Alison Padley Woods invites Paul Morton to tell us about an illustrator who has inspired him.

I’ve had to think really hard to recall the books from my childhood. The Famous Five, The Borrowers, Stig of the Dump, The Water Babies and the usual Dandy and Beano annuals at Christmas are just about my total recollection of fond book memories.

It wasn’t until I was a 17-year-old student at Barnsley Art School that I 'discovered' children’s picture books, and I can pinpoint the moment precisely.

A visiting lecturer announced one morning, 'Don’t bother taking off your coats, we’re going into town.' We thought maybe for some sketching, but instead he led us to the local library and more importantly, into the children’s section. There he encouraged us to sit on the floor and shuffle forwards to the picture books.

What then seemed pretty bizarre for a bunch of teenagers, is now one of my all-time favourite pleasures - pulling up a tiny chair and poring over picture books.

Amongst the books that day was one by Brian Wildsmith. I don’t remember any particular titles, just the heady pleasure of being intoxicated by the colours. I can imagine, and hope, this immediate sheer enjoyment is experienced by readers of all ages when they turn the pages on these treasures.

I studied illustration at Liverpool Polytechnic (now John Moore’s University) and read about the ‘greats’ such as Arthur Rackham, Randolph Caldecott, Kate Greenaway, Thomas Bewick, Edward Ardizzone and the like.

When I spent my grant money it was on books by Brian Wildsmith, Jan Pienkowski, Kit Williams (Masquerade). I was also enjoying the artwork of Eric Carle, Shirley Hughes, Tony Ross and Anthony Browne.

But if pressed to choose just one of these influencers, I’d opt for Brian Wildsmith, an illustrator with over 80 books to his name, two dozen or so still in print, and who, startlingly as I was about to discover, shared many a common thread with me!

Brian Lawrence Wildsmith was born in 1930 in Penistone, near Barnsley, South Yorkshire. I had read that he was a proud Yorkshireman, but I was surprised to learn that he had moved not only to Hoyland Common, ‘my’ village, but to the very same road! Just a few hundred yards from where I was to live 27 years later.

The fact I only discovered this whilst researching this article feels more than serendipitous, almost as though I was meant to find out. It has created an emotional bond and invested me with a keener interest to know more about his life. 

Barnsley Art School life study,
© Brian Wildsmith

He, like me, attended Barnsley School of Art (1946 – 49). He also worked freelance for the same local newspaper (his first paid freelance work) and spent many hours sketching on the local Wentworth Woodhouse estate, where, incidentally, he met his wife to be.

In those days most young men from pit villages had little option but to follow their forbears into the coal mines, but Brian and his parents were determined to avoid that prospect. He successfully gained a scholarship to grammar school and later to The Slade School of Art, one of just three per cent of working-class children to enter higher education.

He loved, lived and breathed art for a full three years, emerging with a Diploma in Fine Art. 

From Brian's portfolio when applying to the Slade School of Art

He taught art in schools and then Maidstone College but looked to supplement his income. Brian had read about the 29,000+ books published in the UK each year, and enterprisingly taught himself the graphic design side of book cover production endeavouring to get some freelance book cover work.

His first commission was a book wrapper for Michael Joseph publishers, and he went on to produce 84 more outer covers and later internal line illustrations too. 

Three of the early 80+ book wrappers that Brian illustrated

In 1957, he had a meeting with Mabel George, editor at Oxford University Press. It was a pivotal moment in his career and started a 50-year publishing relationship. OUP became his second home. Mabel George was keen to raise the awareness, popularity and quality of children’s books. She saw the possibility to achieve this mission in Brian’s work but there was still one vital factor missing. Up until now most children’s books had been produced using fairly crude colour separation. She sought a fine art quality printer who had mastered the new four-colour separation process. This would do justice to Brian’s stunning and daring colours. In 1961, she eventually found Austrian printer Bruner Rosenbaum of Vienna, and she immediately commissioned Brian to illustrate 14 spreads for Tales from the Arabian nights.

