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Keeping It In The Family: Shirley Hughes with Ed, Tom and Clara Vulliamy

In September I was fortunate to see Shirley Hughes in conversation with two of her children at the Soho Literary Festival. I started writing about it but got sidetracked by a dozen other things and Clara wrote such a wonderful post that it didn’t seem necessary to add my meagre efforts! Today I got to see them in conversation again, this time with the addition of the third Vulliamy sibling and in a larger venue.

In the morning of the Oxford event, MG had a minor meltdown which resulted in me phoning the festival and luckily managing to get the very last ticket for the event for her! I knew it was more for ‘grown ups’ but she was so patient at the Red House Children’s Book Award Ceremony I thought she would manage the day. She was fidgetty and bored for some of it, and totally fed up in the queue for signing afterwards, but cheered up immensely when seeing Clara Vulliamy and Shirley Hughes to sign our books. To MG, Shirley Hughes is important because she is “Clara’s mummy”, and Clara Vulliamy is important because she is Clara :-)

Fortunately a festival person queue-jumped us (and other children) as the queue was so very long and MG so fed up, so kudos to the festival for prioritising the children over the adults! This did mean I didn’t get to chat to two lovely Twitter-friends who I’d met for the first time at the event for as long as I would have liked, but we still chatted and it was brilliant as both a me day, and a me-and-MG day.

The host of both the Soho and Oxford events was Mark Ellen who had known the family for over 30 years and was excellent at holding a very engaging and interesting talk with all family members. The first thing I learnt in September was that I’ve been pronouncing Vulliamy completely wrong: it’s more like vol-you-may than the voo-lee-army that I’ve been saying. Ooops!

Keeping It In The Family: Shirley Hughes with Clara and Ed Vulliamy at Soho Literary Festival 2012

At both events there was a talk through some slides of family pictures and paintings, some of which can be found in the book A Life Drawing, and on Clara Vulliamy’s website. There were a lot of similarities between the content of the Soho and Oxford events for obvious reasons, but I’m glad I went to both as they were still very different and hugely enjoyable. Today’s event was a lot busier, and I suspect the Hughes-Vulliamy family must be completely worn out!

Ed Vulliamy is known as a war journalist, but he vehemently despises war. You could see the journalist in him at the Soho event, as he took notes during the conversations on the back of an old envelope. A very engaging speaker, he talked of his work and childhood. In Oxford, possibly because there were children in the audience, he appeared more muted, but still added my favourite line of how a psychiatrist once said she didn’t envy him getting over a happy childhood!

Middle brother, Tom Vulliamy, a reasearch scientist, wasn’t in Soho (but referred to often in that event) so it was lovely to have his viewpoint included in person in Oxford. He commented how Shirley Hughes’ first picture book included a boy called Tom which he liked! He talked about his research and added to the anecdotes of childhood that the whole family shared.

As a daughter myself, and a mother of daughters, the most interesting people for me to watch and listen to were Shirley Hughes and Clara Vulliamy. Shirley Hughes commented at the start that there is no perfect time to have a childhood and that she is described as having an idyllic childhood, but growing up on the Wirral in the Liverpool Blitz wasn’t that idyllic! Later in the event, the family talked about how television was not allowed much when they were children. Clara added an anecdote of how she wanted a plastic doll which played a tune, rather than the hand sewn toys her mother made her, but she was not even allowed to go into the toyshop where it was sold! “The darker side of our childhood” she joked, continuing “which made me the bitter adult I am today”!

Keeping It In The Family: Shirley Hughes with Ed, Tom and Clara Vulliamy at Oxford Literary Festival 2013

Shirley Hughes said she could tell at a young age what her children were drawn to. Ed was interviewing people on election day with a skipping rope handle aged ten; Tom was racing to school on Saturday mornings to see how his aphids were doing; and Clara had a sense for visual narrative that meant illustration was in her future. But she didn’t push them into anything. Mark Ellen quipped that parents not encouraging children meant they were more likely to do something!

All the Vulliamy children said they didn’t realise that they had a famous mother until they were adults. She was just their mother. Tom told his teachers that his mother was a landlady because they shared their house with a succession of lodgers. Shirley Hughes still lives in the same house her children grew up in. The house used to be in a deprived area with communal gardens where the children played together and she sketched and sketched observations of the children who amalgamated into the children in her books. Bernard from the Alfie books was probably one of those children, she recalled, but now the area is affluent and she is surrounded by merchant bankers who don’t send their children out to play in communal areas.

Being outside, experiencing the world and looking are very important to the family. Tom, Ed and Clara all work in very different fields but they all observe the world meticulously to produce their work. Shirley Hughes said she thinks a lot of that came from her late husband’s family and how they all learnt that really looking at the world is so very important an ability to cultivate in childhood.

It’s hard to do the talk justice in my rambling, but it was a wonderful experience (both times!) Today I took some notes during the event so I will end with some wisdom gleaned from Shirley Hughes:

How to encourage a child with an interest in art: give them decent art materials, leave a sketchbook near them always. In times of boredom they might just start sketching in it. All children go through a phase at about 7 or 8 where the freedom in art that they had previously experienced turns into “I can’t draw”. Some persevere, they just have to get through it on their own but encourage them to persevere. If something doesn’t look how they want, they can do it again. Don’t be discouraged.

On creating a picture book: use minimum words, choosing them carefully. Someone is going to have to read this again and again and again and you don’t want them getting bored. Add something of interest into the pictures to keep adults entertained too, lots of details in pictures for children and adults.

There will be another novel.

Keep calm and carry on!

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