Root Menu

Laurence Anholt

Laurence Anholt: 1

Painter and Writer

None of us are prisoners. We can make choices and ultimately we have the freedom to do what we like. I know this from experience. My father spent a lifetime doing work he didn’t enjoy out of a sense of obligation. But I made a conscious decision to take risks and follow my heart and I’m a happier man than he was. I had always wanted to be an artist, and eventually I gave up my job and devoted myself to writing and illustrating. It wasn’t an easy journey, in fact it was painfully difficult in the early years, but at least I was in control of my destiny.

One of my principal beliefs is that we have autonomy. We are in charge of our own lives. I don’t believe in luck or fate. 99% of what happens in life is in our hands – of course, terrible things happen and life is fragile, but it’s how you respond that’s important. I also believe that there is some kind of equation, that you achieve success and happiness in direct proportion to how much you believe this to be true. If people think that life is something that happens to them, they are victims, doomed to be swept along or spun in eddies like twigs in a stream.

My school days were a complete and utter disaster; I left at 16 with about three poor ‘O’ levels. There were various reasons. My father came from a Dutch-Jewish family with roots in Persia. He had an appalling time in the war; a lot of his family died in concentration camps. His family escaped to England, and he ended up in British Intelligence. He had some very disturbing experiences and his own childhood was cut short so he really wasn’t ready to have children of his own. My siblings and I were packed off to separate boarding schools, paid for by my grandfather. I was 9 years old and deeply unhappy. Eventually I wound up at a mixed progressive school where I found a gang of like-minded people and we got into all sorts of mischief: playing truant, drugs, you name it. We had no guidance whatsoever. In retrospect, I’m a little bitter that no-one at the school came to me and said, ‘Hang on, what’s going on? What potential do you have?’ I left school in a disillusioned state with little self-esteem, and I honestly think my life could have collapsed then and there. But I spent a hell of a lot of time thinking about how things work and I stumbled across the belief that despair is an indulgence, and life is what you make it. It sank deep. I began to realise that I had to take responsibility and take my life in my hands.

I wrote a little verse for kids recently: ‘Life is what you make it, chum / Choose your kind of luck / Stretch up for some stardust, son / Or wind up in the muck’.

I think that survivor gene was due to my immigrant blood, a real blessing. I’ve always had a seed of happiness, of optimism. I like humour and fun. I’m also rather selfish. I do what I want. I will not be told what to do. It’s a kind of arrogance that a lot of artists have. It would be anathema to have to slave for other people. One thing I learnt from my education was that if someone says ‘do this’, I say ‘no’. If they say, ‘let’s do this because . . .’ I say ‘great’. My instinct is to question things.

Although I wasn’t good at anything much at school, I felt an affinity with art, and loved paintings. When I was 4 or 5, we were living in Holland, and my father took me to the Van Gogh museum. That’s almost my first memory: going in and being surrounded by paintings like a multi-coloured snow storm. The swirling mass of colour made me as dizzy as a fairground. I didn’t understand it, but I was tremendously excited, and from then onwards it was what I wanted to do. It was great when my son began to paint. He doesn’t read novels. He just sits and looks at books of paintings and I can sense the same excitement. It’s particularly intense when you are actively painting yourself and my lad has a tremendous gift.

I started studying art at Falmouth. Cathy was there too, and it was then an extraordinary place – very experimental and stimulating. There was a poet in residence, and we even tried working under hypnosis. I was doing big abstract things and crazy sculptures. Eventually I went on to take a Master’s at the Royal Academy; I began to learn about tone, how to compose, get three dimensional shapes on canvas. Controlling all these different elements was difficult; at that stage I couldn’t hold that many balls in the air. But I was absolutely immersed in it. We were incredibly privileged at the Royal Academy. You could nip up to the galleries and zoom in on one great painting, free of charge, and look at it for an hour and then go back and paint.

Laurence Anholt: 2

What I wanted was to put the two things, abstract and figurative, together. I was full of ideas for paintings, but we had children straight after college and painting for myself had to go on hold. I taught briefly at a secondary school where art had a fairly low profile - unsurprisingly, I didn’t like the school environment. When I went to my father and said I was going to give up teaching because I was unhappy, and knew it was a wrong direction, his advice was: look you’ve got a mortgage, we’ve all got to do things we don’t want to do. Cathy’s father had the same attitude; he used to say ‘Life is a veil of tears’. That attitude made me angry; I said ‘no way! I’m going to do something I want to do because you’re a long time dead’. And for the last 20 years, I’ve been able to do work I enjoy. Writing children’s books has been interesting and exciting; it’s made us a very decent living and given us lots of freedom. I hope we’ve given something back too because we’ve put a huge amount of love and care into the books we’ve done.

