6 ISSUES FOR £6 Subscribe to Surrey Life today click here

Illustrator Axel Scheffler on The Gruffalo, artistic inspiration and Richmond life

19:46 19 October 2016

A long-time resident of Richmond, Axel is known worldwide for his work on The Gruffalo (Photo: Liam Jackson)

A long-time resident of Richmond, Axel is known worldwide for his work on The Gruffalo (Photo: Liam Jackson)

TBC

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.

Colourful career

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 editorial@surreylife.co.uk.

• Alice Holt Forest, Farnham GU10 4LS. Open every day except Christmas Day. See forestry.gov.uk/aliceholt

0 comments

Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files
Comments

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Surrey visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Surrey staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Surrey account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from People

Tue, 21:49

Former UK Royal Air Force military fighter and executive officer of the Red Arrows, Richmond-based Justin Hughes knows a thing or two about building a formidable team. Here he reveals his top tips

Read more
Tue, 21:24

Following in famous footsteps, Emily Lamb is a highly sought-after artist with a distinct style of her own.

Read more
Tue, 15:34

With the significant increase in UK house prices over the past few years, equity release has become an increasingly popular financial planning tool, used by homeowners to free up capital locked in to the value of a property.

Read more
Mon, 21:52

The entries are all in and judged, and here are the finalists for the first Surrey Life Landscape Painter of the Year competition – the winner will be announced at an exclusive event in Esher later this month

Read more
Mon, 21:52

This summer, West Horsley will become home to the UK’s first new opera house to be built in decades. Actress and lead appeal patron, Joanna Lumley, shares why she is so passionate about the project.

Read more
Saturday, February 18, 2017

Author and journalist Stephanie Merritt, AKA S.J.Parris, tells us about her passion for local theatre and shares some of her other favourite cultural hotspots in her hometown of Guildford

Read more
Friday, February 17, 2017

Taking care of our fascinating wildlife is more than a full time job for Matt Binstead. Here he reveals how he spends his weekends at the centre, near Lingfield

Read more
Thursday, February 16, 2017

As Guildford Shakespeare Company prepare to tackle the world of political thriller with their adaption of Julius Caesar, Matthew Williams meets the group’s founders to discuss their 10th anniversary year, how their now famous Spiegeltent almost got stuck in the mud and some hugely exciting plans for Guildford

Read more
Thursday, February 16, 2017

Simon Lewis reminds us that the current tax year ends on 5 April and considers the opportunities for us to legitimately organise our financial affairs in order to pay a little less tax

Read more
Thursday, February 16, 2017

As the new Inheritance Tax allowance provisions regarding family homes will take effect from 6 April, it’s important to consider they will have on existing Wills, Will Trusts, Settlements holding property and estate planning.

Read more
Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A comforting constant in a fast-changing world, the BBC Surrey Breakfast Show effortlessly combines local and national news for an informative and entertaining start to the day. Surrey Life editor Caroline Harrap gets a sneak peek behind the scenes

Read more
Wednesday, February 1, 2017

As Richmond-based actor Peter Davison looks back on a successful career that has encompassed everything from All Creatures Great and Small to Doctor Who, here he chats to Angela Wintle about life on and off the small-screen – and his love for the Surrey countryside

Read more
Wednesday, February 1, 2017

As a presenter on The One Show, Nick Wallis has his finger firmly on the cultural pulse. Here, we put him under the Surrey Life spotlight to find out his favourite local haunts around his hometown of Walton-on-Thames

Read more
Wednesday, February 1, 2017

From Westminster Abbey and St James’s Palace to the Tower of London, Amanda Winfield, aka Abinger Stained Glass, has worked on some of the most prestigious and historically important windows in the country. However, she is just as happy tackling modern commissions too

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Subscribe or buy a mag today

subscription ad
Surrey Life Application Link

Local Business Directory

Surrey's trusted business finder

Job search in your local area



Search For a Car In Your Area

Property Search