6 ISSUES FOR £6 Subscribe to Sussex Life today click here

Interview with children's author Jane Hissey

PUBLISHED: 01:16 26 August 2011 | UPDATED: 19:54 20 February 2013

Interview with children's author Jane Hissey

Interview with children's author Jane Hissey

Jane Hissey's Old Bear books have delighted generations of children . As the Sussex author and illustrator celebrates Old Bear's 25th birthday with a landmark exhibition, she talks to Angela Wintle

Jane Hissey has to pinch herself when she looks back on the giddy heights of her success. Back in themid Eighties, when she launched her popular series of childrens books featuring the much-loved characters Old Bear and Friends, she became an instant publishing sensation.


Publishers vied to secure the international rights to her first book and Jane went on to sell a staggering seven million copies worldwide, consistently topping the public lending rights list for more than a decade.


When she arrived at book signings in the States in a chauffeur-driven limousine young fans queued around the block to catch a glimpse of her and she was deluged with requests to open schools and libraries. Merchandisers were also quick to recognise the characters potential and Old Bear and his chums even starred in their own BAFTA-winning stop-frame model animation series on Channel 5.


This month marks the 25th anniversary of her first book, Old Bear, and Jane, 59, is marking the event with an exhibition of her work at the Illustration Cupboard, a gallery specialising in the sale of childrens book illustration in St Jamess, London. Its the first one-man exhibition Ive ever had and Ill be featuring around 30 illustrations from four of my Old Bear titles, she says.


We chat in the charming house she shares with her husband, fellow illustrator Ivan Hissey, on the fringes of Wilderness Wood near the village of Hadlow Down in the Sussex Weald. Its a glorious spot. The Edwardian house overlooks a wild, wooded valley dotted with ponds and streams and deer graze right beneath their window. Jane, a bubbly and welcoming woman, admits its a constant source of inspiration.


We both work from home, so we could have lived in any part of the country, but we decided this spot was as peaceful as anywhere in the heart of rural Dorset, Devon or Norfolk, she says. It seemed to have all the ingredients we were looking for rolling countryside and no motorways!


Old Bear sprang to life shortly after the birth of Janes first child, Owen, when she was scratching around for something to do between nappy changes. Instinctively, she turned to her old love, drawing, and her hands alighted on the frayed, old teddy bear she had cherished from birth.


Soon, she began drawing other household favourites, including Bramwell Brown, a large bear with a handsome brown coat who had been made for her newly born son by a former teaching colleague; Rabbit, who had been snapped up at a bargain price in an Oxfam shop on Brightons London Road, and Little Bear, who was discovered by her grandmother in an old wool bag. It wasnt long before they were quickly joined by Duck, Hoot the Owl and Jolly Tall the Giraffe.


Bears were hardly a novel subject for childrens books, but Janes illustrative technique stood out from the off. Publishers were dazzled by her loose, textured drawing style and minute attention to lighting and detail. There had been nothing quite like it.


But her path to fame was not an easy one. Jane learnt her craft on the prestigious Illustration and Design course at Brighton Polytechnic (now the University of Brighton), then taught by three of the countrys best-known childrens illustrators, Raymond Briggs, John Vernon Lord and Justin Todd.


Lacking confidence in her abilities, she took the soft option on graduation, turning her back on her illustrative ambitions to teach art at Worthing Sixth Form College at Durrington, where she remained for five years before starting a family.


But when she did finally decide to launch herself on an unsuspecting publishing world, her worst fears were confirmed. Bundling her drawings into a portfolio, she set off for London in the hope of finding an agent, only to return deeply disappointed on the homeward-bound train.


My portfolio simply wasnt strong enough, she says. One agent said he liked my work but wasnt sure whether I could do backgrounds. And when another asked what else I could draw I could only mention the fruit and vegetable illustrations I had done at art college.


Her fortunes changed, however, when her bear illustrations were snapped up by a shrewd greetings cards firm and these, in turn, came to the notice of Hutchinson Childrens Books, who commissioned Jane to illustrate an entire childrens picture book. When the chosen author failed to deliver the accompanying storyline on time, Jane valiantly stepped into the breach, opting to write and illustrate the text herself with resounding success.


No doubt some of that success can be attributed to her meticulous drawing style. She begins every illustration by mapping out the outline of her composition on layout paper, then copying the image using a tracing-down paper onto soft watercolour board. Her preferred medium is coloured pencil, which she discovered at art school


I remember breathing a huge sigh of relief. Id always struggled with paint, and coloured pencils worked really well for me. I loved their immediacy. No need to stretch paper, prime a surface or mix colours. And unlike watercolour, I could pick them up and put them down, which suited my working patterns at home with a young family.


