A Knight’s Tale (40: Not A Book Illustrator)

My first choice of occupation on leaving school at eighteen would have been attending Wimbledon Art School. As the eldest of five, and recognising the family’s need for me to bring in an income, I chose, with no pressure, to do neither this nor apply to University for which my A levels in English Literature, French and History would have entitled me. Instead, there being no such thing as careers advice at Wimbledon College in 1960, I followed the advice of my Uncle Derrick who suggested I apply to the Committee of Lloyd’s, where, as perviously indicated, I soon took up employment in the Autumn of that year.

Had I had more confidence in my teenage abilities, and had my parents been able to send me to art school, I may well have taken up book illustration.  As it was, I needed, on leaving school, to go straight to work.  I also thought I’d never make a Charles Keeping, a John Bratby, or even a Beryl Cook, all of whom have illustrated Folio books.  My first annual salary was about £340, the bulk of which I handed over to my mother.  I kept enough back, however, to be able, upon seeing an advertisement for The Folio Society, to sublimate my desire to illustrate by joining this book club.  A lifetime later I have a large collection of beautifully illustrated, imaginatively bound hardback books, printed on good paper which doesn’t turn brown, with suitable typeface and font.  All these elements are carefully selected to be in keeping with the original writing.  Younger, budding, illustrators are encouraged by an annual competition.  I have the Society to thank for many works of which I may otherwise have no knowledge, and for pleasurable editions of numerous others.

I have some talent at drawing. During the late 1950s I used to sit and draw and paint alongside Kenneth Lovell, an artist who, among other works, illustrated Hulme Beaman’s Toytown series of children’s books.

Derrick & Kenneth

It is Ken who, having been perfectly happy to patronise a man with an impressive camera and two equally striking parrots, stands beside me outside Hampton Court in about 1958.  

My drawing with the artist was a weekly event that had come into being as a result of Mum, through a mutual friend, having been introduced to Ken and showing him my nascent cartoon work ‘Toad in the Wild West.  The original masterpiece is long gone, but here is a rough idea of the eponymous character:

I never did progress beyond my first display board of this tale, but I spent many happy and fruitful hours with my friend from whom I learned all I ever did directly from anyone about drawing.

For several years we would spend Sunday afternoons working and then have tea consisting of delicious sandwiches and a fruit salad.  We were occasionally joined for the meal by Ken’s live-in friend George Edwards, an opera singer.

The assistance I gave Ken on one of the Toytown books was a tracing exercise.  Nothing to do with ancestry, this was a method of transferring draft drawings onto display boards for the production of the finished work for publication.  Ken would illustrate the stories of Larry the Lamb, Mr Grouser, and many others in bold colour with firm outlines in pen.  The final drafts of those in which I had a hand were handed to me drawn on good quality fashion plate board.  I would trace these onto fresh tracing paper.  Taking a soft pencil, I would cover the backs of these sheets with graphite, then place the paper face up on the finishing board fixing it firmly in position with a tape something like Sellotape.  I then took a sharp, harder, pencil and traced over my  work, leaving a print on the board.  The artist would ink over the prints and then apply the colour.  I felt very proud to have been entrusted with this task.

When Helen and Bill unearthed my 1965 drawing of Jackie, the story of which will come later, I decided that the very small frame consisting of a piece of board fixed to glass by passe-partout could do with being replaced.  Imagine my surprise and delight when I found, on the ‘smooth surface’ of a George Rowney & Co. Ltd “Diana” Fashion Plate Board behind the drawing, 

some of my own efforts at reproducing Ken’s characters.  I had done these to satisfy us both that I was up to making adequate tracings.

When my bereaved sister-in-law Frances, was working her way through the unenviable task of sorting through Chris’s effects some real gems came my way. None more amazing than this postcard. The stamp on this missive I mailed to my family when we were still living at Stanton Road, shows that first class post in about 1958 cost 2 1/2 pence in old money. Today’s decimalised equivalent is fractionally more than 1p. On January 1st, 2021 the price was raised to 85p. A very early portrait of Queen Elizabeth II is featured. The postmark is illegible, but the content tells me that this was sent from Ockley, where I spent a summer holiday with Ken and George.

When Chris asked me to help him write up his family history, he praised my writing ability, but commented that I had ‘verbal diarrhoea’. What I managed to cram into an area of 63 square centimeters on this small card is surely evidence of this.

