Berkshire’s creative pool - the secret messages of local illustrators’ art
PUBLISHED: 15:11 10 July 2020 | UPDATED: 10:25 17 July 2020
We meet some of the leading illustrators in the county who have created powerful, inspirational art to communicate a story, message or idea to their audience.
Nicola Metcalfe: Quintessentially British
“It’s the natural world that really floats my boat, if you’ll excuse the Thames pun,” says Nicola Metcalfe, an inspirational freelance illustrator and artist.
Describing herself as a “hapless mum to two teenagers” (her words not mine), she lives just over the river in Marlow, but has strong connections with Berkshire. “Having lived here since I was four I try not to take this area for granted, especially the river and the abundance of woods,” she says.
“There really are some spectacular destinations. We appreciate our regular visits to Cliveden, but it’s only when you stop and think about it that you realise Cliveden’s lofty seat above the Thames is unsurpassable in terms of its beauty.”
Berkshire has influenced her beautiful work in some way or another and has become incorporated into specific commissions. “When Harry and Meghan were married,
St George’s Chapel in Windsor stocked my Royal Wedding range – a collaboration with giftware company Temple Island,” she says.
“They also helped me develop giftware for countless tourist sights in London. On a local level, I have championed my home turf through my illustrations for some years – Marlow and Maidenhead, for example.”
She adds: “I am planning a Berkshire map along the lines of my Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire maps, highlighting architectural points of interest as well as some of the fascinating characters that have made their homes here.”
Nicola has been doodling all of her life and enjoyed her career as a graphic designer until the arrival of her two children. She then returned to work eight years ago, but revealed this wasn’t always her dream job. “At one stage I imagined I was going to front a successful rock band before I then became distracted by the idea of comedy acting. Oh well…” she says.
Nicola’s work is widely known for its bold, bright illustrations and despite her incredible success she is still very humble. “I’ve been extremely lucky and have enjoyed some retail successes in recent years, including a commission from Tate and gift ranges for John Lewis,” she says.
“It is exciting when a prestigious client gets in touch,” Nicola explains. “But what I particularly like is when I’ve received a commission for a private individual, perhaps as a present for a special birthday or to commemorate an anniversary. So often people come back to me to say how delighted the recipient was on receiving their gift. Sometimes they are overcome with tears! Mission accomplished, as far as I’m concerned!”
Bethany Wigmore: A Family Affair
Bethany Wigmore describes herself as a “barista by day, illustrator by night”. “From what I can remember I have been drawing since I was very little. It has always been something I have done with a huge amount of passion and it’s the only thing I have thought of myself doing as a career,” she says.
Her work is described as an eclectic style that is forever changing and sends out positive messages to its audience. “I would say I’m still at the start of my career journey, not quite at the level I want to be yet, but I feel I’m well on my way,” she explains. “I’m really trying to push myself, with craft fairs, starting an online shop and setting myself personal projects to further my portfolio.”
Bethany takes on private commissions, has doodled on shoes, created pet portraits and even designed tattoos, and last year she collaborated with Brighton-based sustainable clothing company Lucy & Yak, designing a t-shirt line alongside other budding illustrators.
Bethany grew up in a creative family household in Reading, which she believes has influenced her work. “My dad is a journalist, writer and cartoonist, my mum is a trained hairdresser, my brother is an animator and graphics extraordinaire, and my sister is into teaching and writing,” she says.
Since she was little, she has been inspired by her surroundings, such as happy memories drawing at the kitchen table in her Berkshire family home. “I draw on these memories and everything I have come into contact with in my daily life to create my work.
My artwork is part of me and my journey through life.” She continues: “Wherever I go in my life, Berkshire will always be home. The rolling countryside or the bustling towns and quaint villages will always have a special place in my heart.”
On the topic of ‘home is where the heart is’, Bethany has recently finished illustrating a cover for one of her dad’s (Nigel Wigmore) books, Emily Bell and the Twelve Olympians.
“My dad’s book is in the process of being completed into a digital version and hopefully a paperback too. It will be exciting to see it in the flesh,” she says.
“I have also written and illustrated my own children’s book, which is something I have always wanted to do.”
Bethany’s book, Oh Little Pink House, £5.49, is available on Amazon now
Matt Kenyon: Editorial Illustrator
An award-winning conceptual illustrator, Matt Kenyon has always loved drawing from a very young age.
