In Conversation with Robert Ingpen

In Conversation with Robert Ingpen
Talks / Lecture

Recording date: 
23 October 2016

Louise Maher, ABC journalist, producer and presenter joins master illustrator and storyteller Robert Ingpen AM as he leads us on a journey into the magical landscapes of his own imagination, revealing the places, stories and people that inspired him along the way.

Transcript

Transcript of ‘Author Talk with Robert Ingpen’
Speakers: Anne-Marie Schwirtlich (AMS), Louise Maher (LM), Robert Ingpen (RI), Jane Jolly (JJ)
Location: National Library of Australia
Date: 23/10/2016  

AMS:       They look comfortable, don’t they? Distinguished guests and dear friends, good afternoon and welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, the Library’s Director General. As we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land that we are now privileged to call home. 

Today is a celebration of Robert Ingpen’s work as a master illustrator and storyteller. Robert’s new publication, Wonderlands, beguiles us into the landscapes of the classic stories he has so famously illustrated, Neverland, The River Bank, Oz and Alice’s Wonderland as well as into the magical landscapes of his imagination and the more real but no less magical scenery of his own beloved Australia. 

In 1986 Robert was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for his contribution to children’s literature and he has been recognised with membership of the Order of Australia and we’ve just been joking out there that his lapel pin is actually a surreptitious microphone. Robert’s astonishing creative vision has breathed life into more than 100 books and delighted countless children and adults around the world. In recent years we have been elated that Robert agreed to create exquisite illustrations for NLA Publishing. These include Looking for Clancy and the award-winning Tea and Sugar Christmas written by Jane Jolly. Robert has collaborated with Jane again with Radio Rescue to be published next month. Robert has just celebrated his 80th birthday. We are honoured to be able to celebrate a new book, a great career and a significant birthday with him this afternoon. 

On the podium Robert is joined by ABC Triple 6 radio’s Louise Maher, someone who I’m sure if you’re not familiar with her face you are with her voice and her intellect because you will have heard Louise interviewing people of all sorts on Triple 6. And so with that introduction of them both I ask you to welcome Robert Ingpen and Louise Maher. 

[Applause] 

LM:      Thank you so much, Anne-Marie. We didn’t talk about this before we started but that’s exactly how I was going to introduce today’s session too, as a celebration, as a celebration of Robert’s very significant birthday and happy belated birthday for the 13th ...

RI:        Thank you. 

LM:      ... as a celebration of illustrations, a celebration of storytelling and also as a celebration of the imagination and I’d like to start by asking you, each one of you to imagine that you hold a parcel in your hands, maybe on your lap. It may be big, it may be tiny, it may be covered in brown wrapping or brightly coloured paper, it may be tied with a ribbon, a piece of string, secured with sticky tape. It’s your parcel, it’s your imagination and over the course of the next hour you’ll be slowly unwrapping this parcel layer by layer and I wonder what you’re going to find inside. Robert, can you explain why wrapping and unwrapping, what’s real, what’s not real, what’s fact, what’s fiction, why that is a crucial aspect of your storytelling? 

RI:        Well I can try to, Louise. I believe that at the heart of storytelling is a combination of what we know to be real and true and what we love to imagine in the form of fantasy or something that is just something we have dreamt up as a possibility of how things ... we would like to be although we know probably it’s never going to be the case. And for a person who makes a life of trying to communicate story in any form at all, whether it by written word or picture, you have to consider the notion of the combination of fact and fiction and its role it plays in people’s understanding about a real or an imagined world. If you were to take a piece of science that is considered by knowledgeable scientists as being a fact and they want to make that fact available to a wider world who aren’t scientists and can’t possibly know about how this fact came to be it’s possible to help the wider world understand more about that fact by wrapping it in layers of compelling fiction, inventions that in the unwrapping will finally reveal that fact but giving it a much better chance of being understood. 

LM:      Yes, that’s the sort of work you did when you were with the CSIRO? 

RI:        This is what I did then or was experimenting with doing then, I didn’t quite understand what I was doing in those days because it was a long time ago when I was with the CSIRO and that was back in the 1960s. But now I’ve come to realise what I should have realised then, that was what we were trying to do and the wrappings that I invented might have been more productive in that they were understood by the unwrapping to give the fact of science a better chance to be used. 

