“Portrait of an artist” - Peter Cross in conversation about his career. (originally published in #9 of The Pavilion). Memorabilia: TWR/The Pavilion archive. Photography by Alan Hewitt.
TP: First of all, Peter, how did you meet Anthony?
PC: I first met him in 1976.
TP: And how did that come about?
PC: We were introduced by friends and I began work on the cover to The Geese & The Ghost and we seemed to strike up a friendship, we seemed to share a similar sense of humour and interests in common; sport and so on.
TP: Was the scene from the cover to The Geese & The Ghost based on a real place or was it totally imaginary?
PC: Totally imaginary. It would have to be really because of the boat going under the bridge.
TP: Not necessarily because the boat you designed was a Thames sailing barge and they have retractable masts..
PC: A Thames bargee! (laugh) I suppose the view was a collection of places both real and imaginary and some of it was from the back of the mind from doing a lot of children’s books. I suppose it is part of the fantasy world in which I live and they tend to be a bit made up.
TP: Whenever you have done the cover for one of Ant’s albums, has Ant always given you ideas to go on or have you sometimes maybe influenced what he has done through some of your designs?
PC: I expect so, yes. It is a two way process and I have quite a lot of freedom. We worked together on things like some of the song titles and there’s no ’it’s got to be like this or like that’ with him at all, its carte blanche really.
TP: When you are working on a design for Anthony or anybody else for that matter, what is your preferred medium?
PC: Watercolour, pen and ink. I usually draw first in pencil and then outline in ink and then colour in with a wash and strengthen the colour with an airbrush because watercolours don’t reproduce very well, they tend to be too weak by themselves and so it can be a good idea to just strengthen them.
TP: When did the ideas for the Trouble For Trumpets book begin?
PC: I suppose the idea for the Trumpets came from a card which I designed for the gallery of mine. I suppose the idea for the Trumpets rather than the creatures themselves that was the relevant thing around that time they were quite a new image and there were very few children’s books illustrated this way. I suppose because of the expense of colour printing and also because of that time there was Masquerade which was very successful and also the book published by Jonathan Cape: Butterfly Ball which was very successful. So it seemed to be a popular thing to go and create. In retrospect some of my old stuff makes me cringe but I wanted to put down on paper or translate my interest in natural history and create a world peopled by funny creatures and to show the love I have of painting which gives me a tremendous thrill, being able to transfer onto paper some beautiful object.
So, in the Trumpets I was able to create this world which had nothing to do with children even though it was labelled as a children’s book! It was an excuse really; I’m the child! (laughs) and I was doing it for myself. It never really took off and one can see why now, but at the time and after all that work it was a bit disillusioning. However, now with the big success of Harbottle The Hamster, I know that there is a chance for something like this to be successful and now I can do lots of things that I would like to do, in particular landscapes and the three dimensional pictures as well.
TP: After the Trumpets book, there was a whole series of others but how many books have you actually been involved with?
|PC: I think it is into double figures now. After Trumpets, there was a sequel and next came the Dinosaur books, there was a set of four of those, followed by a set of four Dudley The Dormouse book, and then I stopped doing the children’s books in the late Eighties. Then came 1588 And All This, which was my first book for Pavilion books. I quite enjoyed doing that because I was able to invent all of these things which might have been considered too sophisticated for children’s books and the jokes don’t translate into foreign languages in foreign editions which are vital for children’s books. The follow up to that was The Boy’s Own Battle Of Britain which was published in 1990 and that really took me a long while to do. With both of those I did the text as well as the illustrations and I found that quite time consuming. I am not a writer and it took me a long time to work out the sequence of pictures and the text to accompany them.|
TP: Apart from the visual humour, there are all the plays on words which must take ages to do?
PC: Well, you get into a frame of mind where you begin to think like that and it begins to come naturally but the beginning is time consuming and a lot of hard work. Now it is almost second nature and you are looking for the double meaning and puns and they are there and I enjoy searching for them.
TP: Was The Boy’s Own Battle Of Britain the last book you have done so far?
PC: It was, and then I illustrated a series of wine catalogues which proved to be much more lucrative and in a way much more satisfying. I was able to keep the bottles! (laughs).
TP: How many of the catalogues did you do, or is it still an ongoing thing?
PC: I have finished doing them now. I did at least half a dozen.
TP: When you are working on a design for one of Ant’s albums or a catalogue, how long does it actually take to complete?
PC: It depends. Regarding Ant’s album covers, I can remember it took a week, sometimes three weeks, sometimes even longer. Back To The Pavilion took longer as did Wise After The Event which was detailed but quite a lot of the artwork was inside. I did quite a lot of stippling on that one.
TP: It’s amazing to hea that because when you look at the artwork, you think, ‘this must have taken years’…
PC: Well, I think there were quicker ones like the one with the impression of Leith Hill Tower (Ivory Moon). That would have taken about a week and three weeks solidly working on something is quite a long time. The cards that I do now, I probably do about two a week, and the details on the pictures take the longest amount of time.
TP: Where do the ideas for the cards come from?
PC: All from my own imagination. It’s not a tortuous process. It is something that I enjoy and see as a challenge, What can be tortuous actually is trying to stop the flow of ideas and selecting and rejecting ones. So sometimes my biggest problem isn’t trying to think up ideas but having too many and the feeling you have then of overload and it is not a pleasant thing. So what you need then is an ability to select objectively and that comes with experience and knowing which ideas are successful. I am lucky getting the feedback on which cards are selling well and which ones aren’t and knowing that anything that has got booze on it will sell! (laughs).
TP: How many cards have you actually designed?
PC: In terms of sales or anything like that I have never actually counted them but I suppose I must turn out at least a hundred a year and I have been doing them now for a couple of years so there must be at least two hundred (multiply that by how many years since we conducted this interview - AH).
TP: With the success of Harbottle, what other projects are you engaged in or considering at the moment?
PC: No thoughts for the future at the moment. I am concentrating on Harbottle, I will stop when sales begin to drop and it’s time to think up something new. Whether something new will be in the greetings card line or not, I don’t know but I think the success does make you hungry for more. I do have this desire to go back to oil painting and landscapes. I am experimenting with ideas for my gallery which is a great inspiration to me. I love having exhibitions and meeting people. I consider it almost an open day in the studio. I suppose one day I will have an exhibition of the card artwork but if you’ll pardon the pun, that’s not on the cards yet!
Thanks to Peter for giving up his time to talk to us. Since this interview was conducted, Peter has continued to produce a whole range of Harbottle themed merchandise as well as a new series of cards featuring the character Higgledy Pig which I am sure many of you will have seen.