Fattypuffs & Thinifers, written by Andre Maurois, published by The Bodley Head, London, 1968.
Last month I heard the sad news that the great illustrator Fritz Wegner passed away. In 2001 I was introduced to him, he was an amusing, mishevious, witty and charming chap. I've admired his illustration work since I was a child and he kindly agreed to be interviewed for 'Line' journal published by The Cambridge School of Art in Anglia Ruskin University. Fritz liked the final interview and said that when he passed it would make a fitting tribute to him. So it is with some regret but with great fondness that I now present this interview in full. Let us celebrate the fine fellow that was Fritz Wegner, he's an illustration hero who shouldn't be forgotten and continues to inspire. RIP Fritz Wegner, born 15th September 1924, died 15th March 2015.
A Lunch with Fritz Wegner - by Tom Morgan-Jones
I was aged seven when I first saw a copy of Fattypuffs & Thinifers. It was lying among hundreds of other books on a school desk, but it was by far the best looking book there. It had a witty, funny, spiky, and strangely gracious drawing of two soldiers on the front, along with its beautifully rendered title, Fattypuffs & Thinifers.
I had fallen in love with a book. Perhaps sometimes you should judge a book by its cover. It was Book Club day. I looked to my hands where I counted my owl tokens, and then I counted the coins in my pocket. It would take me two weeks to save enough money to buy the book. So the book Club people kept it for me, in a cardboard box with my name written on a piece of paper, put inside. At last, when I did buy the book I think it changed my life.
F&T Title Page.
I loved that book, and later when I was in my twenties I wanted to find it, and couldn’t. I looked everywhere, all through the book shelves at my parents’ house, and all through their loft. I looked through all their boxes. I looked in lots of book shops. I asked for it in lots of book shops, only to hear ‘Oh yes I remember that, it was wonderful, but I don’t think you’ll be able to get hold of a copy now, sorry’, and ‘Sorry, what did you say? Fattypuffs & Thinifers? Would you spell that?’
‘Written by Andre Maurois?’ Would you spell that?’
‘Illustrated by who? Fritz Wegner?’ and ‘Would you spell that? Oh no, sorry, that is been out of print a long time now.’
Right, potluck with charity shops and an onslaught of second-hand book shops, and antiquarian book shops is required, I thought. That pleasure kept me busy for a long time, until one day, at one of the Russell Square book fairs, my arm shot out and there was this big beautiful hardback book, and all the pictures were there as I remembered them.
At last! I had found the chance to be taken on this adventure again, and it made me very happy. ‘Oh, you like that book, do you?’ said my friend. ‘This is a fabulous book, I’ve been looking for this book for years.’ ‘Well, in that case Tom, would you like to meet the illustrator? Fritz is a good friend of mine.’
Is he? Would I? Could I? Please! Holding my new book I smiled, a very big smile.
I’ve always remembered Fritz’s drawings from Fattypuffs & Thinifers, and I’ve never forgotten the story itself. I think it was possibly the first book I had which gave me a thirst for books. It quite literally opened up a whole new world for me (and you’ll find that world between two rocks, down a set of moving stairs ... )
I recall the sense of journey, the adventure within the pages, the unfolding story. Both the written word and the illustrations are funny, mischievous, witty and compassionate. That’s why I loved it. These days it’s easier to get hold of a copy. Jane Nissen Books published a new edition in 2000. Fritz has drawn a new Illustration for the cover, as well as replacing a handful of the old pictures with new ones which sit alongside all the other classics that are still there, and these days Ralymond Briggs is pleased to introduce it. But first, before you pop round the corner to pick up your copy of this beautiful book, to lunch with Mr Wegner.
Interior (or nearly) from F&T.
Fritz, what would you consider to be the most important role of the illustrator?
An illustrator has to enhance the text, and bring an additional dimension to the words. There is no point in repeating laboriously what the word already says. A good illustrator, if he’s left to his own devices and his own intentions, can contribute something which makes the story much more interesting.
Fattypuffs & Thinifers was the first book I was offered that gave me that opportunity and I seized it with both arms and hands. I love the story, the humour, and the irony of it, as well. It really appealed to me.
The costumes, or should I say uniforms, are terrific; they are a real celebration of drawing. Did you do much research for those?