LM:      Can you give us an example of that? 

RI:        In the Division of Entomology here in Canberra I was working with the person responsible ... he was actually the Chief of the Division, Doug Waterhouse. Some of you in the audience may know of Doug Waterhouse or may remember him, remarkable scientist who had his work devoted to biological control whereby you were to do away with chemicals that you sprayed for killing pests and insects and things and you were to study through science the workings of nature so that you could intervene with nature in some way to improve the quality of a product through biological control. Now this is a concept which is very, very hard for people to ... and public people to understand but it was very important, they did understand because pest control by sprays was proving to be a problem. So I invented with Doug a painting, a visualisation of two hands that were the hands of a puppeteer over a landscape, a blow ... each finger was tied a string and attached to the string was a ... various method that he and his other entomologist scientists had devised for controlling some sort of problem like codling moth in apple or something like that. And that this picture, a dramatic picture of puppeteer’s hands over a landscape manipulating was a device that was completely fictional ‘cause you couldn’t actually do that, it’s obvious but it was the wrapping that was needed to have people understand that what the scientist was doing was puppeteering the world around with these new techniques. 

LM:      And also to draw them in with a familiar image. 

RI:        That ... the image had to be familiar, it had to be detailed, it had to be colourful, it had to be all the things that an image has got to be and this is for adults, mind you, it wasn’t easy ... 

LM:      Not for kids. 

RI:        Kids are easy but adults are so hard. So that was an example of that but in entirely the opposite to your answer to the ... your question was that you invariably find yourself having to explain some fiction that more adults than children had problems with. Something that just doesn’t exist like the city of Atlantis. How do you convey an image to people of what the myth of that is all about? You must I believe wrap it in layers of fact. You can know that certain things can or can’t happen in nature. And you know that Atlantis never existed but in order for you to embrace the notion that is contained in the myth and the fancy and the folktale of Atlantis you have to get close to understanding it. And therefore wrapping it in facts is a way of revealing it as being more than just an idea but something worth thinking about and being curious about. 

LM:      Let’s go back to where you get your ideas from because you have said that we are born with two brains or two kinds of brain and over time we’re encouraged by our parents, our teachers to favour one brain more than the other, the everyday brain as opposed to the reserve brain where we imagine and dream but you manage to keep alive your reserve brain, you manage to keep it healthy and firing. Tell us more about that. 

RI:        Well I’m not sure everybody understands the concept of us being born with two brains ... 

LM:      Yeah, let’s talk about the concept. 

RI:        ... this is what happens. Now we’re dealing with fiction that’s got to be wrapped now so that you can understand what I’m talking about. The fiction is we’re born with two brains, the first brain is your main brain like the main petrol tank of the car that you used to own, the reserve brain is that reserve tank that you switched over to when you realised that you’d run out of petrol and you were far from a petrol station and you need to get there. Reserve tank ‘cause people remember reserve tanks. Well we are born with that facility and we are allowed to use it until we’re adolescent, until our parents or our schoolteachers or somebody says look, you got to get real now, put away that brain as you use to take you into the forest, the wonderful imaginary forest where all your dreaming is done and where all your making of stories and your imagining is done and stick with your main brain because that’s going to add up and subtract and get you through life and do the things that’s going to earn you a living and everything and boring. 

I wasn’t obedient as a ... and I decided well look, I’d pretend that I was doing as I was told and I just hung onto this reserve brain for longer than I knew it was going to be comfortable. But I got away with ... 

LM:      Were you conscious of doing that, though? Were you conscious that you were ... 

RI:        No, of course I wasn't. I’m only wrapping now, you see. You’ve got to know what’s wrapped and what’s at the heart of what’s going on. So I found that once I’d done an art course and learned how to draw and colour in and do those sorts of things I had engaged my main brain ‘cause it was going to give me a career, a way of earning money, a way of getting through life. Got to the CSIRO and worked with scientists and realised that they were operating on a reserve brain ... 

LM:      Because they were curious, they were inquisitive, they were imagining. 

RI:        They were curious and they were imagining and they just couldn’t help themselves but engage that other brain that took them to places where we all would dearly love to go but we’re too frightened to go because someone told us it wasn’t going to do us any good. Rubbish. And so I’ve been working through life doing what I’ve done, using both brains and now I’ve got to the end of the bit of the main brain which is still roughly there but I'm getting more inclined to use my reserve brain all the time. 

