My best teacher

14th July 2000 at 01:00
I went to a girls' day school in Suffolk, which I hated. They didn't like me and I didn't like them. I had been to a convent primary school where I was taught by strict but very committed nuns, and there was not one person at this new school who inspired or encouraged me in the slightest in seven years. Every day was simply something to be got through.

I lived for the holidays and weekends, when I had a great time. I loved tennis and roller-skating and had a big group of friends. I think the only reason the school didn't expel me was that I used to win tennis cups, because I did the absolute minimum of work with absolutely no enthusiasm. Although they did not think much of art there, they thought I should go to art school. I had always drawn a lot and my father, who was an architect, encouraged me.

It was wonderful to be at Ipswich art school, to be treated like a human being and to work at something you were committed to, surrounded by inspiring people who wanted to teach you. Philip Fortin taught me life drawing and composition. He looked how people expected art teachers to look: he was short, with a beard and a corduroy jacket with leather patches, corduroy trousers and a pipe that he smoked continually. You'd smell the smoke behind you as he came round the studio.

He wasn't a particularly nice man - in some ways he was a tyrant, and he could put people down. He could get away with saying a lot of dreadful things because he did it with humour, and he had a passion about what he was teaching which was like nothing I had experienced before.

He had an unexpectedly high voice which would get higher as he drummed a point home, pulling out books and thrusting them at us. "Why is that floor you've drawn going uphill?" he'd say. "Look at this, this is how a floor plane should be," and out would come an example from a painting of a Venetian palazzo.

We had to produce a full sketchbook of work every week. A group of us used to meet at the Lyons cafe before school with our sketchbooks and draw everyone in sight. He didn't let you get awaywith anything. He really wanted to teach you how to draw, to look at things and to never stop looking.

He didn't encourage us to be friends with him - it wasn't like that in those days - and I didn't keep in touch. I haven't seen him since, but he taught me things that have been the basis of everything I've done. Drawing does not seem to be so valued in art schools now, possibly because of computers. They are important, but without a firm base in drawing you can't go off in other directions. The two skills should be taught alongside each other. And there seems to be very little joy in the subject of the kind that my teachers at art school had.

I didn't go straight into book illustration. I had been working at the local repertory theatre in the holidays and I decided to specialise in theatre design at Central in London. The fabric designer Bernard Neville used to come in to teach, and he taught me a lot about colour - another wonderfully inspiring teacher. I worked in theatre, film and television for 15 years, but it was a rather fraught time because it wasn't really what I wanted to do.

Looking back, I should have gone straight into illustration, which was what I felt comfortable with. I think I'm still learning to draw now. I don't think one is ever satisfied. There's always more to learn. I sometimes feel that I've only just begun.

Children's book illustratorHelen Oxenbury was talkingto Geraldine Brennan


1957 Graduates from Ipswich art school

1957-59 Studies theatre design at Central school, London

1967 Illustrates Numbers of Things, the first of more than 60 children's picture books. Later titles include We're Going on a Bear Hunt, Farmer Duck and So Much. Pioneers illustrated board books for babies, and produces some of the first children's books to be sold in supermarkets

1969 Awarded Kate Greenaway Medal for The Dragon of an Ordinary Family and The Quangle Wangle's Hat

July 2000 Awarded Kate Greenaway Medal for her edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Walker Books)

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