Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Britain says "Farewell" to Victor Ambrus, gentle 'Prince of Illustrators' who brought its past to life

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Victor, who has died at the age of 85, in his 60 year career as book illustrator, gave pleasure to and fired the imagination of hundreds of thousands of readers of almost 300 books, ranging from fairy tale compilations to children’s book illustration and adult non-fiction. 

He was born László Győző Ambrus, the son of in Irén and  'Győző' in Budapest, Hungary, in the summer of 1935. His was prosperous family,  supported by his father who was an industrial chemist. In fact, his early years must have been blighted by the violence of the times in Central Europe. He  was 6 years old when Hungary, which had joined Germany, Italy and Japan in the Axis Alliance, joined the Second World War and attacked the Soviet Union and young Victor may well have seen Hungarian troops on the streets of Budapest and known relatives who were enlisted to fight. 

Four years later when Hungary engaged in peace negotiations with the United States and the United Kingdom, Hitler ordered the invasion and  occupation of his country and Victor, almost certainly, would have seen German troops and tanks on the streets of Budapest. 

He was in Budapest during 'The Siege', the 50-day-long encirclement by Soviet Russian and Romanian forces in which about 38,000 civilians died through starvation or military action, before it unconditionally surrendered in. He later recalled "the smoke and the rubble" he had seen and would have then witnessed Russian soldiers and tanks on the streets of Budapest. 

Victor’s passion for historical illustration took hold during these turbulent years. He recalled : “I just drew and drew and drew and enjoyed it. I illustrated anything that I read, books on history, poems". Perhaps, unsurprisingly, given the violence of the times, he also recalled :  "In fact I did a vast number of drawings of the fights we Hungarians had with the Turks in the 17th century".     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gswlhoZ6rP0

His reading, however, was patently non-violent and at home there were  many English books translated into Hungarian which led him to later claim : "I was bought up on things like Winnie the Pooh'” with their illustrations by  E. H. Shepard and he enjoyed Tenniel's illustrations in Lewis Carroll's 'Alice' books Many of the books were given to him as presents and Ursula Moray Williams’ 'Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse’ was one of his favourites with its story of Uncle Peder the toymaker who fell on hard times and his little wooden horse which had to go out into the world and seek its fortune. Then, whether it was either working in a coal-mine, sailing the seven seas with a band of pirates, or walking the tightrope in a circus, the loyal little horse only had one wish : to return to his beloved master.


It was, however, the books of Arthur Rackham with their distinctive and extensive illustrations for a wide range of stories like 'Peter Pan' which most inspired his drawing and led him to claim, at the age of 80, that : “He was a huge influence on me and he meant that I’ve been drawing ever since I could hold a pencil”. Already he had an attraction to the narrative power of pictures and that "something about drawings appearing in books together with the stories that appeals to me".

No one in Victor's family had displayed artistic talent except one uncle who had died 17 years before he was born, during the 1918 Influenza Epidemic which swept Hungary after the First World War. Despite this, the family, supported his passion for drawing and he said his father, in particular : "was convinced I was going to be an artist when I grew up”.

That passion was satisfied in the Hungarian summers when spent many childhood holidays in the countryside outside Budapest, on the Hungarian Plains, where he started his lifelong passion for horses and drew the wild ones he saw grazing there. 

When he was 10 in 1945 and at the end of the Second World War, Victor started his secondary education at the St Imre Cistercian College, Budapest. It was in these teenage years that he became an admirer of the 19th century Hungarian illustrator, Mihály Zichy and would have been familiar with his illustrations for the Georgian epic poem, 'The Knight in the Panther's skin'. He also took an interest in the large historical paintings which he saw when he visited the  public art galleries in the city. 

He applied for a place at the Academy of Fine Art in Budapest and at the age of 18 in 1953, started his 4 year degree course at, what he later called : "A very fine, traditional school offering a classical training in drawing, including anatomy and all sorts of things you don’t often get these days. But illustration 'per se' didn’t come into my training actually. It was all terribly straight-laced. Illustration was just something I did for myself ”. 

After three years, in 1956, his studies came to an abrupt and premature end. As a student Victor was caught up in Hungarian Uprising, a nationwide revolution against the government of the Hungarian People's Republic and its Soviet Russia-imposed policies. The revolt began as a peaceful student protest, which attracted thousands as they marched through central Budapest to the Hungarian Parliament building, calling out on the streets using a van with loudspeakers. 

