Horrible Histories Illustrator, Martin Brown

In conversation with… Horrible Histories illustrator, Martin Brown

Published 13th October 2021
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You may have spotted Martin Brown’s bright covers and quirky black and white drawings in many successful children’s books over the years and, by the sound of things, that’s not about to change! The Dorset-based illustrator has created all manner of memorable masterpieces across his impressive 30-year career, from the much-loved characters of Horrible Histories to the amusing creatures of his own Lesser Spotted Animals publications. Fresh from the release of his most recent foray into fiction, the charmingly captivating Nell and the Cave Bear, Martin is looking forward to the future of picture books… and we can’t wait to see what he does next! 

With this year’s Super Thursday just around the corner, now's the perfect time to start browsing for new books - and children’s favourites are a fabulous place to begin! If you’re keen to introduce your little ones to reading, picture books are the perfect page-turning solution, and OnBuy has every title you could wish for! 

In an exclusive interview, we asked Martin to provide insight into how he acquired such a passion for this genre, and what it’s really like to be the artist behind a truly triumphant franchise.

Martin Brown drawings

When did you first realise your passion for illustration?

“Like every kid on the planet, I always liked drawing. I don’t think I was any better at it than anyone else at the start - I didn’t have an innate talent - but because I was drawing all the time, my drawing improved. Then I fell in love with cartooning. I remember thinking, ‘wouldn’t that be a neat job’, but had no idea how to approach it. Even though I drew as a hobby, it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I actually had the opportunity to give it a go.”

What was your first experience with illustration as a profession?

“I was working for an art supply shop in London, so I had all these amazing materials around me and, crucially, the contact details for advertising agencies, magazines, and publishers across the capital. I really wanted to become a cartoonist, creating gags in Punch or Private Eye - ideally getting a strip into a newspaper or, if the gods were willing, an editorial cartoon - but there wasn’t quite enough work in that to keep me going. So, I very quickly got into drawing cartoons for Reader’s Digest magazine, as well as greetings cards for Paperlink. I think it was the latter that truly helped me to hone my skills as an illustrator.”

Horrible Histories illustrator

Which medium do you prefer to work with?

“My tools were always a pencil and a pen… that’s all a cartoonist needs to create the classic ink drawing. So, working with colour for the greetings cards was a real education, and I was totally untrained. My initial illustrations were pretty shoddy, but I kind of got better at it as I went along.

“The way I colour now is just a more sophisticated version of what I was doing thirty years ago. It certainly would’ve been handy if I’d done an illustrating course, to learn more about colour and working digitally but, that being said, cartoons are often old-school.”

When were you first approached with regards to illustrating the Horrible Histories book series?

“I was actually already working for the publishing house that prints the Horrible Histories books, on a different series, at the time. I knocked on the door of Hippo, a sub-brand of Scholastic, one day - like all budding cartoonists, I had to put a lot of leg work in, especially before email and virtual meetings - and it turned out they were looking for an illustrator for a new series, called Coping With…, so I jumped at the opportunity.

“Each book had its own ‘history of [the subject]’ about two chapters in, and myself and Peter Corey, the brilliant author, absolutely loved that. These segments were great fun… so much so that we did a whole book about Christopher Columbus, as, at the time, it was round about the four hundredth anniversary of his trip across the Atlantic. This title, The Life and Times of Christóbal Colón, was kind of like a Horrible Histories in everything but name.

“We said, ‘Can we do a Coping With History?’, because this is so enjoyable, and the editor, Helen Greathead, looked up from behind her desk and said, ‘Hold that thought – something’s just come in I think you might like’. At the same time, Terry [Deary] had written what would become a Horrible Histories book, so Helen partnered us together. And that’s how it all began!”

Horrible Histories book cover

Did you know what you wanted to create fairly early on?

“We knew what we were going to do as far as the books were concerned, and that was to basically follow the KS2 curriculum. The franchise started with the Tudors and the Egyptians, and then we moved on to the Victorians and the Romans. Terry is such a great writer for an illustrator… the stories are so good that it’s just brilliant to bounce gags off of his work – our ideas seem to match really well. We never even sat in the same room, and hardly ever met!”

Your illustrations are incredibly distinctive. How do you make them so unique?