I never like labouring from existing studies or reference, I think that one needs to visualise something in a completely uninhibited way. I’ve trained myself to observe things around me and pretend they’re fun so that when I’m given a situation to illustrate I can easily visualise it. The skill comes in putting it down on paper. I do have sketchbooks and studies of things that I’ve drawn but you can’t actually use those specifically for any book illustration; you really have to create a situation that relates to the story. So copying from reference is not a good idea, on the whole. The practice of drawing from life to hone your skills as a drawer is very important. I think then you draw from that experience.
My one regret is that my roughs are very often better than the finished artwork. They’re more spontaneous, they have a greater creative sparkle and you don’t have to worry too much about sizes and all the constraints you normally have to work with. The rough provides the idea for an illustration and one of the things I admire in Quentin’s work is the way he is able to make his finished illustrations look as if they’re still those delicious roughs to start with. That’s an enviable skill.
Giant Kippernose and Other Stories, written by John Cunliffe, published by Andre Deutsch Limited, London, 1972.
Have you picked up any particular skills from someone you can name?
When I first went to St Martin’s at the age of 14, one of my teachers was George Mansell, who lectured on lettering and design there at the time. In his own practice he did all sorts of architectural inscriptions, lettering, and manuscript work. Seeing I was a refugee boy, and not particularly well cared for, he invited me to come and live at his home with his French wife, and to assist him in his studio. It was an extremely generous thing to do and indeed I lived with them for several years, learning everything I later knew about lettering, penmanship, gilding and the Roman alphabet. That was the start of an early passion, after which I moved on to doing illustrations. George, an extremely knowledgeable and cultivated man, was able to teach me a great deal more about life. He was responsible for giving me my first formal education in cultural matters, and introducing me to literature, the English language, and a love for the Arts. He had an immense influence on my life and I was very grateful to him. Sadly, of course, he died some time ago, but he bequeathed to me an understanding about typography and lettering: disciplines that have been invaluable to me.
George would have been so pleased to think I ended up teaching illustration at St Martin’s, where it all began for me. I remained a visiting member of staff until I retired after 25 years. Perhaps some of my happiest times were spent offering enthusiastic support to students, some of whom became celebrated in their careers, achieving considerable success in different fields of the profession.
What happened after you started freelancing on your own?
I found an agent, Saxon Artists, who represented my work after the war and promoted me more specifically in the advertising field. But I yearned to do book
illustration, and finally achieved my first commission from Hamish Hamilton, for whom I worked over a number of years. I was teamed up with authors such as Dorothy L. Sayers, Raymond Chandler, Salinger, etc., whose first editions with my covers are now collectors’ items. Among my favourites were two children’s books: The Hamish Hamilton Book of Princesses and an accompanying one of Princes. They included some delightful classic Fairy Tales. Mother Courage, published by the Folio Society in 1965, is different in that I used a method for the illustrations that I hadn’t attempted before. They were ‘lift-ground’ drawings: a cunning technique that makes them look like woodcuts.
Mother Courage, by John von Grimmelshausen, lift-ground drawings by Fritz Wegner, published by The Folio Society, London, 1965.
The Hamish Hamilton Book of Princes, stories selected by Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, published by Hamish Hamilton, London, 1964.
At that time, I was also given the chance to design my first set of postage stamps, and to everybody’s surprise succeeded in winning the Christmas set design for 1969. Over the years I did a further eight sets of anniversary stamps, including a Valentine’s stamp that earned me a trip to New York to talk to philatelists – a challenging experience!
Commissioned by the Royal Mail, February, 1981.
How do you see the role of the illustrator today?
Well, he or she can play quite an important role in the publishing world, perhaps less so in advertising now, but there are new opportunities in design, editorial work and animation. Where books are concerned, publishers need the odd best-seller to fund the books that don’t do so well. If a book gets good reviews, or some other publicity, it will attract interest and sell more copies.
How do you get commissioned?
You may get teamed up with an author, or- better still come up with a good project of your own. A publisher will pay you an advance, which then has to be paid back from your royalty earnings.
So, with Fattypuffs & Thinifers, for example?
Well, they didn’t give illustrators royalties in those days. You were simply paid an outright fee. Although the book was produced in a number of other editions I never received any further payment. However, on this latest edition published by Jane Nissen, the cover for the book has been changed and I do receive a small royalty.