LM:      Well your main brain got you here to this auditorium today ... 

RI:        True. 

LM:      ... so we’re happy about that but you say when you went to art school, to college to learn to draw, you were already drawing, you were drawing a lot as a child ... 

RI:        Yes. 

LM:      ... and you were also learning about stories, is this true? Through a neighbour who had a ... who you thought was reading from a big red book. 

RI:        Yeah. Yeah well this was ... this is true. I grew up under the spell of a neighbour who was actually a professional photographer in Geelong who had a wisdom that was very rare. She was probably more like a white witch than she was like anything else and that she used to read to us from a large book. The book was called Tim Pippin in Giant Land and it was a very big book and it was full of really nonsense stories about giants and things. But she wasn't reading from a book, she was making it up as she turned the pages, pretending to read and she was taking us into territories that were so much better than what any book could have recorded. And I thought this was the most wonderful thing. 

LM:      When did you realise she was making it up and not reading words? 

RI:        Not sure but it didn’t matter, I certainly was aware how powerful it was to be able to communicate, tell stories without any sense of being pressurised or having another agenda or having any sort of special issues, she was just telling us a glorious story. 

LM:      With your first pictures when you were little and you were drawing, I think sometimes on the walls of your house ... 

RI:        Yes. 

LM:      ... were your drawing at that early stage things that you saw or things that you imagined or a combination? 

RI:        The drawings were so bad that remain on the walls or remained for years on the walls of the house where I grew up I couldn’t tell, really ... 

LM:      What they were, really. 

RI:        What they were, I mean they were just ... 

LM:      It was your abstract stage. 

RI:        It was in between the brain stage, there was a space between and I don’t remember, I tried writing, I tried sort of hieroglyphs and things, I suppose, but there was nothing there that had a meaning until I was about seven years old when I drew three drawings from a book that I had managed to read called Peter Pan and Wendy and I don’t ever remember doing these three drawings side by side on a small piece of paper about that long of Peter at the end of Wendy’s bed playing a flute of the treehouse right at the end of the story and of the pirate ship. But my mother saved that story as mothers tended to do and that drawing has been reproduced in Wonderlands, in the last pages of Wonderlands so that I was drawing at quite an early age, things that ... sort of recognisable. 

LM:      When you went ... when you left school and you went to study art you also studied everything you could about making a book. Why was that important to you and what do you ... what did you learnt about making a book? 

RI:        Well it didn’t seem to be important to me at the time although I have always wanted ... always wanted to tell stories and make books and put books together which is not odd because most children want to do that anyway, still, I just kept doing it. But what I was doing was trying to cope with what was happening at art school at ... 

LM:      What was happening? 

RI:        Well they were teaching us to go in three directions and none of which I wanted to go, they wanted you to become a fine artist, a painter with huge ego, they wanted to teach you to make a living being an advertising artist which I felt was a really crazy idea or you had to be a teacher thereby you went ... you did and taught art and I thought well no, that isn’t going to work ‘cause I couldn’t possibly cope with that so nothing else was left until one of the teachers in the school who was an illustrator grabbed me and said look, I think we can cope with you if you don’t make a fuss about it and we’ll teach you art of the book. And I learnt to be an illustrator, I learnt about writing, I learnt about editing, I learnt about typesetting, I learnt about papermaking and binding and the whole deal and I was in heaven. And Angela was across the road at the ... being a librarian so that was more books. We weren’t married then of course but ... so we had books forever somewhere or other. 

LM:      You’ve been described ... this id ... this difference between being an illustrator and an artist I think is interesting and also you’ve been described as someone who doesn't so much as you know draw pictures as tell stories visually. Can you expand on those ideas, those ideas about the difference between being an artist and an illustrator and a drawer of pictures and a visual storyteller? 

RI:        Well yes, there’s a number of things that define the difference, one is that you stand up to be a ... an artist and you sit down to be an illustrator. I think all the rest follows from that but ... no, there’s a serious side and a difference in that to be an illustrator is to be in control of a craft, you have to have your work directed towards a definite end whereas to be painter you ... it’s necessarily the craft, it’s a skill that you have to download from your mind what you think the world should see and if they don’t like it, well too bad. That’s totally different than what an illustrator does, in my view, in that I am a servant to the story. S ... 

