For the seventh selection in A History of my Archive in 10 Objects here are some surviving sketchbooks from my 3 years on the Illustration course at Manchester Polytechnic.
Okey, so this is cheating a bit – these are clearly more than one object! But the contents are pretty consistent and were all bundled together in my father’s loft, so I think I can safely lump them together as a single item.
Actually, very little remains of my work from the years 1978-1981 while I was at Manchester, as previously mentioned on this blog I ceremoniously threw almost all of my course work out of the 4th Floor window of Chatham House on the final day of the last term, keeping only my degree show portfolio work. It was an act of bravado, but also a statement of the frustration and disillusionment many of us sensed at the end, I felt I’d somehow lost direction during the course. So I was pleasantly surprised to find these sketchbooks still in existence in my dad’s loft.
Unfortunately there’s not much I want to share, most of the pages are testament to a struggle within confines I’d placed myself in as a pen and ink illustrator. Some time during the First Year I was told by my course head Tony Ross (yes, that Tony Ross) that painting wasn’t really my thing, I shouldn’t worry about colouring and would be best served by concentrating entirely on pen and ink drawing, with just a splash of colour. I took this advice rather too much to heart and pen drawing was pretty much all I did for most of the 2nd and 3rd years. When I wasn’t galavanting off to punk gigs I spent much of my studio time illustrating some of my favourite novels in black and white – The Wind in the Willows, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Treasure Island, Tom’s Midnight Garden, Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH… all really imaginative books for an illustrator to explore.
I saw myself as a black-and-white specialist in the manner of E. H. Shepherd, Mervyn Peake and Edward Ardizzone, it didn’t occur to me that in the late ’70’s fewer and fewer publishers were actually printing novels with text illustrations, that my heroes were all of their time. Most surprisingly of all (and this is something I was to particularly wonder about later), I either wasn’t given, or chose to ignore, any guidance to study, write, or dummy picture books, the stock-in-trade of any would-be children’s illustrator!
Years later when I met Tony Ross again at Bologna I questioned him about this, and was told, “you have to remember John, it was a commercial illustration course, not a children’s book course”… which only partly answered the question. Tony was the head of the course and a children’s illustrator, I was the only children’s book illustrator in my year (all the others working towards the broader illustration market). I’d set myself very narrow constraints, my pen and ink drawings were still clumsy, the sketchbooks are full of marginalia, doodles rather than dynamic ground breaking work. Maybe I’m being rather hard on myself, but looking through the sketchbooks now from a professional point of view, of the illustration work there’s very little I would want to share, I’m not surprised I wanted to throw most of my course artwork out of the window!
However, mixed in with the heavy-handed experiments (which I’m NOT going to show!) the sketchbooks also contain lots of drawings from life, sketches of those around me which bring back very clear memories of the time. As a break from struggling with pen and ink I drew fellow students, the things around me… it seems the more I tried to be a ‘proper illustrator’, the further away I was drifting from inspiration, yet the sketches from life have an authenticity and lighter touch I was somehow missing in my course work. Here are a few.
The most ready-to-hand subjects were the other illustration students on my course….
… even occasionally the course teachers…
…then there were the places I lived…
…and there was the Thursday afternoon life class (regretably stopped half way through the course), which was a wonderful escape while it lasted as it was purely observed drawing.
My eyes were greatly opened by my time at Manchester, not least thanks to the indie music scene and my friends. The course itself though had narrowed my output and possibly development, but I don’t exclusively blame the tutors, I’ve a tremendous respect for Tony Ross. We must have been a tough bunch to teach.