After 22 years as an illustrator, Helen Ward admits that it's a lonely job. "Although I reckoned on the poverty, I didn't anticipate the isolation," she says with a rueful smile. But you can't help feeling that she thrives on that solitude.
"I'm not a joiner-in, never have been. I avoid book 'events', and talking about myself is an ordeal." But surely, as an award-winning illustrator with more than 20 books to her name, she has to do these things sometimes? "Yes of course. I'm not a mean-spirited curmudgeon. Just shy. And given the choice I'd much rather spend the day working, or walking the dog."
Ward lives in Gloucestershire, not far from where she grew up. Her parents, who live nearby, are artists, and she says she had a good old-fashioned "leftwing, atheist upbringing". She always drew and painted, and from an early age had the freedom of the library at the college where her father taught. "I grew up with a respect for books, and I knew that I would be an illustrator."
Hidden away up an alley, in the damp shadow of a nonconformist chapel, her tiny cottage is fortified and insulated with books, paintings and more books. A narrow staircase leads up to her attic studio, where she pulls illustrations from a plan chest, until we're almost knee-deep in them - early works, pictures from unpublished books such as a ravishing lemur from an abandoned ABC, a tenderly observed dormouse, leafy jungle scenes that recall Rousseau, and exquisite plant drawings that call to mind those intrepid lady explorers of the 19th century. There are birds of every description, from African bee-eaters to harlequin ducks and a fabulous cavalcade of animals, but although there are one or two centaurs and some elegant fashion drawings, human beings are largely absent.
Ward studied at Brighton Art School in the 1980s, hoping to go on to the Royal College of Art to study natural history illustration. But on graduating, although she had won the Walker prize for children's illustration, she didn't get the first-class degree she had hoped for, or a place at the Royal College - "That was a real kick up the bum." But luckily, someone from Templar Publishing had seen her degree show and snapped her up - and she's been with them ever since, developing and perfecting her distinctive style that combines a meticulous attention to detail with a gentle informality. Recalling that late, lamented era, when children, as a matter of course, pressed flowers, identified butterflies and rescued fledglings, Ward, who is 45, approaches the natural world with vision and integrity in a way that's neither dutifully pedantic nor patronisingly simplistic. [Read More]
The Guardian, Saturday 29 March 2008