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image from The Minpins

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The Minpins by Roald Dahl, first published in Britain by Jonathan Cape, 1991, illustrations © Patrick Benson


We interviewed Patrick Benson in his home in Scotland. Conducting the interview was Joel Edwards (JE). You can also download a rich text version of the interview to print off.

There are eight areas that he talked about. Check the activities on each page, and read the interview sections underneath for Patrick's thoughts on each question.

Activity 1: 'I think the important thing in books is to think about the flow of illustrations through the text.'

  • You could try this for yourself. Choose a short story or long story-poem that has not yet been illustrated. (You could try a websearch to find one).
  • Create a storyboard to map out which parts of the story need just a 'vignette' or a 'zoom-in' and which are the climactic peaks in the story that need the biggest or the most detailed images. What parts of the story do you have to leave out?
  • Remember that Benson says 'if you have decided to have an equal flow of pictures, you will find that you have to illustrate bits that you don't want to'.
  • If you are teaching, the class could divide into groups, then compare their different results.

Patrick Benson's View:

Patrick Benson: The Minpins was Roald Dahl's last written work. His normal illustrator is Quentin Blake and I was asked to do Minpins because Quentin was busy on another project. They had a competition and they asked six illustrators to have a go at doing something from the book and it was Roald Dahl, his agent, I think probably his wife, his publisher.and strangely Kenneth Baker, who was the minister for education at the time. They fortunately chose me to do the illustrations. It's rather different in style.from most of his other work. It's a much straighter fairy tale and it probably needed a different sort of illustration from the sort Quentin Blake might do.

One of the problems was that Roald Dahl was very helpful but his eyesight was failing at the time I did it, and he used to find it quite difficult to read the pictures I took down to show him. The publisher was obviously very keen that he was completely satisfied with the work .so it was quite a difficult job in that respect.

JE: So, you were the first artist to have a go at illustrating this book. Does that make things a little easier for you?

Patrick Benson: It's quite difficult doing things which have already been illustrated. I have done a series of The Wind in the Willows. There was a sequel called The Willows in Winter written by William Horwood, and my brief was to do it in a style which was sympathetic to the original illustrations done by [E.H.] Shepard.and which would be acceptable to all those people who had grown up with these illustrations. So I didn't try and copy [Shepard's] work but I did it in a style which was sympathetic. You could still tell Mole was Mole and Toad was Toad because they were similar.

I then found myself having to do illustrations for Wind in the Willows in the same style as Shepard but not the Shepard illustrations.

JE: Did you find that very restrictive?

Patrick Benson: It's very difficult because, when an illustrator first gets a job he can pick and can choose the best illustrations to do. In Wind in the Willows the best illustration is Toad walking along with Mole in front of the canary yellow caravan, or whatever, and then that falling over and Toad lying in the road. Shepard had already done that illustration in his style, and I found myself looking through the book thinking I've got to illustrate that, but I can't do it like that because Shepard's already done it like that. And so it was incredibly difficult to do.

With The Minpins it was a brand new piece of writing, so the only thing which was different from some other jobs was that I had quite a lot of contact with the author. I had contact with Roald Dahl because he was so important to the publishing was in the publisher's interest to make sure he was entirely happy with the way his work was illustrated. He also had quite strong views as to how it should be done, and to some extent I had to go along with them which again is not necessarily the way to make a good book.

JE: Had he seen any of your work before?

Patrick Benson: He'd seen my work because some years previously he'd bought a picture [I'd done]. One of the jobs which I had to do was the front cover for the Book Review magazine, I think it was, and the brief was to draw the library of an English country parson. I'd done a library with windows opening out on to a cricket scene and a church in the distance, and I had an armchair with some books on it and a cat, I think. And the only book you could clearly see the cover of was one of Roald Dahl's Someone Like You. It was a collection of short stories - because I was reading it at the time. A little bit after that he wrote me a letter and asked could he buy the original, which he then did. I was terribly excited, I took it down to him and he paid me with a cheque from a Swiss bank account, which I thought was terribly exciting!

He (Sebastian Walker, of Walker Books) said it was such a good opportunity to do something with Roald Dahl, who at the time was the biggest selling children's author.

JE: To know that he'd already seen some of your work, and liked it, must have given you some confidence?

Patrick Benson: Yeah. Basically having got the job I knew that in a way they knew what I was capable of.I was incredibly lucky to get [the job]. It's a fantastic chance, therefore I worked very hard to make it as good as I possibly could.

JE: What did you actually have to do, once you were given the text?

Patrick Benson: Roald Dahl said on the front of the manuscript that this story needs detailed illustration, I think was the way he put it.

JE: Why do you think he felt it needed this in particular?

Patrick Benson: I don't know, I mean I personally think the writing in this book is not as strong as in his other work.whether he then felt the need to compensate for this? It needed 'beautiful and detailed illustration' is what he wrote on the manuscript, I've remembered. I'm not sure why he might've actually said that. Maybe it was just the fact he knew Quentin Blake wasn't going to illustrate it.and he thought a new illustrator needed to be told he had to do a good job on it!

Patrick Benson: I think the important thing in books is to think about the flow of illustrations through the text. If a text has climaxes at certain points you might want to indicate them or lead up to them by the size or number of illustrations. Equally if the text has lots of small details or actions you want to illustrate you might want to use lots of little vignettes. You might want to use a double page illustration to illustrate the big event in a story or to put in a lot of information.

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