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Catherine Anholt

Catherine Anholt: 1

Writer, Painter and Sculptor

I was the third of eight children from an Irish Catholic family. Because there were so many of us I became very independent and self-motivated. I was an observant child, noticing details of my surroundings and of people and I have vivid memories of what it was like to be a child which have been invaluable in my career as a children’s illustrator.

My father was a creative man; he came over to England from Cork to find work. My mother was a nurse. It was a strange upbringing. We started in Kilburn, at a time when landladies had notices in their windows saying ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No DHS’. For a better life we moved to Prinknash Abbey, near Gloucester, where my father worked as a potter. It was a weird community, with children running around in dirty nappies while their parents read novels - very Virginia Woolf. It didn’t work for us, and when I was about four we moved to Brownshill outside Stroud, where the Catholic community owned most of the village. They let us buy one of a row of four cottages, which we eventually knocked into one home; one of the cottages was my father’s pottery. My father used to put all the pots he had made in a little suitcase and go off on the bus to sell them. My siblings and I were fortunate enough to go to the very good Catholic schools in Stroud. However I didn’t find any real mentors, and I rather floundered, although I was good at art.

My childhood was unconventional and colourful; in some ways it was like Laurie Lee’s, who grew up nearby, in Slad, a couple of decades before. As in many families, my siblings have been through difficulties in their adult lives but what I took from all of this was a sense of independence, I realised that I would have to sort my own life out and no one was going to do it for me. It also made me aware of the importance of organisation and discipline; when I was growing up I was the tidy-upper of the family! I’ve never been a rebel but I’ve always followed my creativity. For me, art is a natural part of my being and a constant companion.

My parents have now returned to the west coast of Ireland where they lead an admirably simple and spiritual life.

Being aware of the financial pressures at home, earning my own living was a priority so I applied to train as a nurse at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. One evening after I had done two years towards my training as a State Registered Nurse, I was left in sole charge of a cancer ward of thirty patients. Four people died that night. That had a really bad effect on me; it was such a different world from the little rural community I had grown up in. I just couldn’t cope and I left. It must have seemed like an impulsive decision, and my father was very angry. It was a time when I could have done with sympathy and support but he wouldn’t speak to me for a year. But having to cope on your own does make you strong. I saw an ad in the Oxford Times for a foundation course at Banbury School of Art. It was a last resort, but I grabbed at it because I had been good at art at school, and there’s a stubborn determined streak in me that made me aspire to find my true path. I applied, and they took me, even though I didn’t have a portfolio. I think they must have been short on numbers. I lived on the floor of a friend’s flat and hitchhiked to Banbury every morning. I worked in the Oxford University Press kitchens as a washer-up, and one evening a week I was a life model at an art class in the Old Fire Station. That’s where I first met Laurence, who was on a parallel journey as an artist. Together we went on to Falmouth College of Art. It was a fantastic place, the whole department was excellent but I had an especially inspiring print-making tutor in Gareth Davies. For all the time I was there, he was an important father figure and mentor, encouraging me, and getting me to explore new techniques. I went from strength to strength, got a first and a place at the Royal College of Art to do an MA in printmaking. Then Laurence and I went to on to take Master’s at the Royal College of Art and Laurence at the Royal Academy.

Catherine Anholt: 2

The RCA’s print-making department adjoined the Victoria & Albert Museum. I used to spend my lunch hours there, soaking up all the amazing artefacts and paintings. My work was rather dark at that time. Looking back, I realise that I was putting myself through a kind of therapy using art to explore the person within. Now I know myself better, both strengths and failings. I don’t feel I have to prove myself, I can just get on. I’m infinitely more confident than I used to be and far happier too.

I got pregnant in my last year at the Royal College, and Laurence and I married. We started without a bean. Claire was born in 1984 and the twins three years later. It was a difficult time especially as Claire had a lot of serious illness and was in and out of hospital for several years. Luckily the twins seemed to sleep all day.

The most important thing is that out of all this adversity, Laurence and I built an immensely strong and loving family unit which has endured and our three children are now amazingly confident, happy and successful; so we must have got something right!

Writing and illustrating children’s books began just after I’d graduated. Claire was a few months old and we were living in a North London flat. A friend who worked for Methuen Children’s Books suggested I tried illustrating so that I could work from home. The drawings in the earliest books were rather weak and unconfident; I wince when I see them. But after we did a book about a little pig called Truffles, we never looked back and in the last 21 years we have produced around 80 books in dozens of languages. It’s what makes our life-style possible and we are able to live in a beautiful part of the countryside by the sea and we have a wonderful life. To work together you have to be tolerant. Laurence is very bright and does more of the head stuff; I just launch into my work. I’ve always had a strong work ethic; I hate wasting time.

