Graham Percy: Children's illustrator who took a cerebral approach to his work

Graham William Percy, illustrator: born Auckland, New Zealand 7 June 1938; married 1961 Lyndsay Arnott (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1976), 1977 Mari Mahr (one stepdaughter); died Sutton, Surrey 4 January 2008

Thursday 10 January 2008 01:00

The children's book illustrator Graham Percy could have signed his work, as Hokusai once did, "The Old Man Mad about Drawing". After he retired he continued to draw as much as he had when, driven by an urgent commission, he would work through the night. In hospital, during his last illness, there was a moment when he frowned and his hands moved over the sheet. The nurse asked him if he needed morphine. He said no, that he was just working out a drawing.

He grew up in New Zealand, was a graduate of the Elam School of Art in Auckland and won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London to study graphics. Although, after his graduation in 1967, he turned to illustration – he had already worked at it in New Zealand – there is evidence of his skill as a typographer in his lively design for Stanley Morison's Splendour of Ornament, published by the college's Lion and Unicorn Press in 1968. In his first years as an illustrator he did a lot of work for advertising agencies and magazines – little drawings of his had a regular slot in Queen. Later he concentrated on illustrations for children's books.

He was a cerebral illustrator – that is to say he worked pictures out, did not expect them to flow from the hand. His craftsmanship – the later work was mostly done with coloured pencils – was perfect. The roots of his style can be seen most clearly in the illustrations of Heath Robinson. Graham Percy had the same predilection for neat, even lines, well worked out architectural detail and chubby people. In many ways he was happiest with animals: the illustrations for his "Favourite Animal Fables" series demonstrate his grasp of the expressive potential of their bodies. Elephants in particular suited the three-dimensional solidity he gave his characters. People, vehicles, chairs, houses and tables all give the feeling that they have been taken from a toy box and skilfully arranged. It made him a natural choice when old stories needed new pictures. Faber and Faber turned to him when they reissued Alison Uttley's "Sam Pig" stories in colour in 1988 and 1989 and in 1991 he did a Wind in the Willows for Pavilion Books.

From 1970 to 1972 he had worked, mainly in Hungary, on the design of Hugo the Hippo, a full-length animated film with a sound track by the Osmonds. His style was suited to the task. Well-defined, even lines and flat colour characterised much of his work; they lose less in the translation to film than the looser styles of more spontaneous illustrators. It was in Hungary that he met his second wife, the photographer Mari Mahr.

If you look only at the children's books – something over 100 of them – you get an incomplete impression of his achievement. Arthouse (1994), a picture book for adults, is one window on a wider world. It shows, spread by spread, rooms dedicated to and in the style of a long string of artists. These are parodies, both sly digs at and homage to, art he admired.

Another window is Imagined Histories, a little book published last year which arose from time he spent at Crear, the Scottish arts centre. He produced a series of scenes in which unlikely confrontations take place between composers whose work has been performed at Crear and the local landscape.

These drawings, like most of the work he did for himself, are in black and white – it is as though he wanted to get the sweetness of children's book illustration out of his mouth for a while. Among these sheets (some of them very large) is one of "The Expatriate New Zealand Artist". He stands weighed down by the monstrous Kiwi he carries on his back. I'm not sure what Graham would have said that nocturnal, flightless bird represented, but to spend so many formative years half a world away from the visual culture you feel you belong to can make for nervousness. In his case parodies and borrowings also read as attempts to find out where he stood. A series of large drawings called The Alchemical Allotment are literally and metaphorically dark; the price for being willing and able to please may have been to cut off a potential creative stream.

From the early Sixties, when he moved to England, he lived in London. He, his first wife, Lyndsay – a painter and writer and illustrator of children's books – and their children, Martin and Kitty, shared a large house in Wimbledon with another New Zealand family. Later, with his second wife Mari and her daughter, Yulia, he moved to a small modern house near Wimbledon Common.

The two establishments showed different ways in which houses can be richly inhabited. The first was memorable for graphic memorabilia, dolls and old advertising. It fitted, to a degree, with Percy's book illustrations. The second felt closer to his private work – partly because the environment was modern and because Mari's photographs and the drawings themselves were often on the wall. Environments affect those who live in them. It is not surprising that his children and stepchild all work in creative professions.

Peter Campbell

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