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Muddy meets James Mayhew

James Mayhew is the illustrator of the best-selling children’s books Katie and Ella Bella. He studied illustration at Maidstone College of Art and his first book, Katie’s Picture Show, was published in 1989 and is still in print. There is a wonderful display of his books at the equally wonderful David’s Bookshop in Letchworth. On Sunday 5 March, James is performing with Realm of Music at the new Broadway Theatre. He will illustrate the sonnets that inspired Vivaldi’s Four Seasons while the music is being performed. 

James, I think you lived in Letchworth before moving to Baldock. Since you’ve been living in Hertfordshire, I imagine it’s changed quite a bit? 

Yes and no. Letchworth has the Heritage Foundation, so change is carefully considered. But it’s really great to see a new theatre in Letchworth in the Broadway Cinema! Baldock has changed, since the by-pass was built. It’s much quieter and is a lovely little town, I’m very fond of it.

Would you say that Hertfordshire inspires your work or are you often to be found commuting to the Smoke or travelling further afield?

Most of my work has grown from memories of my own childhood, in Suffolk. But I love to travel – I’m off to Singapore in May. It really does broaden the mind.

I haven’t been to one of your illustration and musical performances, can you describe what they are like and were they your idea?

Initially, the idea was proposed by the children’s book festival in St Albans. But the coming together of art, music and story has been collaborative, and started in Hatfield with the de Havilland Philharmonic. I still perform with them every November. They are very exciting events, I love them! I paint at an easel, and a camera captures and, via projection, shows my painting in real time on a big screen above the orchestra. The music and image combine to help children (and adults!) understand the meaning in the music. It’s fun and informal, but done with great love and integrity.


How do people react to these events?

I guess they like them… which is why I’m doing more and more after 11 years!

Do you rehearse with the musicians beforehand?  Is it important for you to know the music or are you just making it up as you go?

Yes I do. It is very carefully planned. I need to make decisions about which paints or materials I need on the day. I can’t be unprepared. In performance it can be improvisatory, but I need a structure to begin with. It’s actually months of hard work, researching stories and composing images…

James draws Titania

I think you once said that it was thanks to your parents for allowing you the time to have free time that your own creativity was allowed to flourish. We talk a lot about children having no time to kick around and get bored – does this concern you, or in the end do you think that perhaps all the screen and phone time is perhaps nurturing a more contemporary creativity? David Hockney can use an iPad and David Bailey has his phone, perhaps young people will be creative in the future using new technologies we can’t even imagine?  

Although I don’t use digital media myself, I think modern technology just provides another set of tools; lots of my students at Cambridge School of Art (I teach on the MA in Children’s Books there), illustrate digitally, with superb results. I do, however, wonder about the lack of “thinking time”. We live in a world where entertainment and distraction is a 24 hour thing. It’s not helpful to creativity and imagination. That does worry me.

For someone who would like to become an illustrator, would you still recommend the route you took? Going to art school and doing a three-year degree course?

Yes, even more so. There are many more courses for illustrators, including, specifically, book illustration, now. When I was starting out there were very few courses available. I think illustration is more recognised as an art form now than when I was a student.

James at the National Gallery

Do you listen to music while you draw?

Rarely, unless I’m preparing for a concert. As I get older I need silence.

Katie books at David’s Bookshop, Letchworth

Given the time you spend visiting schools, going to events and generally living the life of a professional artist, how much time do you spend actually drawing these days?

Well I draw all the time, at events and in schools etc. What I miss is more formal drawing, like life drawing classes for example. But I always have a sketch book with me…

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m developing some new book ideas and preparing for more concerts. I always have lots of things on the go. The first will be new Katie activity books for children.

What do you like about living in Hertfordshire, and Baldock?  

It’s a lovely part of England, handy for London and Cambridge, but full of history and interest in it’s own right. 

James at the Albert Hall

Do have any favourite places in the county that you could share with us?  

There’s magic in Ashwell Springs for sure…

I think you said that Katie is based loosely on your sister Katie and an early trip to London when you were children, is she still your favourite character?

Of course! She launched my career!

How many children do you think are now studying art or drawing more after reading your books, or perhaps after meeting you?

Impossible to say, but I often get letters from parents saying their kids are *begging* them to go to a gallery after reading Katie. That makes me very happy!

James paints to the Four Seasons

James Mayhew draws Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Broadway Theatre, Letchworth, Sun 5 March, 2.30pm


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