Ronda and David Armitage

PUBLISHED: 00:16 01 February 2011 | UPDATED: 15:43 10 May 2019

Ronda and David Armitage

Ronda and David Armitage

Carol Emmas meets the author of the Lighthouse Keeper series of children's books, Ronda Armitage, and her husband and illustrator David

Across the centuries, there have been numerous ships that have run aground on the rocks in the treacherous bay, but in Ronda Armitage's magical world the most dramatic thing that happens is that the Lighthouse keeper, Mr Grinling, has his insatiable appetite for food thwarted by a couple of hungry seagulls eager to get to his lunch before him.

Readers aged three to seven are lured into the lively text and vivid illustrations of the birds trying to find cunning ways to steal his sandwiches which are sent to the keeper down the electricity wire from their on-shore base by his homely wife.

The books that were "never meant to be a series", and feature just the two protagonists and their marmalade cat Hamish, have now spanned 30-years and came originally from a throw away comment by husband, artist and illustrator of the books, David Armitage.

"We were taking our children Joss and Kate, then four and two, for a walk over the cliffs on Beachy Head when one of them asked what the electricity cable that spanned from the shore across to the lighthouse was for," says Ronda. "What do you expect it's for?" replied David, which I imagine was said in his most broad Australian accent. (David was born in Tasmania). It's for sending down the lighthouse keeper's lunch."

From that statement was born the first book, The Lighthouse Keeper's Lunch, that is now considered to be a modern classic. Ronda says they had been toying with ideas about doing something with a children's story as she had been an infant school teacher and had a real passion for picture books. "As quite often happens the best ideas come from nowhere, it just fitted into place," she adds.

What also fitted into place was the fact she was born in a coastal paradise for walkers, the Coromandel Peninsula in New Zealand, and loved the sea so it seemed only natural that she wrote about another beautiful headland, its inhabitants and their surroundings.

Originally, Ronda and David weren't meant to stay in the UK for long. They moved here in 1974, intending to stick around for a couple of years and have been here ever since. "always meant to go back before the children went to school, but never quite did," says Ronda.

The reason they ended up living in West Hoathly in Sussex was that Ronda has always felt a deep sense of place and was inspired by the books written by Barbara Willard, who was born in Brighton in 1909 and died in Wivelsfield Green, East Sussex, in 1994. She was a novelist whose stories were drawn from remote episodes in British history.

"There was something about Sussex in her writing and the fact that she portrayed it as being very wooded and secretive that appealed to me." It must have continued to appeal as Ronda and David are quite settled in their idyllic cottage in the small hamlet of Graywood. So settled that David said the only time he will be moving from there will be in a box!

It's also where David has his convenient outside studio so he can paint to his heart's content while listening to music, which is another passion of his, along with a good bottle of wine. Much of his own work is based upon the resonance that music creates and he transports that to the canvas in an attempt to interpret its sound through art. Other works of his are saturated in deep aquamarine colours and in keeping with the love of the coast are reminiscent of the strong southern Pacific seas and light.

David remained illustrator to the Lighthouse Keeper series for 30 years, bringing the books to life with his rich illustrations. But the time came when he wanted to do something for himself and that was painting abstracts and experimenting with his own unique style. He says: "Ronda and I compiled 35-36 picture books together and 20 of those were stories about a man, a woman and a cat. We've had a good run and Mr Grinling has remained 60 years of age for what seems like 60 years! So it was time he went."

The move in different creative directions came naturally to them both, as did the phasing out of the series. Ronda was writing other children's books through Puffin who supplied its own illustrators as the digital process was changing the way publishers used illustrations. Inadvertently this freed up David to act upon the nagging desire to begin painting full-time in the discipline he was trained.

Born in Tasmania, David trained in Melbourne and spent much of his life in New Zealand. Before he came to the UK in the early 1970s he ran the City Art Gallery programme in Auckland and curated national and international exhibitions.

Not one for pulling any punches where his opinions are concerned, David has his own valid reasons for turning back to art from illustration and is seemingly on a one-man campaign to save it from being "arid, dull and dreary". He thinks there is nothing of any worth in art galleries today. "The art world is very strange. It's like a branch of the social services. Paintings are not suitable for the home any more, they are all aimed at the community and we are all up to our necks in conceptual rubbish." He also thinks youngsters are well served through children's books as their illustrations are full of a splendour and richness that is lacking in art today. "Children's book illustrators are definitely under-valued, they are some of the best artists around." So passionate is he about this subject that he was asked to participate in the Oxford Union debate about the validity of conceptual art in 2009, alongside 2008 Turner Prize winner Mark Lechey. He was arguing the case that "conceptual art is not art".

The last three years have been busy for David and he has had back-to-back shows. "But it's all really market research," he confesses. "It's so I can sit with the public and ask them their consensus and get to the children and youth before they are force-fed intellectual tosh." His studio is always open and people from all over come via email to unearth him and his work.

Both remain busy. David says it's exhausting trying to accomplish what he wants to achieve, and is currently having a "bit of a breather". Ronda, too, says she is writing considerably more than she used to and has three books waiting in line to be published next year - The Small Night, George and the Pirates and Waving the Flag and Blowing the Whistle. They also travel to talk at international schools which has seen them visiting Siberia  and more recently Toulouse. With a couple of grandchildren to glean inspiration from, their lives are full.

One thing that remains to be said about the Beachy Head lighthouse is that seemingly everyone likes to claim it for their own. "It's very odd'" says Ronda. "The Cornish people seem to think they recognize it as one of their lighthouses, as do the Scottish. Even the Kiwis possessively recognize it as one of theirs. It's a good job we have a lot of lighthouses around."

At least we all now know the real identity of the lighthouse in the Lighthouse Keeper's series - and it's standing very tall and very proud just off the coast of East Sussex.

The Lighthouse Keeper's Lunch (1977) was Ronda's first published book and won the 1978 Esther Glen Award. Her latest books are A Very Strange Creature (2009), and The Lighthouse Keeper's Surprise (2009).


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