A FORTUITOUS ENCOUNTER
Brian and his publishers
On 17th March 2017 in Oxford, at the opening of Wild About Colour, an exhibition curated six months after Brian’s death to celebrate his “extraordinary contribution to the world of children’s illustration”, Helen Mortimer, his former editor at Oxford University Press, addressed the guests with the following words: “The wonderful images that surround us here this evening are a visual testament to the fruitful and creative collaboration between Brian and Oxford University Press which spanned more than five decades.”
During that time he had published 82 books with them.
We need to go back to 1957 to understand how his career suddenly took off so blazingly. Along side Brian’s undeniable artistic gift, meetings, relationships and technical circumstances were to play an important role in his taking off.
Three-way colour separation
“The fifties picture books,” wrote British critic and librarian Elaine Moss, “were, in essence, line-work with simple, almost flat colour, laid over it. Artists… had to make their own ‘separations’ of the colours in their pictures so that the printer could then make plates from these, ink them with the relevant colours, then print the plates, one on top of the other, to form the colour pages of the book.”
Brian remembers working in this way: “When I started designing book wrappers there was no full colour printing, everything had to be done in three colours. This meant that I had to do a separate drawing for each colour and each drawing had to be precisely over-printed in what is called overlays.”
An example of three way colour separation, here for the cover of The Knights of King Midas, by Paul Berna
“By the mid-sixties however,” continued Elaine, “a technological process that separated colours in the artist’s work electronically made the ‘new’ picture book possible. The artist could use any mixture of colours – shades of green or purple or orange - knowing that the machine would separate these for him into large or small dots of the primary black, cyan, magenta and yellow - in much the same way that heavy and light dots ‘shade’ newspaper photographs.” According to Douglas Martin of The Royal Society of Arts, who would later write at length about Brian and his work, electronic colour separation was ‘a crucial emancipation’ for the world of picture books.
Born in 1919 and herself the daughter of a printer, Mabel Edith George came to Oxford University Press in 1946. She was employed as a production assistant. After two years she became a production manager, a post she held for eight years. Her promotion to head of department was unusual as there were few female managers anywhere at the time, and in that respect Oxford University Press was no exception. Most editors come from a literary background and garner information about printing and book production techniques as they go along. Mable George however knew all there was to know about paper and ink and printing processes. Commonly known as Miss George, Brian recalls her as being a “slight, grey-haired and soft-spoken person who was very shy except when it came to books. in that field she was a demon!”
“I thought, why should we not introduce little children to genuine artists?”
In the book The History of Oxford University Press Vol III Mabel George says of one of her priorities “I thought, why should we not introduce little children to genuine artists, expressing themselves with power and subtlety in their own picture books? At that time the role of artist was simply to illustrate the writings of authors, for which they received a flat fee.” Mabel’s idea was to put the artist on the same business footing as the writer and on a royalty payment basis. All she needed was to find the right artists - three at least. Then “… into my office one day, out of the blue, walked Mr. Wildsmith with a portfolio of abstract paintings. I was struck at once by the glorious freedom and unconventionality of his use of colour. Here was colour that would excite any child … I saw a young man … enthusiastic, eager to have a chance to show his skill, with a fire and independence that made me think at once that I had found my first picture book artist.” Mabel had recently made contact with an Austrian fine art printer, Brüder Rosenbaum, who was used to reproducing and printing to the highest standards such as those required by museums and the world of fine arts.
Sympathetic to Miss George’s plans, the firm was enthusiastic aout printing for her. After she had given Brian some black and white illustrations and a few colour jackets to do, as an experiment, she commissioned him to paint fourteen colour plates for a new edition of the the Tales From the Arabian Nights. The result was quite extraordinary and perhaps a little avant-garde for the likes of one Times Literary Supplement reviewer who vomited his conservatism thus: ‘We now descend to the lowest depths with Brian Wildsmith’s vicious attack on the Arabian Nights. These seemingly aimless scribbles which do duty for drawings are splashed lavishly and untidily with bright smudges of paint. They decorate, perhaps, but they do not interpret; they may puzzle, but they do not excite wonder. Art they may be, but illustrations they are not.’
"Take no notice Brian” retorted Miss George, “We are the Oxford University Press. We make up our own mind here. It’s that review which further convinces me that in you we have something special.”
“Children love it!”
