The first ever Sodor Island Fansite Interview
Jim Gratton talks to Clive Spong (2006)
Author Brian Sibley, in his book 'The Thomas the Tank Engine Man' mentioned that you were the first Railway Series artist who read the stories while growing up. How did you become involved with illustrating the Railway Series volumes penned by Christopher Awdry?
I remember having the first 3 or 4 Railway Series books when I was about 5 or 6 years old. Like all boys in the 50's I had quite an interest in steam trains, and had model railway layouts until my early teens.
After working in various advertising agencies for some years, I decided to go freelance and specialize in illustration. In 1982, my agent, Linden Artists asked if I'd like to do some sample pictures for a new train book, following the existing style. It turned out to be 'Really Useful Engines' and it all went on from there.
Given the 'Awdry' insistence for railway accuracy in the story illustrations, did you have any apprehensions about signing-on to the Railway Series?
Although I had a very basic knowledge of steam engines, I was concerned about getting the technical details right. However, both the author and publishers provided me with mounds of photographic reference and copies of previous artwork.
Did you ever have the opportunity to meet the Reverend Awdry?
I met Rev. Awdry on 3 occasions - twice at his home and once at a steam railway show. A very interesting man - he had the entire history and geography of Sodor and its railways in his head.
I also met Christopher Awdry a few times.
My notes: This could have been during the writing of WVA's "Thomas's Christmas Party"(1984). Regarding Mr. Spong's remarks about the Rev. Awdry's detailed knowledge of Sodor, I would like to add the following: Under his entry for Tidmouth in 'the Island of Sodor (1987), the Rev. Awdry bemoans the inconsistencies in how the station, yard, engine sheds etc. were illustrated in the original Railway Series (Vols. 1-26). However, WVA adds this: "The Engine Sheds are shown with most accuracy in Thomas's Christmas Party". I interpret this as a compliment of sorts to the artist!
Who is your favorite Railway Series artist from the Rev. Awdry's volumes 1-26?
My favourite illustrator in the series was Peter Edwards (books 18-26). Although his style was quite loose and didn't pay so much attention to the mechanical detail, I liked his landscapes and his characters' faces were very expressive and animated.
Based on your own work on the Railway Series volumes 27-40, do you have a personal favorite?
As for the books I've done myself, I like the last 3 or 4 best, simply because by then I wasn't concentrating so much on trying to reproduce the original style, but letting a bit more of my own come through.
I also liked no. 35 'Thomas and the Great Railway Show' as it was fun to illustrate some "real" historical locomotives.
What technique did you use for illustrating the stories? Many members (including myself) admire the varied facial expressions of the characters, in addition to the mechanical and railway crew realism depicted in your illustrations.
I don't have any particular technique for illustrating the stories. The medium I use is just watercolour & gouache. As for the realism, I rely on photographic archive material and obviously the author checked all the details at rough pencil stage before I went to finished artwork.
As mentioned earlier, Volume #40 - 'New Little Engine’ was published in 1996, with no new subsequent titles. If the Railway Series were, by some miracle, to resume in the near-future, would you consider illustrating volume #41?
I would be happy to illustrate any further railway books should the opportunity arise.
What projects are you currently involved with?
The great majority of work I've done since is much more on the educational side. e.g. children's encyclopaedias; history, geography text books; illustrated books for language students - that kind of thing. Not much in the way of children's fiction recently. Still, I'm happy to have a go at anything that comes along. What I enjoy most about my work is the variety of style and subject matter.
On behalf of Sodor Island Fansite and Forums, I would like to extend my sincerest thanks to Mr. Spong for sharing his insight with us.
We wish him continued success with his work!