'The apex of my ambition was to work for the Radio Times'

Food-lovers in Italy are campaigning for a return to traditional cooking and "slow food". Shirley Hughes would approve. One of the best-known children's book illustrators in the world, Hughes has been smitten with Italy since the 1940s, and is an enthusiastic advocate of "slow looking", writes Geraldine Brennan.

Today's child fans of the trademark Hughes characters Lucy and Tom (now in their forties), Alfie (over 21) and Dogger (25 but looking good) belong to "the most visually over-stimulated society that ever existed" and need time to ponder over picture books and stories. "If you can learn how to look and how to listen, literacy will surely follow," Hughes argues in A Life Drawing.

As well as being an autobiography and a history of childhood and children's publishing since the 1930s, Hughes's book is an analysis of how children's visual literacy is shaped and how crucial this process is.

Hughes grew up in "mock-Tudor suburbia" in West Kirby, near Liverpool, with her mother Kathleen and older sisters Val and Brenda. Her father, T J (Tom) Hughes, who owned a department store in Liverpool, died when she was five. "I do still occasionally fly in sleep over a 1930s seaside landscape, the West Kirby of my childhood," she writes.

The first half of the book is a joyful catalogue of the words and images she consumed in a sheltered but not over-regimented childhood. There is a sense of endless time outside school (Miss Todd's prep, which was strong on sewing and papier-mache, and later at West Kirby high) for slow looking, books and pictures. She edited her own magazine, devoured comics and illustrated novels and longed to emulate the feisty girl characters of boarding-school stories in what she calls the "loveable tomboy" mould, or the heroines of the films seen by Nellie Morris, the mother's help who read to the sisters every night and passed on the plots of her weekend viewing.

Hughes identifies four "great heroes" of pre-war children's illustration: William Nicholson ("If I were asked to choose a handful of near-perfect picture books, Nicholson's Clever Bill and The Pirate Twins would certainly be among them"); Ernest Shepard, for The Wind in the Willows ("No one has got so near to the heart of this story"); W Heath Robinson, for his "rapturous" rendering of A Midsummer Night's Dream; and Edward Ardizzone, whose Little Tim books are "full of sentiment but never, ever, sentimentality - a tightrope we all walk".

She learned a sense of theatre ("I imagine all illustrators have something of the actor in them") from the pierrot troupe and end-of-the-pier shows seen during holidays in the "never-never land of North Wales". Comic timing was absorbed through Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy and a taste for spectacle from pantomimes at the Liverpool Empire. She soaked up more images from trips to art galleries (as described in the extract here) and the terrible mystery of Great War memorials.

She was 12 when the Second World War broke out and slept under the stairs during Merseyside's Big Blitz winter of 1940. Trips to the cinema became "the only patch of romance in a grey world".

After the war, Hughes took a commercial fashion and dress design course at Liverpool art school with the aim of designing theatre costume (her sketchbooks reveal a fascination with backstage life). For fine art she moved on to Oxford, "because I had been told, incorrectly as it turned out, that there was an ice-skating rink there", lived next door to J R R Tolkien, learned "daily, rigorous life-drawing discipline" at the Ruskin school and set herself illustration projects in the evenings. She was inspired by Kenneth Clark's weekly lectures on art: "I can clearly recall the hairs on the back of my neck beginning to rise when he put on a slide of Rembrandt's 'etching', 'Christ Shown to the People'."

She moved to London in 1950 to look for work as an illustrator. Her first commission was from Methuen (three guineas for drawing a violin). She did not set out to illustrate for children - "the apex of my ambition was to work for the Radio Times" - but when she submitted drawings for a pony book, the editor who rejected her horses thought her child figures had potential and commissioned her to illustrate an adventure story set in Scotland: The Hill War by Olivia FitzRoy, published by William Collins.

Hughes spent most of the Fifties line drawing for children's and educational books, "a kind of apprenticeship which emergent illustrators find hard to get now". A big break came when she was spotted by Noel Streatfeild and asked to illustrate The Bell Family, and another when her own first colour picture book, Lucy and Tom's Day, was published in 1960 by Gollancz. It anticipated a trend for books about simple routines and later her books became part of a shift away from the pre-war time-warp world of middle-class Home Counties children having clean-cut adventures. By now she was married to John Vulliamy, had three small children and worked in the living room of their home in Notting Hill, west London, full of lodgers and au pairs.

Dogger and Alfie built her international reputation. Dogger is a real soft toy that fell out of a cupboard in Notting Hill (the book, published in 1977, won the Kate Greenaway Medal); four-year-old Alfie burst on to the page in a felt-tip drawing, ahead of his mother pushing a pram. Alfie's universe expanded into Alfie Gets in First, published in 1981, in which mother, baby Annie Rose and pram are locked out in a time-honoured drama, and into 10 more Alfie stories.

In recent years her output has included two substantial picture books for older children, such as Enchantment in the Garden and The Lion and the Unicorn. The illustrator's responsibility, she maintains, is "to give your author, reader and publisher not what they want exactly but what they never dreamed they could have".

"Drawing," she says, "is not only a matter of hand and eye, it is feeding a huge memory bank in your head." A Life Drawing is a mesmerising tour of Shirley Hughes's memory bank.

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