Monday, February 7, 2011

Author & Illustrator Focus: Robert Ingpen

Robert Ingpen is one of Australia’s most successful illustrators and has written and/or illustrated more than 100 books. He was born in 1936 and did most of his growing up as a boy in Geelong. From an early age he was obsessed by stories and says that at times he had trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. Now as a man in his 70s he sets a pace that few could match. He is arguably Australia's greatest children's book illustrator and is one of the best illustrators of our time anywhere in the world.  Such is his energy, that he still accepts commissions as an artist for major works such as the tapestry he designed to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Melbourne Cricket Ground

In 1986, his extraordinary gift was acknowledged internationally when he was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for Children's Literature (illustration). He is the only Australian illustrator to have been awarded this medal that is the pinnacle for illustrators of children's books. Only 23 people have won the award since its inception in 1956. Remarkably, Australian writer Patricia Wrightson won the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for writers also in 1986 (the only Australian author to win the award for writers).

Ingpen says he had a wonderful childhood, filled with books, storytelling and drawing. His mother was very creative and was trained as a milliner.  His father ran a business that sold goods to local supermarkets.  At school, Ingpen was known for his drawing and storytelling, and was also keen on sport. Academically, he struggled and shared once that the "1950s education didn't agree with me. I was totally lost". Thankfully, an art teacher spotted his talent and encouraged him to do more study. The encouragement and friendship of this teacher continued long after he left school.

At the age of 17 after leaving Geelong College he began to study art and design, graduating with a Diploma of Graphic Art from RMIT (1955-57). In his first year he studied a subject called the Art of the Book that was taught by Harold Freedman. It was Freedman who Ingpen acknowledges taught him about book construction. Ingpen says that at this time, with Freedman's help, he learned how to study properly, as well as to appreciate visual storytelling and how to do it well.

Early in his career Ingpen specialised in relating design to scientific research. In 1958, he was appointed as the artist at CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization). In the late 1960s he set out on a new path as a freelance designer, illustrator and author. His work in science still continued when he served as part of a United Nations team in Mexico and Peru, designing pamphlets on fisheries (until 1975).

The breadth of his artistic talents and interests is shown by his involvement in a number of conservation and environmental projects. These include helping to design the Swan Hill Pioneer Settlement and serving as one of the founders of the Australian Conservation Foundation. He still lives in the Victorian coastal town of Anglesea in a home that he designed and largely built himself. In Geelong, where he grew up, he has inspired thousands of children to use their imaginations. The town has an annual Poppykettle Festival, named in honour of his story, 'The Voyage of the Poppykettle'. The festival has been providing entertainment and arts activities for primary students for 30 years. Each year, the festival attracts 4000-5000 school children to present a parade in costume, performances and artwork for the local community.

His Work

With approximately 100 works (see the list at the end of the post) it is difficult to cover this extensive and varied work in one post, so I will comment on just some of his works and the latest stunning series of classic novels that he has been illustrating for Walker Books.

Ingpen's illustrations always stand out because of the extraordinary detail. He uses a variety of media, including watercolour, pencil, and pastel. But whatever the media, the detail is always amazing and at times almost breathtaking.  I recently reviewed a new electronic version of 'Alice in Wonderland' (here). One of the most dramatic pages on the iPad version that combines movement and the possibility of interaction with the images is at the point where the Queen has ordered Alice's head to be lopped. Alice declares "Who cares for you...You're nothing but a pack of cards!" In the e-book version the cards begin flying around (kids love rattling the iPad to see them fly). But when I opened the corresponding double-page (pp 180-81) in Ingpen's illustrated version, I was moved to say "Now, who needs an e-book with illustrations like this." The image is stunning as is the production and design. On p.178 as Alice's trial ends and the whole pack of cards rises into the air, the line drawing on a taupe coloured washed background seems to bleed across p.179 and into the next double-page that shows Alice's face in stunned surprise as the cards fly about.

