Story of Alan Baker: A Children’s Book Illustrator and Animator

Alan Baker is an award-winning children’s book illustrator and animator from the UK. He has written and illustrated more than 40 books and created animations for commercial and broadcast clients. He is known for his style of bringing up realism, character, and well-narrated story in his projects.

Above all of this, it is such a privilege to be able to earn a living as an artist. If ever I have low points with clients asking for changes to what I consider a good piece of artwork etc, then I remember what my alternatives might be. I then go back to my desk, turn on the radio or put on some music and draw. Unbelievably, people pay me to do this!”

(c)Alan-Baker-2
Artwork by Alan Baker

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“It’s a fortunate wind that blew me here” [Seamus Heaney]

I have been illustrating professionally since 1976 and teach degree-level illustration one day a week. Teaching keeps me on my toes and helps me remain in the contemporary world.

It’s also great fun. I also learn a lot from my students, it takes me away from my studio and drops me into a very different world full of interesting and quirky people. I see myself in many of them.

I was brought up on a Croydon council estate and had a difficult start to life. It was more to do with my own makeup than anything else. I didn’t really fit in. As a child, I was not good at making friends rarely really connecting with people, and not finding it easy to just ‘go with the crowd.’ I was over-sensitive and found most things quite hard to deal with. Sounds were too loud, the taste was too strong, etc. If I’d had a volume control for my senses, I’d have turned it down a few notches.

From as far back as I can remember, I’d always had a passion for colour.

Our Aunt Kath encouraged both Jeannie, my elder sister and I with our drawing and painting and supplied us with art materials. For Christmas one year, she bought us both a large flat hinged tin of block watercolours. I still have mine. They had beautifully detailed illustrations on the lids- The white enamelled inside of the lid was designed to be used as a palette. Certain colours would be favourites, and so only the edges remained, leaving a square metal hole underneath. Mum would carefully iron flat the thin paper from the butcher’s meat wrappings for us to draw or paint on.

Another year Aunt Kath gave both Jeannie and I a set of pencil crayons. These were split transversely halfway along their length with a different colour at each end. The combinations were beautiful and whoever chose them deserves a medal. A rich bright red with jet black, maroon with lime green, purple with purply pink, golden orange, combined with a warm brown … every now and then I still see colour combinations that remind me of them. I also loved the smell of the pencil shavings as they coiled from the pencil sharpener and fell onto the table. The paraphernalia of art is wonderful.

I loved colours and had a toy car made from one of the earliest plastics. It was a strong blue, not particularly nice, but when viewed under artificial light, the combination of the blue plastic and yellow light created a rich greyish turquoise that was absolutely beautiful. Like a synesthete, I could almost taste it and would take it to bed with me to stare at under the yellow light cast from my bedroom lightbulb.

As children, we’d also love to view the world through the coloured transparent paper that sweets were often wrapped in. We’d carefully smooth it out before holding it over our eyes. This new world now radiated with strange new colours. 

We’d also smooth out and save, the coloured silver paper from sweets.

I would cut out the adverts from mum’s old magazines- photos of tins of soup or washing powder. I’d carefully glue them in notebooks- All the soups on one page, breakfast cereals on another, etc. I received great pleasure from collecting these images and ordering them. I also loved the smell of the glue.

From here, I developed a love of packaging. 

One Christmas I was given a chocolate smokers set that came in an illustrated, die-cut cardboard box and contained sweet cigarettes, a pipe, a cigar, a cigarette lighter covered in foil , fake coconut tobacco and fake sweet matches. I thought it was wonderful. Also, one year a box of chocolate Queens guard soldiers wrapped in silver, red and black foil- Beautiful!

My love of colour later inspired White rabbit’s colour book where a white rabbit jumps in and out of coloured paint pots- it explains, in a fun way,  how the different primary colours form the secondary colours when they are mixed. Finally, white Rabbit turns brown when all three primaries are mixed. One reviewer congratulated me on my positive comment on equality amongst the races. I hadn’t realized that I had done this of course.

My sister Jeannie and I each had a picture book with die-cut holes that revealed parts of the next page. The illustrations were very detailed. One was ‘The three little pigs’,  with lots of household objects spread amongst the rubble of the straw, wood and brick houses. I ‘borrowed’ the idea of die-cut holes in my first attempt at writing and illustrating my own picture books. It was about a hamster who burst through the pages and contained all kinds of quirks. It was never published, but remains, for me, the best book I ever produced.

My own art style came from my love of detail which was what these books excelled in.

I have since used die-cut holes, in ‘One naughty boy’, ‘Mouse’s Halloween’ and ‘Mouse’s Christmas.’

