Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The Big Wide World - Jonathan Allen - two days late. . . . sorry. . .

It's about this time of year that from every college and 'university' in the land, or at least a fair few of said institutions, fully fledged baby illustrators emerge, blinking, into the cold, hard daylight.
Well, I was once one of those.

In my hand, speaking figuratively, I had a list of children's publishers culled from my researches in the childrens section of Foyles in Charing Cross Road, London, which was next door to the Graphics Dept of St Martin's College of Art, where I was just completing my studies.

There were a few things I had to get my head round, amongst which was the idea that each publisher had its own 'list' with it's own special aesthetic, something that was not immediately obvious to a raw newcomer, and then to choose publishers with who's list and aesthetic my work would fit in. Not far short of guesswork basically.

So I did that to the best of my abilities and, showing commendable initiative, well, compared to some of my contemporaries anyway, rang the relevant art editors. I got a few appointments too, one being at J.M Dent who were located in a posh part of town, just next to Wimpole Street and Harley Street. Publishers seemed to be all located in interesting old buildings in places like Bloomsbury and Covent Garden for some reason.

I met the Art editor's assistant, as the art editor was away, and to her credit she told me to ring back when the art editor was back in a week's time, as my work was 'just up her street'.
Amongst the stuff in my portfolio were a few nonsense poems I had written and illustrated, and a very graphic but humorous version of 'There was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly'. When I finally showed the art editor, (the late Vanessa Hamilton) my work she amazed me by suggesting that if I wrote some more poems, she might very well publish them as a book.

I went away and wrote some more poems and in due course a book was published. "A Bad Case of Animal Nonsense" came out in about 1978 (aaaaaargh! I can't possibly be that old can I?)
Not to a mad fanfare or to huge success, but it was a foot in the door and I managed to keep going from then on, helped by being in a great cheap housing co-op flat and having got used to living on student income levels, but it built up over time and I even manage to make a half decent living at it.

These days I don't know what the score is. To me it all looks pretty depressing, but my perspective is warped by my experience of the way things were back then, it bears little relation to the publishing world as it is now, especially from a new graduate's perspective.

The fortunate ones will find and take the opportunities that are out there, and the rest will find ways to get by, or find other ways of making a living. Just like in my day. Except in my day we didn't have student loans and tuition fees hanging over us. It makes me sad that economic conditions will very likely push the study of Art into being something feasible only for the rich. I wouldn't have been able to go to Art College without a student grant. . .

So, to all you illustrators, just out of college, trying to find a foothold in the world of work, I wish you all the luck in the universe. May you find some joy and satisfaction in what you find out there, whatever it may be. I look forward to seeing what you come up with.


Jonathan Emmett said...

I love your rhyming animals - especially the "Llama in a Melodrama". And, although I didn't get into publishing until the mid 90s, your early days are not that different from my own.

I benefitted from a full student grant and share your concerns about the study of Art – and the arts generally – becoming something that's only feasible for the relatively rich. Even when grants were available, I had friends who didn't go to college because they weren't comfortable with not earning for three years. These days, would-be students will be saddling themselves with tens of thousands of pounds of debt when they come out. And many young publishers seem to get a foot in the door as a result of working as an unpaid intern which simply isn't an option for people who come from a low income background. I think children's publishing has always been a relatively middle class world, but conditions like this help to keep it that way.

Pippa Goodhart said...

Yes, congratulations and welcome to all new illustration graduates or post graduates just entering the world of children's books. It certainly can be tough, but also rewarding, fun, and important. Good luck!

Moira Butterfield said...

...yes, congratulations, and my one piece of advice as an editor who often dealt with new illustrators - please leave enough bleed!!!! (If you don't know what bleed is, look it up immediately. It's a publishing term and for some reason art colleges often seem to omit teaching it, leading to much gnashing of teeth by publishers).

Re: the pricing of degrees. It's utterly depressing.

Moira Butterfield said...

Ps: I would like to buy your animal illustrations as cards Jonathan.