It’s been 55 years since Michael Foreman’s first book was published, yet this genial, engaging septuagenarian author and illustrator retains a major passion for his creative endeavours.
Perhaps best known for his evocative drawings in works by former children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo and Monty Python actor-turned-writer Terry Jones, he’s rightly revered in his own right too, for books such as 1989’s autobiographical War Boy, his heart-warming portrayal of a Second World War childhood.
Last week Michael visited Preston’s Harris Museum and Art Gallery, which is currently hosting his Painting with Rainbows exhibition, on loan from Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s Seven Stories, the national home for children’s books. And just beyond the 13,500 year-old ‘Poulton Elk’ in the Discover Preston gallery, he held court with a sell-out audience, sharing the inspiration behind many of his stories, including – rather aptly – 1971’s Moose.
If you missed that event and haven’t seen the exhibition yet, you have until November 6 to pop in and learn more about the Suffolk-born artist’s amazing career. And if you’re not likely to get to the North West for a while, next stop is the Chatham Historic Dockyard maritime museum in Kent, with more locations lined up beyond that.
Painting with Rainbows sheds light on many of Michael’s colourful characters and the creative world seen in a wealth of publications since his 1961 debut, Cold War pacifist fable The General (put together with his first wife, Janet Charters) and 1993 environmental tale Dinosaurs and all that Rubbish. There’s also original artwork, props, films, books and activities, designed to encourage visitors of all ages to become part of Michael’s storytelling world.
But the fact that Painting with Rainbows is doing the rounds isn’t a sign of him letting up, work-wise, as I learned first-hand from the 78-year-old. In fact, he’s currently concentrating on a book centred around the many air-miles he’s amassed in his career, Travels with my Sketchbook, a proposed publication seemingly complementing 2015’s wonderful A Life in Pictures.
“It covers similar ground, but it’s all about the places that gave me the ideas – a travel book using all the drawings I did along the way. It’s a very complicated thing to put together, not least as there’s so much you have to leave out! I have to leave it very much to the publisher and the editor.”
As well as catching him talk about his work at the Harris in Preston, I caught Michael for this interview at his home studio in Putney, South West London, ‘just the other side of the river’ from a past base in Fulham and ‘slightly further from Craven Cottage’. So you can already tell he’s a keen football fan, with evidence of that in the exhibition too.
“My tribal team in Norwich City, the nearest professional team when I was a little boy. I’d save up my newspaper-round money to go there as often as I could. Then I moved to London and had the choice of every team there, going to whoever had the most attractive opposition.”
For a spell in North London that involved alternate weeks following Arsenal and Tottenham, since which it’s been Fulham and Chelsea.
“When my sons were growing up, Chelsea won more often than Fulham, so they became devoted fans. And we can walk to both from here. But I’m thinking of going back to Wimbledon when they return to Plough Lane, getting generally disenchanted with the Premier League, where players come and go and don’t give a toss who they’re playing for really.”
Michael was, however, fired up about visiting the city that brought the world Preston North End, or ‘Tom Finney country’ as he put it. Did he ever get to see Sir Tom play?
“I did, at Stamford Bridge, and got his autograph at Stanley Matthews’ 55th birthday party, getting them both to sign the menu! Matthews on the right, Finney on the left!”
Despite his love of literature, it was more about oral storytelling for Michael as a lad, not least via the large cast of characters he met in his Suffolk village, Pakefield, as told so evocatively in War Boy.
“My father died a month before I was born, just before the War, and my mother ran the village shop, which was full of servicemen. They missed their home life and tended to make our Mum their Mum, and me their little brother. They’d tell me all the stories they knew and about where they came from.”
Beyond its Newcastle, Preston and Chatham runs, Painting Rainbows is set for further stops in East Anglia and the West Country, still to be confirmed, the latter region well-known to this highly-travelled author, a homeowner in St Ives, Cornwall, for many years.
“We downsized in St Ives and now have builders in, so haven’t been able to go there for a while, which is very frustrating. But I have two sons in Cornwall, and grandchildren who are Cornish. And my boys have been going there since they were very small.”
