Passed/Failed: An Education in the life of Shirley Hughes, Author and Illustrator

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The Independent Online
Shirley Hughes OBE, 71, has illustrated 200 children's books and written the `Alfie' and `Lucy and Tom' series and `Dogger', which won the Kate Greenaway Medal. Her latest story is `The Lion and the Unicorn'; `Abel's Moon' is out in September. She presents `With Great Pleasure' today at 11.30am on Radio 4; the programme will be repeated next Wednesday at 11.30pm.

The Tale of Miss Todd: I was never taught by a man until I went to art school. Or a married woman: the Thirties was the era of the spinster teacher, partly because of all the men killed in the First World War and partly because women had to give up teaching when they married. In West Kirby, which was then a quiet seaside town on the Wirral peninsula, I went first to a little "dame's" school run by the terrifying Miss Todd. She had quite progressive views and wore a hand-embroidered smock. I used to cry and dread it as I went there in my pushchair but I have to say that it was very good teaching. We learnt the three Rs, how to spell and how language works. We drew very neat pictures, not going over the lines when you painted them in. I became an artist really because, compared with the hectic, programmed life of the modern child, there were acres of time to mooch around and draw. We didn't have television.

This means bore! When I was about eight, I went to the juniors of West Kirby High School for Girls. I don't think exams impinged; you just went there. Then I went to the senior school at 11 - just about when the war started. I went to school carrying a gas mask and during the Blitz I slept under the stairs. When not frightening, wartime is very boring. The grown-ups are always exhausted.

What's it all about, Alfie? I never wanted to be a painter but an illustrator. The grammar school gave us narrative; we learnt narrative poetry by heart. We read Walter de la Mare and Tennyson, and Homer in translation. I wasn't dim but I didn't go into the sixth form, but left at 16 after School Certificate (GCSEs). Liverpool Art School was an immensely fortunate choice. I was doing fashion and costume design but all these courses required an enormous amount of live drawing, and from that training I acquired a lifelong habit of keeping a sketchbook. You lurk around in play areas and pubs! I was only there for about a year and a half. I didn't like the ambience: it was seen as a way of filling in time before you met a nice young man and married.

Ed start: I wanted to see the world - so I went to Oxford. I thought I would trail moth-like over college lawns, Isadora Duncan-style. I was at Ruskin School of Fine Art for four years. Being in Oxford was an eye-opener. I was among people who read books and talked about them. Kenneth Clark, Slade Professor of Fine Art, had a rather lofty manner but his lectures opened my eyes to painting. And - second time around - his 1969 Civilisation television series and book was the thing that sent my eldest son Ed as a teenager back-packing around Europe (Ed Vulliamy, who is now The Observer's man in New York, is reading a passage in my With Great Pleasure).

Art in the right place: I taught myself in those days. I used to do illustrations, which I never showed anybody, of the classics and poetry. I have to say it was a dilettante atmosphere at Ruskin; it isn't like that now but far more motivated. One old tutor said of another student: "She hasn't got a very good Ruskin diploma but she has her M.R.S." That is, "Mrs" - she'd got engaged.

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