Your Baron Munchausen book has a really interesting layout. Did you have a say on how your illustrations would relate to the text?
Yes, I did. The drawings were an integral part of the design.
Baron Munchausen's Marvellous Travels & Adventures, by R. E. Raspe & others, adapted and introduced by Janet Barber, published by Bodley Head, London, 1967.
The opening scene is a cucumber tree about to squash a couple; you captured the excitement rather than the horrific consequences of that ...
Yes, I preferred to leave that to the imagination. The anticipation is more intriguing than the outcome. I really enjoyed doing these pictures. The Munchausen, of course, I remember from my own childhood days; likewise, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which I also illustrated years ago. More recently, another old time favourite I was asked to illustrate was The Wicked Tricks of Till Owlyglass, retold by Michael Rosen. Of course, as a boy, I knew the story as Till Eulenspiegel.
The Wicked Tricks of Till Owlyglass, written by Michael Rosen, published by Walker Books, London, 1990.
They could be quite gory scenes, couldn’t they?
Originally, children’s books were often used to convey harsh moral warnings. When I was doing my early children’s books they were very careful not to do anything that would scare little children. But later on, after the publication of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, that seemed to break the mould and change attitudes. Before that, all the child psychologists were anxious not to frighten the little dears! Now, the more gory the drawings, the better they like them. Colin McNaughton has done some lovely ones in that genre.
Hullabaloo, an anthology edited by Barbara Willard, published by Hamish Hamilton Ltd, 1969.
What about your relationship with the authors?
Some authors are happy to leave the interpretation of the text to the illustrator, which is ideal. It’s infinitely better because you’re then given the freedom to do what you think is best. When authors have a very clear vision of what they want, they can tend to lean on you somewhat, which puts you in a more secondary role and can be a bit inhibiting.
You’ve done several books with Allan Ahlberg, haven’t you?
Allan is a dear friend of mine, and he’s always been extremely supportive to me. He likes what I do, and I appreciate that. And I admire what he does.
I’ve heard it described as a game of table tennis, where you both know where you’re coming from and you both bounce off each other.
That’s a good way of putting it. Allan is full of ideas; he’s stimulating, and has a reputation for being a perfectionist. He had the ideal illustrator in his late wife, Janet, setting a style of enchanting humour that has been difficult to follow.
Friendly Matches, written by Allan Ahlberg, published by Viking/Penguin. London, 2001.
You have undertaken solo projects, haven't you?
Don't look now but it's Christmas again! springs to mind. I used to submit drawings for the Christmas Show at Mel Calman's gallery, and when Patrick Hardy set up as a publisher with his own list he suggested I should do a series of drawings around the theme of Christmas and he would publish them. It was done in very quick time - 3 months - and I enjoyed it enormously. I was to do a follow-up one on the subject of love, but sadly Patrick died and regrettably the book never materialised.
You worked with your dear friend Emma Curzon on an incredible book, Heaven on Earth, an astrological entertainment with slides, wheels and changing pictures and all sorts ...
Well, we did it between us. For some time, I had thought the subject rich in visual possibilities. Emma created all the words for the book- a very difficult task, especially as she had to distil a complicated subject and fit the text into limited spaces. The American co-edition did rather well, and it was very amusing to see it translated into Japanese-as well as French and Dutch.
Fritz Wegner's Heaven on Earth, by Fritz Wegner with text by Emma Curzon, published by Walker Books, London, 1992.
Are there any other artists you admire who have inspired you?
There are so many, I can hardly select a few. I love the early Renaissance, to start with; I love a great deal of early art of any kind - it fascinates me. I admire medieval manuscript art; the eighteenth and nineteenth-century satirists like Daumier, Gilray, Rowlandson, Hogarth, Cruikshank, etc., and the more contemporary ones like George Grosz, Felix Topolski, Steinberg, and of course Ronald Searle and Andre Francois, who have been a great source of inspiration. In my teaching days, I regretted that students weren't more enriched in their imagination by all those exciting creations from the past.
So it's good to revert to the past?
Yes, I feel a certain amount of going back in time can be very healthy. Picasso admitted he learnt an awful lot from African art, and Monet found great inspiration from Japanese prints.
There are Picasso-like cats in the book you illustrated called Carter is a Painter's Cat. Would you call that a homage?
Well, yes. That was deliberate, of course. I mean, that was a skit.