Copyright - Do not use without permission

Ingpen is known primarily as an illustrator but he is also a fine writer with 13 works of fiction and over 20 non-fiction. His most recent book as writer and illustrator is 'The Boy from Bowral' which tells the biographical story of Australian cricketer Sir Donald Bradman who is the greatest cricketer of all time. Bradman is seen as a legend in any cricket playing nation and Ingpen provides a lucidly written and historically accurate picture of Bradman's early life in Bowral, his rise to prominence as a cricketer, and his sporting career. The images are drawings based primarily on existing photographs, so the keen cricket fan (like me) will feel that they recognise some of the images. The cover (which wraps around to the back) is a wonderful sequence of images that appear like a series of video frames that capture the classic Bradman drive. I loved this book and any cricket following child or adult will also enjoy it.

But while I love Ingpen's latest book, my favourite is 'The Idle Bear'.  The best compliment I can pay to Ingpen is that in my opinion the text that he wrote is as good as the wonderful illustrations. I have read this book to children as young as two years and to groups of teachers, and the responses while different, are always strong and positive. This is a book that has so much depth. Like many great books, its readers can explore meanings and themes that even the author didn't necessarily anticipate as they connect the book with their own experiences and reading history. I have heard the book described as humorous, warm, moving and poignant, and all seem appropriate.  A reviewer in 'Publishers Weekly' concluded, "such wide-eyed bears, in dire need of family, should find a home in any reader's heart." Some have questioned its appropriateness for children, seeing its language as too difficult, and the narrative as too elusive. But such comments show no true awareness of the picture book. Ingpen knows how picture books work. In an interview with Frances Atkinson, Ingpen suggested that he always makes sure the artwork supports the text, rather than dominating it, "a good story is elegantly wrapped and the child discovers things bit by bit." The 'Idle Bear' is just such a book.

Two well-worn bears hanging out together with virtually no distracting background to the images, but for the occasional inclusion of several objects that are cleverly introduced as the story unfolds (or winds, dawdles?).  Ted 'turns' to Teddy and says:
"What kind of a bear are you?" asked Ted
"I'm an idle Bear."
"But don't you have a name like me?"
"Yes, but my name is Teddy. All bears like us are called Teddy."
Ted thought for a while, then said,
"Well, Teddy, I have been Ted forever - at least fifty years, I think."
"Me too," said Teddy,
"at least that long."
And so they continue to talk. They discuss what 'ideas' are as they look at a copy of 'Winnie the Pooh', then Ted catches a memory of where he comes from ('up the street'). The key protagonist Ted then contemplates being taken out and put away as he sits in a 'bear box' (a very bare box!). He discusses his worn out growl and tries to ignore the uncomfortable observation from Teddy that he's full of straw, for he must be too ("but then scarecrows and cushions are full of straw"). He remembers dogs and Michael who he hasn't seen "...for how long?"  "It must be forty years," thought Ted aloud.  And then Ted and Teddy philosophise about their status in life, while sitting on a copy of Webster's dictionary. Ted thinks he's a "worldly bear" while Teddy concludes that he's "an idle bear", but he wishes he knew "...what an idle is.  And he is still thinking about it." If I could own just 10 picture books this would be one of them.

Copyright - Do not use without permission

Illustrated Classics Series

Walker Books engaged Robert Ingpen to illustrate a series of unabridged classic children's books about 6 years ago. Since then they have produced a series of stunning collectors' books. Every book in the series excels in design and needless to say Ingpen's illustrations add a great deal to each of the classic stories. This is all the more remarkable because there have been many illustrated versions of most classic books; so gaining the attention of new generations of readers isn't easy. However, each of these books make me want to re-read every book, because Ingpen's illustrations help you to discover new things in each of them. It's obvious how much Ingpen loves the books himself given the brilliant way each illustration supports and extends the text without dominating it. The books include:
'Peter Pan and Wendy' (2004) written by J.M. Barrie
'Treasure Island' (2005) written by Robert Louis Stevenson
'The Jungle Book' (2006) written by Rudyard Kipling
'The Wind in the Willows' (2007) written by Kenneth Grahame
'A Christmas carol and A Christmas tree' (2008) written by Charles Dickens
'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' (2009) written by Lewis Carroll
'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' (2010) written by Mark Twain
'The Secret Garden' (2010) written by Frances Hodgson Burnett
'The Night Before Christmas' (2010) written by Clement Moore