“My passion for it evolved as I found I had some talent for it,” he says. “This grew as I started looking at the work of the great artists and how they used drawing to push the boundaries of visual art.”
Aspiring to be an illustrator since the age of 14, Matt has worked in the industry for around 20 years, and his illustrations regularly appear in The Guardian and The Financial Times. Currently working in editorial illustration, he says: “I love the area I work in and hope to continue working in this field for as long as possible.
“I would have loved to be a Lego designer – in fact, that’s one job I’d consider giving up my illustration work for even now!” he says.
After graduating, Matt began by promoting his portfolio around London and started getting work almost immediately. “I was very fortunate in that I entered the workplace at a time when editorial illustration was booming,” he explains.
“My real breakthrough came when I was commissioned by Roger Browning of The Guardian, their head of design and champion of illustration,” he says. “Initially, I illustrated the problem page, which was varied and colourful, before becoming one of their opinion page illustrators. A little later I started working for the Financial Times and have worked for both papers ever since.”
Now at 44 years old, Matt has produced outstanding pieces often with cultural references for a wide variety of impressive clients over the years, including BBC Worldwide, Bloomsberg Publishing, Business Week, The LA Times, Llewellyn Worldwide Publications, Imagination, Oxford University Press and The Wall Street Journal.
He counts himself very lucky and explains: “The sector has shrunk dramatically in the past 20 years. I estimate around a tenth of the editorial illustrations that were commissioned in 2000 are being commissioned today. I feel privileged to be one of the few left standing.”
Matt lives in Newbury with his wife and two children and works from home. “I love living near a vibrant town centre but also being close to the beautiful surrounding countryside, which I can access quickly, without having to get into the car. This is especially important to me at the moment,” he explains.
“I’m not sure whether Berkshire has directly influenced my illustration, but the countryside certainly inspires me and living here keeps me happy and healthy, which can’t hurt. The Sandham Memorial Chapel (with murals by Stanley Spencer) is a few miles from my house, and always inspires whenever I visit.”
Jan Lewis: Children’s Illustrator
Every morning freelance illustrator Jan Lewis wakes up early and enjoys a little natter with her two African grey parrots while the kettle boils. “If the weather is nice, I take a cup of tea with me into my garden to see how the tadpoles are doing or stand in the field behind my house to listen to the skylarks,” she says. “Gosh, that sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?”
Born and bred in Berkshire, Jan has two grown-up sons and lives in a National Trust cottage in a rural area near Pangbourne. “I’m very lucky. My home is surrounded by beautiful beech woods,” she says.
“My studio is a summerhouse in the garden, where I can work in peace, with just the odd tractor and birdsong as a backing track. My surroundings are extraordinarily important to me and I’m continually inspired by the colours of the countryside.”
Born at Battle Hospital, Reading, she grew up in Shinfield Rise “not far from where Ricky Gervais lived”, she says. She attended Whiteknights Primary School, then Theale Green School, and was encouraged to apply to Bath Academy of Art by her wonderful art teacher, Pat Eastop MBE.
“If there was something with which to make a mark, I’d draw,” she says. “My mother tells me that I drew everywhere as a small child: walls, pavements, books – even the inside of my beautiful cream-coloured pram.”
After leaving Bath Academy of Art in 1978, Jan did a one-year PGCE in Primary Education as a back-up plan and, as soon as she had completed the course, she started touting her unwieldy cardboard portfolio around the London publishers.
She has worked with a variety of impressive publishers over the years, including BBC Children’s Television, Cambridge University Press, Harper Collins, Ladybird, Lion, Macmillan and Penguin.
Jan explains: “Apart from six years as a part-time lecturer in illustration at Reading College, or Berkshire College of Art and Design as it was then known, I have worked solely as a freelance illustrator.
I have undertaken other commissions, but I feel my loose, colourful style is best suited to children’s books and I get to exercise my imagination.”
However, she admits adapting to the digital revolution has been a challenge. “I recently entered the digital world because I wasn’t getting as many commissions, and my sons tell me that it’s because I’m such a dinosaur in today’s publishing industry!” she says.
“I never thought I’d enjoy working digitally, it feels like cheating… I love the whole messy process of painting with inks and the feel of the watercolour paper, but this new way definitely does have its benefits.”