LM:      You’re working with parameter ... 

RI:        Yeah. 

LM:      ... working within parameters ...

RI:        Well you’re working ... 

LM:      ... and a servant of the story. 

RI:        Servant to the story and more often than not you're working with a story that has been written down either recently or a long time ago. Fortunately I’ve had the last decade or so being involved with working with people who are long dead ... 

LM:      And tell us about that process because you’re working with them, you don’t want to upset them too much. 

RI:        Oh well you’ve all got the parcel, have you? You know what’s inside the parcel and what’s wrapped around it now we’re working with people that are long dead. Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, all these people haven’t been around for a while but what is around still is the marvellous production of imaginative and creative thinking which we now call our classic literature, particularly for children. And I’ve been privileged to have been involved in making this library of classic books over the last decade whereby I’ve had to try to make illustrations for each of these unabridged stories written long ago so that modern children can look at the pictures, become engaged with the pictures through detail and colour and things and find themselves the space in those pictures that’s left for them to occupy, for their imagination to make sure that I haven’t done with Ratty or Mole what they think is not their impression but I’ve left space for their thoughts still to be contained. And I’ve given ... if I can ... in the picture a chance for them to be curious about what’s going on and being able to move very quickly and easily to the text, to read the text and once reading the text of course because of its classicness of literature they are what we would call hooked and will read the story. They’ll come across another illustration further on in the story and the same process will go on. Now this is not me, the artist, at work, this is the illustrator making pictures for the reader that is work, that’s servant of the story. 

LM:      How does that work when many of these classics have come not just with the classic text but with classic pictures, pictures that people may have recognised from seeing them before? And also if they haven’t seen pictures, if they’ve only heard the story or read the story, they have in their mind pictures of what these characters of the story look like so how do you negotiate that space between the pictures that have already been done that are embedded in people’s minds, the pictures that they have come ... brought out of their own imagination and what you’re giving them with a new set of pictures? 

RI:        Well you do it with difficulty because John Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland started a whole process of major illustrators over a century or two, doing their interpretations of the story and you would think there was nothing left much to be done. Well in fact there’s a whole new world that has come about, not through the story changing or these illustrations being a familiarity, you’ve got a whole new world of children who are going to only embrace the picture if it’s got in it what they have found necessary in their lives through modern videos and television and things like that. I mean Disney has a lot to answer for and a lot to be congratulated for. So a Tenniel black and white illustration in an old copy of Alice in Wonderland isn’t going to do it for a modern ... 

LM:      It’s not going to cut the mustard now. 

RI:        No. The illustrations that for instance Kipling did, his own illustrations for just those stories, as he acknowledged, a mess, he just didn’t understand what he was doing so he wrote very long captions explaining what he couldn’t draw. And that had to be coped with in the edition we did. The illustrations by E A Shepard that he did for Wind in the Willows were wonderful but they were black and white and therefore had limitations for the modern child. It’s all for the reader, it’s not for the maker. And all I could learn from Shepard was a wisdom which I enjoy explaining and that when he had these wonderful characters that had been created in Wind in the Willows where you had Ratty and Moley and Badger and Toad, he envisaged people who had similar characters ... human beings who had similar characters when he started to make his impressions for illustration and I’ve tried the same thing and it was a joy to do that because I had Keith Richards as Ratty in my mind. 

LM:      Yeah, yeah. 

RI:        Toad ... I think I’m safe enough ... Toad was a politician ... 

LM:      I was just going to say please, not a politician. 

RI:        He had to be, didn’t he? 

LM:      Probably. 

RI:        John Howard. And that was a ... what I learnt from Shepard so learn from these illustrators, not from what they drew but how they thought about what they were drawing so I think that may come somewhere to answer your really difficult question. 

LM:      Talking about Alice in Wonderland you had a different challenge with drawing modern illustrations for Alice in Wonderland because Alice as we know does things that are highly advisable for modern children not to do, pick up something that says Drink Me and drink it you know pick up something that says Eat Me and eat it, we don’t want to encourage our children to do that. That way danger lies sometimes so how did you deal with that dilemma in your modern illustrations for Alice? 