All of the books in the series are stunningly designed and illustrated. They stand out on any book stand with quality hardback covers (with individually appropriate embossing), quality stitching, dust jackets that are consistent in design, featuring gold lettering for titles and fonts and design features throughout that are suggestive of classic books that are in some cases over 100 years old. The books ooze quality - you can't help but pick them up.

The illustrations utilise all of Ingpen's strengths, with hardly a double page spread in any of the books without illustrations, and many with more than one. The double page spreads, chapter divisions and inside cover images are of superb quality, and show Ingpen's attention to detail.  All the illustrations have the typical Ingpen fine line detail and wash colours that always give a softness to the image. The cover of 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' is typical of the design of the latest books.

Above is the UK/US cover
One minor quibble is that in some of the books that have more text (e.g. 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer') the images are occasionally reduced in size to fit. Having said this, there is always a compromise to be made between text, image and book size in any illustrated novel. On the flipside, there are many large images in this wonderful series and a number of double page spreads that have little or no text. Overall, I felt that this balancing act was perfect in 'Alice in Wonderland' but not quite perfect in 'Tom Sawyer'. I also wondered about a few of the images in 'The Night Before Christmas' (which I love!) that depict Saint Nicholas as an almost a gnome-like character, but then again, I'm sure Robert Ingpen had his good reasons for this, and as my wife said "have you ever seen St Nicholas?" This title is a picture book rather than an illustrated novel and features the famous poem written by Clement Moore. This was written for his children and once published (anonymously) in a New York newspaper in 1823 quickly became a classic poem.

His Awards

Robert Ingpen has received many awards.  He was probably first noticed as a great talent when he did the illustrations for Colin Thiele's classic book 'Storm Boy'. This led to a long collaboration with Thiele. His work on 'Storm Boy' won him his first award, 'The Visual Arts Board Prize' presented by The Australia Council for the Arts. The list of awards that followed is significant and recognise his extraordinary skill. As well as the Hans Christian Andersen Medal already mentioned that was awarded in 1986, he was awarded the prestigious Dromkeen Medal for significant contribution to the appreciation and development of children's literature in 1989. He was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Arts from RMIT in 2005 for contribution to children’s literature and in 2007 he was made a member of the Order of Australia for service to literature.
  • Another indicator of his standing as an illustrator is the significant international exhibitions of his work. These include:
  • A major retrospective exhibition in Taipei, which travelled to other regions of Taiwan for a two-month period (2009). 
  • An exhibition of the original artworks for 'Around the World in 80 Days' was held in London (2009). In 2002 Ingpen had a solo exhibition in Bologna, Italy.
  • In 2002 Ingpen's work also featured in the inaugural exhibition at 'The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art' (Massachusetts).
A Complete List of Robert Ingpen's writing and book illustrating

a) Illustrated Works

'Storm Boy' (1974) written by Colin Thiele
'The Runaway Punt' (1976) written by Michael Page
'The Australian countrywoman's cookbook' (1977), Country Women's Association
'Running the Brumbies: True Adventures of a Modern Bushman' (1979) written by Colin Stone
'Lincoln’s Place' (1978) written by Colin Thiele