(c)Alan-Baker-1
Artwork by Alan Baker

When we were ill, mum would often buy us a paper cake doily and a small box of wax crayons to colour them with. The temptation was to always to press hard to get a rich colour. It was a frustrating task in that the doilies were very delicate and often tore if you pressed too hard with the crayon. 

I can still remember the smell of wax crayons.

As one of my Christmas presents was a 1957 Rupert Bear annual with a beautiful illustration on the cover depicting Rupert sliding down a snow-covered slope on a sled. I would have been six years old at the time. It had a green sky backdrop and beautiful endpapers depicting a dark pool amongst some trees. I loved the graphic novel style inside images of Rupert climbing amongst the rocks, the girl guides, and the African children with spikey hair. Today this would be seen as very un-PC.

Mum would sometimes read it to me before bed. Many years later I found this same edition in a second-hand book shop. It brings back powerful memories of that time.

Before jumble sales, then car boot sales became commonplace, we had very few books at home. A set of illustrated Arthur Mee encyclopedias, a medical manual [I‘d often read the page on human reproduction- it clarified nothing!]. The encyclopedias had beautiful illustrations for various nursery rhymes in two-colour. I still have them and still use them as inspiration.

As is probably true for all artists and illustrators, my style developed from what inspired me. It’s the world around us that forms who we are and we unconsciously steal from everywhere, picking up influences from all aspects of our culture.

Early Black and White television also had quite an impact-

Lancelot, with Merlin the magician and Guinevere the Queen, set in the world of knights in armour, honour and chivalry. There was always lots of jousting and thundering hooves. I loved the suits of armour and the flags and decorated crests.

Later, I was commissioned to illustrate the story of King Arthur and a lot of my inspiration came from memories of this TV series.

Even as an infant, I found concentrating in class very difficult’. During one infant school lesson, I was completely lost in a daydream when the next thing I knew, everyone was being handed a sheet of paper and it slowly dawned on me that we’d been asked to write something. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the slightest clue what it was. As the class busily started to work, I surreptitiously copied the boy next to me- completely mindlessly, not even taking in what it was he was writing. When our teacher came around, she was very angry and accused me of copying, which I completely denied. She then asked my name. I told her; she then asked, ‘So what’s the name on the top of your paper’?  I sheepishly read out my neighbour’s name. I’d copied his name as well as everything else! 

Even with this irrefutable evidence, I still denied cheating. I was told to rub it out and start again. Having forgotten to bring in my erasure, I was by now too frightened to tell the teacher, so I tore a tiny piece of the rubber edging from one of my plimsols, hoping that might act as an erasure. It didn’t, instead making a horrendous smudge. Worse trouble followed.

This incident became the inspiration for Benjamin’s Book, where the hamster is determined to remove a paw print from a piece of white paper. His more and more extreme efforts ending up in a horrendous mess. It was selected as a Children’s book of the year in 1982.

I loved fireworks and their beautiful designs and took great pleasure in laying them out and carefully arranging them in rows. I delighted in the indigo touch paper and rich colours of the various designs featuring stars and Chinese dragons. I also loved the variety of shapes, some conical, some with wings, and others with long plastic spikes to fix them firmly into the ground. Best of all were the rockets with a red plastic cone at the top. The Bengal-coloured matches and sparklers also ranked well with their beautiful packaging. 

The inspiration for Benjamin’s dreadful dream came from this- A book that would certainly not be published today due to health and safety as it involves the intrepid hamster setting light to a room full of fireworks.

Then in 1962, when I was eleven, something happened that shifted my life drastically.

Heavy snow fell on Christmas eve and the cold was unrelenting. For sixty-two consecutive days, it lay on the ground. The coldest winter since 1740.

It was the first Christmas on our own for a long time and we were happy. 

Just Mum, Dad, Jeannie, my older sister,  Suzie, my younger, and me. 

I was eleven years old. 

The day after Boxing Day was the day that Dad returned to work. 

He was back on day shifts and it was yet another bitterly cold day.

The men spent the day shoveling snow to clear the yard at the Fords car factory where he worked. Deliveries were needed for production to continue and unless the snow was cleared, work would grind to a halt. He’d been warned by our doctor to avoid strenuous work, but this was not in his nature, so he joined in with the rest of the men. He hated being different.

The factory was located at the old Croydon airport about a mile from home. In these freezing conditions walking on the packed snow was treacherous especially for a man in poor health.

He was in his early thirties, but he’d already been in hospital having had a previous heart attack. Our new doctor, who was a very unsympathetic man, told him not to attach too much importance to it. ‘You mustn’t think that every little thing is another attack.’