We have been able to live in this wonderful place by the sea. Our books are translated into many languages so I’ve travelled all over the world, visiting schools in Indonesia and all over Europe. We’ve been involved in events at Downing Street and Buckingham Palace and met many, many extraordinary people. Most importantly, Catherine and I have been able to work from home, so we’ve got to know our children really well. They are my best friends and give me a huge amount of joy.

But now I’m 46 and the kids are moving on and the times they are a’changin! So I’ve been thinking about what I want to do with the next chapter of my life. Life really does seem to speed up as you get older, and time becomes more precious. I’ll tell you one thing: I’m more joyful now than I was when I was younger. I’m happier and more optimistic.

Happiness is such an important commodity, and so underrated. It sounds obvious, but happiness is a litmus test for children: if they’re happy and laughing, they’re OK; if not, parents have to ask why and try to do something about it. Too many adults have half or more of life on hold. Each of us has a duty to look at our lives. If we aren’t happy, we need to follow our hearts, find the courage to make changes.

So this is another transition time for Cathy and me. I guess I’m halfway through my life and you ask different questions. I think something significant changes for men around 40; a biological change. Women’s menopause is recognised, but there is too little discussion about what happens to men. Most of our evolution happened in those hunter-gatherer centuries, and a great deal of what we do now as ostensibly modern civilised human beings is primeval. In our society we don’t have rites of passage to mark significant changes at different times of our life. In so called primitive society, when you were my age, you could no longer run with the tribe so you became an elder, a respected person, you shifted from the physical to the spiritual. You weren’t written off as ‘retired’. That’s a terrible word.

Laurence Anholt: 3

I am conscious of being older. I used to scramble up a tree in the garden like a monkey to put up the Christmas lights, but this year I had to call my son in! In some ways I mourn my youth. I was wild and spontaneous. I loved taking risks, having adventures. It’s still there. I like meeting people and I like the unexpected. I’d hate things to be formulaic. I like what Picasso said: ‘When I was a child I could draw like the masters; it took me a lifetime to draw like a child’.

When the children where born, Cathy and I had to shelve that working from the heart – I mean working for ourselves, rather than an audience. So that’s what we would both love to do now. It would be good to change gear; produce one or two books a year to provide an income, but also be able to paint for ourselves again.

I don’t have any preconceptions of what form it would take. I know how to go about doing it: by sitting in front of another human being with a piece of paper or canvas between us. I find that far more honest than words. What I love about art is the absence of words. As a professional writer, I know that words can be deceptive, a mask. Painting is direct, primitive. It uses a different part of the brain. When writing children’s books and then illustrating them, I feel a switch going on in my brain. It’s an elusive process, but it’s wonderful, like a meditation.

Laurence Anholt: 4

It’s very important to me to feel that I’m creating something original. One of the reasons I want to do more than children’s books is that the work can become formulaic. In some ways the publishing process perpetuates this. If a series is successful, there’s a tendency to keep on doing it ad nauseam.

I’ve written and illustrated a series of books for children about artists – the ‘Anholt’s Artists’ series. I’m intrigued by their state of mind, what these artists were thinking about. I take a true anecdote from their lives, and see their world through the eyes of a real child who knew them. I’m doing one about Matisse at the minute, looking at what he called his second life after an operation gave him the gift of new life. He saw things differently. He stopped caring what people thought about his work, and it became a completely spiritual process for him. He talked a lot about allowing oneself as an artist to be a conduit for something greater. The aim of the books is to get children excited about art. The blurb says that they create ‘a springboard into a lifetime’s love of art’. Teaching children made me realise that kids are far more interested in stories about real people’s adventures than in dates, facts and figures. So I told them about Van Gogh chopping off his ear, and Monet hurling canvases into the river in frustration. But that’s just colour around the character. Within that, I try to get across the heart, the integrity of the artist. I include little reproductions of their works in my illustrations, and there are always passages in which I say in the simplest possible way what they are up to. My book about Degas emphasises what a disciplined man he was. One thing many artists have in common is that they often create against tremendous adversity. I like being very brief: in the Monet book, where the girl is in a wet-drippy world, in a boat rowed by this gardener/painter, I wrote that ‘it felt like floating in Monet’s paintings’. I hope my descriptions give some insight into the mindset of the artists; the turbulent agony of Van Gogh’s life – the fact that he was an outsider – profoundly influenced the paintings he produced. He’s always been a significant figure for me because he uses a spiritual language.

Sometimes it’s good to be isolated. I was rejected the first time I tried for the Royal Academy and I felt more isolated than I’ve ever been during the year I spent in a Chiswick bedsit painting. Artists shouldn’t only know artists. It’s good to mix people up. I heard Germaine Greer lecturing on how old people are shut away from society and I thought it would be much more natural to bring young and old together, to combine nursery schools with old folks’ homes. They have so much to offer each other.

