Interview with children's author Jane Hissey

Jane Hissey's Old Bear books have delighted generations of children . As the Sussex author and illustrator celebrates Old Bear's 25th birthday with a landmark exhibition, she talks to Angela Wintle

Jane Hissey has to pinch herself when she looks back on the giddy heights of her success. Back in the mid Eighties, when she launched her popular series of children’s books featuring the much-loved characters Old Bear and Friends, she became an instant publishing sensation.

Publishers vied to secure the international rights to her first book and Jane went on to sell a staggering seven million copies worldwide, consistently topping the public lending rights list for more than a decade. 

When she arrived at book signings in the States in a chauffeur-driven limousine young fans queued around the block to catch a glimpse of her and she was deluged with requests to open schools and libraries. Merchandisers were also quick to recognise the characters’ potential and Old Bear and his chums even starred in their own BAFTA-winning stop-frame model animation series on Channel 5.

This month marks the 25th anniversary of her first book, Old Bear, and Jane, 59, is marking the event with an exhibition of her work at the Illustration Cupboard, a gallery specialising in the sale of children’s book illustration in St James’s, London. “It’s the first one-man exhibition I’ve ever had and I’ll be featuring around 30 illustrations from four of my Old Bear titles,” she says.

We chat in the charming house she shares with her husband, fellow illustrator Ivan Hissey, on the fringes of Wilderness Wood near the village of Hadlow Down in the Sussex Weald. It’s a glorious spot. The Edwardian house overlooks a wild, wooded valley dotted with ponds and streams and deer graze right beneath their window. Jane, a bubbly and welcoming woman, admits it’s a constant source of inspiration.

“We both work from home, so we could have lived in any part of the country, but we decided this spot was as peaceful as anywhere in the heart of rural Dorset, Devon or Norfolk,” she says. “It seemed to have all the ingredients we were looking for – rolling countryside and no motorways!”

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Old Bear sprang to life shortly after the birth of Jane’s first child, Owen, when she was scratching around for something to do between nappy changes. Instinctively, she turned to her old love, drawing, and her hands alighted on the frayed, old teddy bear she had cherished from birth.

Soon, she began drawing other household favourites, including Bramwell Brown, a large bear with a handsome brown coat who had been made for her newly born son by a former teaching colleague; Rabbit, who had been snapped up at a bargain price in an Oxfam shop on Brighton’s London Road, and Little Bear, who was discovered by her grandmother in an old wool bag. It wasn’t long before they were quickly joined by Duck, Hoot the Owl and Jolly Tall the Giraffe.

Bears were hardly a novel subject for children’s books, but Jane’s illustrative technique stood out from the off. Publishers were dazzled by her loose, textured drawing style and minute attention to lighting and detail. There had been nothing quite like it.

But her path to fame was not an easy one. Jane learnt her craft on the prestigious Illustration and Design course at Brighton Polytechnic (now the University of Brighton), then taught by three of the country’s best-known children’s illustrators, Raymond Briggs, John Vernon Lord and Justin Todd.

Lacking confidence in her abilities, she took the ‘soft option’ on graduation, turning her back on her illustrative ambitions to teach art at Worthing Sixth Form College at Durrington, where she remained for five years before starting a family.

But when she did finally decide to launch herself on an unsuspecting publishing world, her worst fears were confirmed. Bundling her drawings into a portfolio, she set off for London in the hope of finding an agent, only to return deeply disappointed on the homeward-bound train.

“My portfolio simply wasn’t strong enough,” she says. “One agent said he liked my work but wasn’t sure whether I could do backgrounds. And when another asked what else I could draw I could only mention the fruit and vegetable illustrations I had done at art college.”

Her fortunes changed, however, when her bear illustrations were snapped up by a shrewd greetings cards firm and these, in turn, came to the notice of Hutchinson Children’s Books, who commissioned Jane to illustrate an entire children’s picture book. When the chosen author failed to deliver the accompanying storyline on time, Jane valiantly stepped into the breach, opting to write and illustrate the text herself with resounding success.

No doubt some of that success can be attributed to her meticulous drawing style. She begins every illustration by mapping out the outline of her composition on layout paper, then copying the image using a tracing-down paper onto soft watercolour board. Her preferred medium is coloured pencil, which she discovered at art school

“I remember breathing a huge sigh of relief. I’d always struggled with paint, and coloured pencils worked really well for me. I loved their immediacy. No need to stretch paper, prime a surface or mix colours. And unlike watercolour, I could pick them up and put them down, which suited my working patterns at home with a young family.”

All Jane’s illustrations are drawn from life and she goes to great lengths to set up her studies. For her last Old Bear book, Splash, which was set at the seaside, she constructed a sandtray in her studio and filled it with pebbles, shells and seaweed. “I drew the ripples on the water after staring endlessly at buckets of water,” she laughs.

If she’s drawing complex compositions featuring several characters, she pins the toys into position to ensure they don’t collapse. And if she’s depicting them running or jumping, she suspends them from threads tied to a frame or pins them against a sponge and pulls them into position with guy ropes.

Similarly, her lighting has to remain constant, so she works in a darkened room using a ‘true light’ strip light. The process is painstaking and drawing one character takes about ten hours; more detailed illustrations up to two weeks.

As the books took off, they inspired a range of merchandising from jigsaw puzzles and baby clothes to Royal Doulton figures, though Jane carefully monitored the quality of Old Bear spin-offs, insisting one toy company go back to the drawing board when their prototypes failed to meet her exacting standards.

She was equally strict about proposals for an animated version of the books, mindful of the many previous poor adaptations of classic children’s titles. Fearing that 2D animation might look scrappy, she jumped for joy when a small company called Ealing Animation suggested they used model animation. It seemed the perfect solution, though it was a painstaking process.

More than 7,000 frames made up each ten-minute programme and all the characters, sets and props had to be painstakingly modelled from the originals. The effort paid off, however, winning the team a BAFTA for ‘best children’s programme’ in 1993, prompting one critic to comment that the series was perfect ‘right down to the last worn thread of fur’. Recently, Jane had hoped to get a new 26-part series off the ground, but sadly couldn’t secure the all-important financial backing.

So instead, she’s hoping to work on a new Old Bear book, the first in six years, and has redesigned the existing titles for today’s market, reducing the length of the texts . This will allow her new publisher, the Brighton-based Salariya Book Company, which was last year voted ‘independent publisher of the year’, to reproduce full-bleed illustrations and enlarged vignettes.

“The children who grew up with Old Bear and his friends are now becoming parents themselves – my son, Owen, among them – so it’s my fervent hope that the fresh impetus behind the books will inspire them to introduce the characters to a new generation of young readers,” she says.

Jane Hissey’s 25th anniversary exhibition of Old Bear illustrations runs at The Illustration Cupboard at 22 Bury Street, St James’s, London, from September 14 until 30. For further information, visitwww.illustrationcupboard.comor call 0207 976 1727.

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