Out of work for 44 minutes
In a career spanning decades, reports Brian Cormack, Wimborne illustrator John Batchelor has kept himself busy
Published in July ’16
John Batchelor is not the sort of man to let things get in the way of what he wants to do. His quiet determination, unswerving focus and perhaps a healthy dose of naivety have served him well since September 1940 when, at the age of 4½, he first put pencil to paper to draw, recording a dog-fight between a Hurricane and two Messerschmitts above the railway station at Leigh-on-Sea. ‘I did it from memory and I still have the drawing, but what troubles me to this day is that I put the markings on after the event,’ he says. ‘I shouldn’t have done that. I can recall being taken to see a captured Messerschmitt in the square at Southend and noticing its markings, then I also saw a Hurricane being taken by on a low-loader with its wings folded up and noted those markings. I’m certain I went home and added them to the drawing – that was bad because it wasn’t exactly what I saw.’
That is precisely the kind of attention to detail that has fuelled John’s long and distinguished career in the fine art of technical illustration. His work appears in many hundreds of books, articles and magazines published throughout the world as well as on 864 stamps designed for 49 different countries. Not before time, in 2013 he was awarded the MBE for services to illustration. ‘Yes, you would think that finally our own Post Office would answer my letters,’ he muses with a wry grin. ‘I wrote to them thirty years ago to suggest a set of stamps to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Spitfire and several times since, but they have yet to reply to a single letter.’
To mark the eightieth anniversary of that most iconic of aircraft, John has designed a Spitfire stamp as part of a set of unissued – or Cinderella – stamps for the UK. The set, which celebrates great British inventions, also features Whittle’s jet engine, HMS Victory, Stephenson’s Rocket, Rolls-Royce vehicles and the Merlin engine, and is included as a special item in John Batchelor’s World of Stamps: A Unique Collection, a new book that celebrates his career.
It also rather neatly means that the fiftieth country for which John has designed stamps is his native one. ‘To tell you the truth, I’m not much bothered about not having done stamps for this country,’ he confesses. ‘I’ve had plenty to do.’
He’s not kidding. Having been rejected at art school by what he scornfully refers to as ‘three Victorian watercolourists’ who did not see any merit in his magnificently detailed drawings of machinery, he completed his National Service with the RAF and went to work in the technical illustration departments of the Bristol Aeroplane Company and Martin-Baker, before joining Saunders-Roe and working on the first hovercraft. He moved to Bournemouth in 1960 as studio manager for an advertising agency, but soon resigned to embark on a freelance career. ‘I didn’t have a plan, I just got on the train to London, arrived at Waterloo and bought a copy of Eagle, the paper for boys. I found the address, walked there and burst into the editor’s office, a Mr L R T Bartholomew. I left there with a commission to produce six cut-aways and a 56-week series on antique pistols. The assistant who tried to stop me getting to his office ended up sitting on the floor and never forgave me.’
Not bad going for the first hour of a freelance career and in the years that followed, John has been out of work for a mere 44 minutes, he says. ‘Someone said it was 40 minutes, but I’m not that quick. It was in 1976. I thought the work had dried up, so I decided to go fly-fishing; then the phone rang and it was a job. I went fishing anyway – I like it because it clears the head.’
His work has taken John on 161 trips to the United States. ‘I funded my first trip to America [in 1966] by asking the local bank manager in Wimborne for enough money to get me to New York. He agreed (although he told me later he had written the loan off in his mind) so I went and spent three days walking around New York with a Yellow Pages, visiting the offices of publishers and asking to see the art directors. I got a commission from Ballantine on that first trip and came back to Wimborne with a cheque for $3000, which more than covered the loan.
‘I’ve been very lucky in many respects. I remember the fishing editor at the Eagle told me the name and address of a publisher who was planning something on the world wars that might interest me. I forgot about it until I happened to be in that street one day and started looking at the brass plaques for the name. I found it, went and saw the art director, we had a chat and he told me they really needed an illustration of a Gloster Gladiator. As luck would have it, I had finished one that day and happened to have it with me.’ John left the illustration and ended up contributing 1163 illustrations to the enormously successful Purnell’s History of…, weekly anthologies covering the two world wars that first appeared in 1966 and were reprinted several times in the 1970s.
Now in his eightieth year, he still works most days at the home he shares with his wife, Liz, in Colehill, where they have lived since 1961. He is happy to pick and choose the jobs that interest him. In John’s world there’s no substitute for the human touch – if a publisher wants to show a cut-away of an engine or the workings of a machine, the only way to do it is by illustration. ‘Time-Life once put me up against a computer that took up eight rooms. I finished the cut-away in three days and the machine had barely got started. I told Time-Life that if they sold the computer and gave me half the money, I would work for them for free until my retirement. They turned me down but years later said they should have taken up my offer.’
His studio is a monument to a lifetime of artistic endeavour – there are mementoes on the walls, on top of shelves, framed artworks and scraps of paper of all levels of significance, some of which may be destined for the bin as John threatens a grand ‘tidy-up’ ahead of writing his autobiography. ‘The propellers,’ he explains, ‘remind me that if you can draw a propeller, you can draw anything. The light on them is completely different every way you look at them and there isn’t a single straight line. They provided the only training I’ve ever had.
‘I see beauty in all things, even something as awful as a tank. The sight of a steam engine in motion is the most wonderful thing and I have that in mind if I have to draw one. I can get a lot of nuts and bolts detail – how many nuts and bolts is very important to get right – but it helps to see a subject to get a feel for it.’
Asked for highlights from his career, he recounts an encounter with Battle of Britain air ace Sir Douglas Bader, a boyhood hero, at the Imperial War Museum in November 1976 when he was presented with a model of a silver Spitfire to commemorate Purnell’s histories of the world wars having sold ten million copies. In the interests of balance, perhaps, he also recalls meeting German aviatrix Hanna Reitsch, the Nazi test pilot who became the first woman to fly a helicopter and a rocket plane and the only woman to be awarded the Iron Cross First Class and the Luftwaffe Pilot/Observer Badge with diamonds. She was wearing the diamond-encrusted Iron Cross given to her by Hitler.
Nothing if not prolific, there is not much John has not drawn at some stage of his career, although he is glad to avoid drawing people and animals. There is, however, something he would improve about his drawing. ‘Everything,’ he states, emphatically. ‘I would improve every single thing I have ever drawn. I can’t stand seeing my work enlarged on screen because all I can see are the rough brush strokes and faults; it’s terrible.’
John Batchelor’s World of Stamps: A Unique Collection is limited to 125 copies and is available from Print Solutions, Wimborne. 01202 882277, www.printsolutions.co.uk