Lindsey Kidd's breezy, briny seascapes and bustling bistro interiors, all made from salt dough, breathed life into her husband Richard's drawings for Monsieur Thermidor, his wacky story of an underwater chef's adventures on land. She had been making salt dough ornaments for several seasons of Christmas craft fairs near their home in Warwickshire. Inspiration for Thermidor himself, a jolly ultramarine lobster who makes a mean seaweed soup, came when Richard found the kitchen festooned in Lindsey's miniature sea creatures hanging up to dry.
The figures, which make up the spreads in the book, were much bigger and more demanding. In theory, salt dough does not expand, but Thermidor, the earthbound chef Henri and their pop-eyed customers more than filled the space in Lindsey's studio and the Kidds' tiny cottage. "They were taking over the universe, " Lindsey recalls with a shudder, no doubt echoing the sentiments of a thousand teachers immersed in craft projects run wild.
As the publisher's deadline approached, Richard took their two small daughters away for five weeks so that Lindsey could take over the kitchen. Most figures started life as strips of dough wound into a rough croissant shape around silver foil, with wire feelers added for the sea creatures. They were baked, one at a time, in the Kidds' domestic oven. "It was knackered afterwards. The bigger ones were in there for days." Lindsey said. "They have to be baked on a low oven for long enough to hold their shape. Once you've baked salt dough it can be sawed or sanded, so most of the features were added later. "
The painting stage was a learning process for Lindsey, who concentrated on sculpture for her fine art degree. Her last full-time job was making mannequins for shop windows. "Then I met Richard through friends, we ran away and got married and I moved down here. Until then I had never used colour but I started working as a decorator with an artist and learned about paint effects."
The vibrant hues of the Monsieur Thermidor figures - luscious Chanel-red lips and electric green seaweed - were achieved mostly in acrylic, with a little oil rubbed on with a rag. Then the spreads were put together, roughly following Richard's line drawings, and the backgrounds made. The artistry of this stage is probably the biggest contributing factor to the book's impact, and sheer pressure of time helped it along. Lindsey ran out of hours for making waves - literally, baking enough salt dough "snakes" to fill up the vast areas of sea - and substituted patches of crumpled silver foil. The resulting shimmery seascapes, partly inspired by the family's holidays in north-west Scotland, are a delight.
The finished riotous assemblies, still stored in Lindsey's studio with the storage heater on full time to prolong their life, emerged somewhere between 2-D and 3-D. In the book, they leap off the page with a life of their own. The overall effect is Wallace amp; Gromit meet Clochemerle and Jacques Cousteau, and it's no surprise that Thermidor may have a future in animation. He is certainly likely to repeat the success of Richard's solo children's book, Almost Famous Daisy, which was shortlisted for the 1997 Mother Goose Award.
Only a painter whose sales have hit a hiatus would think of a children's picture book as a potential money-spinner. Richard has exhibited widely in the United States and the UK, but in 1986 he returned from six years in New York to an income more uncertain than usual, his favourite gallery having gone bust. Almost Famous Daisy, which sends a child painter plus dog on a whistle-stop world tour of the home ground of artists including Van Gogh, Chagall and Pollock, was a shot in the dark. "I knew nothing about the children's book market or how much competition there was. I thought I had something different and I was lucky - Frances Lincoln liked it. Monsieur Thermidor was going to be a regular picture book but the drawings needed more work," said Richard. "Then I had the idea of getting Lindsey to make the characters in dough.
"We had to sell the idea to Frances Lincoln, but once they saw the first few models they were keen. If we'd thought about the scale of what we were taking on we might not have done it. Living with all that dough was hard - at one point we were barely speaking."
The next project, which deals with Monsieur Thermidor's horoscope (he must be Cancer with all that cooking), may be easier. Like all great chefs,he's giving away a recipe for salt dough for those who can face it. Next time he may add a soupon of sel de mer.
* Monsieur Thermidor is published by Frances Lincoln, #163;9.99