The day is lost to me now, but that evening he returned from work feeling tired and unwell. We’d just finished our evening meal, and feeling no better, he went up to bed. 

Mum was obviously anxious and decided that she and I would clear a narrow path through the compacted snow to make it easier for him to walk to the main road the next morning. 

Shoveling the snow was cold, grueling work. My feet, hands, and ears froze in the icy wind that funneled between the houses before sweeping down the narrow alleyway.

We’d been working for a while when my sister Jeannie came running out saying that Dad was banging on the floor and calling out for Mum. Mum rushed back to the house. And I followed carrying the shovels.

When Mum went upstairs, it was to find that he was feeling very, very bad and had been trying to attract attention for some time. He’d been unable to make anyone hear. 

We didn’t have a telephone, nor did anyone else in the street.

Jeannie and I were sent running up to the end of the road to dial 999 for an ambulance from our nearest call box. We were nervous as we’d seldom, used a telephone before. Our reaction was to laugh, it was an adventure. But it also masked our foreboding… 

Because the snow-covered roads were almost impassable, the ambulance was a long time in coming. When it finally arrived, Dad was strapped onto a stretcher and carried downstairs. 

Mum traveled to the hospital with him in the ambulance and saw him settled in bed. They assured her that he’d be alright. The last thing she said to him was ‘If I don’t see you in the morning, I’ll definitely see you in the evening’, curiously symbolic words. She would never have gone away if she’d known how ill he was, but she was also worried about us children being on our own.

She needed to let her mother-in-law know, so walked the mile or so from Mayday hospital to her mother-in-law’s house, finally arriving there at about 10.00 o’clock that evening. 

Her mother-in-law must have been concerned but she didn’t appear so and started talking about the Christmas presents and her ironing!

The busses must still have been running because Mum then had to travel the four or five miles home.

Once home, she didn’t go upstairs to bed but stayed on the settee and tried to sleep. 

At about 2.00 am there was a knock on the door. A young policeman was standing there. 

He’d managed to get through the snow on a police moped with a message for Mum to phone the hospital. She hurried up the road to the telephone box expecting to be told that he was worse. Instead, they told her he’d died. 

It was a dreadful way to hear the news and at first, she wouldn’t believe it. The policeman stayed with her for a while and then in the early hours of the morning she went back to Mayday hospital with her mother-in-law. She was numb with shock and has no recollection of how she got in touch with her, or how they got to the hospital. 

The nurses were kind at the hospital, but she didn’t see him and couldn’t bear to after that- She was afraid of what she would remember.

Except for the sadness, loneliness, and bitter cold, events in the following days after that, were a blur. 

She was also three months pregnant with my brother Andy. 

She cried a lot and tried not to think about his death. 

I lay in bed listening to the muffled sounds and distant voices coming from downstairs. With an anxious and ominous feeling in my stomach, I eventually fell into a deep sleep.

Early the next morning I was woken by my Grandad. It was strange for him to be there at that time. I felt disorientated and confused. I was still half asleep when he told me that Dad had died. It must have been dreadful for him. 

I burst into tears. I could hear Mum in Jeannie’s room breaking the news to her.

Suzie, my younger sister was only two or three and didn’t really understand.

It felt like being hit very hard around the head. Then it was as if I were in a bubble, and everything receded. I went into immediate shock and my mind went numb. I’d never, ever contemplated that he could die.

The days ticked by. Every morning, when I woke up, it felt like being in an elevator to hell as my stomach would sink as I remembered what had happened. 

The day of the funeral came. I didn’t know what a funeral was or what to expect. 

Relatives arrived, mostly Mum’s siblings. They filled the house. 

The hearse pulled up outside our gate. I could see the pale wood coffin lying in the back. It was a complete shock… I wasn’t expecting it. Outside, neighbours stood at their gates looking on. I didn’t want people to see me crying or to sympathize.

We drove very slowly through the thick, crunching snow to the end of our street, then turned sharp right and right again along the main road. I became anxious when at one point the funeral car carrying the coffin became separated from the main convoy. Eventually, we turned left through the gates that led into the crematorium. 

Once through the gates, the thick snow made it difficult to see where the road was. Snow had drifted up against the graves. The tall smoking chimney of the crematorium from the previous service was shocking.

I was still in short trousers and wearing my Sunday best. It was absolutely freezing. 

It hit hard seeing Dad’s coffin resting on the shoulders of the six solemn men and I worried that they might drop it. They must have been his workmates. Knowing that he was dead and inside the coffin felt utterly appalling. 