“I consider myself a gag writer I suppose, as that’s one of the reasons I was brought on board for the Horrible Histories series. So, I was always thinking of the speech bubble first. It was less about illustrating a scene, initially, and more about creating a barbed comment at the end of Terry’s paragraphs. Puns, exaggeration, and wordplay were all part of the armoury in trying to make a joke here, and the historical aspect just came along with the gags.”

Did historical research form part of your creative process?

“Yes, and it certainly has changed a bit. When I was doing the early Horrible Histories books, I would surround myself with literature. If I was doing a book on the Romans, I’d go to the library and pull out every single book with a picture of the Romans on it… the poor kids doing homework – I’d virtually strip the shelves! Well, I couldn’t use grown up books because there weren’t any pictures. I needed history books for kids because they were full of pictorial costumes, housing, ships – whatever!

“But then, along came the internet, and I instantly had hundreds of photographs at my disposal. Interestingly, in the early books, if there was a quote from a famous Roman historian, I would just draw a generic head in period costume. But now, with the help of the internet, I can type in ‘Seneca’ and up comes his image, so I can create a caricature of him. 

“In a way, the illustrations have tightened a bit over the years, because I can now draw specific things. For instance, when drawing the Spanish Armada, rather than sketching any old ship, I can now draw one of the actual Spanish galleons taking part. It does become quite technical, and sometimes I have to put a little sign on my desk that says, ‘you’re a cartoonist for goodness sake, lighten up!’. It’s so easy to become lost in the detail.”

What’s your favourite period of history to illustrate?

“The Georgians were great – what an interesting time! The fashion was ridiculously wonderful, and not always fun to draw, but definitely one of my favourites. The Middle Ages also fascinates me… it would’ve been wild to go to a castle when it was new. I mean, it also wasn’t a very pleasant time – if you could go there with some wealth and perhaps a modern dentist and doctor. But it’d also be cool to just answer some great questions of history, like what happened at Stonehenge. It’s definitely a difficult question to nail down, but often my interest is piqued by what I’ve been working on most recently.”

Did the gag-writing process help when it came to authoring your own books?

“Yes, definitely. I had the idea for Lesser Spotted Animals before Horrible Histories came along. I’d always thought that some animals get a really raw deal PR-wise, as the famous lions, tigers, and polar bears crop up in books all the time. Reasonably, they’re the ones that most people know about. But if someone said, ‘the Ili pika is going extinct’, no one would give a monkeys because we’ve never heard of it. 

“Working with Terry showed me that you can write non-fiction in a light-hearted, engaging way. The whole point of these books is that they’re an unashamedly cutesy, approachable PR job for the animals, so they certainly couldn’t be heavy. I wanted to tell the animals’ stories, and the gag-writing process was a great lesson for doing just that.”

Lesser spotted animals book cover

When writing Nell and the Cave Bear, did you notice any difference in style or tone of voice, moving from non-fiction to fiction?

“That’s a good question! It’s one I’ve often wondered myself actually. Nell and the Cave Bear began life as a picture book for older kids (similar to a graphic novel), and so I’d written it in an episodic, panel-by-panel way, with speech bubbles coming from characters. The process was similar to what I’d done previously, actually. 

“I started the scenes, or dialogue passages, by looking at the cartoon sequences and describing them… and I found that I really enjoyed it! So, I don’t know if I changed my voice at all really – I’ve never done a creative writing course – I simply adopted the same approach as for non-fiction, except I was talking about things from my imagination.”

Nell and the cave bear book cover

Do you think there’s something to be said for the importance of illustration in children’s picture books?

“Yes! Illustration is beginning to be more highly recognised. For a long time, we had trouble even getting the illustrator’s name with equal billing alongside the author’s… for picture books! All the great picture books are visual, and that’s the lasting image you have. 

“We certainly need to credit illustrators more, because what they bring is fundamental to your reading experience. They often don’t create just a picture of the text; I mean, they can be purely descriptive, but some completely juxtapose the writing, too. A wonderful one that’s just come out is, The Day Fin Flooded the World, by Adam Stower. Despite Adam’s descriptions within, the pictures often actually tell a slightly different story, which proves that illustration is so much more sophisticated than the first glance would have you believe. 