Painting is like prayer. It’s an activity in itself. There are all sorts of aspects to it. It integrates you with the world through your eyes. I’m not saying painting is the only way to live, but for me it’s the language I know.

My sort of painting is to do with looking. You never look in the same way as when you’re drawing or painting. It’s hugely important. It makes me feel real, in contact with the world. Modern life, with television and the internet can make you feel quite detached from reality; all you absorb is the angst – you switch on and this box spews out a tsunami of trivia. It’s so important to do real things. That’s why I chose to live in the countryside. I can walk in the woods or by the sea every day, have conversations. It’s all to do with taking the time. At the Royal Academy, a group of us got a model sitting in a chair and drew him day in day out for weeks and weeks on end in the same position. It was extraordinary. You would never do that in life. We went through changes: excitement, then boredom, then through a sort of pain barrier and out the other side. We started seeing this person in completely different ways. The scale changed – he became a landscape, with miles from knee to thigh. All sorts of peculiar things took over.

Laurence Anholt: 5

I’m interested in optics. The brain plays tricks on you - when you walk past someone in a corridor they’re actually growing then shrinking very rapidly. But your brain over-rides these effects and constantly normalises. Painting can break through a lot of those things. What I want to teach children is that the world is an extraordinary place, far more bizarre than we’re aware of in our working lives. I’ve tried to get this across to kids in workshops by saying, ‘imagine you’ve just arrived from outer space. Look at this room and the people: aren’t they extraordinary?’ A crumpled handkerchief can be as beautiful as the Swiss Alps covered in snow if you look at it in the right way. Or take Van Gogh’s chair – there was nothing intrinsically unusual about that chair, it was a way of looking. Or take his painting of the church at Auvers: like a blancmange, quivering with life. When he painted an inanimate object, he could actually see the process of change and decay and regrowth.

What I’ve never found, but would like to in many ways, is a religion which really suits me. But I’m too questioning, I won’t just swallow my principles. I want a religion because I want a vehicle for what I feel in my heart. I think a lot of people feel as I do, that there is a life force; there is a meaning to things and a natural morality. Creativity takes you into a state of flow. But religion can be so divisive, dogmatic and ritualistic; it turns people away. Matisse worked on a fantastic chapel at the end of life, collaborating with a young nun. They were on a parallel journey, hers through religion, his through art. I think each of us is on a journey. Just to watch TV and end up in an old folk’s home is a wasted life. I want to do something that’s important.

I suppose I want recognition, we all want that. And I want to feel secure from poverty. But huge wealth doesn’t seem to help; I’ve known it cause fear and confusion for some immensely successful children’s writers, and I respect Anita Roddick for giving away large amounts of her fortune.

What matters is to use the potential you are born with and to communicate. I’ve been working for five years on an idea for a book for teenagers, because I think they need to explore those ideas: anti-corporate, pro-environmentalism. I have created a 21st century hero called Lorenzo – an artist and polymath, protestor and poet, a wonderfully strong mentor figure. But I couldn’t make this character work until I thought of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and gave him an alter ego, Unwin, a loser who is always pessimistic, a hypochondriac. Writing it is fascinating; in a strong state of mind I can do Lorenzo, but when I’m feeling doubtful, I can only do Unwin; now whenever I feel unsure of myself, I call it ‘having an Unwin moment’! The third character is a girl, a puckish spirit of nature, and so there’s a triangle, love interest and lots of sophisticated humour.

Laurence Anholt: 6

Here’s a confession - I’ve consumed self-help books and tapes throughout my entire life. Hundreds of them. Most are so badly written they are almost unreadable, but within almost every one of them there is one little nugget that makes sense. I’ve been collecting them since I was 20, and now I’ve got many on my iPod and I like to listen when I’m working. One entire section is hypnotherapy, visualisation and meditations, and I listen to it 4 or 5 times a week. I go into a relaxed state and there is someone there planting positive ideas into my mind, and I find that incredibly effective. I first listened to one at a time when I was really struggling with low self esteem. I put it on and rested, and this wonderful voice in the distance was telling me very simply all the things that I’d wanted to hear as a child, that I was a good person and had got these strengths. It was deeply enriching and I think that’s why I became addicted. A lot of them are very badly put together; I’m always searching for high quality items, and I’d love to publish something myself; I did once plan to do something along these lines for children and I exchanged ideas with the hypnotist Paul McKenna, using storytelling and those sort of techniques to implant some wonderful pure things into a child’s mind.

