Martin Aitchison - An interview

Did you always intend to become an artist?

The idea took root when I was at school really. At about the age of 13 I discovered I could get some cheap popularity with my ability to caracature the school masters etc. I left school (Ellesmere College) at the age of 15 and there hadn't been any real discussion about my future career. But they did give me all the drawing prizes - some very handsome books - and I think my family were delighted that I could do something well, despite my deafness.

So were you unhappy at school?

I wouldn't say that. Few people enjoyed school in those days and my deafness didn't help. They started off putting me at the front of the class and when I still struggled they put me at the back of the class. But I wasn't really unhappy.

Where did you go after school?

Birmingham School of Art, which was good - although I would say I learnt most from the other students - and then The Slade School.

And this was where you met Dorothy?

Yes. She was quite a prominent student at The Slade. We got married in 1943, although she had worked her way through three other fiances by then.

Dorothy Aitchison

During the war you worked at Vickers Aircraft. How did you find life as a technical illustrator?

Technical illustrating is fairly easy, but the subject, wartime aircraft, I found fascinating.

Did you ever meet Barnes-Wallis?

Barnes-Wallis was a university friend of my father pre-World War One and they combined on many projects. So when I joined Vickers Aircraft he was friendly and aimed to make me an aircraft designer till he found out that my knowledge of Mathematics was subnormal! So then he asked me to create diagrams of the effects etc of the Bouncing Bomb.

And after the war?

I was getting illustration work via an agency. I got one routine 'job' from the agency, illustrating for 'The Eagle'. The job was meant to last for 12 weeks - but it ended up lasting for 11 years.

With the Eagle, you are best known as the illustrator of the 'Luck of the Legion' strip, written by Geoffrey Bond. What did you most enjoy about this work?

Well for me the desert spelt Lawrence of Arabia and romance, so I liked the subject matter. And I liked the freedom I was given. Working from imagination pleased me most, which wasn't always possible in other things I did, such as the Peter and Jane books for Ladybird. But the lack of references caused me headaches too. Hulton Library could find only 4 reference photos of the Foreign legion. I watched an American film about The Legion - and that was about it. I got advice, too, from Geoffrey Bond but often felt a bit unsure.

Luck of the Legion

How did you collaboration with The Eagle come to an end?

The Eagle was taken over by The Daily Mirror and looked as though it was going to fail, so I left and got work with Ladybird (Then Wills and Helpworth).

How did this come about?

My family knew the then-editior (Douglas Keen) and knew that they needed artists. I hadn't really come across Ladybird Books before then - and wasn't that impressed by the quality of the illustration initially.

But didn't they originally reject you?

Yes. I did a specimen which was declared to be "not the sort of thing we want". But the person concerned - call him Mr 'X' - is now a great friend and he has been ribbed about this enough. Anyway, I did one more picture after this, which was liked - and that was it.

Did that picture find its way into print?

Yes - page 51 of The First Book of Saints - which went on to be the first book I ever illustrated for Ladybird, in 1963.

Joan of Arc - Book of Saints

Tell me a bit about the process of putting together a book. I hear it was pretty informal in the early days.

Yes. I don't think I ever had any pictures rejected. There was a real family feel when Douglas Keen was in charge. Work meetings were at his home in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Later, Vernon Mills, who was Douglas's successor, arranged meetings in his Beeches Road office in Loughborough. My own experience was that he went through my 24-plus illustrations in those meetings. There weren't any 'roughs' or drafts until the 1980s when I was doing Puddle Lane. If it was a Peter and Jane book, Bill Murray [the creator of the Key Word Reading scheme] would be there too. Then we would all go off to the pub for a drink and some eats with the sub-editors (who were female) and the Studio Manager. Both Keen and Mills were great editors and very appreciative.

Who else did you meet as part of the process - other artists or writers?

Not very many - which is perhaps one of my regrets, really. I met Harry Wingfield of course and John Berry. I knew Frank Hampson and Frank Humphris of course because, like me, they had worked on The Eagle.

You produced a huge number of illustrations for Ladybird and most have illustrated (or contributed to) about a hundred books. What sort of timescale were you working on?

The Ladybird Books such as the Key Word readers took about 3 months. Other books, such as Read It Yourself, took rather less. It all depended.

And how much did you get paid?

In 1963 I would get £21 per picture. By 1975 this had risen to £60 for a single page or £120 for a double-page spread.

How did your work for Ladybird come to an end?

With my one time great fan, Vernon Mills, giving me the "Don't ring us, we'll ring you" in 1986.

What sort of jobs did you most dislike doing and what gave you the most satisfaction?

I disliked doing landscape backgrounds. In my career I'd say I got the most satisfaction for the double-page spreads that I did for the Hornblower series in The Eagle around 1962, and for Ladybird it would be Gulliver's Travels.

It's clear you put your heart and soul into that book. Could you single out a favourite piece?

I would say it would be Gulliver stealing the Big-Endian Fleet.

Gulliver stealing the fleet

And finally, any regrets?

Just, as I said before, that I met so few of those involved really. And also I sometimes look back a bit wistfully on my original intention to be a painter and wonder how I would have fared ...