Friday, August 6, 2010
At Home with ... Children’s Illustrator Mandy Sutcliffe
A few months ago I was looking for a card for my cousin’s 40th birthday. She is one of those innately stylish people and I expected to find her a very sophisticated, ‘grown-up’ card. Then I saw a child’s birthday card illustrated by Belle and Boo creator Mandy Sutcliffe and I no longer wanted to be thinking like a grown-up.
The card was an illustration of a little girl with long brown hair sitting on a branch of an enormous tree. There was an expression captured in the little girl’s face: one of utter contentment, perhaps daydreaming of a future where anything is possible.
Instantly I saw my cousin as a child and our lives as an extended family. While we grew up in different cities, we would spend every second summer together when my aunt and uncle would bring my three cousins to Sydney to stay with our grandparents. Those were long days filled with playing on the beach and evenings spent in the house where my mother, my cousin’s mother and their two brothers grew up.
This illustration had managed to send me straight back to that time and childhood home. Indeed, all Mandy’s illustrations carry a similar power as she expertly captures simple moments in time and the emotions of childhood. How does she do it?
Mandy Sutcliffe studied Illustration at Leeds Metropolitan University but it was during a university exchange trip to France that she discovered a passion for capturing such moments of childhood.
‘Aesthetically children are really pleasing to me: the bigger head, masses of hair, huge eyes, small nose, rose bud mouths, turned in toes, skinny arms and legs and rounded belly, what could be cuter to draw? I also like the freedom that drawing children gives you. A little boy in a paper boat or riding a winter woolly is more acceptable to the viewer than if an adult was doing it, as it ties in with the imagination of a child.’
As a child, Mandy’s imagination was captured by the book Milly Molly Mandy. ‘This was the book I was read most as a child. I was given it because of the name and weirdly I did look a lot like her. I wonder now if I liked it so much because Milly Molly Mandy was an only child and had the full attention from her extended family of adults; parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents. My little sister arrived when I was three-years-old which must be a shock for all first-borns!’
But it was also the sense of adventure closely tied to the security of home that Mandy remembers, ‘I loved the map printed at the beginning of the book as I could see where she was at all times during the stories. For Milly Molly Mandy to be able to go camping or into the woods on a big adventure and for me to see from the map that it was just next door to her home or the village shop was reassuring.’
Mandy grew up with a similar sense of freedom and it was also these childhood experiences that have informed her work. ‘Friends of ours had a house with a huge plot of land, with a wood, a field, a pond with an island, a pool, a river running through it with a beach and a bridge and, and, and... I am sure if I went back it would seem much smaller, but I remember endless summers of playing made-up games with lots of kids of all ages. We felt free, creative and alive, but very aware our parents were nearby in an emergency.’
The illustrations in Milly Molly Mandy spoke so strongly to Mandy that she now hopes to recreate those same emotions for children looking at her own work. ‘Of course the illustrations were a HUGE factor in my enjoyment. I still think they are stunning and constantly look at them for reference. In one of my books I have coloured them in with felt tip pen. I wish I could remember how I felt when I was doing it: did I know I wasn't meant to but had an overwhelming feeling that I must? Or was it just complete happiness in the moment?’
‘I am about to launch the first Belle and Boo activity book, which is designed for kids to colour in. I have spent ages on the line drawings and it is printed on good quality paper as I think children appreciate quality as much as adults.’ (For those of us in Australia, thankfully this book as well as all other Belle and Boo products, are available through Lark)
Mandy’s children exist in an era long gone but it’s an era that symbolises for her much about the magic of childhood. ‘I want to capture the sense of family and simplicity, quietness and nature rather than all the technological rush and business of today.’ She hopes that for children and adults the illustrations evoke feelings of innocence, happiness, safety, escapism and beauty in the minutia.
Inspired by the toys children played with the blurred photos that exist of that time, Mandy also loves capturing ‘the big floppy hair bows, the wrinkled down ankle socks, shorts for boys, dresses always for girls, the colours, the material and the hair styles.’
Such real people to her, Mandy says ‘you will often hear me talking to one of my illustrated children when I have got them just right, saying "ooohhh you are so cute" or "I love your shoes".’
It’s unsurprising then that the physical space Mandy first considers home is her studio. ‘We had it built three years ago in our back garden and it is wonderful to have a place to work & even more wonderful to be able to lock the door and leave it behind. I used to work in the lounge room, so I never switched off. My flat is now lovely and calm and tidy, my studio on the other hand is always in a huge mess!’
But first and foremost, home for Mandy is being with Russ, her partner of 16 years. ‘He makes any place home: we have travelled, house swapped, rented and moved a lot, and all I need is him and a few good friends. A great art shop, book shop and cafe nearby also help!’
To find out more about Belle and Boo, visit their website
If you are in Australia and wish to see more Belle and Boo products, visit Lark
If you would like to visit Mandy's blog, click here
All photos © Mandy Sutcliffe