I’m pleased to introduce onto my blog this week illustrator Mary-Louise Hussey. I have followed Mary on Twitter for a while now – her little creature drawings that make up Alphabetville, remind me of illustrations that used to be in my fairytale books as a child. Her illustrations and the animal characters are delightful – such a lovely way to introduce ABC. I caught up with Mary-Louise recently to talk about her illustrations, Alphabetville and life in the 1970s! Hi Mary-Louise!
Hello, my name is Mary-Louise Hussey and I was brought up in West Sussex in the UK. I had an unusual childhood living in the wing of a grand old Victorian mansion, a preparatory school for boys. I don’t remember being lonely, but looking back it was an insular existence to begin with spending long days in the nursery, or playing in the garden under the Old Lime Tree with imaginary friends, mostly of the wildlife kind.
When I left school I was sent off to various ‘courses for young ladies’ in London preparing me for life! One of these was Lucy Clayton modelling school, which taught me how to glide down a ‘cat walk’, and though tall and lanky apparently ‘my neck was too short for modelling’, something I am still self conscious about! Luckily this led me to look down other avenues. Working in a glamorous fashion shop in Knightsbridge, the ‘heart of smart’ in London, gave me a lust for the latest fashions. Mary Quant, Biba, miniskirts, hot pants, buckets of makeup and Beatles music were all the rage. Inspired by this experience and with a small legacy from my grandmother I opened ‘Sheba’, my clothes ‘Boutique’ and fashion mecca in a charming little country village. The 1970s were dizzy days and my confidence blossomed.
Later married and with two young daughters, we moved away to rural Herefordshire. Glorious countryside and friendly people, I took up painting once again. With an urge to set up another business I fell into my new career. Sheba Designs, a mail order catalogue selling ‘Personalised Gifts for Children’, most notably ‘Illustrated Name Pictures’.
What was the inspiration behind ‘Animals at Work’ who live in Alphabetville?
I’m so glad you asked me this as the memories are still quite deep. You remember the Old Lime Tree I was telling you about in our garden – I loved that tree? Sadly in 1987 there was a hurricane which ravaged the countryside in the South of England. We went down from Herefordshire to my old home, and I wept when I saw my Old Lime Tree had been whipped up and flung down, broken. Right then and there I determined that the memory of this beautiful old lime tree and the happy times spent under it with my imaginary friends should not be lost. On returning home I immediately set about designing my little animal alphabet ‘Animals at Work’ who now live in Alphabetville. The design was a huge success in my business and when a Japanese wholesaler asked me at my trade stand at an exhibition if I had written stories around the characters, I crossed all fingers and said ‘YES’. At home I feverishly created characters for my little animals and gave them the village of Alphabetville to make their home. And that is where they are to this day making children everywhere happy.
You have written and illustrated 2 children’s picture books based on the antics of the animals of Alphabetville. Can you describe Alphabetville in a nutshell and how the books can help young children in mastering their alphabet?
I love this question, but how to fit Alphabetville into a nutshell, and how to crack it without shattering the illusion? I’ll do my best.
The village is down in a little dell….not far from you actually! Tarquin and Tarqueena the slightly eccentric Royals who live in ‘The Royal Oak Palace,’ leave all the essential running of the busy village to ‘The Animals at Work’. From the School, the thriving Gift Factory and the Railway Station and Farm, to the Corner Shop and Church all is run fairly smoothly. It’s not always a tight ship, but it’s fairly average really except that it is run by ANIMALS. Oh and did I say that they get into quite a pickle sometimes, well who doesn’t?
Our plan is at this early stage of learning the alphabet, for The ‘Animals at Work’ to become your children’s best friends – simple. You see each animal’s name cleverly starts with a different letter of the alphabet. Ie. Albert Mole head teacher of the village school, Boris Bear the chef who loves hot and spicy food, Clarrie the caring nurse, ‘Dodge’ Dougal the village policeman etc. So while the child becomes familiar with the characters and their names they soon begin to recognise the accompanying letters…. Here is the first tentative and enjoyable step towards learning their ABC.
I love the Alphabetville animals – my favourite is Gloria Gussey – a stunning lizard who is a super model with brains who hopes to become a doctor! Have you got a fondness for any particular character?