Skimming through the shelves at my house the morning I called him – even without going into the other Michael Morpurgo books he’s worked on – I got my hands on a number of picture books carrying his name and with scenes of St Ives in the illustrations. Those range from the ones he co-write with ‘the other one’ (Morpurgo) like Dolphin Boy (taking me back to my early years seeing Beaky the friendly dolphin swim with holidaymakers on Porthminster Beach), to the Soggy books with Philip Moran.
Then there are his own titles, such as Saving Sinbad and The Cat on the Hill, the latter a big hit with my daughters in earlier years, who would point at St Nicholas’ Chapel on The Island and ask, ‘Cat on the Hill, Dad?’ You can also add to that the story anthologies, like The Little People’s Pageant of Cornish Legends with Eric Quayle. Not far down the road was the location for Cornish poet and writer Charles Causley’s The Mermaid of Zennor, with Foreman illustrations, and this fine artist (so to speak) even transported the Alice in Wonderland tales to his beloved Penwith peninsula. In short, he’s not one to be typecast. You can tell its his work, but he’s certainly no one-trick pony.
“I was lucky, because I didn’t study illustration, but fine art, and back in the day the first thing you had to learn was how to draw, having to know anatomy and so forth. That enables you to take on a wider range of work, and my early days involved working for newspapers, having to be up with what’s happening in the world and able to draw virtually any situation. And that’s been a Godsend, meaning I can duck and dive between different kinds of books.”
What’s more, I’m still discovering new (to me) Michael Foreman titles, and at the Harris learned about The Tale of Ali Pasha, based on the true story of a 21-year-old seaman caught up in the hell of Gallipoli during the Great War, who befriends a tortoise.
“That’s a case in point – the story of one of the bus drivers who came in to my Mum’s shop, of him as a young man.”
So how many books has he illustrated? Did he lose count long ago?
“I’ve lost count, but it’s around 300, I think.”
As it turns out, Michael’s eldest son Mark followed his lead, this senior university lecturer in illustration in Falmouth also a published writer/illustrator. How about his younger lads?
“One’s a commercial diver in Cornwall, but was always the wild one, always surfing! His little girls love the ocean also, and it’s become his element. Then my youngest son’s a graphic designer for Mulberry, with fashion shows in London, Paris, New York … he’s a bit of a globetrotter too.”
Is your wife Louise an artist or writer?
“No, she’s just someone I fancied in a bar one night in Covent Garden! Actually, she’s virtually my manager, my agent, and everything, and was trained as a secretary so she’s brilliant at all that.”
As for his own wanderlust, what arguably grew out of a Royal College of Arts scholarship travelling America, sparked something of a passion for environmental issues and conflict resolution the world over. And I put it to Michael that he’s an old hippie really.
“I predate the hippies really!”
More beatnik territory?
“Well, it’s kind of Ban the Bomb, you know.”
And that message hasn’t changed?
“Well, it just gets more alarming, doesn’t it. It’s just horrifying, all over the world. You see every day children in terrible situations.”
Perhaps the world needs a few more of those ‘rainbow doves’ of his, more than ever right now.
“Yes. I just don’t know where it’s going to go.”
Books like the Bosnia-set A Child’s Garden: A Story of Hope, the Chile-set Mia’s Story, and his most recent publication, The Seeds of Friendship, tackling the refugee crisis, seem to sum up Michael’s world view.
“That’s very true, but having the opportunity to write my own stories I’ll have maybe three or four ideas at any one time and go with the one I feel most important or most pressing, which tends to be the one you’re most concerned about.
“Also, these are stories I find aren’t really being written by others enough. There are plenty of stories about cuddly things and silly things – snot, poo and bogeys. They tend to do rather well, with drawings looking like they’ve been done by children who can’t draw very well. Scribbled. But I think there’s a need for something else.”
Without getting too analytical, I wonder how much of a part in his interest in those fleeing war comes from his own unsettled start to life, growing up in a time of peril and ruin. The previous war had damaged his own father’s health, and he lost his uncles. And but for the love of his mother and so many around his Suffolk village, he might well have ended up shipped off elsewhere himself, a refugee boy and evacuee.
“That’s very true, and several of my schoolfriends were evacuated from cities to places they thought would be safer, when in fact it wasn’t really much safer. But many of them stayed and I’m still in touch with them. In fact I had a message from one yesterday, who I hadn’t seen for a long time.”
