It started with a look

Shirley Hughes, 75 this year, is one of our most celebrated illustrators of children's books; her characters are loved in primary classrooms and nurseries all over the world. In her autobiography, published this week, she recalls the words, images and people that lured her away from a sheltered suburban home to an artist's life in London. In this extract, she considers her introduction to 'proper art'

David Hockney once observed that art education in his day taught the skills and not the poetry but that now it tends to be the other way around. Certainly, Marion Richardson's ideas concerning free expression in child art were slow in reaching West Kirby. We were encouraged to be careful with colour and not "go over the lines". This was undoubtedly inhibiting. But with me, drawing and painting stuck. I was never much good at anything else, so I just went on doing it. Writing was a secret thing, kept well under wraps. I attempted stories and plays, once even the libretto for an opera, typing them out on a massive Underwood typewriter which had belonged to my father, but I never finished any of them.

School and art never really mixed. It was certainly not a high priority at my first school, Miss Todd's, situated in an Edwardian semi-detached villa near the promenade. The awful sinking feeling set in as you arrived at the row of shoe-bags which lined the narrow hall. Miss Todd was terrifying. She wore a hand-embroidered smock and had advanced views on education, but these did not extend to free expression in any form. She seemed to look down from a great height with sharp black eyes and a loud commanding voice, the main perspective being of strap-over buttoned shoes and legs encased in shiny brown lisle stockings.

The kindergarten was in what would have been the front bedroom where Miss Hale, the only other teacher, who wore her hair in a golden plait wound around her head, was a sunlit Constable landscape compared with Miss Todd's Turneresque thunderbolts. I quite enjoyed threading coloured wooden beads and joining a singing game, walking round and round in a circle on the brown linoleum: "I am small I knowBut where e'er I goThe fields grow greener stillI" The lavatory was up three steps at the end of a dark passage and very difficult to negotiate. Old Mr and Mrs Todd lurked in an unimaginable area of gloom and peculiar smells somewhere at the back of the house. At midmorning we were given an Italian wafer biscuit; but something was indefinably wrong with the tepid milk drink masquerading as Bournvita. Mercifully, we did not have to stay for dinner.

We did a lot of handwork at Miss Todd's, turning out an inexhaustible supply of cross-stitch needle-cases, papier-mache bowls, raffia mats and lopsided wicker baskets. Art, in the form of drawing and painting, did not figure strongly on the curriculum. But there was plenty of inspiration outside school in West Kirby. There were the beautiful tiled paths which led up to people's houses: black and white squares and hexagons, or terracotta combined with slate grey. There were ceramic panels in porches, and fireplace surrounds with drooping art nouveau lilies, and coloured glass in front doors which gave stunning magic-lantern effects, all of which are so admired again today. And at home there were fashion drawings and magazine illustrations to copy.

At one point it was decided that I should have private art lessons. A dashing blonde, daughter of a friend of my mother's, who had dabbled with drawing and painting while engaged in the more serious business of getting engaged, came to our house once a week. She set up a still life, a single orange or lemon, and sat around chatting to me while I attempted to get it down in wobbly watercolours. I didn't learn much, but I felt very grown up.

Later, at West Kirby high school, there was a proper art room presided over by highly strung, skeletal Miss Griffiths. She also wore a smock, then essential for anyone of artistic leanings, and round, gold-rimmed glasses. We made careful drawings of cones, cubes and spheres with lots of shading, then graduated to painting leaves and flowers, and pictures of winter trees against an evening sky. Even fireworks, done in chalk on black paper. The class gradually divided, as sadly art classes do, into the few girls who liked doing this kind of thing, and the rest who had decided that they "couldn't draw" and regarded that period as an opportunity to mess the teacher about or get on with their homework, unmolested, at the back of the room. Hence Miss Griffiths's rather nervous disposition. Her frizzy, grizzled hair appeared to rise from her head when she was really riled and she seemed about to levitate.

Like all children we were pretty callous towards teachers. But I now know that she did her best. Art is a difficult subject to teach once children have passed the age of innocent, unselfconscious attack. Perhaps even more difficult than the performing arts, which have the advantage of drawing people together. So the gap between those whose work was regularly pinned up on the art room wall, who were invited to design a programme for the school play or draw in their friend's best autograph book, and the majority who had simply given up, widened as we progressed up the school, though many of the latter group were still producing beautifully drawn information in their biology and geography notebooks under the impression, despite the pleasure and satisfaction gained, that it was not "proper art".

I think that now if someone corralled me in an art room for an hour or two, without any particular warming-up process, and exhorted me to "be creative" I would seize up completely. Fluency in drawing is largely to do with having a pencil (or felt pen) in your hand most of the time as a kind of commentary, a response to life in general. As with football, it is a matter of kicking the ball about at every available moment. You grow the necessary skin of toughness to protect you from the sometimes bitter disappointment with unsatisfactory results. Our educational system, with its strong emphasis on reading and writing, tends to marginalise drawing. Even at primary school the picture accompanying a piece of writing is often hived off into a separate box at the bottom of the page rather than woven into the text. And at secondary school drawing is not readily accepted as part of a piece of written work. Computer graphics on the cover of a project may make it look more impressive but the satisfaction is surely reduced.

* Just as to become a writer you must first become a reader, so becoming an illustrator is preceded by learning how to look. I think I became one partly because, in my pre-television childhood, compared with the rather hectic childhood of today, there was so much time to mooch about, draw, read and daydream. And, apart from the cinema, a twice-weekly treat at the most, the imagery I absorbed was nearly all drawn rather than photographic. It did not move. Your eye ran over it and you digested it at exactly your own pace, not at the speed decided by a television director or animator.

I was also brought up on narrative painting. The framed colour reproductions which hung on my mother's walls were mostly of the Dutch school. There was Rembrandt's portrait of a soldier with his helmet glittering out of the gloom and Vermeer's ravishing girl with a turban and pearl earring. The intimacy of Pieter de Hooch's tranquil back courtyards with their tantalising glimpses of the street beyond and the Vermeer interiors, flooded (always from the left, it seems) with liquid light from high lantern-like windows, were as familiar to me as the rooms in my own home. Nobody told me where these houses were. But I will never forget the shock of pleasure years later when I walked into the National Gallery and saw these paintings in the original. It was like meeting a long-lost friend. Ignorant as I then was, it gave me the key of confidence to go on and look at other works.

Extracted from A Life Drawing: recollections of an illustrator by Shirley Hughes, published by the Bodley Head pound;19.99. A Life Drawing is available in bookshops or via mail order from Bookpost, telephone: 01624 677237, pound;16 plus pound;1.95 pamp;p. An exhibition of original illustrations and sketchbooks, Shirley Hughes with Alfie, Dogger and Friends, is at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, from September 18 to January 26, 2003

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