Knowing there was a real need for an ABC of quality, Mabel suggested to Brian that he make it. By now she knew it would be special and watched the work build up, discussing its inherent problems, daring to hope for future books. To share the costs by joining in the print run she brought in an American publisher, Franklin Watts Inc. of New York. As she recalled, “it was a time of great excitement… would little children accept Wildsmith’s vibrant, unsettling colours which flew in the face of all previously accepted standards for the picture book?… Publication date came … The reviews were alive and enthusiastic, Oxford University Press’ salesmen were optimistic, the shops were buying … (but) were children accepting the book?… At last word came back: ‘Children love it!’ It was a wonderful moment! Wildsmith picture books were launched.”
“The timing was perfect” Brian recalls and the ABC won the Kate Greenaway Medal for 1962, against “no competition,” and changed the face of picture books.
For her editorial achievements, as well as her outstanding contribution to children's literature, Mabel George was appointed an MBE in 1969. She retired in 1974, ending a twenty eight year era at Oxford University Press. In A Hundred Years of Oxford University Press Children’s Books, Ron Heapy, who was to succeed her, wrote, “One of the reasons Mabel retired early was that she saw the writing on the wall - Oxford University Press London would be closed and the whole business centralized in Oxford. Mabel didn’t want to live in Oxford. She foresaw that the age of the computer was on its way and that she’d get less freedom in the new management structure.” She died on 14th June 2004. Brian and Ron were together at her funeral.
Brian always acknowledged his good fortune in starting his career in earnest in an era that offered unprecedented scope for illustrators. He regarded Mabel George as his “guardian angel, the one who recognised the glorious potential for rich colours in the new separation techniques, who was not only imaginative but also practical and shrewd…” wrote Stephanie Nettell in an interview for the Guardian in the late 80’s.
Mabel had championed Brian from the start of his career. She had ‘groomed him’ for three years in the discipline of book making without him knowing it. In a written exchange between her and Douglas Martin, at the time he was doing the research for The Telling Line, his illustrated biography of Brian, she had made it quite clear: “Our interest in the picture book was not centred upon the artist so much as upon the child. Creating a picture book is quite a different undertaking for an artist than illustrating a novel. In the latter case the author carries the book and the artist is secondary. With the picture book the artist employs his creative talent to speak directly to the child. Not every artist has a natural sympathy with this age group, many could not simplify either composition or colour to a point where they were attractive and comprehensible to the youngest children. In keeping Brian busy with black and white illustrations I was watching for the moment when I felt he had mastered the discipline of the page and had also become attuned to the demands of his audience. There was danger in this thorough approach - it was the constant fear another publisher would lure away the artist with the promise of a picture book before I considered him ready, but that was the risk and the excitement of publishing. I am happy to say my fears were not realised.”
Following the publication of the severe, and particularly negative review from The Times Literary Supplement, Brian felt sure that Oxford University Press would no longer be interested in his work. “Well, I thought, that's the end of you Wildsmith! But I hadn't reckoned on Oxford’s strength. I think most publishers would have said ‘go away,’ but Oxford really are publishers. They make a decision and they stick to their decision. I will be eternally grateful to them for it. They showed courage as well. Producing books is a two-way relationship: the publisher puts in his own capital and you put in your talents … If I miss a deadline then it has a knock-on effect on them. We have a wonderful relationship: they trust my judgement and I trust theirs. So we’re very happy partners. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve always been in the right time and moment and my ideas have slotted into that.”
Now “launched and sustained in his publishing career through an initial flash of editorial insights,” wrote Douglas Martin, “Brian went on producing the books he wanted with Mabel for twenty years, 25 in total.”
ANTONY KAMM AND RON HEAPY
Antony Kamm was to succeed Mabel for a short period between 1977 and 1979, before Ron Heapy, “a man of huge energy and explosive enthusiasms” became, according to his obituary in The Times, the “guru” who “oversaw the success of the Children’s Books Department at Oxford University Press. As written in The History of Oxford University Press Vol III, “The once prestigious Oxford University Press Children’s list was foundering in the late seventies but under Ron’s idiosyncratic and theatrical leadership the next twenty years would see a tremendous re-flowering of talent and energy. He took the Oxford University Press list by the scruff of the neck and sent it into cultural orbit on behalf of children everywhere. He had an utterly inimitable quick-fire delivery. No time wasted on self-regarding discussion. It was ‘get up and let’s get on with helping to create the best possible books for children, or don’t bother at all.’”
