Magazine article History Today

Drawing from History. (Point of Departure).(book Illustrating)

Magazine article History Today

Drawing from History. (Point of Departure).(book Illustrating)

Article excerpt

MY INTEREST in drawing and history goes back to my childhood in Hungary when I first held a pencil and discovered my grandfather's library. Grandfather had an extensive library with several nineteenth-century books about Hungarian and European history that were illustrated with magnificent prints and engravings.

Some described the legendary eleventh-century King Laszlo who fought against the invading Turkic heathen tribes known as the Cumanians or Kuns, and then against the Cumanians again, Petchenegs and Russians beyond Hungary's frontiers. After his death he became a saint and an object of veneration to his embattled people. There is a legend that on Hungary's darkest days the almost seven-foot tall saint-king would reappear in the midst of battles to terrorise the enemy.

A great nineteenth-century poet wrote a ballad of the legend of King Laszlo that inspired me to produce my first historical reconstruction. This showed the king's ghost appearing on the battlefield mounted in full armour on his warhorse and spreading panic among the enemy ranks. It was done in pencil on an epic scale with a cast of thousands-well twenty or thirty anyway. I was about eight at the time.

Soon afterwards I came face to face with my hero in the form of a magnificent golden reliquary containing his skull in the gothic coronation cathedral at Budapest. It was modelled on an earlier statue made soon after his death and is therefore thought to be a good likeness of the great king.

Grammar school at the Cistercian College followed. Here I sailed through the history exams but floundered at maths and physics, much to the despair of my father and brothers who were all excellent mathematicians. Luckily I passed enough subjects to matriculate, which enabled me to apply for a five year course at art college. To the delight and relief of my family I was accepted at the Hungarian (Budapest) Academy of Fine Arts where I had a happy three years.

This lasted until I was faced with some real history-the 1956 uprising against the Soviets. I saw Stalin's statue topple to the ground, fierce street fighting against tanks, people being killed and dead bodies everywhere. I am sorry to say that I have never had any problems drawing dead bodies in historical illustrations because they are still there, engraved on my memory.

I had to leave Hungary in a hurry. The word was out that the Russians were rounding up all the `undesirable' students. I crossed the border into Austria on a winter night and from there I flew to England in December 1956. I passed the entrance exam of the Royal College of Art in London and was awarded a scholarship by the Gulbenkian Foundation. Three years and a degree later I was taken under the wing of Oxford University Press as an illustrator and have continued to work for them and other publishers ever since.

Two hundred and fifty books later I have covered a huge range of subjects from prehistoric times to the Second World War. I have certainly learned a great deal with each book requiring thorough research and reading. The work has also involved a lot of travel, which has been fun. I can remember following the footsteps of the Pilgrim Fathers in Leyden and Plymouth, listening to Professor Martin Carver on the reconstructed remains at Sutton Hoo, pondering on how Stonehenge was built and researching the French Revolution in Paris.

Visiting the Conciergerie in Paris was a particularly haunting experience. It was mid-winter, the building was soon to close for the day and there were hardly any visitors. Stumbling through the badly lit passageways of the ancient prison I found myself in a vaunted chamber that I recognised from old paintings. It was huge and dark with heavy metal grills protecting the windows and doorways. Here hundreds of aristocrats had been herded together before being sentenced and carted off to the guillotine. …

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