Writer and illustrator Lauren Child and her exhibition at Mottisfont this summer
PUBLISHED: 12:42 09 June 2015 | UPDATED: 12:42 09 June 2015
There are few country estates that ignite the sense of discovery better than Mottisfont. As best-selling children's writer and illustrator Lauren Child prepares to bring Charlie, Lola and other characters out to play this summer, Viv Micklefield opens a door into her world
She’s rubbed shoulder’s with Damien Hirst, campaigned for UNESCO and seen the TV adaptations of her popular children’s books win BAFTAs, yet Lauren Child seems remarkably relaxed within Mottisfont’s hushed corridors.
Perhaps it’s not entirely surprising. Although a visit to nail down arrangements for her first retrospective exhibition opening in July is a novel experience, Lauren’s already made a mark in the county. Call into Basingstoke’s Discovery Centre and a mural she produced on the library wall, with the help of local primary school children, back in 2011 is revealed. Whilst Winchester has provided a stage for several book tours. “I have always loved visiting the Writers’ Festival there as the city is absolutely beautiful,” she says. And over a cup of tea, it soon becomes apparent why Mottisfont’s magical house and grounds, in particular, feels like a homecoming.
By Lauren’s own admission she enjoyed an ‘outdoorsy’ childhood. Whether this was joining her father, a former head of art at Wiltshire’s Marlborough College on drawing and painting expeditions, or, exploring the family’s rambling garden, she explains: “I think where you grow up and the landscape that you grow up in does have a huge effect on you. I’ve always loved the Downs, it’s a bit like being here in Hampshire, and this countryside actually feels quite familiar to me with all the trees.”
Surroundings that would also resonate with one of the characters she’s drawn more recently, Pippi Longstocking. Despite the almost fanatical global following enjoyed by this wild-child of Swedish literature, declining the commission was never an option for Lauren, who, having been brought-up on the stories herself, identifies closely with Pippi’s sense of adventure. A trait belied by the outward appearance of this softly spoken, elegantly groomed artist.
Interestingly, it’s Mottisfont’s world famous Walled Rose Garden, one of her parents’ long-time favourite destinations, that echoes another of the books making it on to Lauren’s list of top reads, The Secret Garden (which she again delighted in illustrating). With unreserved passion, she says that giving young readers the opportunity to discover the classics is vital.
“I’ve talked to friends about the assumption that children today don’t have that same level of concentration and patience as they used to. But I actually disagree with that because I think we’ve imposed the idea that everything has to happen really quickly. It depends on the individual. You will still find children who will read The Secret Garden, as I did, and love it”.
As a teenager growing-up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Lauren also credits films shown on TV as early influences on her own writing. “I used to watch a lot of old Hitchcock movies back then,” she says. “It’s harder to come across all those really great film directors or actors and actresses like Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn now, because there are so many channels. Then it was all about clever dialogue with patterns of speech, and stylistically they remind me of picture books because they are quite dramatic.”
Deciding on a career path was not clear cut for Lauren. In fact, having bagged an art degree, a stint at Damien Hirst’s studio beckoned before she set up a business making posh lampshades. While JK Rowling retreated to coffee shops to hone her craft, Lauren’s experience of having nowhere to call a permanent home later found a voice in her own tale of That Pesky Rat. Before bursting on to our bookshelves in 1999, she fought hard to establish herself in the face of rejection by potential publishers. Speaking of being “released from a cage”, when allowing herself the freedom to keep her writing personal and above all original, this probably explains why, when asked which out of all of her characters she would most like to spend the day with, Lauren’s unequivocal response is the indomitable teenage super-sleuth Clarice Bean.
Having successfully trained herself to write as though she’s inside the head of a character looking out, Lauren makes no excuse for sometimes taking a more laid-back approach. “I think that staring into space in underrated,” she observes. “It’s no surprise when people say that it’s when they are driving or lying in the bath, that they come up with their best ideas. The mind is in free-flow.
“I often begin things way in advance. It’s funny because every couple of years I might find a story and I’ll read it and if it doesn’t make me cringe, then it’s probably still a good idea.
“The thing I really fanaticise about now, when I’m having a bad day, is becoming something like a masseur or a reflexologist,” she laughs. “I was originally going to do an architectural interior design course but I backed out of it. Somehow being an illustrator allows you to bring together all these lovely things – furniture, costumes and buildings, without actually having to construct them. It’s great.”
This goes some way to explaining the layered collage, pattern, line and paint effects that appear within Lauren’s colourful pages. A technique which she admits is incredibly time-consuming, requiring up to an extra six months on top of the time taken to write a book in the first place.
“It’s the most ridiculous way to work but it’s the way that works for me. There are lots and lots of process to go through, just to build up one picture. You get the idea for your composition in a drawing, then you draw the characters, then you have to start all over again, cutting them out and colouring them.
“I never finish editing (the words) until the very last minute. The huge advantage of writing and illustrating is that you can completely change your mind about something in a picture and can then go back into your text and change it.”
And that’s likely to have been the case in Lauren’s latest book, which features the long-awaited return of lovable siblings, Charlie and Lola. Hot on the heels of the release of another Child favourite Ruby Redfort, this one’s based on number skills and is due out in November.
Despite having being awarded an MBE in 2010, and receiving a raft of other awards including the coveted Kate Greenaway Medal, Lauren remains refreshingly humble about her achievements and seems most content when in her London home, which she shares with her five-year-old adopted daughter, Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Mottisfont has cast its spell and there’s the impending thrill of sharing sketchbooks and drawings from her private collection, with fans both new and old.
“I think our visitors are going to love Lauren’s art,” says Louise Govier, the exhibition’s curator. “Many of them will know her characters already - they’re certainly firm favourites in my family, and it’s fascinating to see up close the illustrations created for her books.”
As Lauren reflects: “What’s lovely is to be able to show the breadth of my work, because sometimes the focus is just on the very well known characters - I think it’s so much more interesting to go and also see things that you never knew about.”
Adventures with Charlie, Lola and Friends - Saturday 18 July to Sunday 6 September, 11am-5pm
Meet the author herself on the opening day, 11am-2pm, and join the Family Trail running alongside the exhibition. Enjoy special themed activity weekends on 18-19 July, 8-9 August, and 22-23 August featuring storytelling, craft and a giant book making challenge; plus, there’s a big choice of gifts including limited edition prints on sale. Normal admission charges apply. Mottisfont, near Romsey SO51 0LP. For more details about future events taking place here head to www.nationaltrust.org.uk/mottisfont or call 01794 340757.
• Marsha Swanzy on running her own Whitchurch clothing boutique - Marsha Swanzy has had job offers from Vivien Westwood and Liberty & Co, but she shunned them all to run her own clothing boutique in Whitchurch… Jane Gazzard went to meet her to find out if she made the right choice
• Things to do in Hampshire this weekend - Great things to do in Hampshire this weekend: art exhibitions, walks, concerts, theatre, places to visit and other events and ideas.