Two days a week I work on an exhibition of picture book art for the State Library of Victoria. At the moment I am in the pretty lovely position of going about to people whose work I know and admire and asking if I can (a) look through their files and (b) ask to borrow the best of it for a couple of years. The exhibition will open in Melbourne in November 2011 and all being well, tour to other venues in 2012.
So at a pretty sharp-ish hour, a taxi is pulling up outside my house. Already on board is an Allen & Unwin editor who is working with illustrator Ron Brooks on his memoir. Ron Brooks is one of Australia's best illustrators, whose work is published internationally. This one, John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, (written by Jenny Wagner) has been in print since it was minted in 1977.
It's a haunting little tale of an old lady and the dog, John Brown, who shares her life. All is peaceful until one night a mysterious black cat arrives, insisting it be let in. John Brown is having none of it, not trusting this intruder. It's a book full of unforgettable images, tenderness and haunting questions.
Ron grew up in rural Victoria, then lived in swinging Warrandyte in the 1970's. But these days he calls Tasmania home. He is virtually unknown to the locals. The education authorities seem unaware of the treasure that they have on their doorstep.
Most artists would be happy to have one classic against their name. to my mind and eye, Ron Brooks has at least four books that deserve that title. One is 'John Brown'. He also illustrated The Bunyips of Berkely Creek, published in 1973. Hobart Airport didn't have a copy for sale (as I said, the locals seem oblivious), but I did see one on the spinner in Sydney Airport recently. 'The Bunyips' is a haunting, melancholy and highly original imagining of the mythical creatures' secret life. It's also a suitably surreal, moonlit world that Ron has created.
Not to be done with that, Brooks produced two more in the mid-1990s. The first of these is Old Pig, (with Margaret Wild) in 1995. It's the story of a grandmother and grandchild, and the realisation that these are Old Pig's last days. A more gently heartbreaking book you will never read. When I mention this title to adults who have read Old Pig, they often involuntarily clutch at their heart. Going to Brooks's house and seeing the landscape where he lives, you can see how fully and how richly the light, the trees and the sense of space is absorbed into his work. It's simply one of the most beautiful books you can find.
The fourth book in the canon is another written by Margaret Wild: Fox. Again, it's a celebration of landscape, of outsiders, of friendship under pressure. The images are dramatic, primal, unforgettable. Seeing the original images, some of which will go into the exhibition, really got the heart beating! I can't wait to see the selection up on the wall of the gallery. Because that's where Ron's work belongs.
At the moment, Brooks is working on two books, one a Margaret Wild text with a distinctly Tasmanian flavour. There will be a book by Julia Hunt first, a humorous, musical romance with Chagall overtones.
His approach to illustrating is a fine balance of the craftsman and the artist. He is both fox and badger. Before he even picks up a pencil, he is thinking about the text and how to make every word on the page resonate in the images. He can be highly critical of his own performances, even years later wishing he had done things differently. Rueful, but not bitter. Thinking about how to make the book he is working on the best it can possibly be.
The memoir for Allen & Unwin, which promises to reveal a lot more about this singular artist, will be out next year. Just before the exhibition.