Woking-based auction house Ewbank’s is hosting an auction of watercolour art by award-winning children’s book illustrator Barbara Firth later this month.
The auction includes some of her illustrations for Walker Books Leapfrog; art from Barnabas Walks written by William Mayne, featuring Barnabas the Guinea Pig; Waldo the Tortoise, written by David Lloyd (the character based on Barbara’s own 100-year-old pet) and other art from the “Great Escapes” series, along with art for Romeo and Juliet the Lovebirds and Mot the Mouse, also written by Lloyd; illustrations from The Munro’s New House written by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy; and original illustrations for Sarah Hayes’ The Grumpalump.
Perhaps best known for her illustrations for books such as Martin Waddell’s Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?, Barbara never formally studied art, something she saw as a positive. “I have been very lucky,’ she said, “as my career in drawing is also my favourite hobby.”
Barbara did however study pattern-cutting at the London College of Fashion, after which she was offered a position in Marks and Spencer’s design department. She turned this down however in favour of a position at Vogue, where she worked for 15 years as a production director on knitting, crocheting and dressmaking books.
Barbara’s career in illustrating took off after she started working for Marshall Cavendish books, initially working in production, but soon moved on to supplying artwork after meeting Amelia Edwards, who commissioned her to illustrate some non-fiction work, including Margaret Lane’s The Spider.
“I have always been biased toward illustrating natural history, so it was a joy to be able to draw pages and pages of bears,” Barbara Firth said of her collaboration on Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?, the first of the classic ‘Big and Little Bear’ series that won her the Kate Greenaway Medal in 1988. The book was also the overall winner of the 1988 Nestlé Smarties Book Prize.
As part of her research, she spent hours at a zoo, carefully watching and recording the movements and habits of bears, creating an engaging, rumpled and shambling Big Bear and an enchantingly bright-eyed and eager Little Bear.
Her realisation of these endearing characters touched a chord with parents and children the world over.
Her own favourite of her books was The Park in the Dark, also written by Martin Waddell, which won the Kurt Maschler award in 1989, a late-night adventure story about three characters – Me and Loopy and Little Gee. Barbara imagined to be a monkey, a knitted elephant, and a very small black and white pet of uncertain breed, in a pinafore – all soft toy animals she had found and bought at a local jumble sale.
“Barbara was modest to a fault, a lover of animals and nature generally, a woman of strong will, however gently she might apply it,” noted Walker Books editor David Lloyd in a tribute to the artist on her passing aged 84 in 2013. “She told the truth in a distinctive warm and quiet way; she did not write her own stories, but a perfect sense of story informed every line of her drawing.”