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Interview: Author and illustrator Simon Bartram

SIMON Bartram is in the shed and his head’s full of football.

Author and illustrator Simon Bartram's creation, Bob the spaceman
Author and illustrator Simon Bartram's creation, Bob the spaceman

SIMON Bartram is in the shed and his head’s full of football. Of course, given that much of the male population of Tyneside spends its time in the shed with its head full of football, this does not make him especially remarkable.

What makes Simon Bartram stand out from the crowd is his skill with paints and pencil and his ability to tell a tale.

He’s an illustrator and a storyteller with a string of popular books to his name. Many young readers readily associate him with Bob, the Man on the Moon, who whizzes up there daily to keep things spick and span for tourists.

But there’s more to Simon than the brilliant Bob, and when an art gallery describes him as “a profoundly talented artist”, it’s hard to disagree.

His exhibition at The Illustration Cupboard, a gallery which rubs shoulders in London with the Royal Academy and the National Gallery, underlines the fact that his best work does not need to be in a book to shine.

Lifted out of context, a Simon Bartram painting is a pretty fine thing to feast your eyes on. You could almost call it fine art.

Summoned from the shed by his wife, Nicola, he says he’s working on a new picture book about football, Up For The Cup. “We’re trying to get it out for the World Cup next year. The text is written and relatively straightforward but the pictures are labour intensive. I’m going to have a pretty busy summer.”

Actually, he elaborates, the book will probably be linked more closely to the FA Cup but next year’s World Cup fever is what is likely to shift copies.

“It’s basically about a boy and his dad who are on the way to the Cup Final and various things happen. There’s a player who has lots of superstitions and it’s about how the pair can help to resolve the situation.”

Simon being Simon, the paintings for the book will be both striking and detailed. As a passionate football supporter who swears allegiance to Sunderland AFC, he knows the visual quirks of a match day crowd.

They are what will captivate his target readership and ensure people linger on each brightly-coloured page.

Simon went to St Joseph’s RC Comprehensive in Hebburn, which he says he liked, and progressed to Birmingham Polytechnic where, in 1990, he attained a first-class degree in illustration.

“My first discipline is as an illustrator,” he says. “After I graduated I started doing bits of work for magazines and newspapers. I got into the children’s book game by illustrating other people’s stories.

“Pinocchio was the first one I did. Then they said, ‘Have you got any stories of your own?’. I had because I keep notebooks and write ideas down all the time – an idea for a story maybe or the name of a character.

“When you look back at these, things can jump out at you and sometimes they materialise into stories. Because I’m an illustrator first and foremost, I’m a very visual thinker.

“As soon as I get an idea I have to see if it would work visually. I’m fairly quick with the words but then comes the labour intensive part.

“A book can take the best part of a year but most of that time is spent painting and drawing.”

For some years, says Simon, who is 44 and has a young resident fan – six-year-old son Alfie – he has been engaged in a battle with himself. “I’ve been trying to make the work a bit less labour intensive but I find it’s impossible.

“I’ve tried to adopt a looser, watered down version of what I do but the result never has quite the impact that I want.

“I think at some point you’ve got to recognise that you’re born into a way of doing things as much as you’re born into your body.”

But the London exhibition does beg the question: what if Simon Bartram didn’t have to worry about doing the books and, like a fine artist, just concentrated on painting?

“I think there is a part of me that would like to be a fine artist rather than an illustrator,” he says. His early influences were comics, when he would pore over the strips of particular artists, noting their little tricks and flourishes.

But major artists impressed him too, such as the late, great Stanley Spencer and the also great and still very much with us Peter Howson, the Scot who was an official war artist in Bosnia in the 1990s.

Their vivid figurative paintings, bursting with implied narrative, find echoes in his own pictures of tipsy revellers eating chips, cheering football supporters and music fans diving into the mosh pit at sweaty gigs.

It was John Huddy, founder of The Illustration Cupboard, who contacted Simon to see if he would contemplate a solo exhibition.

Simon says: “I’ve known John for a while because I’ve had various bits in joint exhibitions. He knew my agents and it came up that he had a slot in the exhibition programme and he asked if I could fill it.

“I’m quite honoured that he did. It’s nice to have an exhibition in the middle of London.” What John Huddy says is this: “We are privileged to exhibit such world-class original artwork and offer collectors and fans the opportunity to invest in some of the most unique and talented artists of modern times.”

In his particular case, Simon confesses, some of this “world-class” art was stowed away under the sofa before being dispatched to the London gallery.

A man well known to many North East schoolchildren – Simon has always been keen to meet his young fans and is a regular at book fairs and signing sessions – is now being lauded for his “technical mastery and rich ability” and also for his “uniqueness of vision infused with intuitive sensitivity and infamous Northern humour”.

The humour in the Bob stories, mostly emanating from the aliens which he never quite sees although we, the readers, do, is there in much of Simon’s work.

But intriguingly, some of the less familiar work, dating from 20 years ago, also has a darker tone, more reminiscent of Howson, the war artist.

There are 40 pictures in the exhibition, which runs at The Illustration Cupboard, 22 Bury Street, London, until May 12. Most are paintings but there are also a few drawings.

Maybe they’ll all be sold. But I think it could be a while before Simon Bartram gives up the picture books. For one thing, the publishers wouldn’t let it happen.

Interview done, he heads back to the shed, which he says “is quite a big shed”. Big enough for big pictures and big ideas.

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