“This country has some of the finest children’s book illustrators in the world, and most of what they do could grace a gallery. But, because it’s in a picture book, people don’t see it in that same light, which is dreadfully sad. Why not pore over those wonderful illustrations again? Rather than just flicking through them and having a laugh at the story, go back and look, as an older person, at the sophistication of the drawings… and this whole new world opens up. It is rather magical.”

Do you believe that picture books helped to inspire children throughout lockdown, when they couldn’t go into school?

“Absolutely! One of the most important things illustration can do is to grab a child’s attention. With anything you do, whether it’s schooling, sport, music… if you can create some enthusiasm, then they’re instantly self-motivated, and think, ‘yeah, I want to learn about that!’. The great thing about Horrible Histories, which we can now see in retrospect, is that, because it’s engaging, it maybe just lit the touchpaper for young people at home. If it piques an interest, or raises a question that then leads you to investigate, that’s the way to go. If illustration helped at all during lockdown, this would be how it did.”

Animal drawings from Martin Brown

What do you enjoy most about your work?

“It’s lovely when you feel that someone has been inspired by your work. At a signing, or when you meet your readers at events, that’s when you hear stories of how engaged people are, and that’s pretty humbling.

“The fun part is definitely the ideas, though. Whether you’re pencilling up a joke or writing out a paragraph, when everything's working it's like flying, and it's kind of thrilling. It’s almost like riding down a rollercoaster.” 

Which project have you been most proud of?

“A couple of the Horrible Histories I really like and just sort of ‘got’, if that makes sense. Interestingly, not always the most popular ones. We do specials, you know, the bigger books, and I loved the country ones in particular: England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and also France and the USA. I think the French one was the best we ever did, mainly because I was unfamiliar with French history… or maybe because it was full of fabulous costumes!

“At the moment, I’m pretty proud of Nell and the Cave Bear, because it’s my first foray into fiction writing. But I guess the Lesser Spotted Animals books would also be my favourites, just because I’m so passionate about the animal world. I’d like to do at least a third book for the series.”

Nell and the cave bear drawing

Are you looking forward to Super Thursday this month?

“I’m a bit overwhelmed to be honest! There were a few titles that came out at the same time as Nell and the Cave Bear in early September, but I’m still trying to catch up on them... and that’s nothing compared to the number of books that’ll be published this October. My wish list has become slightly ridiculous, but I’m hoping that if I drop enough hints before Christmas, there may be some under the tree… and not just books for kids either! 

“I think more adults should explore the children’s section and buy books, not just because they’re for kids, but because they’re beautiful. In fact, sometimes I think that the best children’s books aren’t really for kids at all. I’m not sure that young readers will necessarily always see the subtlety and sophistication in there, especially in titles like The Rabbits, by Shaun Tan.

“This October, use every means at your disposal!”

Congratulations on your exhibition in Taunton! Have you enjoyed curating it?

“Well, I was certainly busy in my studio, digging out years and years of work. But I really can’t take credit for it… the people at the South West Heritage Trust in Taunton, at The Museum of Somerset, have done the most beautiful job. I was expecting a white room with pictures hanging on the wall, but they’ve made it into the most dramatic and attractive place, with huge drawings that’ve been blown up, so they look incredibly graphic, bold, and colourful. If you’re anywhere near Taunton, you should definitely check it out!”

Do you have any exciting projects coming up?

“I’m currently working on a new Horrible Histories book, about trains, which should come out in March. Then I’m going to go back to Nell, for the second instalment, which will probably be published in July or September next year.

“I’d love to do a good old-fashioned picture book one day, but, we’ll see. I’ll have to learn how to be an illustrator before then!”

Loris illustration by Martin Brown

Looking for a new bedtime reading companion to help send your little ones off to sleep, or searching for a selection of kids story books to inspire your own budding illustrator? From well-loved classics to recent releases, our online bookshop is bursting with titles that are sure to capture their hearts - and their imaginations! Find your next family favourite today!

If you’re keen to visit Martin’s exhibition, ‘The World of Martin Brown: Horrible Histories and Other Dazzling Drawings’, you can book your tickets here. Or, if you want to learn more about Martin’s career and publications, head on over to his website.

Images sourced from Martin Brown's archive

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