I cannot remember anything of the funeral service. Now, any mention of him and I’d dissolve into tears. I grieved and cried a lot, but it didn’t seem to fix it and things didn’t get better.

During the evenings in the weeks following the funeral, Mum put together a photo album. It was meticulous and she spent time choosing and carefully placing each photo before labeling them underneath in blue fountain pen ink with dates and locations. We’d spend long evenings watching her compile this compendium, but Dad’s image now gave me bad associations and the pictures would make my stomach churn. Mum asked Jeannie and me if we’d like something of his to keep. I was offered his wedding ring, but I didn’t want anything.

But I could still remember his smell.

This incident although dreadful at the time, set up what was to happen in later life in a positive way.

I am quite sure that my father, a man’s man, would not have countenanced the idea of me becoming an artist. It wasn’t something that he would have even considered. It was a very different world then. Children didn’t question authority or life’s conventional patterns.  

Besides, I was always too meek to have ever stood up to him. It was school, a job, marry and have children. There was no other route that didn’t seem to cause a massive moral upheaval. 

However, it was the 1960’s and a cultural earthquake was shifting everything around us.

It was at my Grandads that I first watched the Beatles perform live on television. We gathered around his television set one Sunday evening in October 1963. The television highlight of the week was Sunday night at the London Palladium and among the songs they played were ‘I want to hold your hand,’ ‘All my loving,’ and ‘Twist and Shout’. 

I was held transfixed, watching these strange men with odd haircuts and collarless jackets, playing this melodically powerful and uplifting music. I was already familiar with the songs and had seen many pictures of the Beatles as their images were everywhere, but I’d never seen them on television before. It unlocked a passion for music which has never gone away.

I don’t know if it was because of the unhappy events, but around this time, I’d started to stutter. It grew progressively worse. I attended speech therapy on Tuesday afternoons. 

Mum would pick me up about half an hour after my class had left for the swimming lessons and I’d wait for her either in the medical room or in my empty classroom.

We’d walk down to the high street and catch the bus. Mum would hand me the money and make me ask for the bus fares. It was a way to force me to speak.

The build-up to this was horrible. The conductor would make his way towards us collecting the fares. Then, when he’d finally drawn level, I’d stammer out the words. ‘Wwwwwone and a half to Bbbbbroadgreen please.’ I’d go hot with embarrassment. We’d eventually alight and walk the last half mile to the clinic. Concrete steps led into a waiting room where there was a Formica-covered table with magazines and hard wooden chairs where we’d wait. 

My appointment time would arrive, and the therapist would come out, chat to mum for a few minutes and then lead me into the therapy room. I’d feel nervous about the ordeal ahead.

She was a nice woman and would sit by my side at her desk throughout the session. Sometimes she’d try to get me to read. There was a false jolliness that would make me uncomfortable. She would ask me questions, mainly to try to get me to talk and open up. Once or twice, she asked me to sing with her, something that I could do without stuttering. But I really dreaded singing in front of people, it was too exposing and made me extremely self-conscious. 

I felt suffocated with anxiety. 

(c)Alan-Baker-3
Artwork by Alan Baker

The worst moment came with one session when she decided that we should play American Indians together and do a war dance around a chair. She led the way making whooping sounds. We’d put with our hand over our mouths, crouch as we danced and move our arms over our heads. I found it absolutely excruciating and felt completely bullied and humiliated. I would never disobey authority and ended up doing it with sobbing convulsions and tears streaming down my face. I was eleven years old, too old for that sort of thing. I just wanted it to stop. 

I felt so little control over what was happening. 

My stammering at home wasn’t always so bad unless I became upset. My emotions were close to the surface – something else that I hated as it brought on more unwelcome attention and embarrassment. I don’t know why I cried so much. I hated myself for lacking any real self-control. 

My stammering would go through phases when it was sometimes much worse than others. I’d be sent on numerous errands. Down to the shops to buy groceries, or along to a neighbour’s house with an empty cup to ask if they’d ‘please fill it with washing powder/sugar because we’ve run out?’ It was designed to force me to talk.

The houses on the estate had identical front doors with a single frosted glass window. After ringing the bell or knocking on the door there was always the agonizing wait. I’d hear footsteps, then see the distorted image of the householder start to appear. A shadowy arm would reach out, then the latch sounded before the door would swing open. I’d stare up at them struggling to speak. Sometimes nothing would come out and I’d stand there with a burning face, my voice locked in my throat. 

I became an elected mute which eventually helped in dealing with my stutter. It gave me back some control and as I moved into my late teens my voice started to come back.

Soon after came another incident blow which at the time also hit very hard.

It was also to be an influence at the start of my illustration life.