RI:        Well I observed as best I can from the position I stand as a ... older person what children of around Alice’s age in the story would have done had they been faced with or when they were faced with a situation that was going to be awkward for them or cause an embarrassment and make them apprehensive. And my observation was ... had to be in their body language because I was drawing pictures of them so you had to show in a picture what they were doing with their bodies and so I observed that when a girl of that age runs into a situation that she’s going to be apprehensive or she’ll put her ... she’ll back off a bit, put her hand up to her face to make sure that nobody sees that she’s apprehensive and then realises that the hand’s up there and she can’t do much about it so she puts the hand up to hide the hand that’s hiding the apprehension. 

And that you may have noticed is what children of that age tend to do without them being conscious of it. I thought well I’ll give this a go and see what happens and some tests were done by people in England who were into children’s literature and the deeper aspects that I couldn’t possibly enter into and they found in testing that this was working, that children were reading the book and seeing as they approached the narrative in the story to where they needed to consider the possibilities of drinking or not drinking, eating or not eating or taking advice from a blue caterpillar on a ... smoking a bong on a mushroom. And that appears time and time again and in Through the Looking Glass too, she uses the same body language. And it may be ... I’m not sure it’s happening but it may be that this is a sign that children are using to be aware of getting advice or being thoughtful when they arrive at something in a story that can’t be altered because we don’t change the stories from originally written but were written at a time when this wasn’t an issue. 

LM:      How mu ... you must have spent a lot of time observing real children in the world but also reading books to help you illustrate stories the way in which ... so that children are going to be hooked by your pictures? 

RI:        I don’t know that I’ve read any more or less than anybody else. 

LM:      No, not read, observed children. 

RI:        No, observed, oh. 

LM:      Yeah, observed children reading. Have you spent a lot of time observing children flicking through books or ..? 

RI:        Look, I try to observe as much as I can, whether it’s children reading or just faces so I can remember the lines so I can draw faces without having to invent them. I do invent faces but I like the lines around eyes and things because they tell you a lot about a person but I’ve really spent a lot of time thinking about is the nature of story and that I once got so absorbed in what was the structure of a folk tale, I actually wrote one. And I’d observed that folk tales generally are passed from generation to generation or person to person orally but in the modern times folk tales have appeared in books and so I wrote a story called The Voyage of the Poppy Kettle and this came from an experience I had with science in Peru with the United Nations ... I don’t want to go into all that in detail but I picked up on some facts that led me to wrap these facts with a fantasy which turned out to be a story and it was done in such a way I hoped that the story wouldn’t stay in the book very long but once read or told would get into the mind of the child or the reader so that they felt they possessed the story and passed it on with modifications such as I had modified in the original factual story that I’d got. 

LM:      And just for those people who aren’t familiar with the story it’s basically about a bunch of tiny hairy Peruvians who sail across the sea in a kettle and end up in Australia. 

RI:        Correct. They’re boat people. The folk tale was designed to be a cautionary tale, I suppose, or something about ... for children about boat people and the phenomenon of having to move from a comfortable home that had been upset by some trauma and move far distances to another new country and settle it and do it with style. Now that was the simple content as you’ve explained of the story ... they had lots of adventures on the way and some of these pictures you’ve seen on the screen have indicated an account of ... with a dragon-like iguana ‘cause the poppy kettle wasn’t much more than that and the hairy Peruvian was only about that size ... 

LM:      And the iguana stroke lizard is huge. 

RI:        Is huge, yeah and what happened was that when they landed eventually in Geelong where all stories tend to end ... these sorts of stories ... they landed in Geelong because in Geelong some facts happened that haven’t been explained years ago. There was found in a cliff in Corio Bay close to where Geelong had just been settled in 1847 some keys, some brass keys. Now those ... in those years there was no way Aboriginals or any people could have had keys and left them there, they were too deep down and these keys were never fully explained. They were kept for a brief while by Governor Latrobe but he was known to be mind ... well he did, he lost things and he lost the keys and that and one or two other factual stories had always intrigued me as a child so when incorporated as part of the wrapping of the fantasy of claypot called the poppy kettle and the hairy Peruvians who were little dolls made of driftwood and air wrapped together by the Inca, these were the elements of a start of something that 35 years later continues. 