'Chadwick’s Chimney' (1979) written by Colin Thiele
'River Murray Mary' (1979) written by Colin Thiele
'I Rhyme My Time: A Selection of Poems for Young People' (1980) written by David Martin
'Turning Points in the Making of Australia' (1980) text by Michael Page
'Night of the Muttonbirds' (1981) written by Mary Small
'This Peculiar Colony' (1981) written by Ronald Rose
'Clancy of the Overflow' (1982) written by Banjo Paterson
'Churchill Island' (1982) text by Graham Pizzey
'Click Go the Shears' (1986) (A traditional Australian song)
'The Stolen White Elephant' (1987) written by Mark Twain
'A Strange Expedition' (1988) written by Mark Twain
'Child's Story' (1988) written by Charles Dickens
'A Christmas Tree' (1988) written by Charles Dickens
'The Nargun and the Stars' (1988) written by Patricia Wrightson
'Peacetimes' (1989) written by Katherine Scholes
'The Great Deeds of Superheroes' (1989) written by Maurice Saxby
'The Great Deeds of Heroic Women' (1990) written by Maurice Saxby
'The Lands of the Bible' (1992) written by Philip Wilkinson and Jacqueline Dineen
'The Magical East' (1992) written by Philip Wilkinson and Michael Pollard
'The Master Builders' (1992) written by Philip Wilkinson and Michael Pollard
'The Mediterranean' (1992) written by Philip Wilkinson and Jacqueline Dineen
'Brahminy : the Story of a Boy and a Sea Eagle' (c1995) written by Colin Thiele
'The Drover’s Boy' (1997) written by Ted Egan
'Jacob, the Boy from Nuremberg' (1998) written by Enjar Agertoft
'The Poppykettle Papers' (1999) written by Michael Lawrence
'Who is the World For?' (2000) written by Tom Pow
'The Tapestry Story : Celebrating 150 Years of the Melbourne Cricket Ground' (2003) written by Keith Dunstan
'The Wizard’s Book of Spells' (2003) written by Beatrice Phillpotts
'The Magic Crystal' (2003) written by Brigitte Weninger
'Peter Pan and Wendy' (2004) written by J.M. Barrie
'Treasure Island' (2005) written by Robert Louis Stevenson
'The Jungle Book' (2006) written by Rudyard Kipling
'Mustara' (2007) written by Rosanne Hawke
'The Wind in the Willows' (2007) written by Kenneth Grahame
'Ziba came on a boat' (2008) written by Liz Lofthouse
'A Christmas carol and A Christmas tree' (2008) written by Charles Dickens
'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' (2009) written by Lewis Carroll
'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' (2010) written by Mark Twain
'The Secret Garden' (2010) written by Frances Hodgson Burnett
'The Night Before Christmas' (2010) written by Clement Moore

b) Fiction writing

'The Voyage of the Poppykettle' (1980)
'The Unchosen Land' (1981)
'Beginnings and Endings with Lifetimes in Between' (1983) written with Bryan Mellonie
'The Great Bullocky Race' (1984) written with Michael Page
'The Idle Bear' (1986)
'Out of This World : the Complete Book of Fantasy' (1986) written with Michael Page
'The Age of Acorns' (1988)
'The Dreamkeeper : A Letter from Robert Ingpen to his Granddaughter Alice Elizabeth' (1995)
'The Afternoon Treehouse' (1996)
'Folk Tales & Fables of Asia & Australia' (1992) co-written with Barbara Hayes
'Once Upon a Place' (1999)
'A Bear Tale' (2000)
'The Rare Bear' (2004)