You also drew a picture for the Puffin Annual 2, and you drew artefacts from your home.
I'm sorry you saw that! I must confess to letting my great collection of objects and books reveal themselves in my drawings. One of them is Christina, my lay figure; she's fully articulated and was made in France, around 1840. I remember bringing her to the house. She belonged to the family of a friend, who very kindly allowed me to buy her. I didn't have a car then, so I had to bring her home sitting beside me in a taxi. I carried her into the house like a new bride, which caused quite a stir in the neighbourhood. If you could see my studio you might well wonder where I find space to do my work. There isn't an inch of space on shelves, desks or floors - and yet I still search the markets and charity shops for ever more dubious treasures!
Puffin Annual, Number one, edited by Treld Bicknell, Frank Waters & Kaye Webb, published by Puffin Books a division of Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1974.
You popped in lots of Lear-like drawings in the Puffin Annual... I once drew a homage to Lear, and people said, 'Well, that's just a rip-off' and I said, 'Well actually, it's a homage to him.' Is there a line between those two, do you think?
What, a line between the homage and the rip-off?
Yes, ripping someone off or being lazy about your own work. Using someone else's style or idea?
Oh no, I think artists have used other artists' inspiration in their own work since time immemorial. That's a fairly common sort of thing to do and, freely admitted, one doesn't have to apologise for that.
So if l were to drop one of your Thinifers into a picture of mine in the future, you wouldn’t mind?
Not at all; I would think it a compliment. In China, they repeated things over a thousand years on vases and paintings, and they even signed them with their characters of previous periods. That was not because they were slavishly copying, but because they were in awe of what was done before, and it was done by way of celebrating the past. We don’t do that, but it was a known thing. You knew there was a convention there, so the work you see sometimes would have been done in the last century as well as in the twelfth century.
Jacob Two Two Meets the Hooded Fang, written by Mordecai Richler, a Borzoi book published by Alfred A. Knopf,Inc., New York, 1975.
What do you like most about illustrating?
I love fanciful stories that give me lots of opportunities for invention and humour, because those are things I like to bring to my work. It’s not the cartoony, belly-laugh type of humour, but something perhaps a little more subtle. I don’t like crude jokes, and I’m not a great funny-story-teller.
I think your books tell them all, don’t they?
I suppose I do see the funny side of life.
Do you put that down to anything in particular?
What would l put it down to? I don’t know where it comes from. It’s the way one is; it’s part of one’s make-up. I remember when I was a child, I used to clown in the classroom by doing cartoons, but the one time I got into really serious trouble over my silly drawings was when Hitler invaded Austria during the Anschluss. I thought it would be a bit of a laugh to picture him with the little moustache he had – you know he was an easy one to caricature. It created an outrage, of course, and the teacher in the class was a dedicated Nazi; he even came in uniform on one occasion with his swastikas all over him. My cartoon of Hitler - rather innocent, you may think - was shown to him. I got a belting for it and was thrown out of class. Later on, of course, I was thrown out of the school altogether, so that was it. So my humour didn’t always pay off. It misfired on that occasion.
But you weren’t thrown out of the school for your cartooning?
Not for that, but because I was Jewish. And that’s something else I didn’t really fully comprehend because I never thought about it. I was brought up in a very liberal-minded household, where religion didn’t feature. Until the Nazi days, I didn’t think I was any different from anyone else. I was never treated differently. It just suddenly came out of the blue and it was a horrible shock to me to be discriminated against and punished for it. Anyway, as you can see, I survived over all those years, and here I am, talking to you at the Chelsea Arts Club. Life can dish up a few things along the way that one has to learn to cope with.
I’d like to thank Fritz for his time and company. A real gentleman, generous, kind and hugely inspirational.
This piece was originally published in the journal 'Line' (No2: Children's Books) in 2001. Line is a journal on the subject of drawing and illustration from the Cambridge School of Art in Anglia Ruskin University.
Special thanks go to Wendy Coates-Smith, not only for introducing me to Fritz but for all her support and for originally editing this piece. I'd also like to thank my Illustration tutor Martin Salisbury who I studied under between 1994-97 at Cambridge School of Art, he co-edited Line.
My thanks also go to Becky Garrill from Anderson Press for helping me convert my old printed copy of the interview into the modern wizardry that is this electronic web friendly readable version.