I was allowed a pet hamster. 

His cage was placed on top of the chest of drawers in my bedroom and at night I’d listen to him running around and around in his wheel. It was a comforting sound, but the squeaking of the wheel disturbed the family’s sleep. Rubbing butter onto the armature as a lubricant quickly solved the problem.

Once, when I was at school, Mum let Suzie, my little sister, play with my hamster and in a moment of distraction he escaped through the gap under the cupboard door which housed the electricity meters. From there he quickly disappeared under the floorboards. 

When I came home from school and found out what had happened, I was so upset. I don’t think they knew how precious he was to me. 

We tried tempting Dudley out with food and eventually, after a couple of days he popped his head out and mum managed to grab him, pull him out and place him back in his cage.

I really loved him, but my feelings were now clouded with anxiety. I didn’t feel secure about trusting that he was safe when I was away. 

The animal smell was too strong for my bedroom. I probably didn’t clean his cage as often as I should, and I had to move him into the shed. 

That winters bitter cold continued, the snow still thick on the ground right through until spring. Huge mounds were collected from road clearance and dumped on the local playing fields. These dirty-white snow hills remained there long after the rest of the snow had thawed.

Every morning during the long freeze, just before setting off for school, I’d carefully carry a bowl of warm oats down to the shed. As I put them in his cage his bleary head would appear from out of his nest.

The water in his bottle would inevitably be frozen solid and I’d replace this with warm water.

This became a ritual until one morning when I entered the shed, he didn’t make his usual appearance for breakfast. I carefully slid my hand into the nest box. He was a cold hard lump. He’d frozen to death in the night.  It was such a shock; Absolutely devastating.

I didn’t want to believe it and went back to the house without saying anything. 

I left for school that morning, silently praying that he’d be ok again by the time I’d got home. It was on my mind all day and I felt anxious and depressed. 

I managed to convince myself that he was hibernating and as the day wore on, that thought ignited a spark of hope. By the time I arrived home, I’d made myself believe that he’d still be alive. 

When he didn’t appear, I held my breath and in trepidation gently slid my hand into his nest.

He was still dead. 

The next morning, once again, I carried his bowl of warm oats down to the shed, putting off the dreadful moment when I’d have to break the news to Mum. I didn’t think that I’d be able to say the words. It was getting worse, the longer I delayed. I was holding back a tidal wave of emotion. I’d plan a time to tell her, but when the moment came, my resolve would fail, and I’d put it off again.

Finally, by the fourth morning, I knew I couldn’t leave it any longer and I plucked up the courage. Through stuttering sobs, I said the words. All my grief spilled out. I was so relieved to have got it over with. I didn’t ever explain that he’d died four days before. I knew that I couldn’t explain why I hadn’t said anything earlier. He was only a pet, but at the time it felt like everything to me. Mum was very sympathetic and handled it the best possible way that she could have.

He became the inspiration for a series of children’s picture books which I wrote and illustrated soon after leaving Brighton Art school. I changed his name to Benjamin. The first one, which I wrote and illustrated whilst I was still at college as my final project became a best seller and was such a fortunate start to my illustration career. My Tutor for the three years at college was Raymond Briggs, who was a great help and inspiration. [and who I have seen regularly ever since and remains my closest friend].

I struggled academically, failing my eleven plus so badly that I ended up in the bottom stream of the lowest ranking school in Croydon. 

The school was built on an old Victorian rubbish dump. An interesting metaphor. Piles had been driven into the ground and concrete poured in to create solid foundations, but the land had continued to drop away. It was possible to clamber under the school from the back playground and come out near the school entrance. New cracks would appear in the walls from time to time as the ground continued to subside. 

The school was surrounded on three sides by Mitcham Road cemetery. The cemetery housed a mass grave as a monument to commemorate the thirty-four pupils and two teachers that died in the Lanfranc air crash. The disaster had happened the year before I arrived. It hung over the school like a dark cloud.

The school was an ‘experimental school’ that prepared boys for what was then known as ‘factory fodder.’ The educational objectives were to meet the job needs of local industry in the form of apprenticeships, mainly for the building industry and light engineering. The emphasis was on practical subjects, Woodwork and Metalwork being the key areas. PE, Football, and Sport, in general, were also heavily encouraged. 

Life continued and I struggled unhappily through school in the ’B stream’, until I  was due to leave school. It was the summer of 1966, I was fifteen and due to start work in a tool factory in South Norwood. 

To earn some extra money, I worked at the factory over the school’s Easter break, just weeks before I was due to leave school for good. 

