Illustrator Axel Scheffler on The Gruffalo, artistic inspiration and Richmond life
19:46 19 October 2016
As world-famous illustrator Axel Scheffler looks forward to hosting a children’s workshop to help raise awareness of our local environment, Tinx Newton meets up with him at his home in Richmond for an exclusive interview
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine September 2016
Within moments of Axel Scheffler greeting me at the front door of his Victorian house, in a quiet, leafy road in Richmond, he’s apologising about the mess. Juggling multiple projects, it’s a busy time for the internationally-renowned illustrator, who lives here with his French wife, Clémentine, and their eight-year-old daughter. “That’s no problem at all,” I assure him. “It’s an artist’s prerogative!”
As he makes us both a cup of tea, I peer around his kitchen for signs of The Gruffalo, the now world-famous children’s book character that was conceived by Julia Donaldson around 16 years ago and brought to life by Axel’s vivid illustrations. I’m keen to learn more about his ability to breathe life into the words of authors and, as we climb up the stairs to the top of the house, I am rewarded with glimpses of the Gruffalo peeping out at me the higher we go. As well as the sketches and drawings of him on the walls, there are books on the stairs, and it is somehow comforting to see his big, beaming face around every corner.
Up in Axel’s brightly-lit studio, boxes of papers and piles of books do indeed cover every surface. “I need two weeks to do my filing and sort all this,” he says apologetically, “but there’s never the time. I am always busy, always drawing – I know it’s a good position to be in but a little bit of spare time might be nice.” In front of a large window overlooking the garden, Axel’s drawing table is laden with pots of pens and pencils, tins of handmade rubber stamps, sheets of drawing paper and everything necessary to keep up the high demand for his much-loved monster. And there, in his original form, is a recent drawing of the Gruffalo – complete with toothy smile, massive clawed hands and big round belly.
While undoubtedly best-known for The Gruffalo books, Axel has been an illustrator for over 30 years now, having left his native Hamburg to study at Bath Academy of Art where he did Visual Communication in the 1980s. There, he was encouraged by his tutor to pursue his talent for drawing and moved to London where he began illustrating for English and German advertising companies, magazines and newspapers.
“I took my portfolio to a number of publishers, as one did in those days, and Faber commissioned me to illustrate The Piemakers by Helen Cresswell and Bottle Rabbit by Bernard McCabe,” says the 58-year-old. “Around the same time, Julia Donaldson was writing songs for the children’s TV series Playdays and her song A Squash and a Squeeze was commissioned as a picture book by Macmillan Children’s Books. I was recommended as an illustrator for her text and that’s how our partnership began.”
In 1999, Julia sent her idea for The Gruffalo to Macmillan and the award-winning story of the bumbling beast and his encounter with the little brown mouse in the deep, dark wood has continued to delight children and adults across the world over ever since.
“It took a little time to get the Gruffalo exactly as we wanted him,” reveals Axel. “My original Gruffalo was scarier than the one we know now, with smaller eyes but bigger teeth and claws. He was deemed too frightening for the children so I introduced the slightly softer, almost bewildered eyes and a rounder body. I think the end result really works for children – he is big enough to be a bit scary, but his facial expressions make him completely endearing.”
The big brown beast with his gormless grin is now of course a worldwide success – a modern classic – and both mouse and monster have become stars of stage and screen as well as story-time favourites. The books have sold over 13.5 million copies worldwide and been translated into over 70 languages. So what is the secret behind his creation’s enduring appeal?
“I think it is the ambivalence of him,” says Axel. “He is a bit scary, but also a bit stupid. Children like to be on the edge of their seat a bit, but then enjoy the relief that this huge, hairy fellow is very likeable after all. There is nothing straightforward about him, which they love.”
Route to Surrey
Having lived in the beautiful environs of Richmond for some years now, since moving here from South London, Axel’s other great passion in life is preserving the area’s natural beauty and its wildlife. As a patron of the Environment Trust for Richmond, alongside Sir David Attenborough and actress Helen Baxendale among others, he attends their events regularly and also helps to promote awareness of conservation through his other books and illustrations – Zog and the Singing Hedgehog being one such example.
“We have quite a lot of hedgehogs in Richmond,” he says, “and we need to keep it that way. Creatures like hedgehogs are threatened because of loss of habitat and we need to keep reminding people that if we all work together we can keep them safe. The Hedgehog Campaign is just one of many great initiatives run by the Environment Trust that explains simply and clearly to children, and their parents, how to protect animals that live right on our doorstep.”
Undoubtedly inspired in his work by his visits to the local countryside, Axel reinforces this green message in his personal life too. “I don’t have a car,” he says. “As a family, we cycle and walk everywhere, or take public transport. It’s actually very liberating. I realise in Richmond we are lucky to have good transport links on our doorstep, but it is still too easy for people to jump in the car when they could go by other means.”
Luck of the draw
Later this month, Axel will be joined by fellow Environment Trust patron Helen Baxendale for a special day of children’s workshops in Richmond. The pair will be reading Zog and the Flying Doctors, a new picture book he has worked on with Julia Donaldson, as well as Zog and the Singing Hedgehog. Axel will also be drawing his most famous characters, the Gruffalo, Stick Man, Snail and the Whale, and teaching the children how to draw them too. To add to the fun, entertainer Deva Armstrong will lead a rousing sing-a-long of the Flying Doctors song and other tunes – and, after each workshop, there will be a book signing as well.
“I’m very much looking forward to our shows this month,” says Axel. “It’s a privilege to work with such a wonderful local organisation, helping creatures like the hedgehog, and inspiring a love of our natural spaces and gardens. There’s a secret and magical world of wildlife that lies just beyond every child’s back door.”
My Favourite Surrey
Pub/restaurant: “I don’t tend to eat out much these days – so my favourite place for dinner would have to be here at home in Richmond.”
Shop: “The independent children’s bookstore The Alligator’s Mouth in Richmond is a great little place. They will also have a stand at our special children’s event. Check out their website at thealligatorsmouth.co.uk.
View: “I love to go with my family to the top of Richmond Hill with a picnic and look down over the river.”
Day out: That would be sailing down the Thames in my friend’s boat.
Place to relax: “I seem to have less time to relax now, as I am always so busy working, but I always enjoy going for a stroll in Richmond Park. The greenery, water and open spaces are why I love it here in Richmond.”
Walk the walk
If you go down to the woods today at Alice Holt near Farnham, you might just be lucky enough to bump into the Gruffalo…
That’s right, on the Easy Access Discovery Trail through the forest, which you can download at forestry.gov.uk/aliceholt, you’ll find a stunning wooden carving not just of the Gruffalo but also of the Gruffalo’s Child too.
Created by sculptor Neil Bruce in partnership with Magic Light Pictures, why not see if you can spot them – and then e-mail your photos to us at email@example.com.
• Alice Holt Forest, Farnham GU10 4LS. Open every day except Christmas Day. See forestry.gov.uk/aliceholt