A Conversation with Bernadette Watts

photo of author-illustrator Bernadette Watts

photo © Toni Suter / T+T Fotographie

Bernadette Watts has been published by NorthSouth Books since the 1960s: “I have always written stories and drawn pictures. The two things have always been linked. I did not choose to make picture books at a certain age, it was there right from the start, just like eating or walking.”

NorthSouth: You grew up in a home where art was important and present. How did this influence your path?

Bernadette Watts: My mother went to Northampton Art School and studied painting. She won a scholarship to Paris.....that would have been in the 1930s. My father studied to be an architect. He spent his spare time going on bicycle holidays to draw old buildings, such as churches. His career was interrupted by the War. My mother’s work was very free and colourful, very joyous. My father’s work was far more considered, slower, very detailed, mostly pen and ink drawings. I think I inherited something from both of them.

NS: When did you first start expressing yourself artistically and how?

Bernadette: I was born in 1942. Immediately after the War, there was very little of anything, but my parents saved every scrap of paper—even brown paper bags from the grocer—so that I could draw. My father managed to get a small notebook in hard covers in which from the age of 4 I started to write my first little stories. This little book is now preserved in Japan by a major publisher. My parents always took an enormous and intelligent interest in my work. My father constantly purchased books for me, including a big collection of second hand children’s books, some now very valuable.

NS: You are perhaps best known for your lovely illustrations of fairy tales and folk tales. What draws you to these timeless stories?

Bernadette: My parents read to me and my brother every bedtime, mostly Beatrix Potter and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. As you know they are short stories. My father was also very good at telling us stories of “When I was a boy...,” often embroidered, but which I loved. Right from the very start of my life there were pictures, illustrations and stories. Before I went to school—I did not go to school so early as other children as I was very withdrawn—I knew every Grimm’s Fairy Tale off by heart. A deep love of these stories has remained constant, almost actually part of me. I have always written stories and drawn pictures. The two things have always been linked. I did not choose to make picture books at a certain age, it was there right from the start, just like eating or walking.

NorthSouth: We have been publishing your work since the 1960s! How did your relationship with NorthSouth Books begin?

Bernadette: After leaving Art School, around 1963, I went to live in London. I actually lived in a spare room at Dobson Books Kensington Church Street as I was working on a big collection of fairy tales for them called Fairy Tales From Around The World by Rhoda Power. I got the work quite easily a few weeks after leaving college. From that house, I used to go out daily and visit all the London publishing houses, propping my bicycle by their front doors....Bodley Head, where we used to sit and have afternoon tea and cakes, Heinemann, Constable, Rupert Hart Davies, Oxford University Press, ....where are they all now? I knew most of the editors and publishers, secretaries etc. It was like being part of a big wonderful family. Yes, it was quite hard work picking up jobs, book jackets, black and white work, horrible agency work, but there was always something, and somehow I always had a few pounds. After a few months, I got myself a small basement flat in Shepherds Bush but still, almost daily, I went round to Dobson Books. One day there I met a man called Dimitri Sidjanski, who was waiting for someone called Ralph Steadman to arrive. He told me he lived in Switzerland. I passed a few minutes chat with him but then left as I was probably going to see some publisher some place.

Then things began to get a bit harder. There seemed to be more illustrators looking for work. I got fed up with the mostly boring jobs I was being given. Then in the summer of 1967 I heard about a big annual event called The Frankfurt Bookfair. I had 50 pounds to my name but decided to spend some of that to go to Frankfurt on the train. When I got to the main gate I was not at first allowed in as I had no ticket or pass. Luckily, suddenly, the secretary from Dobson Books was there at the gate and so I got my admission! She asked me where I was staying so I told her I planned to sleep at the station for the duration of the Fair. She told me illustrators did not come to the Fair, it was a trade fair for publishers. But she very kindly smuggled me into her hotel room where there was a spare bed. I then started trailing around the stands showing my work.....impossible today, so I am told....then I saw this small wonderful colourful stand called Nord Sud Verlag [NorthSouth Books]. An employee of the publisher told me the publisher was too busy to see me, but I returned to the stand six times. At last the publisher came and spoke to me. “I know you, kid,” he said. “We met in London last year. What do you want?” I asked him for five minutes to look at my portfolio which held the first sketches of Red Riding Hood.

For the next few years I went every year to both Frankfurt and Bologna. Everyone knew everyone. The books were wonderful, a host of wonderful illustrators such as Brian Wildsmith—once my teacher—were emerging with these big bright picture books, something so new, so wonderful.

NS: And now you are back with NorthSouth Books with your newest book, The Smallest Snowflake.

Bernadette: I knew The Smallest Snowflake was a special book and needed a special publisher. My son pushed me to send it to the New NSV saying “After all, they are your real publishers, always have been, always will be.” I explained to my son it was all new, all new staff, a new office in Zurich, and a new publisher who did not know me. But, my son persuaded me to get in touch, so first I just offered an advent calendar, but the response I got back was so kind, so friendly, I was quite overwhelmed. So then I sent The Smallest Snowflake to them. Katja Alves and Urs Gysling both wrote back to me and were so enthusiastic about the book. I then went to Zurich, after a gap of nine or ten years, to meet all these “new people”. I was so warmly welcomed, it was like coming home.

Bernadette Watts with NordSüd Verlag publishers

Bernadette with her friends at NordSüd Verlag, Zurich

NorthSouth: The Smallest Snowflake is such a lovely story—what inspired you to write it?

Bernadette: An organization in Austria holds exhibitions in an old castle and asked me a few years back to draw the jacket of an imaginary unpublished book for a travelling exhibition. So, I drew a snow-scene, very, very much like the jacket you now have, and sent it off. The exhibition of those unpublished book-jackets is still travelling and is at present in Tokyo. The second part of the book is totally autobiography.

I have not been back to my little Welsh cottage, built of dry stonework in 1372, for 33 years, but as I drew it for this book I remembered every stone, the patch where I grew vegetables, the path and the gate, the exact shape of the mountain (part of the Snowdon range), and the distant farmhouse—only just visible—where the farmer lived. It was like drawing from a photograph and I did it all in one day. The actual contents—even the pattern on the curtains and the blue paint on the cupboard—are absolutely correct. It gave me huge happiness to draw those pictures.

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