It was dreadful. I’d set off on my bike at 7.00 am to arrive at the factory ready to start work just before the 8.00 am siren sounded. 

Fixed to the breezeblock wall above my machine was a clock whose hands seemed to move in slow motion. To my left, was a large barrel of small hollow metal cylinders. I‘d no idea what they were for- I assume that they were machine parts. Each one had to be fixed in a vice and rebored. Once finished, I’d drop the rebored cylinder into a barrel on my right. 

When it was full, it was wheeled away to be replaced the next morning with another empty barrel. With several hundred cylinders to get through every day, there was pressure to work fast. Each cylinder had to be drilled carefully or the drill would stick and set the heavy iron vice spinning on the drill bed before crashing to the floor. If it had landed on my foot, I would have sustained a nasty crush injury as I only wore thin canvas plimsols. I always managed to jump back in time, but it was an accident waiting to happen.

There were echoes of Franz Kafka and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. All-day long a loudspeaker blared out ‘Housewives’ choice’ from the BBC light program. The mind-numbing music could only just be heard over the constant din of heavy machinery and the banter of the workforce. The highlights of my day were the tea breaks and lunch hours.

I felt like a continuation of school with its hierarchies and bullying.

Was I staring at my future?

Then I had a very fortunate break. It happened a few weeks before I was due to leave school for good.

One afternoon after school my science teacher, drove me home and had a short meeting with Mum in our front room. He’d constantly lectured us that the world was changing and that qualifications were the future. He must have been persuasive because whatever he said worked, and I was allowed to stay on for an extra year to take my CSE’s. 

This act of kindness set a new trajectory and changed my life forever.

My last two years at school were happy. There were only a handful of students staying on and they were, without exception, the less hostile boys. I was now in a culture where I could thrive. 

I was good at creative subjects like arts and crafts and was inspired by Physics and Chemistry. Art was out of the question as a career for me as men were expected to aim towards a job for life. Being an artist was not considered a secure career. For Jeannie, my sister, it really didn’t matter as she would ‘get married and have children’ [she never did but moved to Australia where she has become a very successful children’s book writer and illustrator – so a job with prospects for a girl was deemed unimportant]. That was the general thinking at the time. 

I was very inspired by what Jeannie was creating in the Foundation year at Croydon art college. I didn’t dare suggest that I might also follow that direction. It was a dream that didn’t seem possible to attain.

Eventually from school, I moved on to technical college, university to read Zoology at Hull university. With each change of institution, I re-invented myself, to be more outgoing and become the person that I wanted to be. It was easy when nobody knows you and you can begin again and find your true self.

As I moved into my mid to late teenage years, I developed an obsession with travel. I had a lot of drive and energy but no real direction. During my long summer breaks, I made several hitch-hiking trips across Europe, Asia and North Africa, either on my own or with a girlfriend.

At the end of my first year at Hull University, I was beginning to realize that I was never going to make a very successful scientist. I was struggling academically. 

During that years four-month summer break, I hitchhiked to Afghanistan taking just £35.00 saved from my grant. I was determined to suffer, sleeping rough and constantly hungry having only budgeted on 10 pence a day. My diet was mostly bread which I’d buy in markets and any fruit that I could find along the way. Sometimes lorry drivers would offer me a coffee. Other drivers might give me a place to stay at night.

Sleeping rough, and drinking bad water eventually took its toll, and not surprisingly, after a couple of months, I became very ill. Unable to travel, I ran out of money, ending up in an Afghan hospital with a severe case of dysentery. I was unable to eat for a week and became very thin and wasted. Once I was able to travel again, I started a long, slow journey home. 

My first problem was that I  had no money to buy a visa to cross Iran. One night I set out to cross the border illegally before traveling the nearly 8,000 road miles home, walking and hitching. At one point I jumped aboard a ship on the Black Sea. At night I’d sleep hidden in the lifeboat. During the day I drew portraits of the passengers for 50 pence a go, arriving in Istanbul with a few pounds to get me through Europe.

The overall experience had a profound effect on me. During the time I was away I wrote my mother a postcard explaining that I didn’t want to go back to university, but I wanted to try art school instead. In hindsight, it was a good move as it allowed me to get my message across and for her to swallow any anger or disappointment that she might have felt.

I did many subsequent trips, my furthest by hitch-hiking was to India the following year.

I returned home a couple of days before the Croydon art school foundation course was due to start and was given a place- mainly based on the long string of qualifications that I’d acquired. I was offered a place but having already had one year’s grant, I was required to pay the fees for the course. I took up extra paper rounds and weekend work.

Arriving at college on my first day was like falling into heaven. 

I’d found my place. 