They established in 1980 after a fountain had been made in Geelong about ... not very far from where the poppy kettle landed ... a day was declared for children’s ... to celebrate their imagination in Geelong, one day every year in October ... they called it Poppy Kettle Day ... when children came into town having prepared themselves with song and dance and writings and art and all sorts of creative activities to demonstrate their skills of imagination. Now the story of the poppy kettle left the book at about that time and became arguably a folk tale, limited to a region ... story’s almost bonded to Geelong, it won’t go anywhere else because everyone else is scared to touch it ... but it goes on year after year and just last week was the 35th Poppy Kettle Day. 

LM:      That’s amazing, yeah. At this sta ... I have got a stack more questions for you including why aren’t adults’ books illustrated? However at this point I would like to invite people from the audience who may have a question for Robert to pop their hand up and we’ll bring a microphone to you. Yes, this lady here. 

A:         Good afternoon. Can you hear me? 

LM:      Yes, we can. 

RI:        Yes. 

A:         Thank you. One of the bookshops that I actually buy a lot of books from and I have bought a lot of your books, the bookseller told me that you were going to do Aesop’s Fables and I was wondering if that’s a furphy or whether it’s going to happen? 

RI:        A furphy. 

A:         Was really looking forward to it. You wouldn’t consider? 

LM:      Robert is actually ... Robert says he’s not doing any more books, he has a new project which is to do with global warming which you might care to tell us a bit about, Robert. 

RI:        Well I’m not sure that I can safely say it’s to do with global warming but it’s an attempt to draw people towards our natural environment with a more curious approach than the scientific and thoughtful approach that we’re guided by those experts about environment and change tell us we should do. There is a way we can engage our reserve minds to the problem that we obviously face, the real prob ... the fact that environmental change is with us and inevitable and I started years ago and when I was 16 or 17 to draw between high tide and low tide those things that were happening that were being ... brought about a change to something of nature. I was drawing sea shells that were being broken down by the sea or being damaged by the sun ... this vital area between high tide and low tide where it would be impossible for anything to live for long without being traumatised. It’s the place you go to if you want to get the first indications of a change that’s going on in your environment. Now that I’ve finished the main brain career I’m going back with the reserve brain to the sea shores to what I call the marginal world where I’m trying to find treasures that I can illuminate to illustration or painting to show people who are interested how curious nature is if it’s allowed to be freed of the bondage of human ballast. Do I need to explain what human ballast is? I ... 

LM:      I think so, you need to explain to me. 

RI:        Well we have a commitment that us humans are above nature, we look at nature as being that which we can ...

LM:      Alter. 

RI:        ... manipulate and alter and change and fiddle with. It’s not true, we are part of nature and all around us we have to treat with respect. And so when we don’t nature with respect we give it a sort of a ballast that holds it down and anchors it and it becomes boring and difficult to do anything with intellectually. If a device is found whereby we can release that bit of nature, whether it’s a piece of coral or a seed pod or something that is of nature, only a very small thing, that operates with the forces of high tide and low tide and sun and water and everything impending on it, we can release it of the ballast that we humans put on it, it will tend to float and ... 

LM:      To where it’s meant to be? 

RI:        ... and I take a position whereby it invites our human curiosity. Now you can only do this through art, you can’t do it through science because science hasn’t devised a way yet of taking the ballast away from what humans put on nature and allowing nature to levitate and do this thing but artists can. Now I’m trying in ... with this so-called reserve brain to find ways of doing big paintings of small things that invite people to be curious, more curious than they ever have before about nature. Now that’s ... I don’t know whether it’s going to work or not but it’s ... I’m going to give it a go. 

LM:      It sounds definitely worth a go. Do we have another question from the audience? You don’t need to be shy. Another question? Yes. 

A:         I wanted to say your idea you have just mentioned is wonderful and I think that adults can learn more through pictures than through science, I fully agree with you and for you to do this you will be able to reach so many minds and adults and I thank you for that. 

RI:        Thank you very much. 

LM:      Why do pictures become ... I mean yes, we appreciate art but that idea, that question I put to you briefly before about adult books rarely have illustrations, it seems to be something we think can be left behind, that children need them but adults don’t? 

RI:        Oh I don’t really know the answer to this, I think it’s embedded in book publishing. Book publishing is a curiously different enterprise than most other enterprises in that it’s a gamble and that gambling with adults is probably much more difficult than gambling with children and to make pictures in books that are designated as being for adults would be too big a gamble for publishers. 