All Janes illustrations are drawn from life and she goes to great lengths to set up her studies. For her last Old Bear book, Splash, which was set at the seaside, she constructed a sandtray in her studio and filled it with pebbles, shells and seaweed. I drew the ripples on the water after staring endlessly at buckets of water, she laughs.


If shes drawing complex compositions featuring several characters, she pins the toys into position to ensure they dont collapse. And if shes depicting them running or jumping, she suspends them from threads tied to a frame or pins them against a sponge and pulls them into position with guy ropes.


Similarly, her lighting has to remain constant, so she works in a darkened room using a true light strip light. The process is painstaking and drawing one character takes about ten hours; more detailed illustrations up to two weeks.


As the books took off, they inspired a range of merchandising from jigsaw puzzles and baby clothes to Royal Doulton figures, though Jane carefully monitored the quality of Old Bear spin-offs, insisting one toy company go back to the drawing board when their prototypes failed to meet her exacting standards.


She was equally strict about proposals for an animated version of the books, mindful of the many previous poor adaptations of classic childrens titles. Fearing that 2D animation might look scrappy, she jumped for joy when a small company called Ealing Animation suggested they used model animation. It seemed the perfect solution, though it was a painstaking process.


More than 7,000 frames made up each ten-minute programme and all the characters, sets and props had to be painstakingly modelled from the originals. The effort paid off, however, winning the team a BAFTA for best childrens programme in 1993, prompting one critic to comment that the series was perfect right down to the last worn thread of fur. Recently, Jane had hoped to get a new 26-part series off the ground, but sadly couldnt secure the all-important financial backing.


So instead, shes hoping to work on a new Old Bear book, the first in six years, and has redesigned the existing titles for todays market, reducing the length of the texts . This will allow her new publisher, the Brighton-based Salariya Book Company, which was last year voted independent publisher of the year, to reproduce full-bleed illustrations and enlarged vignettes.


The children who grew up with Old Bear and his friends are now becoming parents themselves my son, Owen, among them so its my fervent hope that the fresh impetus behind the books will inspire them to introduce the characters to a new generation of young readers, she says.


Jane Hisseys 25th anniversary exhibition of Old Bear illustrations runs at The Illustration Cupboard at 22 Bury Street, St Jamess, London, from September 14 until 30. For further information, visit
www.illustrationcupboard.com
or call 0207 976 1727.


0 comments

More from People

Mon, 15:22

Dame Vera Lynn is celebrating her 100th birthday in style with a star-studded variety extravaganza at the London Palladium, a new album and a BBC documentary celebrating her remarkable wartime contribution. Angela Wintle takes up the story

Read more

Emmett & White antique shop is packed with unusual items the titular owners love, and that principle extends to their Alfriston apartment too

Read more
Friday, March 17, 2017

The winner of the inaugural Sussex Life Landscape Painter of the Year competition was selected from a shortlist of seven. Lewes’ Chalk Gallery in North Street is exhibiting six of the paintings including the winner from Monday 13 March to Sunday 23 April

Read more
Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Starr Trust was delighted with the success of its sixth annual Golf Day, held on March 15 at the Surrey Hills Golf Course in Albourne and which raised £3,370 to help young people that live within the BN postcode.

Read more
Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Every New Year begins with media roll-calls of celebrities who shuffled off their mortal coil during the previous 12 months.

Read more
Wednesday, March 8, 2017

So-called event cinema has transformed how audiences experience high culture and art. And as Duncan Halls discovers, one of the biggest producers hails from Brighton

Read more
Friday, March 3, 2017

Sussex women mean business! Here, we turn the spotlight on some of our county’s most successful - and discover what it is that makes them tick

Read more
Thursday, March 2, 2017

In the past, Sussex folk used a huge array of curious beliefs and charms to find the right marriage partner. Chris Horlock finds out more

Read more
Thursday, March 2, 2017

Brighton & Hove Pride have announced that the Pet Shop Boys are to headline the Pride Summer Of Love Festival in Preston Park on Saturday 5 August 2017

Read more
Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Nine million UK viewers watched the GB women’s hockey team triumph in the Rio Olympics last year. Clive Agran catches up with the West Chiltington woman who became Britain’s hockey hero

Read more
Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Sarah Raven is not only an inspirational cook and gardener, she was also once a doctor – knowledge that informs her new healthy eating cookbook. She talks to us from her idyllic farmhouse in the Sussex Weald

Read more
Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Brighton boy Liam Francis will return to his hometown this March to dance with Rambert on the seminal piece Ghost Dances.

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter


Local Business Directory

Sussex's trusted business finder

Job search in your local area



Search For a Car In Your Area

Property Search