Brian respected him immensely and said he was “a wonderful person to work with.” He considered himself to be fortunate in their “creative working relationship.” Inversely Ron had written of him: “He’s so full of invention, imagination, fun and mystery that you never quite know what he's going to get up to next. Whenever Brian flies into Oxford with finished artwork it's always a great day for us. Everyone stops what they're doing and crowds into my office. I'm always astonished: I've been listening to him over the phone for months, seen faxes but suddenly here it is. I wasn't expecting this, not like this....Brian continues to astonish me all through the days all through the years …” Together the two men, who were to remain friends for many years, collaborated on 50 odd titles including the split-page books designed to add narrative flow to Pelican, 1982, Daisy, 1984 and Give a Dog a Bone, 1985, the huge-selling Cat on The Mat series and the religious titles.
Ron retired in 2000.
When his last editor, Helen Mortimer, started at the Press in 2004 she remembers being “lucky enough to join that blessed group of publishers and editors that had or still included Liz Cross, Lara Hancock, and Kathy Webb Mabel George, Ron Heapy. Everyone who worked with Brian at Oxford University Press was truly inspired by him and simply glad to have known him. His illustrations brought an incomparable rich beauty to our lives and we are honoured to be his publisher. As an author he was unfailing in his loyalty to the Press and as a man he was unfailing in his thoughtfulness – always asking after our own welfare and that of our nearest and dearest whenever he was in touch. We all remember many conversations where we noted that lovely, lively twinkle of Yorkshire wit in his voice. Above all, he was so humble about his towering talent.”
In a later email exchange with Helen Mortimer when preparing the writing for this site, she commented: “Brian’s last book, The Road To Bethlehem, was already published when I joined Oxford University Press in November 2004 so sadly I didn’t get the chance to work with him on that. But I did work on various reissues and was in contact with him quite regularly about these to let him know about the plans and send him the suggested new cover designs and so forth. I remember… if I spoke to him on the phone, how he’d always end the conversation by saying that he would have a glass of wine for me out on the terrace that evening. A touching gesture that was just so characteristic of Brian’s genuine kindness and friendship.”
In early November 2017, Helen announced to us the good news that Oxford University Press wanted to print smaller format editions, with sumptuous new cloth-bound covers of A Christmas Story, The Twelve Days of Christmas and The Easter Story. These have been available in the shops since September 2018.
On the Oxford University Press website page for Brian Wildsmith, one can read: Brian "believes that children like good illustrations and well-designed books, and are much better able to understand ‘difficult’ art than some adults acknowledge. Picture books give an opportunity for a marriage between painting and illustrating and the challenge of designing each page is very stimulating. Beautiful picture books of the right kind are vitally important in subconsciously forming a child's visual appreciation, which will bear fruit later in life.” The publisher further comments: “Brian’s work is both provocative and stimulating and he has a world-wide reputation as one of the greatest living children's illustrators…”
"His loyalty to Oxford University Press,” wrote Douglas Martin in The Telling Line, “has been outstanding. They quickly became and have remained his exclusive publishers in England. Brian’s motto might well be ‘Loyalties and Royalties’: If you're good enough you earn your royalties, if you're not you don't deserve them.”
FRANKLIN WATTS Inc.
In 1942, Franklin Watts, founded his New York publishing company, Franklin Watts, Inc based on Lexington Avenue. He sold it to Grolier in 1957 and he and his wife Helen Hoke Watts moved to London to establish Franklin Watts Ltd. in 1969, a joint venture with Grolier. In 1976 he left London and returned to N.Y. to found The Franklin Book Corporation. He died in 1978 aged 74. Helen Hoke, who wrote close to 100 children's books also set up and ran children’s book divisions in five publishing companies. She died in 1990 at the age of 86.
Once the art for Brian’s ABC was finished, Oxford University Press sought other publishers to join in the venture in order to lower the cost of each book. At the time Helen Hoke Watts, Franklin Watts’ vice president and director of international projects, happened to be staying in London and Mabel George showed her the book. She was so enthusiastic about it, that she traded in her life insurance policy to buy the rights for the USA and publish it. The book was a success there too, also receiving great reviews. The Watts were to remain Brian’s American publishers for the next fifteen years, during which time they published 21 of his titles. They were also to remain great friends.
BETTINA HÜRLIMANN - Atlantis Verlag
USE PIC OF SISSES IN FRONT OF SHOP IN SWISSLAND
Bettina Hürlimann (b.1909 - d.1983) is known in the world of children’s books as the editor and publisher of many outstanding books for children that were published by Atlantis Verlag since the early 1930’s. She is also recognised as an international authority on the subject of children’s book illustration. In one of her own books: Seven Houses, My life with Books, Bodley Head 1976 she wrote: “… Mabel George, the highly capable chief editor of the Children's Book Department of Oxford University Press brought me to London on a visit that was to have far-reaching consequences. Lying on Mabel George’s desk I saw a wonderfully vivid picture of a jungle. A glowing golden lion was looking straight out of the picture at me gazing enticingly into my face.
