-books, the threat to independent bookshops and the appalling cuts to public libraries, there has been an earthquake in childrens publishing. Now it feels as if publishing houses have erected forcefields around themselves armed by accountants! I know that many editors, authors and illustrators feel very sad about the commercialisation of this lovely industry and it must be horribly difficult to be starting out as an author or illustrator in 2015.

But back to that Golden timeIve always liked a little project and in 2005 I spotted a small shop for sale in Lyme Regis. Together with a group of friends, we constructed Chimp and Zee Bookshop by the Sea.

Chimp and Zee, Bookshop by the Sea. Copyright: Laurence Anholt

It was a little wonderland for children with a full-sized copper-leaved oak tree inside and a monkey (called Mumkey) who rode her bicycle endlessly around the window. This was the UKs first author-owned bookshop and it was even shortlisted for an HSBC Small Business Award. Chimp and Zee was a magical place, but what we liked less were the nuts and bolts of retail and when the UK fell into recession, we sold the shop and set Mumkey free!

I am embarrassingly proud of the kind, funny and courageous adults that our kids have become. Claire graduated from Cambridge and works at a senior level in the UN Secretariat in New York. She does amazing work with climate change, Human Rights, and campaigning against child soldiers. Her lovely French husband, Adrien works in Disaster Relief.

Claire and me 

Maddy is an actor, writer and radio presenter who has taken her one-woman show, Maddys Many Mouthsto the Edinburgh Fringe.

Maddy and me. There's a link to Maddy's website below. 

Tom is an artist working in Berlin and his gorgeous paintings sell as fast as he can produce them, in galleries in Germany, Denmark, Italy and America.

My son Tom. There's a link to Tom's website below. 

The downside of being a home-parent is how much you miss them when they are gone. The solution is usually a little project, and in recent years Cathy and I have restored another neglected gem of a house. This haven of peace and creativity has light-filled studios overlooking the shimmering Axe Estuary near Colyton in Devon. We have wildflower meadows and beehives and we feel incredibly blessed to live in this magical place.

At the bottom of the blog there's a link to an article about our renovation of Sunflower House. 

My mother, Joan Pickford, was a wise and wonderful woman who died too young. Joan was a teacher of English Literature, especially Hardy and Wordsworth and although she was a Christian, she was fascinated by Eastern philosophy. It must have influenced me because I became a member of the friendly Buddhist community in this area. If I had more pages I would gleefully expound on the benefits of mindfulness and meditation (such a wonderful tool for writing), but one central concept of Buddhism is that our thoughts become our reality - a person who thinks negative or prejudiced thoughts creates a dark claustrophobic world for themselves; conversely those who train themselves to be positive and open-hearted find the world opening around them. Life is challenging, but life is beautiful too. We are profoundly privileged to walk briefly on this extraordinary blue-green planet, revolving slowly in space.

A couple of years ago, something wonderful happened - Ive always been an avid reader of fiction and I cherish that hour before sleep when one can explore another country or another mind from the comfort of ones bed. Ive always longed to write full-length fiction and I decided to take a year out to write two novels: The Hypnotistand Love Letters. If picture books are hard, a novel is like building a house single-handed! But to my amazement, both books were accepted by the newly merged Penguin Random House. Its been an incredible privilege to work with the legendary publisher, Annie Eaton and editor, Ruth Knowles - their enthusiasm for my work has been heartwarming. So here I am at 55 launching on a new adventure as a novelist. The Hypnotist is about prejudice and tolerance - In essence I have transposed DickensGreat Expectations to the Deep South of America in 1963. My protagonist is a young black orphan making his way against the background of Segregation and the dreaded Ku Klux Klan; (sadly, more topical than ever.) Because Ive got a funny old brain, the book is a little stranger than a straightforward historical drama - all the events are seen through the very strange eyes of an outsider: an Irish hypnotist, Dr Jack Morrow, who has started work at a new university. Theres a slice of history, a sprinkle of magic realism and a twist of humour. The Hypnotist created a bit of a buzz at Bologna, although US publishers seem nervous of the subject matter! Im so excited about this project and Im already thinking about a third novelI do like a little project, you know! The Hypnotist will be published by Penguin Random House in March 2016.

The cover of The Hypnotist

If youd like to chat about bees, books or Buddhism say hello on the Twit 

Visit the Anholt website:
Paintings by Catherine Anholt:
See our old shop here
Maddy's site: 

Catherine and Laurence Anholt in studio. Copyright: Alun Callender/Psychologies Magazine


Jonathan Emmett said...