LM:      Mm because the first books, and we have examples of those early books you know medieval books here in the Library, those beautiful illuminated books, you can’t imagine them without the pictures, without the illustrations. 

RI:        No because they began before we had a technique of reproducing words through print and the notion of making pictures was designed to convey to an uneducated public ... 

LM:      Yeah, people didn’t read, yes, true but ... 

RI:        ... that which the church and other groups felt was necessary to get through to them. But I doubt that we can see a time anymore when illustrations will accompany adult texts in the same way that I’ve been describing it’s necessary for children’s books to have pictures. Adults grow up to be adult and they don’t like to be considered to be less than that despite the fact that if they engaged their reserve brain they would realise immediately what they were missing. 

LM:      Indeed. Another question? Yes. Up ... the back, Lindsay. 

A:         Hi, I was just wondering how long you take to create each artwork and what your creative process is from start to finish with each individual work? 

RI:        Well I think I can answer this in reasonably short terms ... it’s a very big subject but if we’re dealing with illustrating a written story then each illustration of say hundreds that appear in the one story ... take for instance Wind in the Willows or Treasure Island or something like that ... then each of the illustrations are a component of the total book and that you are looking at a hundred illustrations as being one illustration, really, because they all flow on from one to the other as the story flows. So that the book that you’re doing has to be predesigned very carefully and laid out long before you do any of the final illustrations. In doing that you engage your mind in filling itself full of images that you would like to see appear at various points of the book but it’s all written down and the publisher can see it and the printer can see it and the co-edition people if they’re going to be involved with it can see it and they can pay for it long before the book comes out. 

But by the time you come to do each individual illustration you have an imprint in your mind of what needs to be done and it has to be committed to paper. Now the question really is how long does that take? Not long because if you use the right sort of equipment such as a self-drawing pencil and a self-painting brush it’s much, much simpler and easier and you save a lot of time and you don’t make nearly as many mistakes. So it may take a day to two days depending on the amount of paint that’s required. It’s not a long process but it is a long process if that makes any sense. 

LM:      Thank you. At this point I’d like to invite Anne-Marie back to the stage. Robert has been involved in a really interesting project with the National Library which involves delving into Australian history using some of the material that is kept safely here in this Library. Anne-Marie. 

AMS:   Thank you. Thank you, Robert and Louise, for talking to us about the art of the book. We’ve had a real treat, haven’t we, listening to how Robert talks about the art of the book and seeing just a fraction of his extraordinary [unclear 49:19]. So it’s been our pleasure, thank you and now I’d like to invite Jane Jolly, author of the award-winning book, Tea and Sugar Christmas published by the National Library. Jane is one of Robert’s many co-collaborators and she’s going to say a few words. Welcome, Jane. 

[Applause]

JJ:         Thank you very much and it’s a joy to be here. I’ve always admired Robert’s work and in my early 20s I bought his Australian Gnomes, The Voyage of the Poppy Kettle and Unchosen Land books and pored over the illustrations. I was always a little bit jealous of any authors who’d had books illustrated by Robert, most recently South Australian author and friend, Rosanne Hawke, with Mistara and Liz Lofthouse with Ziba Came on a Boat. So when Susan Hall from NLA Publishing said that Robert would be illustrating Tea and Sugar Christmas I couldn’t believe my ears, I was going to be one of the lucky ones, wow. I first met Robert at a meeting in 2012 in Melbourne with Susan and my agent, Jacinta Demasi. My plane had unfortunately been delayed so I was quite late to the meeting but we still had time to talk about Tea and Sugar Christmas. My first draft had been set in the 1960s when the train had a diesel engine but Robert was keen to have a steam train so we had already decided to set the story back a few years. 

One of the points which we discussed at the meeting I remember was what the Christmas present for Kathleen was going to be in the 1950s. We tossed a few ideas about and it wasn’t until later on that we decided it was to be a book and Robert very cleverly gave some clues as to the title of the book in his pencil illustrations. It was fittingly The Magic Pudding and I love pointing this out to classes. We get a magnifying glass out to look at the book title under Kathleen’s arm and we can find the illustration of Bill Barnacle on page 141 of The Magic Pudding and the kids love to find out that information. How did you know? How did you know? 