Having mentioned his uncles’ sacrifice in the Great War and his love of football, that brings me on to War Game, Michael’s re-telling of 1914’s impromptu Christmas Truce football match between German and British troops in No Man’s Land. And among the Harris exhibition’s drawings are several of football games across the world – from Ellis Island, New York, to the Yucatan. Is this sport as a unifying force?
“Absolutely, and will be more apparent in the next book, with a little section about football around the world – on street corners, beaches … Wherever there’s a ball, there’s a game.”
Michael loves his music too, and when I mentioned a photograph of him playing saxophone in the exhibition, he told me he played trumpet in a jazz band at art school, a period in which he got to know the likes of artists David Hockney and Sir Peter Blake, plus Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts.
“I’ve seen Charlie this last year, bumping into him in Chelsea. I knew his wife as a lodger. We were at art school together, with Charlie at another but coming round to see the girlfriend!”
Michael’s travels have taken him from the Arctic to China and from Siberia to New Zealand, co-creating a book in the latter nation with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, based on traditional Maori legends. Then there was work with Madhur Jaffrey in India, Edna O’Brien in Ireland, and many more, for an artist who has also illustrated classics by the Brothers Grimm, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde.
Back in Cornwall, he also illustrated Daphne du Maurier’s Classics of the Macabre in 1987. Did he get to meet her?
“I did actually, because we had to sign that edition together. She died shortly after that, so it was very fortunate I did see her at that point.”
It’s not all been success, and apparently legendary children’s writer Roald Dahl was unimpressed with Michael’s ‘fat Willy Wonka’ in his illustrations for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As he put it in A Life in Pictures, ‘I had to redraw all the fat Willies. Roald turned to Quentin (Blake) after that. The rest is history.’
He certainly clicked with ‘the other one’ though, Michael Morpurgo, for whom the love and respect is clearly mutual. Mr Morpurgo writes some lovely things about him in the foreword of A Life in Pictures, and Mr Foreman certainly loves working with such a great writer. Does that help the ideas come into his head on that first read?
“Yes, you get them as you read it. He writes good pictures in his stories.”
Yet it appears that Michael took a little persuasion to realise War Boy might be more than just a story for his own children. Was there similar reticence suggesting A Life in Pictures for publication?
“No, it’s flattering really. I’m just grateful there are publishers around who do such a nice job. The idea of doing War Boy was through me boring a publisher with stories from those days. He said, ‘Write them down!’ So I did.”
It turns out, according to Michael Morpurgo’s foreword to A Life in Pictures, that the Devon-based author’s A Medal for Leroy, Farm Boy, Rainbow Bear and Billy the Kid were the Suffolk lad’s ideas too, although his namesake’s not taking the credit.
“Sometimes, talking to Michael during one book, we talk about what we’d like to do next, and we’re not sure who had the initial idea. It just kind of grows through discussions.”
When it comes to the writer/illustrators of today, I can think of maybe only two contemporaries who can match him – namely Shirley Hughes and Judith Kerr. When I mention this, he tells me only saw Judith a few days before. Does anyone else spring to mind for him?
“That’s a difficult one, because there aren’t many – I’m older than most of them! But someone like Chris Riddell, because he can really draw. I remember seeing him when he was a student in Brighton, knowing then this was a talent. So he’s the obvious one.”
Michael has worked closely with Terry Jones since the early ‘80s, including the two of them travelling together in France. There seemed to be a special kinship there from the start, even though Michael describes Terry’s reaction to some of his work as ‘he stares at it like a child staring at a dead pet’. Yet that partnership is now seemingly in doubt following the sad announcement of Terry’s dementia diagnosis.
“He rang a while ago, within the last six months, saying he couldn’t be doing any more writing, because he couldn’t find the words. That was a real shock.”
I mention that there’s a lovely photograph of the two of them together in A Life in Pictures, and they look like brothers.
“That’s true, and I feel a bit like that with the other Michael. Quite apart from the work we do together, there’s a bond.”
Is Michael a keen reader?
“Frankly, life’s so busy and full, finding time to read when not researching something, so reading for fun is a real luxury. If I’m going on a journey I tend not to take anything to read, because I like to daydream.”
War Game was made into an animated film, as was 1996’s The Little Reindeer. Any others in the pipeline?