In case you can’t read it, here is the text: ‘Dear all. I hope you’re having as nice weather as I’m having. Well done Chris. Send Prof my congratulations. Thanks for the letter mum. I had no idea so much of interest would be crammed into two pages. The first day I ran 3 mls and walked 5. The second day I walked 1! The farm animals come so close to the garden that I can draw them. Last night the farmer, who brings his cattle down the main road twice a day, got into an awful jam on the main road in the dark with them – cars were tearing down at 80, and not seeing his notice. Also Jacqueline there’s a mare with a baby foal which gallops over when anyone comes to the gate. After painting the house yesterday Ken and I went blackberrying – we got loads of them in a very short time. Probably today I will go down ‘weird’ St and do a watercolour. Ken’s cooking is as wonderful as the rest of his housekeeping. P.S. Will catch early morning train home Monday morning so have some dinner for me. Love Derrick.’

I was not the only one writing during this week. Dad was not a letter writer. On my return home he presented me with an unfinished, pencilled, missive that he had not posted. It was a beautiful tribute to me as his son. I carried it in my wallet for years – until the wallet was stolen. He died on Christmas Day 1987. I still treasure the lost letter.

Published by derrickjknight

I am a septuagenarian enjoying rambling physically and photographing what I see, and rambling in my head as memories are triggered. I also ramble through a lifetime's photographs

56 thoughts on “A Knight’s Tale (40: Not A Book Illustrator)

  1. Your final paragraph brought tears to my eyes.

    You had such a wonderful experience to work with this artist. It sounds like he was a mentor and friend.
    What happened to him (and George)?

  2. A beautiful, and very moving post, Derrick, especially the part about the lost letter from your father. I love these tales from back when, and it is interesting to read about how the illustrations were done for books.

  3. I feel so sorry about you missing higher studies, and an opportunity to blossom as an a acclaimed illustrator. You surely have a flair for both drawing and writing. No wonder you are such a keen photographer. The bit about your father’s unmailed letter is touching. This part of the story has brought up deeply cherished memories.

    1. Thank you so much, Uma. I do appreciate your understanding, but I have had a deeply satisfying alternative path in life which, had everything gone smoothly, would have been very different – but no regrets.

  4. This is so moving and beautiful, Derrick. Precious memories. The letter from your Dad…and that it got lost…brought my tears flowing. Such a precious memory.
    Thank you for sharing your life and memories…in doing so you are sharing your heart! ❤
    I so enjoy what you write, how you write it…you draw me right in…and your artwork and photos are always a joy! The well-seasoned photos are such treasures!
    You are artistic in so many ways! 🙂
    As you already figured out…a l-o-n-g time ago, I, too, can "suffer" ( 🙂 ) from verbal diarrhoea! 😮 😀 😛 One of my English teachers liked to tell me I was verbose. I took it as a compliment. 😉 😀
    (((HUGS))) 🙂
    PS…My Dad was not a letter writer, but when I went to another city at age 17…a bit far from home…he did write a few letters to me my first year away. They still make me smile. 🙂

  5. There are so many things in this chapter of your story that resonate with me — and obviously with others. I certainly smiled at your post card. It reminded me of the ‘aerograms’ made of thin blue paper that we’d fill up when living overseas. It was such a challenge to know what to include and what to exclude — rather like telling the story of a life.

  6. Thieves don’t realise the hurt they do, invariably by taking something that was essentially unconnected with what they were stealing.
    Our state grammar school did not have any careers advice either, although I have vague memories of a trip to an insurer’s office in Leicester. I got an equal amount of help at university. Once I showed the faintest bit of interest in any job, I was off the books and became just a tick in a box to prove I was a satisfied customer.

  7. Derrick, how wonderful it was of your mum to recognize your talent for and love of drawing and to introduce you to such a kind and talented mentor. What a great relationship that was!

    And, well, that story of the lost letter is both wonderful and heartbreaking. xo

  8. Like your other readers, I was moved by your post. What a shame that a jerk had to steal your wallet with the treasured letter from your father. I love the photo of you, Ken, and the parrots!

  9. Oh, Derrick. 🙂 I can empathise with you in that I gave up a wished-for career in music and went to work when I left school because I was the eldest child and I knew that my parents couldn’t afford to help me through music college.

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