Thanks for such a great guest post, Laurence. The Seriously Silly books that you did with Arthur Robins were much loved by my kids and a big inspiration to me when I started by own writing career.

Sue Purkiss said...

What a lovely, cheerful piece to get the day off to a good start! I have recently been writing one or two adult short stories about artists - Gauguin and Van Gogh so far - and was just wondering the other day if a children's book series about artists might be a good idea - it obviously was, and you already did it, and the books look wonderful! Will send off for some of them for my grandsons - and me... Good luck with the new direction.

Laurence and Catherine Anholt said...

That's a big compliment coming from you, Jonathan. Thank you. Arthur Robins is one of the most unsung illustrators in the UK - a genius and a lovely man :)

Laurence and Catherine Anholt said...

Thanks Sue. I haven't done Gauguin yet - absolutely love his work but he was a fairly scummy man! Difficult to tackle for little people!

Moira Butterfield said...

With art such an inspiration to you and your family, I wonder how important you feel art should be in schools. It's very threatened in the UK, it seems. I don't know how things stand in the US or Australia but maybe some of our lovely US and Australian blog readers will tell us.

Lydia Syson said...

Absolutely loved reading this. Must confess a particular fondness for Chimp and Zee which came out the year my own twins were born (I think I even reviewed it for the FT!) and also bookshops in Lyme Regis, having spent hours of my childhood holidays in Serendip Books - which taught me one of my favourite words and whose shopfront I remember being dressed up for The French Lieutenant's Woman - is it still there, I wonder? Can't wait to read The Hypnotist.

Laurence and Catherine Anholt said...

So kind, Lydia. Thanks for all those thoughts and memories. In fact we are discussing a major re-launch of Chimp and Zee right now, so all twins should stand by their bananas! Yes, Serendip is still going strong under new management. In fact I knew John Fowles pretty well and right now his house in Lyme is being transformed into a JF museum. All best, Laurence :)

Laurence and Catherine Anholt said...

Hi Moira and many thanks for your help with my piece. Of course I think Art should be central to education, along with all creative disciplines. It's tragic that everything is judged on profit and return these days. I thought the amazing opening ceremony at the London Olympics would demonstrate once and for all that creativity is what makes this country great (and brings in millions of £££ as well!) My talented son, Tom had wonderful art teaching at school and art college in the UK, but moved to Germany to launch his art career. He found cheaper rents, tax breaks and general support for artists in Berlin and Copenhagen, which is sadly missing here. When will this government learn that libraries, the creative arts etc are the lifeblood of our society?! Sorry... getting heated! Yes humans are artists by nature... it is a celebration of our higher selves :)

Lydia Syson said...

Up jumps me...Something tells me I should be planning a weekend revisiting Lyme…Lovely to hear all that. :)

Jon Burgess Design said...

Nice post and even nicer life you have ;-) hearty congrats on making it all work for you in so many ways. When's the book on Damian Hirst coming out, (heh heh)?
Re art education, my frend's son entered art school four years ago, a very accomplished painter. He left last year never wanting to pick up a brush again. The 'conceptual rigor' mafia did for him. He 'just' wanted to paint. I know it's more complicated than that but 9k a year to get your dreams shattered is a bum deal. . Good luck with the novels. Can I have your house please?

Laurence and Catherine Anholt said...

Thanks Jonathan, I left out some of the messy stuff! Our kids loved your books by the way :)

Sue Purkiss said...

Yes indeed. He's the villain of my story!

Pippa Goodhart said...

What a wonderful blog post! I love the mix of parenting, picture books, silly stories, novels, and house creating, at the same time as truly appreciating the world. Despite the commercial pressures, the children's book world is still a great place to make a happy living, as you demonstrate. Thank you.

Laurence and Catherine Anholt said...

Lovely comment from the aptly named Ms Goodhart :) Thank you

Jon Burgess Design said...

Thanks Laurence ;-) That's nice to know. Like wise with my kids and your books!

malachy doyle said...

Thanks for being such a perfect guest, Laurence. I hope the novels do really well for you.

Laurence and Catherine Anholt said...

My absolute pleasure, Malachy. Picture Book Den is such a great resource :)

Paeony Lewis said...

Phew, what an amazing half-century, Laurence. Really interesting blog post. You make me want to wind myself up and get more done! I wonder if you found it hard to slow down to write a novel? By the way, I relished looking at Tom's art and I think my favourite is The Escape II.

Laurence and Catherine Anholt said...

Thanks for kind comments, Paeony. Yes writing novels is a different discipline but so enjoyable - only downside is a stiff neck from too many hours at a laptop! :)

Paeony Lewis said...

Yes, ergodynamics and laptops don't mix!