When I was at Falmouth I read a book that I’ve never forgotten. It was by a psychologist who’d spent her life working with artists. She said that when you look at people, some stand tall, but many have a glass ceiling to their lives; they’re bent over. Stooped. The ceiling represents their limitations, how much love, prosperity, money or happiness they think they deserve. When I read this I actually felt that ceiling above my head. She went on to say, ‘It’s glass. It doesn’t exist. You create it yourself’. And I suddenly realised that all my low self-esteem and lack of belief in my potential was my own mental construction. And I felt the ceiling taking off like a UFO above my head.

These insights happen when you’re ready. You take what you need when you need it – from friends, from books, from many sources. If you open doors in your life, something comes in. Serendipity is a marvellous thing.

It’s also possible to learn things negatively. Much of what I do as a father is a reaction against what my father did or didn’t do with me. Mistakes are part of the route to the right end. What’s the expression? ... it’s only a mistake when you don’t learn. Matisse spent years experimenting with something in his chapel that didn’t work; Edison discovered hundreds of ways of not inventing the light bulb before he made a working one. The most worrying thing would be to lose one’s awareness and become so immersed in the petty things of life that you stop learning and questioning. Making mistakes is inseparable from making decisions. But you need to keep up your strength and awareness and not become absorbed in the doubts; that’s so easy to do.

Conversations with mentors have been important to me. The most significant is a painter friend fifteen or more years older than I am; he’s a father figure really, hugely important, a very dignified and wise man who’s found peace and contentment through nature and art. I’ve always been fuelled by an agitated creative energy which has been very good for me in many ways but also demanding.

The most important single fuel in our lives is real conversation. I get lots because I’ve got a very good family, an excellent marriage and lots of friends. I’m very gregarious; I love people’s company. If I’m on my own too long, I have to get out and talk to people; it’s an instinct.

I once worked with a telephone help line, where you listen on a daily basis to people who are at a moment of crisis, and often all they want is a chat. You don’t give advice, just listen. I think I got more out of it than I put in. It raised all sorts of important questions, and reinforced my idea that you create your own destiny. It would be great if in every community there was a place where people could drop in and talk, before they became depressed or ill or suicidal. It would be a wonderful saving to the economy, as they wouldn’t all end up in GP’s surgeries.

I’d like to simplify my life. Cathy and I talk about this all the time, but we have to put our kids through university so at the moment I feel I’ve got to keep on working. Maybe that time comes when we are a bit older. And I do believe you have to use the talents you have. Why throw away the opportunity I have to speak to many thousands of children in many different countries, to plant a seed of inspiration in their minds? Those very early years are formative. That’s why I think I’ve got an important job. What’s planted in their minds will stay with them.

I get very involved in the production of our books. We don’t have an agent; I negotiate with the publishers and we are very pro-active. We even opened our own bookshop in Lyme Regis a year ago, selling nothing but our books, prints and artwork so it helps to promote the books. I get frustrated if I work with people who are slow or inefficient. I have learnt that in business you need to hustle: it’s like hunting with a spear, the business world. When we first started, we made some horrendous mistakes. Then I went to the library and read every book I could find on running small businesses and negotiating contracts, and now I enjoy doing a deal. I like the mutual respect of it; you sit down with the publisher and put it to them that you can both benefit. There mustn’t be a loser. I’m now confident that if I have a good idea, I can get a decent advance for it. I’ve got no gripes at all and some of my best friends are in the publishing world.

Our shop is unique. It’s called ‘Chimp and Zee, Bookshop by the Sea’. We bought the freehold on a rundown building I liked the feel of in the centre of Lyme, which is now teeming with tourists in the summer. I like making things and I’m good at carpentry. I also wanted to do something different so I took a year off and worked on it with a couple of friends. It isn’t just a bookshop, it’s a magical world for children with animatronic models and a real tree ‘growing’ through the ceiling - it feels like stepping inside a storybook. Children tell us they want to live there!

I believe that in general people are getting fed up with branded chains and mass-produced goods. Cathy’s somewhat childlike illustrations are popular in Japan, where people are bored with graphic slick photographic stuff. They want something with heart, made by a human being on a kitchen table, something to do with family life, something personal. When I go to the high street I’m looking for something unique and different. There shouldn’t be a contradiction between making good money and producing something of integrity. I’ve often thought about the fact that some great artists like Picasso and Matisse were hugely successful at business, others, like Van Gogh, were penniless. But there was nothing different in the integrity of their work. Why shouldn’t we all be entitled to be rewarded and to be happy and have a pleasant life? I do believe it’s possible to do that without crushing other people. And I have faith in the British public. I like this country. America is like a teenager, pioneering but tending to look at things in a black and white way. Britain is an old person, with warts and wrinkles, but able to laugh at herself and with a bit of wisdom.

This is what I believe in: tolerance, freedom, individuality, imagination, diversity, spontaneity, literature, love, art, magic and laughter. Here endeth the lesson.