Article from Psychologies magazine, July 2015
Journalist Olivia Gordon. Photographer Alun Callendar.
The original plan was to follow my mother and older sister into a career in nursing. I trained as a State Registered Nurse at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, sharing a tiny house with half a dozen fellow nurses. However, on one particular night, everything went catastrophically wrong—Together with another trainee, I found myself in charge of a children’s cancer ward in which many terminally ill children were being treated. Why they left two unqualified girls in charge, I will never know, but to my utter dismay, three children passed away that night, and by the following morning I had resolved that this was not the career for me. I have the greatest respect for everyone who works in the NHS, but I was too young and too sensitive to deal with that situation.
Having no income and no real plans, I instinctively returned to the one constant factor in my life—those visual diaries and sketchbooks, which have always been my contact with my inner life. On a whim I applied to take a Foundation Course in Fine Art in Oxford, and here I had a first glimpse of what the future might hold.
It was at a drawing group in Oxford that I bumped into another creative soul, searching for his path. His name was Laurence, and forty years later, we remain soul mates on this strange and fascinating journey through life. With not a penny between us, the two of us hitchhiked to Cornwall and managed to get places at Falmouth School of Art; which was then a legendary hothouse of creativity and experimentation. I chose to spend my three years in the printmaking studios, working on etchings and lithographs. What I produced were peculiar, dreamlike compositions, but someone must have liked them because I left with a First Class Honours Degree and a place on the Postgraduate Course at the Royal College of Art.
We rented a shabby, sunny flat above an Israeli Restaurant in Camden Town. Whilst Laurence studied Painting at the Royal Academy; I set off on my bicycle through Regents Park to spend my days exploring line, colour and composition. I worked hard and was offered the Rome Scholarship, and at this time, Laurence and I discovered a passion for travel, which took us to many incredible destinations, such as a five-week trip to India; always returning with inspiration for new work.
In 1984, our first daughter, Claire was born—a golden-haired child, who we adored. Almost overnight, we realised that a flat in North London was not the best place to raise a child and we moved, first to Bath, then to Wantage in Oxfordshire, where Laurence was teaching Art at a school. It seemed natural to have another child, and to our delight and amazement, we were blessed with twins, Tom and Maddy.
We began to talk a lot about life/work balance. Surely there must be a way in which Laurence and I could make a living from our creativity, whilst being available for our family? We had always loved sharing picture books with our little ones, and it seemed only natural to have a go at making some ourselves. Our first books were made quite literally at the kitchen table of our terraced house, surrounded by Tippee cups and half eaten rusks. To our amazement, a publisher liked what she saw, and we signed our very first contract with Methuen, not realising that children’s books would consume our lives for decades to come.
Laurence’s parents lived near Lyme Regis, and each time we visited, we saw how our three children came alive on the beaches and amongst the trees. One of the great benefits of being self employed is that you can live anywhere, and probably our greatest stroke of fortune was to discover, in 1992, a huge abandoned semi-derelict country house in Uplyme, with leaking roofs and five acres of jungle. It took us nearly ten years to renovate that house, which overlooked the sea in one direction, and Cannington viaduct in the other. This is where our family spent sixteen blissful years. The children went to Mrs Ethelston’s Primary School and then to Colyton Grammar, where I became a governor for eight years.
By this time, our career in children’s books was well established and over the next thirty years, Laurence and I wrote and illustrated more than 200 titles, which were translated into 30 or more languages around the world. At a later stage, we bought a tiny shop in Lyme Regis and established ‘Chimp and Zee, Bookshop by the Sea’, the world’s first author-owned bookshop, selling nothing but our own signed books. It was a magical place, but when, after a few years we sailed headlong into a retail recession; we let it go with some sadness, but also a sense of freedom at having more time on our hands.
No one goes through life without difficulties, but I have always maintained that, with a degree of courage and tenacity it’s possible to make a decent living, whilst doing something of integrity, that brings pleasure to others. Alongside my creative work, my greatest joy has been my family, and I couldn’t be more proud of our children. Claire studied Anthropology at Cambridge and went on to work with the UN Secretariat, first in New York and now in Geneva, where she lives with her French husband, Adrien. In a peculiar duplication of my experience, Claire also has girl/boy twins: our gorgeous two-year-old grandchildren, Nina and Felix. Our second daughter, Maddy is an actor, writer and comedian, living in Brixton and loving her career. Our son, Tom is a truly gifted painter, based in Berlin with his Turkish partner, Yildiz, and their baby daughter, Ada. Tom’s stunning paintings are exhibited all over the world, most recently at the Saatchi Gallery in London. With my Irish background, Laurence’s Anglo/Dutch/Persian roots and our international grandchildren, I am a great believer in multiculturalism, and I deeply regret the current trend of nationalism. I love what the Pope said about building bridges, not walls. This has been a fundamental principle of our children’s books and of my current work. I am a globalist in every way.
So what do two family-orientated arty types do when their children spread their wings and fly? Eight years ago, Laurence and I were fortunate enough to find another luminous but neglected house on top of a hill overlooking the sea, outside Colyton. And in recent years, our careers have taken another exciting turn. Laurence began writing full-length novels, including The Hypnotist, his first book for Young Adults. Now he is co-writing a series of brilliantly funny adult crime novels called The Mindful Detective series. The first of which will be published in May 2019 and TV rights are already sold. As for me… I have returned to my first true love—every day I go into my studio, pick up my brushes and paint. Nothing makes me happier. My quirky dreamlike images about motherhood, family, birth and death, are currently selling in Denmark, Australia and Canada. In the UK, I am represented by Arundel Contemporary, and recent work can be seen on my Instagram page.
Now in my 60th year, I value my time more than ever. I feel so privileged to spend my days in the beautiful Devon countryside, in the company of my family, making stories with paint, as I did when I was a tiny girl. The future is never certain, but if you can follow your dreams, and do no harm, then you have lived well.’
Posted by MV on 03/01/2019
The pram was parked under an apple tree in the garden of our family cottage, where I was born in 1958, the third of eight siblings in an Irish Catholic family. If this all sounds a bit ‘Cider with Rosie’, that’s because we lived just a few miles from Laurie Lee’s home in the rolling Slad Valley in Gloucestershire. My father was a potter and my mother, a nurse. Unlike children today, we had limitless freedom and any spare time after school was spent wandering the countryside with my sisters. This allowed me to develop my imagination and inner resources. I was never bored, and I began to develop a passion for drawing and painting in dozens of visual diaries—a habit that continues to the present day.