When I first received my first copy of Tea and Sugar Christmas I was overwhelmed, the illustrations were so evocative of the Australian outback that you could smell the dust and feel the heat rising. I heard the crow from the top of the telegraph pole and could smell the oil from the trains that chugged into town and when I saw the black and white image of Kathleen I recognised an Aboriginal girl whom I taught at Koonibba Aboriginal School, Lindy Grey. It wasn’t really her but it could have been her. I know you probably can’t get a good view from here but ... 

Robert's illustrations drag you onto the page and into the story. In 2015 I travelled to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and while there I met Colin Webb, the publisher from Palazzo Editions in England who was responsible for publishing Robert’s collection of children’s classics. It was with great pride that I showed him Tea and Sugar Christmas. 

Back to 2012 and the meeting in Melbourne, at that meeting we also had thrown around some ideas for another story and one of Robert’s ideas was the pedal radio. Should have guessed, really, because of his love of history. I had a lot of research to do on this topic. I knew about the pedal radio and its impact on the people of the outback but I really had to get my facts straight. My first draft was set in the 1950s but Robert was keen to have it in the days of Morse code, so much more romantic and a much more interesting story for kids and so the story went back to the 1930s. 

Those of you who’ve had the chance to see Radio Rescue will agree that it’s another triumph for Robert. Robert has nailed the sense of isolation on this first page. For any of us who have lived and worked in the outback this is the quintessential sheep station with the homestead and the outbuildings and the shearing shed in the distance. I’ve actually lived and worked on a sheep station like that and it’s exactly how it was. 

This time Robert’s pencil drawing of Jim’s mum shelling peas into an aluminium colander could have been my great-grandmother with the braided hair, the pinny and the lace collar. We have photos of my great-grandmother and it could be her. 

Recently at an interview ABC Australia Wide program in Strathalbyn an 11-year-old boy at the school where I worked was asked to describe Robert's work and he said insanely realistic. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with the master of illustration and am so proud of the way his illustrations and my words have come together in these two beautiful books. So happy 80th birthday and congratulations on this glorious book, Wonderlands, which represents so much of your work. Thank you. 

[Applause] 

LM:      Thank you so much, Jane. Just quickly, Anne-Marie, while we’re talking about the outback, it was just one of those things that I mentioned that a month or so ago I was up in the Northern Territory and my partner and I were looking at the Northern Territory flag and going it’s such a great flag, isn’t it? How come they got such a great flag and at the time I didn’t know that it was you who had designed the flag and I don’t know how many people here know that but it’s something I did want to bring up during our conversation ... 

RI:        Oh thank you. 

LM:      ... just to say thank you for that flag and there’s another whole hour in how you came up with that design but ... sorry, Anne-Marie. 

AMS:   No, not at all. Robert could design absolutely anything at all, stamps, bronze doors, flags, it’s just an astonishing main and reserve brain. 

LM:      And the mural at the CSIRO ... 

AMS:   Tapestries, yes. 

LM:      ... Black Mountain Laboratories which you can see which is ... that I think you did in the early ‘60s. 

RI:        1963. 

LM:      Yes. 

RI:        Late November 1963 I finished, four days after Kennedy was assassinated. 

LM:      Right. We should have had Robert as a citizen of Canberra but he chose not to come to the national capital to live and work but that’s okay, he’s here today. 

AMS:   No hard feelings, no hard feelings. Now I’m really sorry that we’ve run out of time but I do hope that you’ll join us upstairs in the foyer for refreshments where Robert has very kindly agreed to sign his books and Candice and colleagues in the shop would be delighted for you to have as many as Robert’s books under your arms as you would possibly like with a 10% discount this afternoon. Now if you’d like to get up close and personal with some of Robert’s work, his original work, you can not only do it in his books but if you go to the fourth floor we have some of Robert’s illustrations in a display on the fourth floor. They are just beautiful. Just hop into the lift and up you can go and down you can come. 

Now I would like you to take your main brains and your reserve brains and your lovingly wrapped parcels which may be completely unwrapped by now or only half unwrapped but to take them into the foyer for refreshments, for conversation and for book signing but before you do that would you please say a really big thank you to Robert, to Louise and to Jane for their really beguiling afternoon this afternoon. Thank you.

[Applause]

[End of Recording]

Download transcript 130.95 KB

Recent audio All recent audio