It was full of weird misfits and interesting and unusual people, in both students and tutors.

The beginning of my life as an illustrator

My first 18 months out of Brighton University was quite tough. 

Once a week, I’d take the train to London, armed with my portfolio and with a pile of coins. 

I’d find a phone box and cold call, art editors of publishers, magazine houses, advertising agents etc to ask if I could come and show them my work. I’d usually be able to make about 4 appointments a day. It was very exhilarating walking around London and meeting people in the art world. 

It felt like a much smaller world then.  

Most people were kind and very encouraging, although one illustrator’s agent, after keeping me waiting for over an hour, didn’t even open my folio properly, but just flicked through and told me to go home and learn how to draw, then to ‘Come back and see me again in five years.’ I was so thrown and upset that it left me speechless. I think she took this to be arrogance and so followed it up with, ‘I bet you are going to tell people that I’m the biggest f*** c*** that you have ever met’. [I did]. I still remember her name and hope that she is now a happier person. It filled me with self-doubt for a while, but I soon got over it.

In that first year and a half, I only managed to pick up one commission- That was for a greetings card, and I was paid the measly sum of £50.00 which included ownership of all rights and also the original artwork. A year later, I  bought back the original artwork for £250.00 from the company that would regularly have exhibitions of their artists’ work.

It wasn’t working, but I had no other options. So, I kept at it. 

Every day I would sit in my studio at home and work on new illustrations for my folio as well as new ideas for Children’s books. My books were selling well and allowing me to live as an illustrator. 

Finally, I was approached by an agent, Zip Art to see if I’d like to be represented by them and at last, the work started to flow in. This worked very well for a few years. However, the time between handing in the work and being paid was getting g longer and longer. Things were not right, and I was slow to pick up on the clues. The country was going through a severe recession and the economy was collapsing all around us.

My agent eventually went bust owing £80,000. He was a limited company and anything of value was sold and given to the preferential creditors- the bank and Inland Revenue. The artists received nothing. I was owed £3500.00 [ £60,000 in today’s money]. It was a painful lesson. 

Interestingly, he was able immediately to start up a new agency. Ironically it was called ‘Funny Business.” 

I approached the AOI [association of illustrators] to ask them to warn other illustrators about the Funny Business director. Unfortunately, the following month they published a double-page advertisement in their quarterly magazine advertising and promoting Funny Business. 

It turned out on investigation that he was on the board of the AOI. When I questioned their morality, I was told that they needed the advertising revenue in order to keep the association running.

Two more agents followed, both going bust, [one called ‘the great Art fraud.’ [another clue that I’d missed. After each disaster, it was like starting again. However, my books were selling well and keeping me solvent. 

As always happens, the industry changed. A new system of promotion was started by a company called Elfande Art. The concept was that they’d produce an annual every year and would be sent out 8,000 copies of it free to all the main art commissioners. Illustrators would be invited to buy a page in the annual which would contain samples of their work plus telephone, fax and contact details. The first book, called ‘Contact’ only cost £40.00 to buy a page. It was a one-off payment to have your work seen by about 8,000 potential commissioners. 

I took a gamble and went in the first annual with about 50 other illustrators. It was a great success and work poured in. I continued with this for the next thirty-plus years but with diminishing success as more and more illustrators picked up on the potential. 

The later books would be large weighty tomes containing over 600 illustrators and became unwieldy. Other people picked up on the idea and competition was fierce. Most of them also eventually hit the wall in the latest downturn.

Alongside Contact I found a new Agent called ‘the Garden Studio’ based in Covent Garden, they later changed their name to ‘Illustration’ and now are known as ‘IllustrationX’.

They have been amazing, run by the adventurer Harry Lyon-Smith and a brilliant team that are on the sharp end of the latest forms of promotion. They have been my agent for the last 30 years and still supply me with regular work. They have outlets through sister agencies in all the major countries around the world.

I was a little slow to pick up on the digital revolution, partly because I love the process in traditional art and was reluctant to work on a screen. However, I soon realized what an amazing tool it is and now my images are produced as a mix of traditional and digital.

With the introduction of social media and the many new ways of communicating, it has become far easier to get your work out there. That has been a real plus. However, more people are now able to be part of the illustration world and the market is now very crowded. 

Before the digital revolution, you needed a lot of drive, enterprise, and determination to succeed. It took effort and meant that only the dedicated and fanatical would survive. It was a filtering mechanism that no longer exists in the same way. In some ways it’s harder now as the more people there are, the more competition there is which also drives down the fees.

