My best teacher

10th March 2000 at 00:00
My school days were undistinguished and I left at 16 with a very bleak report. I was a celebration baby, born in 1946 after my dad returned to England having been a prisoner of war. I was part of this huge bulge going through schools in classrooms of 50 kids and was rather overlooked. I was also a late developer: I failed the 11-plus and went to a secondary modern, but passed at 13-plus and went on to the Royal Liberty grammar school in Romford.

My dad was an accountant and went on to own a chain of newsagents. He gave me the first felt-tip pens known to man and during a lesson I drew on the window a crowd of people looking in. It proved rather difficult to take off. But stupidly I drew it right next to my desk.

I instinctively felt it was wrong to be clipped round the ear for not understanding or not being able to spell and grew to be rather anti-establishment, and during my last year at school I was hardly there. Leon Baxter, who became a business partner and fellow children's illustrator, used to spend a lot of time skiving off with me. We used to skip double physics on Fridays to drink coffee and buy the latest Beatles single.

But there was this teacher, Roy Franklin, who was more of an ally than I appreciated at the time. He taught art and I wanted to go to art school when I was 16 because I couldn't think what else to do. I remember asking him if I was good enough and he said "Good Lord, yes!" That was really surprising because nobody had expressed anything positive about my abilities before. I'd drawn cartoons from as soon as I was old enough to draw with a pencil. My school rough books were full of cartoons, but I didn't think real artists did that.

One of the things I liked about Roy was that he hated school more than me. He had wanted to be an architect and hated trying to teach pupils who weren't interested and could be fierce with them, but he was strangely tolerant with us.

He let Leon and I work on this film poster, Nero and the Last of the Mohicans, full of fighting scenes and Ben Hur lettering, while others were having to do dull still lies. He caught us in the bike sheds one Friday when we were about to go to the coffee bar. He said: "Where are you going to?" We said: "Dentist, Sir." His response was: "Go on up to the art room." He didn't say: "Back to double physics." We worked on Nero while he taught another lesson.

Although I am a fairly observant person and draw largely from memory, he taught me to look and measure. He taught me how to use tube men as a way of guesstimating proportions and I still find that useful.

I worked an apprenticeship at the National Children's Home School of Printing when I left and then got a job as a graphic designer. I went freelance when I was 21. Leon joined me and we set up the BBC - Baxter, Butterworth and Cope.

I am still in touch with Roy Franklin. He must be 70 now. His wife, who was an advertising manager for the Loveable bra company, gave us one of our first accounts. But I grew tired of graphics and decided to try my hand as an illustrator.

Percy the Park Keeper was first published in 1989. I think he's my alter ego. I was inspired to do Percy after walking the dog in the park. It was a winter's morning and I came across the park keeper's hut which looked so cosy.

To help celebrate World Book Day, children's illustrator Nick Butterworth will appear at WH Smith Bluewater, Rose Gallery, Bluewater, Greenhithe, Kent, on Saturday March 11, between 12pm and 2pm.Tel: 01322 386843. He wastalking to Elaine Williams


1946 Born in Kingsbury. 1959-62 Attends Royal Liberty school, Romford. 1969 Sets up graphic design agency Baxter Butterworth and Cope (BBC). 1981 Publishes first book, BB Black Sheep and Company. 1981-83 Cartoon strip Upney Junction published in Sunday Express. 1989 Publishes first Percy the Park Keeper book, One Snowy Night. After the Storm follows, and becomes a bestseller. 1998 Publishes Jingle Bells, which becomes an animated Christmas special 2000 First Percy the Park Keeper series showing on CITV at 3.30pm, Thursdays until March 16. New alien character, Q Pootle 5, to feature in picture book series.

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