Everyone adored Miss Appleby at Wimbledon Park Elementary school. She was plump and cuddly, a lovely, motherly figure who hugged you, and you hugged her.
I often thought about her in terms also of how time passes, in different speed at different ages... “Oh yes, she’s still there. Still with the infants!” someone told me years later. She’d taught me donkeys years ago.
She was still teaching infants when I was grown up, ex-army, a painter, painting naked women, with a motorbike, a girlfriend. Miss Appleby was still in the same class, the same school, the same house, still alive after all that time!
Dear old Miss Appleby, silver haired and apple-cheeked. She had the right name. We all loved her, we wanted to cuddle her. She was like a mum.
I left Rutlish Grammar School, a rugger-bugger grammar school in Merton, in 1949. There was not a soul at Rutlish whom I rated as a teacher because I was there during the war, and all the teachers who would have been there were either in the army or waiting ages to be demobbed. They’d already served their time and it took them years to get out, a scandal at the time. So we had a lot of dotty old men dragged in from retirement and we’d think, “My God! This chap’s crackers, should be in a home…”
It's a fact that if you can't stand the teacher, you won't be able to stand their teaching, either
Aged 15, I went to Wimbledon School of Art in Merton Hall Road. Nowadays you can’t even start till you’re 18. For me, the striking thing was going for an interview there. The principal – Gerald Cooper – was rather intimidating, a very fierce chap with a beard, but very nice when you got to know him.
He said: “Tell me! Why d’you want to come to my art school?” I said: “I want to learn to draw in order to become a cartoonist.” He nearly exploded… “Good God boy! Is that all you want to do?” And I said: “Well, y-yes..”
I’d wanted to be a cartoonist for years. First I’d wanted to be a reporter, then a cartoonist of humorous drawings, like those in Punch magazine, which was looked upon as the pits, as commercial art. He more or less pushed me into fine art-type painting, which was not my cup of tea at all, although I had to do it.
The great person at my art school was a man called John Ward who became very famous later on. He was a hugely successful, brilliant teacher. He also destroyed the snobbish nonsense about commercial art because there he was, a well-known society painter doing posh portraits of posh people – which is commercial art, for God’s sake – while also drawing illustrations for Vogue magazine for years.
I thought, my God! Here’s this bloke who is a painter, who has RWS, RA and all the rest of it after his name. So we don’t have to have this division between fine and commercial art. Most fine art is commercial anyway: Rubens and the great artists ran these huge studios that were commercial enterprises and that probably had apprentices and secretaries and accountants.
John Ward was the epitome of the successful artist and the commercial artist at the same time; they weren’t different in my mind or in his. Which was wonderful.
He was intelligent, and treated you like a normal human being. He told you the facts and said what was wrong or right with your drawing, and put you on the right lines.
It’s a fact that if you can’t stand the teacher, you won’t stand their teaching, either. Mr Ward was a perfectly nice, intelligent, kind, good bloke in every way. He could come along and do a marvellous drawing on the edge of your board, and you’d say, “Look at that!” He was brilliant.
Years later, he went on to paint a picture of Princess Diana in her wedding dress. He was hugely successful. The great thing I also admired about him was nothing to do with his teaching. He was a member of the Royal Academy, and resigned his membership when it put on Tent – Everyone I have ever slept with, that ghastly piece by Tracy Emin…
Author and illustrator Raymond Briggs was speaking to Lilly Farrah. He has won many awards for his work in children’s literature, including The Kate Greenaway Award on two occasions