Catherine Anholt: 3

I find family life huge fun, though of course it has its ups and downs; every family has its blips – one of our first books was called ‘Good Days, Bad Days’ and we’ve always tried to present a warts and all celebration of family life. What I regretted about my own childhood was that we never did things as a family, it was just too chaotic. I wanted it to be different for our children, and I knew how important being organised was: it’s what gives you time and freedom.

I’m very disciplined and I work best on my own. When I was a child, people rarely called in at the house. We lived in an isolated way, and that impacted on me; I’m still very self-sufficient. I keep a kind of illustrated diary and I prefer things that are hand-made – I react against bland computer generated graphics. Handwriting is more expressive than type, much more interesting. I love seeing manuscripts by great writers, seeing how Thomas Hardy changed the opening of Under the Greenwood Tree, for example.

I feel most at home with my own family, and with creative, like-minded people; I especially like the wonderful mix of people at the Chelsea Arts Club. But I can fit in anywhere. I’m a governor at a local school, and I’m involved in many groups and organisations. I don’t like over-opinionated people, or pompous or racist ones.

Catherine Anholt: 4

I’m a compassionate person. Having worked as a nurse and having seen lots of people, including two of my brothers, in dire straits, I don’t criticise those who are down-and-out. I try to imagine the story behind the state they’re in. I know that it doesn’t take people long to sink very low, and I always give money when people ask. ‘There but for the grace of God . . .’

Being a parent has increased my confidence – coping with children, schools, doctors and so on is very empowering. So is beginning with nothing and now seeing the children doing so well. We’ve made a huge investment here. Our house was quite derelict when we bought it, and we’ve created a wonderful place. All three of our children are very artistic, and the setting they’ve grown up in has nurtured that. Now the house is like a lovely old armchair, or a favourite aunt. We all love it, but you have to move on, to take charge of your life and Laurence and I are considering down-sizing because our priorities are changing and the children are moving on to start their own lives.

Catherine Anholt: 5

Children’s books are wonderful, but we both feel that we would like to regenerate that other part of our creativity – to get back to our fine art work with less of an audience in mind. The work I’m planning is much more personal, it comes from deep inside me. I haven’t done much of that for many years except for sketches, but I’m planning a real change. I’m looking forward to exploring, to celebrating – my work will be far more joyful than when I was a student. That’s what an artist has to offer, the way you see the world, the way you interpret it. It’s an exciting prospect, but also a scary one – like all transitions. I’ve always been a huge fan of Matisse; I love the way he celebrates life, enjoyment and creativity. We’ve just been to his home and the chapel he decorated near Nice. I was raised as a Catholic, and I can feel the way that Matisse’s spirituality comes through in his work. I’m really interested in being in touch with that side of myself. I’m still a Catholic; going to church every Sunday means a lot to me; it’s a time when I can just be quiet and reflect.

So many creative people think of excuses that stop them getting on with their work, but if you really want to do something, you’ve just got to start – buy a pad and a pen, get going. To start with, I just want to play with colour and mark-making – the way Picasso and Matisse did.

I’m not greatly concerned about winning respect, or of wielding power, but I think that if you’re talented, you should leave something behind. Working on books for children and seeing the pleasure they get from my books has been lovely, but the next forty years are an exciting prospect. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes of it.

My greatest fear is losing health. There have been various dips, both mental and physical. A lot of our old friends seem to be stressed out with huge work-loads, but down here people are happy, enjoying the environment, trying to stop abusing the planet. I think everyone should slow down, celebrate life more. We need to simplify, keep spiritual things in mind more. There has to be more to what we are than just earning and consuming. We need to get in touch with those things, be less greedy.

Catherine Anholt: 6

As you get older, time seems to speed up. When you see how much Matisse and Picasso did in their later years, you realise the benefits of experience. Lives go in phases. The work we’ve been doing for the last twenty years has been partly motivated by a need to provide for the family. I do have a fear of poverty. As a parent you have to be unselfish; later you have to look to yourself again, to get on with your own work.

Catherine Anholt: 7

I don’t think anything I’ve done has been a waste of time. Life’s a journey; you pass through many stages. Being a working mum from the start meant I was always busy; looking back I feel I may have been in a hurry to get to the next stage; I’m looking forward to being a grandmother and being able to savour just being with my grandchildren. The things that mattered in my 20s and 30s matter less now; I’m aware how short life is, that I must get on with the things I really want to do.

I have always been blessed with a huge amount of energy and determination. In some ways I have hardly started as an artist so I look forward to the future with optimism. The best is yet to come.