Imagine, for the budding illustrator, what a glorious debut book contract this was. 

Spread from Tales from the Arabian Nights

She knew from the book’s reception that she had found ‘the one illustrator’ she’d been hoping for and in 1962 she invited him to produce his first picture book – ABC

Mesmeric cat colour spread from ABC

I strongly suspect this was the very book I had poured over that day in the children’s library. A passionate honest book, powerful and exploding with colour. It enchanted and hooked me in to children’s books for the rest of my life. 

A is for Apple

It was later described by Ron Heapy (OUP), as 'groundbreaking and changed the face of picture books and children’s illustration forever.'

What a review!

The fact that Brian was a painter/illustrator shines through in the visceral, tactile quality of the luscious colours. It received enormous recognition and praise, including the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal, 1962.

Brian was perfectly synchronised to ride this wave of fresh exuberance in children’s book illustration and the emerging progressive approach of dealing with and respecting children. It chimed perfectly with his passion to instil a wonder and learning in his child readers. To give them pictures of value. 

From ABC, 1962

Here's just one of the many other accolades from editor, Ruth Prickett:

As anyone under 40 is repeatedly reminded, those who were around in the sixties - and can remember anything about it - tend to recall a golden age of optimism, creativity and liberty. Nostalgia plays its part in this, but one man who did almost more than anyone else to translate the period’s vibrant colours, emotional expressiveness and exciting sense of freedom into illustration is Brian Wildsmith. His ABC burst into the staid world of children’s publishing with a rainbow of bold and brilliant images and helped set the tone for a new era of children’s books.


(from the excellent © created by his family).

There have been so many hundreds of thousands of picture books passing over bookshelves since ABC, but it still stands today amongst the very best that has been produced these 60 years later.


The adjectives to express the wonder of his work were fast being exhausted ... vibrant, opulent, dazzling, brilliant, luscious, sumptuous.

And his influence on my work? It’s not that my illustration looks anything like Brian’s in style. I don’t use colour with such exemplary skill. The influence is the dedication and sincerity to the craft of creating children’s books – that’s what I’m striving for. The desire to offer something worthy to the world of children.

Despite his 20 million sales with over 80 books, Brian Wildsmith remained fairly humble. The wealth earned from his work gave him the freedom to keep on creating. He said that ‘for my own personal ego, I want to produce something worth leaving on this earth.’ 

Detail from the new edition Animal Gallery

Brian was productively working into his seventies, and after thousands of paintings and illustrations, he eventually felt he ‘had no more to say’ and experienced some creative fatigue.

In 2010, to celebrate his 80th year, Seven Stories held the Brian Wildsmith Animal Gallery exhibition.

I was fortunate to see, in the same year, the smaller ‘homecoming’ Brian Wildsmith in Yorkshire exhibition at The Civic, Barnsley – an Illustration Cupboard exhibition on tour.

From the new edition Animal Gallery

Brian Wildsmith died in 2016 aged 86.

In what would have been his 90th year, Candlewick studio combined a three-book collection into one volume titled Animal Gallery. https://

A stream of minnows from Animal Gallery

A sumptuous collection of some of his very best animal portraits proving that Brian Wildsmith’s appeal is still as fresh and exciting and relevant in today’s extremely busy book market.

If I’ve whetted your appetite with this short article then you’re in for a real treat when you log onto the aforementioned It’s a wonderful homage and treasure trove of his life and work. Comprehensively designed and lovingly collated by his family.

All images ©, and reproduced with the kind permission of Brian’s family.

Header image, from The Lion and the Rat, by Brian Wildsmith


Paul Morton is a professional illustrator with lots of stories to tell. He helps run SCBWI's Picture Book Retreat, likes frogs, wild mushrooms and mountain biking and gets lots of his best ideas whilst out pedaling. He keeps frogs in the pond in his garden and has actually named quite a few of them.
His favourite word is pebble.


Alison Padley-Woods is Words & Pictures' Deputy Illustration Features Editor. Find her on Twitter

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