c) Non-fiction writing

'In Pastures Green : the Story of the Presbyterian Church' (1954)
'Pioneers of wool' (1972)
'Pioneer Settlement in Australia' (1973)
'Robe : a Portrait of the Past' (1975)
'Don Dunstan’s Cookbook' (1976)
'Paradise and beyond : Tasmania' (1978) co-written with N.C.K. Evers
'Australian Gnomes' (1979)
'Marking time : Australia’s Abandoned Buildings' (1979)
'Australia’s Heritage Watch : an Overview of Australian Conservation' (1981)
'Aussie battlers' (1982) written with Michael Page
'Australian Inventions and Innovations' (1982) co-authored with Sally Carruthers ... [et al.]
'Colonial South Australia : its people and buildings' (1985) text by Michael Page
'Worldly dogs' (1986), written with Michael Page
'The making of Australians' (1987), co-authored with Michael Page
'Conservation' (1987) co-authored with Margaret Dunkle
'Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were: Creatures, Places, and People' (1987 ), co-authored with Michael Page
'A Celebration of Customs & Rituals of the World' (1994) co-written with Philip Wilkinson
'Encyclopedia of Mysterious Places : the Life and Legends of Ancient Sites Around the World' (1990), co-written with Philip Wilkinson
'In the Wake of the Mary Celeste' (2004), co-authored with Gary Crew
'Imprints of Generations' (2006)
'The Boy from Bowral : the Story of Sir Donald Bradman' (2007)

Other Posts

All posts in the 'Author & Illustrator Focus' series (HERE)


Emma said...

Oh wow - I didn't know he'd illustrated a version of Tom Sawyer... surely a must-have in this house full of boys! I think Michael Hague's Wind in the WIllows is still my favourite though ;)
I do love reading your blog from time to time- alway so inspiring, thank you for it!
My own little mad-keen cricketer is about to turn 10 (argh!) - do you think The Boy From Bowral is good for a 10 year old? it does say all ages on the website...
Emma Warburton

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Emma,

Lovely to hear from you. I can't believe that number 1 son is 10! He will love 'The Boy From Bowral'. I would have devoured it when I was 10. There will probably be a fight on with Bay to decide who reads it first.

Thanks for your comment.


Pinky O'Hara said...

I saw the book, I nabbed it and then I wouldn't let it go to anyone else for Christmas so I wrapped it up and put it under the tree for me. It's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland illustrated by Mr. Ingpen and so I got curiouser and googled around for more stuff to know about Mr. So glad I did! and your blog is wonderful. I think I'll be building meself a collection. Thanks & Merry Christmas Pinky O'Hara

Pinky O'Hara said...

Now I'm confused! I posted a comment then it had me sign in and now this space is vacant as if I've never been here before! Suffice to say, I'm enjoying Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, illustrated by Mr. Ingpen who is such a genius and gifted illustrator so I became curiouser and googled for more info on him, ran across this wonderful blog of yours and am going to collect more. What a great life story, maybe it will be a play or film? or a biography? Such universal appeal, it would have. Merry Christmas! Pinky O'Hara forgive me if I posted twice....

Trevor Cairney said...

So glad you like Robert Ingpen, he is wonderful. Thanks for dropping by my blog.

Lesley @ Australian Picture Books said...

So happy to find your site and this great info on Robert Ingpen. I was looking for it to add to my celebration of Aussie illustrators of picture books on facebook this month. Cheers.

Unknown said...

I really like Robert Ingpen's works. He is unbelievably talented. Do you know where I could find original artwork, prints, etc. of his illustrations?

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Charles, yes he is an amazing artist. His work is available in Australia. You can google a gallery that has details. Simply look for Robert Ingpen artwork.

Unknown said...

Robert Ingpen is my grandfather. In the Jungle book where it says when it was published, right at the from of the book; at the top it says for Abigail. That's me.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for dropping in Abi.

Unknown said...

I came across two books illustrated by the wonderful Robert Ingpen today - Chief Seattle and Robert Scott. Having been fortunate enough to travel to Antarctica two years ago, I particulatly loved the Scott story. Do you know whether there are any more in this series illustrated by the talented Mr Ingpen?

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Melinda, yes he did a series for the publisher 'Mason Crest' in the US. The two books you mention were in a series on famous people called 'People of Importance'. Others include titles on Gandhi (2013) and Mother Teresa (2003). Hope this helps.