“No, although I’d like the call from Mr Spielberg! But just looking at my bookshelves I feel that’s a lot of work. Whatever else comes along is just jam on it really.”
Will he go to see Raymond Briggs’ Ethel and Ernest when it hits the big screen?
“I haven’t been to the cinema in around 10 years. I don’t like all the popcorn. I like to watch things quietly, away from the crowds. But I like Raymond. I’ve known him a very long time.”
One of Michael’s art school mentors was painter and pioneering author/illustrator Edward Ardizzone. I mention him in the same masterful company as Ernest Shepard, the illustrator of AA Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books.
“Yes, and particularly Ardizzone and the drawings he did during the war. I like reportage drawings as well as those of the imagination. They were old school, they were taught properly and made a very good record of where and when they lived.”
Among Ardizzone’s tips to his young Suffolk student was one about the best way to draw horses. He’s since mastered that, but is there anything he still struggles with?
“All sorts of things, including one I’m doing at the moment. Every book has its challenges, such as getting characters to be consistent all the way through. You look at what you did the day before and think you could do that better, and hope you see these things before they get printed. Then it’s too late.”
In A Life in Pictures, Michael writes about fortuitously meeting art tutor Tom Hudson in his village. Is he a believer in fate, serendipity, faith, whatever he wants to call it?
“I’m not sure if I believe in it, but it certainly turned my life’s direction. It was just extraordinary.”
If that chance had never come about, does he think he could ever have happily worked as a full-time fisherman, be it in Suffolk or Cornwall?
“Well, one of my brothers did, and then went into car maintenance. But I’m such an impractical character. I couldn’t really have made a living out of anything other than this. It was just about meeting that man, that day.”
Michael writes so evocatively of his beloved Cornwall, from his very first holiday there with his young family in 1961, the year of The General, staying in Nancledra. And he was soon hooked.
“Well, Cornwall is a magical place, one I first learned of from Pop the sailor, a friend of our family during the Second World War, who was from Mevagissey and told me stories of smugglers, pirates and shipwrecks. So yes, I still settle down in front of Poldark on a Sunday evening and take in those wonderful coastal vistas and crashing seas. You know from going there yourself what a magical place it is. It’s timeless. Apart from the pasties and tourists and everything, you can set all kinds of stories there. The landscape doesn’t change. It’s stunning in places.”
I think you proved that by having the Mock Turtles in your depiction of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books on the shore at Marazion.
“Well, yes! Very observant!”
Michael’s former studio home in St Ives previously belonged to renowned artist Ben Nicholson, former husband of acclaimed sculptor Dame Barbara Hepworth.
“Ben moved to Switzerland with his new wife, renting the house out to another painter. When he died, his second wife wanted it to go to someone sympathetic to the property, leaving the keys with a local gallery owner. That’s how I got to see it. It was a tumbledown shack really, but that was the deal when it was bought – that the studio would be rebuilt.”
While Michael only moved to St Ives in the early 1980s, I wondered if he heard many tales about the previous generation of artists in town.
“Some were still there – like Terry Frost and Roger Hilton, but Ben Nicholson had moved to Switzerland with his new wife after he left Barbara Hepworth.”
Did he find any hidden artwork when the studio was renovated?
“The builders found what we’re convinced is a little ‘Hepworth’, a stone off the beach she cut, put a hole in the bottom, ready to be mounted. But we can’t get provenance on it, so just kept it!
He may not be getting down to St Ives quite as much now, but he told me his five and three-year-old granddaughters love listening to his stories, as was previously the case with his sons and then his older grandchildren.
“Yes, and they also give me ideas for stories. When our boys were smaller, just by seeing what they did and what they were interested in and got excited about, would give me ideas.
“I was one of three brothers and had three sons, and now we’re blessed with granddaughters, with quite a different reaction. And all my grandchildren are a delight.”
- With thanks to Joan Fussell and all at the Harris Museum & Gallery, Preston; Victoria Martin at the Harris Library, Preston; Stuart Ellis at Seven Stories; and Hannah at Pavilion Books.
For writewyattuk’s 2014 feature on Seven Stories, Once Upon a Tyne, head here, and to see what’s on at Newcastle‘s national centre for children’s books in the coming months, including the new Michael Morpurgo – A Lifetime in Stories exhibition, head here. Meanwhile, for information about exhibitions and events at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, head here.