“This was how I encountered Brian Wildsmith and his first large-format picture-book, The Lion and the Rat. Since then I have been his publisher in German speaking countries and have translated 12 of his picture books. Wildsmith, who was then 32, had found his true style which he refined and varied in each new picture book. His aim was not just to tell children's fables … he was also very much an artistic educationalist. The world of form and colour he offered children alternated between a certain scrupulous exactitude, especially in his pictures of animals, whose beauty enchanted him and the most cubist shapes of their surroundings. I was not surprised to find that the artist who created such beautiful books, illustrations and posters was very musical and a good pianist. His work springs from living with children, as well as from a deep conviction that it is a worthwhile aim to make beauty and harmony accessible to the modern child and to me this makes his books especially valuable. It requires some courage to live in accordance with such principles these days. Recently there has been some criticism particularly in Germany, though also in England, of Brian Wildsmith's style for the fact that it seldom shows any real divergence from its harmonious norm. If he is tackled on the subject he sticks to his principles, though he is always adding new elements to his work, the products of his keen observation. How convincingly he can open the eyes of a child to the beauty of a bird, fish or the bark of a tree, without ever being unimaginatively representational. It is likely that an artist’s publisher recognises his merits more clearly than anyone else. I often visited London to see Brian at work.
Our liveliest discussions - and certain lively differences of opinion too - were about Brian Wildsmith’s Bible Stories where we also had textual problems to make the coproduction more difficult. The particular appeal of this book is in Brian's exciting use of line in what, for him, is a new way, but one which does not detract from the richness of his painting. It is a wonderfully distinct and vigourous line and the glowing colours are set in it as they are in a medieval stained-glass window: the technique is just right for the theme. The truly religious feeling that emanates from this version of the Bible for children is absolutely genuine.”
Star Bright Books, founded in 1994 in Harlem and relocated to Cambridge, Mass., in 2011, is an independent publishing company dedicated to producing the highest quality books for children. We recognise that to inspire a life-long love of books, it is important for children to begin building that relationship at the earliest possible age. We believe that all children should see themselves in print and we make a concerted effort to include children of all colours, nationalities, and abilities in our books … In pursuit of that goal, we publish engaging books in twenty languages, many of which are are bilingual.”
Deborah Shine, the founding publisher of Star Bright Books, grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa under apartheid, a system she fled the day after she turned 21. She kindly wrote the following words for this site:
‘I have been a long time admirer of Brian’s books as I read them to my children in the early 1960’s prior to selling them in the children’s bookstore I ran through into the 1970’s. I was an editor at Kestrel, the children’s division of Penguin Books in the UK, Random House and then Checkckerboard Press, a division of Macmillan in New York, before founding the Star Bright Books in New York in 1991.
When I learned many of Brian’s works were going out of print, I reached out to him and brought his out of print books back to a new generation of young readers. Brian really changed the way children’s books were illustrated … having his books on our list gave Star Bright Books ‘class.’
From our first meeting at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1994 we remained dear friends who supported each other’s work. When Star Bright Books was barely 7 years old, in 1998, one very good thing happened. California’s First Five Program selected Brian Wildsmith’s Animals to Count as the book to be included in their ‘Welcome Baby’ package. Welcome Baby provides L.A. County pregnant women and new moms with information, support and a trusted partner to help you through the journey of pregnancy and early parenthood.
What children learn from Brain’s books is precious. His books teach children to be kind, compassionate and inclusive, values Star Bright Books aim to present in their books.
At many library and trade conferences where we exhibit our books we often meet people saying, “I remember my mother reading his books to me! I love his art. Just amazing. I am glad I found you. I am going to read it to my child.”
All titles published by Star Bright Books are listed in the Bibliography menu.
Brian Wildsmith’s Bible Stories is planned for re-edition in February 2020.
Brian’s Animals to Count has sold over a million copies.’ Publishers Weekly, 2014
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers began in 1995 as an imprint of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, an independent, family-owned publisher of religious books, located in Grand Rapids, Michigan and operating since 1911. “At EBYR we have been delighted in publishing Brian’s books because his stories and his rich, vivid art offer an exquisite introduction to some of the most significant stories of the Christian faith. His books are timeless—perfect for families to share with each other for years.”