I have been fortunate to live through a time when illustration was well paid and could be a full-time profession. I am very determined, still follow up on every opportunity presented to me and always meet the deadline. I have never needed to take on work outside illustration and have been fortunate to be able to make a good living from it.

The profession suits me perfectly. I like my own space and I like the security of being independent and more in control of my life. Unlike with employed work, there is no glass ceiling when it comes to finances. Earning can be very good [or very poor]. Books pay royalties- That’s good news if they sell well- bad news if they don’t, so a real incentive to do your best. 

Above all of this, it is such a privilege to be able to earn a living as an artist. If ever I have low points with clients asking for changes to what I consider a good piece of artwork etc, then I remember what my alternatives might be. I then go back to my desk, turn on the radio or put on some music and draw. Unbelievably, people pay me to do this!

My advice to other artists comes from a song by Chumbawamba:

‘I get knocked down, but I get up again, you are never gonna keep me down.’

I believe that with whatever we choose to do in life we should just keep at it and that if you do that with enough determination, it will eventually work out. The people who fall by the wayside do so mostly because they give up too soon or too easily. 

Throw enough darts and you will eventually hit a bullseye.

Approximate split of Alan’s income streams

I love music and an alternative life might have been in the music world playing in bands.

However, it wouldn’t have suited the need for my own time and space.

Unusual, ‘interesting’ facts

When I was sixteen, I took part in an overnight, non-stop forty-two-mile charity walk from Croydon to Brighton walking along the old A23. I arrived at the south downs as dawn was breaking and the dawn chorus began. 

It was magical.

Or

Saved by fly-tippers

One Friday night, shortly after dad died, my uncle, Bill picked me up for a long weekend stay with him and my aunty Pat in their south London flat. 

I was twelve years old and a very inhibited and introverted child.

Bill was an enthusiastic fisherman and had planned a fishing trip for the two of us. 

Early the following day we set off in his van heading for a disused quarry that had been filled with water and turned into a fishing lake. I sat in the passenger seat with the heater on, half dozing as music from the BBC’s light program washed over me. It was still dark when we’d left the flat, but by the time we arrived, a couple of hours later, a grey dawn was beginning to lighten the sky. We parked the van and followed a path towards the lake. It had rained the night before and the ground was still damp. The quarry was surrounded by wasteland, and an area where fly-tippers dumped their ‘spoil’. As Bill unpacked the tackle and became engrossed in setting up the rods, I noticed that a short distance away there was a low muddy island with a narrow muddy causeway leading onto it.

 It was too tempting, and already slightly bored, I gallantly ran the short distance to the causeway and enthusiastically headed out towards the island. Initially, the ground was quite firm but then I quickly found myself up to my ankles in soft, sucking mud. Momentum hurried me on and with my arms outstretched for balance, I managed a few more steps before being brought to a stop by the ever-deepening mud. 

As I tried to extricate one leg, it drove the other deeper into the wet ooze. Almost losing my balance, and with one splayed hand deep in the mud, I tried to turn and retrace my steps. It was too late, and before I knew it, the mud was spilling over my wellingtons and almost up to my knees. The more I tried to lift one leg, the deeper the other sank. It quickly crept up my thighs, and I was still sinking. I felt a cold sweat as panic welled in my stomach and my heart raced, but still my inhibitions overrode my fear, preventing me from calling to my uncle for help. I continued to sink deeper and as the mud rose higher, my instincts took over and I lay flat on my back. It slowed the sinking, but I was now locked in the ooze.

I was doubly concerned as I was wearing my new gaberdine mac and had been warned by mum, in the strongest of terms, ‘not to get it dirty!’

I was still unable to call out. I suffered from a stutter and my voice now seemed to lock in my throat. Bill looked up, quickly saw what was happening and started to run to where I lay in the mud. As he neared, he also started sinking and was forced to retreat. He spotted a long rusty sheet of corrugated iron lying nearby amongst some builder’s rubble and dragging it as close as possible, he laid it flat on the mud, and pushed it closer before tentatively crawling out towards me. 

With some effort, he managed to pull me out, leaving my wellington boots buried deep in the ooze. With both of us covered in mud and with me now shoeless and missing a sock, the days fishing was quickly abandoned. 

As we packed up the gear and headed back towards the van, we passed another early morning fisherman arriving with his tackle and heading towards the quarry. Taking one look at us both covered in mud, he stopped and asked Bill what had happened. He then told us that the week before, a man had sunk in the mud and unfortunately had not been recovered.

On returning home I was worried that mum would be angry, but once Bill had explained what had happened, all was forgiven, and my mac put in the wash.

Get in touch with Alan

Thank you, Alan, for joining us today!

All artworks by Alan Baker, used with permission.

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