Operation Cheltenham

In the immortal words of videogame critic Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw: “Do you want to hear something strange? Burbly burbly burly boo. Do you want to hear something strange but also grammatically correct? Angelina Jolie once tried to marry a vole”.

If you want to hear something else even stranger, I didn’t realise that Cheltenham was a real place until about two weeks ago. Cheltenham Ladies College, which seems to be the only thing Cheltenham is famous for, isn’t really on my radar, and for the whole of my professional illustration career I assumed that the Cheltenham Illustration Awards were named after a person rather than a place; I pictured a rather regal 19th century “Lord Cheltenham” who was a patron of the arts and secret lover of Oscar Wilde.

But, all my prejudices and wild speculations were blown away a few weeks ago when my staggeringly talented girlfriend Cat O’Neil won the Cheltenham Illustration Awards. Earlier this week we went on an adventure to receive her prize and find out what Cheltenham is all about, or at least the 100 square metres or so of Cheltenham which I explored.



This adventure began, like all great adventures, on a train. Specifically, me sulking in the quiet coach of a train because the level of what constitutes “quiet enough” for the quiet coach is different for different people, and seems especially vague for anyone under the age of 6. Special mention goes to the gentleman pictured above though, who had a long and loud phone conversation about his son’s new job, perhaps to rub it in to all the unemployed young people who were within earshot on the carriage. He also had one of those electric cigarette things which he smoked constantly. Are they actually catching on? I thought they reach the sort of stellar popularity of alcohol-free beer.

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Anyway, it wasn’t all bald men and pretend smoke. There were also some hairy hipsters who had to hold their conversation at maximum volume, so as to hear themselves over the maximum-volume skinheads sitting opposite them. I think the carriage had descended into an all out shouting match by this point.

But I survived, sulkily, and sooner or later we arrived and hello! Cheltenham! What a place. Well, I mean it is certainly a place. One of the many places. Have you noticed that all of England looks the same?

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It was good fun though. The Illustration Awards are run by Gloucester University and part of the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and so as well as an awards ceremony we had some illustration talks. First up was Sam Vanallemeersch (No, I don’t know how to pronounce that), who is an illustrator from Antwerp. He looks like a really cool guy (in the picture above) and has a very good face for drawing.

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He doesn’t really have that sort of psychotic expression all the time, I’m not sure why I drew him like that, but otherwise it’s not a wholly inaccurate drawing. His work is absolutely fantastic though, and part of my great ambition for the future is to make a lot more drawings (having made maybe close to 40 linocuts in the last six months, I don’t want to go near a press for a little while); I’ll definitely be looking closely at the way he works…

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Next up was a big surprise for me. As I staggered back after the break I saw at the front of the crowd the handsome hairy face of Nicolas André lining up to give the next talk. He and I were pals several years ago, back when I lived in Strasbourg. While we were in the same department and worked in the same screen print workshop, I had never seen his work and he said he had never seen mine. We’d mostly seen each other collapsing on the floor clutching bottles of red wine at various insalubrious parties. In fact I think I was sick on his shoes once.

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Then we had a break for lunch and drinks. Pimms and salmon sandwiches- I would just like to stress that University of Gloucester’s catering is much, much better than the University of Edinburgh’s.  In the immortal words of Stephen Hawking, “never question a free lunch”

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It was also a chance to draw some more people. There were a lot of funny-looking types around, what with students and illustrators being the funniest-looking types there are.

The last talk was the really big name though, illustrator Jan Pienkowski: Gandalf of the illustration world, along with writer David Walser (who I didn’t draw, unfortunately).

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I got to have a little chat with him at the end too, he’s a really nice guy. It’s always great chatting to these veteran illustrators, especially as it puts paid to that particularly frustrating, cynical, hysterical notion that illustrators’ careers never last more than ten years.

Fun fact: For the first few years or so of my life, I assumed that my little sister Megan was named after the main character in Jan’s Meg and Mog  books.

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That’s pretty much it! What a day, I think we can all agree that we learnt something, even if it was just the location of a well-known city in England. I’m back in Scotland now and setting about last-minute preparations for Hong Kong! More updates soon…






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Filed under Illustration, Sketchbook

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