C. Walter Hodges

Author-illustrator and Shakespeare scholar

Wednesday 01 December 2004 01:00

One of the outstanding author-illustrators of his time, C. Walter Hodges was also a leading scholar of the Shakespearean theatre. Hard-working to the point of perfectionism, he had a gentle demeanour and unfailingly sweet temper that brought him universal popularity in addition to well-earned professional respect.

Cyril Walter Hodges, writer, illustrator and Shakespeare scholar: born Beckenham, Kent 18 March 1909; married 1936 Greta Becker (died 1999; two sons); died Moretonhampstead, Devon 26 November 2004.

One of the outstanding author-illustrators of his time, C. Walter Hodges was also a leading scholar of the Shakespearean theatre. Hard-working to the point of perfectionism, he had a gentle demeanour and unfailingly sweet temper that brought him universal popularity in addition to well-earned professional respect.

Illustrating over a hundred books while also writing a number of them himself, he played an important part in the general renaissance of children's literature since 1945.

The son of an advertising manager, Hodges was born in 1909 and educated at Dulwich College. He later described this time as a wretched imprisonment, breeding in him an enduring fear and distrust of his teachers. At the age of 10, he spent all his week's pocket money on an exercise book composed of cream-laid paper on which he then wrote the first of his many books. Called "Walks in Our Museums", this unpublished work describes the young Hodges going to sleep in various favourite museums and then finding himself transported to the past. This early love of history that was to stay with him for the rest of his life.

Going on to Goldsmiths' College of Art in 1925, Hodges was taught by E.J. Sullivan, a well-known illustrator whose fluent line and dramatic use of shading was to make a lasting impression upon his own artwork. Equally fascinated by the stage, he took his first job in 1928 at the Everyman Theatre in Hampstead, where he was responsible for both costumes and scenery. Unable, however, to live on a salary of 30 shillings a week, he eventually joined an advertising agency, which he found dull but more lucrative. Still looking for freelance work, he made his artistic breakthrough in 1931 when he received a commission from the Radio Times, an invaluable patron for many young artists. He went on to provide it with over 600 illustrations during the next 40 years.

In 1936 Hodges married Greta Becker, a brilliant and sometimes fiery figure with ambitions to become a ballet dancer and with whom he had fallen in love at first sight. For the next 63 maritally contented years she provided complete domestic support while Hodges was left free to get on with his work. In search of a more regular income, the couple sailed to New York, and for a time thought of settling there. During this time Hodges wrote and illustrated his first book, Columbus Sails (1939).

This ambitious work was illustrated with four magnificent double-spreads plus seven pages of black-and-white illustrations. It describes the great voyage of 1492 from three different perspectives: a map-making monk, who foresaw the dangers, a sailor on the boat itself and an Indian in Spain who tells how the whole adventure ended. But there were to be no more books for the next six years, as Hodges returned to Britain to serve as a captain in the Army, lending his artistic expertise to the problems of camouflage and taking part in the Normandy landings.

After the Second World War Hodges continued with his dual love of illustrating and the stage. In 1951 he was appointed designer to the Mermaid Theatre when it opened in St John's Wood, with this position renewed when it re-emerged at London's Puddle Dock eight years later.

In 1964 he won the Kate Greenaway Medal for his Shakespeare's Theatre (1964), a sumptuous book building on what had already become a consuming interest, first evident in his groundbreaking work of speculative scholarship The Globe Restored (1953). For some time closely involved with Sam Wanamaker's doomed attempt to build a replica of the Globe theatre, Hodges became a valued scholar on the practical problems of trying to understand what exactly Shakespeare's theatre would have looked like and how this would have affected his plays.

His last book, where he sums up a lifetime's wrestling with this topic, was Enter the Whole Army: a pictorial study of Shakespearean staging (1999). Written when he was nearly 90, it is a superb achievement. Still to come were his illustrations for the New Cambridge Shakespeare, once again with their emphasis on how the plays themselves were most probably staged.

All this time Hodges was also busy illustrating - his work for other writers including Elizabeth Goodge's The Little White Horse (1946), William Mayne's A Swarm in May (1955), Ian Serraillier's The Silver Sword (1956) and novels of Rosemary Sutcliff from The Shield Ring (1956) to The Eagle of the Ninth (1970) - and sometimes writing as well. The Namesake (1964) was the first of two novels looking at Britain under King Alfred, portrayed by Hodges as a sensitive, caring man with strong pacifist leanings - for his many friends, something of a picture of the author himself. Nineteen seventy saw his most successful novel, The Overland Launch, a spirited account of the launching of the Lynmouth lifeboat in January 1899 following an epic cross-country journey thought by everyone at the time to have been impossible.

Meanwhile at home there were two sons to bring up and in the course of time four much-loved grandchildren as well. In Lewes, where he now lived after moving from Seaford, there was prison visiting to do as well as attendance at the Friends Centre; Hodges was a practising Quaker.

Despite his becoming a lecturer at Brighton Polytechnic School of Art and Design in 1959, money was still sometimes tight. Ever the purist, Hodges would hurl perfectly good drafts for his latest commission into the bin, starting all over again even after midnight in order to get everything just right. Working mostly with pen and ink plus occasional watercolours, he aimed at an apparent spontaneity belying the many hours he had put into his art.

Sadly missing Greta, who died in 1999, Hodges remained courteous, quizzical, amused and amusing to the end. Spending his last few years in care, he leaves a legacy of artistic achievement and personal charm it would be hard to beat.

Nicholas Tucker

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