I just have to say Emmie the talented faMouse artist or she would clobber me – because she is ME and my alto ego. One major difference being that she has 12 little ‘mouselings’…. and I don’t! I blame Emmie (Emeraldine) for the painting of all the pictures in my books, which sort of lets me off the hook a bit. Furthermore In a corridor in the Alphabetville village school you can find ‘Rogues Gallery’ where Emmie’s portraits of each of the pupils hang on their leaving. She is now proud to have over 10,000 followers on her Twitter account. Have a peek @AnimalsatWork
When did you start designing and hand painting illustrated name pictures?
Both my daughters had started school and I took up painting again in earnest. But one day trying something new, I illustrated a name picture with wildflowers for my goddaughter Amanda. It seemed to be a hit with those who saw it and I capitalised on that by taking a few orders from friends, then from coffee mornings, charity fairs, school functions and so on until I brought out my Mail Order catalogue and started advertising and even ventured into the wholesale market.
I can tell you are an animal lover – but are you scared or wary of any particular animal in real life? (I’m wary of cows and ants)
Yes, I love animals but I have to admit to being nervous of horses. I was ‘plonked’ on a pony at the age of about 7 years and told to hold on tight. The novice teacher led four of us off across a field at a trot. Soon out of control I tumbled off and was promptly ‘plonked’ on again, whereupon the pony took off back to the stables with me hanging on for dear life. I love them but I have never trusted a horse since.
Growing up, did you always hope to have a career connected with art or were your dreams directed elsewhere?
I rather fancied myself as a pop star when I was in my teens. I used to strum along on my guitar with friends and we spent hours recording ourselves on a big old fashioned recording machine, we were pretty awful but had lots of fun. I will soon be recording the songs I have composed for The Animals at Work.
Where do you prefer to read – in bed, in a comfy chair, in a library surrounded by books or elsewhere? Do you prefer hardback, paperback or Kindle? Favourite genre?
In a deckchair in the garden with the sound of birds singing in the trees, however that’s nearly impossible unless on holiday. So as my husband goes to bed before me I crawl in to my side of the bed with my Kindle under the bedclothes and read till my eyes close. One of my historical novels will keep me awake like this for a short time but I usually find the Kindle still there when I wake up early the next morning.
Where can people purchase your Illustrated Name Pictures and books? Is there worldwide availability?
Personal now – What outfits and shoes would you normally be wearing?
With long legs but rather thick ankles I normally wear trousers to flatter/hide my shape. Colour is my thing, so my tops are many and varied. Well cut shirts for style in linen or cotton, or silk skimming the hips, printed over tops, often with a matching scarf. Casual but neat flat shoes mainly or boots in the winter. I’d be more wacky if I could find fun clothes for my age group.
Do you have any favourite shops or online sites?
That’s a bit difficult really because I pick up clothes wherever I find them. I used to be very fussy having had my own shop in days gone by, but now I seem to find clothes are all too classical for me and not adventurous enough. It’s not fun anymore and after shopping in shops or online I seem to end up with the same dull old things.
What next on your clothes/ shoe/accessory wish list?
I am now a blond haired person in a previously dark haired person’s clothing! So I need to reassess my wardrobe completely really and go for subtle colours and soft flowing materials with drapes to hide unwanted lumps and bumps. Flattering warm brown and light caramel colours with splashes of burnt coral. Short donkey brown boots and a large cashmere shawl to dashingly fling round your neck. That doesn’t sound at all like ‘old me’, but then I’m not the ‘old me’ any more.
Boots or Shoes?
A good pair of stylish boots… or two, will take you anywhere and hide the thick ankles.
Links you would like to share e.g. website/facebook/twitter etc. so that readers can find out more about you and the Animals at Work in Alphabetville.
Books: 1. Animals at Work in Alphabetville, 2. Albert’s Birthday Surprise
Ahh…the hurricane of 1987..I remember it well as I had moved to my first house away from my parents who lived in London, to a small village in coastal Essex that very day the hurricane struck. We had a tree hang precariously over the bungalow but it was safely removed and thankfully, no other lasting damage! Sorry to hear of the demise of the Old Lime Tree, though.
Thank you for taking the time to chat to us about your beautiful illustrations and Alphabetville – it has been a real treat! 🙂
All illustrations/photos have been published with the very kind permission of Mary-Louise Hussey