When the State Security Police fired on the students, disorder and violence erupted throughout the capital and on 4 November, a large Soviet Russian Army force invaded Budapest and other regions of the country. As a member of the National Guard, who had trained before the invasion, as seen in the photo, he was asked to guard the Principal's Office in the Academy. He recalled : "It had lovely padded seats and I fell deeply asleep. There was a hammering at the door and when I pulled the curtains aside, literally, I looked down at the cannon barrel of a tank which seemed to be cranked straight at my head". As the situation developed : "They had a list of people who were attempting to hold the Academy building against the Russian tanks. I was one of these people. It was terribly frightening. Eventually they cornered us in the basement of the building and they executed eight of us on the spot, four students and four regular army soldiers. I was lucky to survive it”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihS_D0Btaz8&t=18m18s

After these executions and in fear of his life, Victor had no choice but the flee the country and seek refuge abroad. Apart from the trauma of having to leave behind everything he had ever known, he also had the survive the dangerous trek to the border with Austria. He recalled : "It was winter and It was very demanding  physical conditions. There was heavy snow you had to walk through all night to get across the border. It was a kind of life or death decision. I had to leave family behind. I actually had no choice". He was 21 years old and became one of the 200,000 Hungarian refugees who fled and now sought a new life abroad. At the Austrian border Victor chose to make Britain his new home and where he hoped to continue his studies geared to the tradition of the British illustrators he so much admired. When asked : "Where do you want to go ?" Without hesitation he'd replied : "To England" because, as he later explained, he thought  : "I had all these illustrations in my mind. That is what I want to do and carry on working".

Speaking no English, he landed at Blackbushe Airport in Surrey where he was met by social workers and then taken on a twenty minute drive  to Crookham Army Camp near the Surrey town of Farnham, which he recalled : "Was a very good place in which to recuperate from my depression about Hungary. In a way the whole thing was terribly unreal. I arrived in December, just before Christmas, at this little town, and there were twinkly lights and Christmas trees and I just couldn't put the two together. I came out of the smoke and rubble and a whole town smashed up systematically. I just couldn't get over the contrast". 

Victor managed to discover that there was an art college just over the hill from his refugee camp and after presenting himself at Farnham School of Art and with three year's study in Budapest under his belt, was taken on as a student, not to follow any particular course, since he spoke no English, but to work at his drawing. At the age of 21, he was already an accomplished artist and had specialised in graphics, concentrating largely on engraving and lithography which, as he said, was an excellent training for line illustration. 

His haunting memories of his experience in Hungary obviously provided the stimulus for the cathartic series of drawings he undertook and he recalled : "It was nice to get back to some drawing, because after '56 I just didn't think that I would ever do any again. When I started drawing in Farnham I did some desperately depressing things. I could still find some of my lithographs of the horrors I'd left behind". One of these illustrations is his powerful 'On the Barricade of the Revolution', dated 1958, it shows a woman kneeling with face in hands before the bandaged, bloodied head of a man and other works at this time were titled : 'Execution' and 'Death Sentence'.

After two terms of study, both his tutor and the Principal of the School, recognised that Victor was ready for a higher level of study and commended him to the Royal College of Art in London, where the door opened in 1957, when he won a three-year Gulbenkian Scholarship to study 'Printmaking and Illustration'. By this time his spoken English had picked up, as he recalled : "I managed with a great deal of help from local girls who were very happy to teach you" and he had adopted his middle name 'Győző' as 'Victor'. After his staid and traditional course of study at Budapest’s Academy of Fine Art, Victor found that the College was more liberal in its approach and he later admitted : "I have never shed my early training in Budapest. By the time you are about 21, your tastes and style are largely formed, but the Royal College certainly loosened me up".

In 1958, Victor's talent and promise were recognised when he was fêted at the College as a 'Royal Scholar'. In the same year he married fellow student, Glenys Chapman, who would also go on to make a career as an illustrator of children's books. Two years later he took some samples of his work to the publishers. 'Blackie', who gave him his first commission. In those days, the Royal College took a dim view of students drawing for money. It was not, as Victor said, "The done thing" and he may well have been reprimanded. The book 'White Horses and Black Bulls' by  Alan C Jenkins, published in 1960 and set among wild horses in the Camargue, it was tailor-made for Victor. Its review in the Times Literary Supplement, included two of his illustration and led to a number of horse-related commissions coming his way. In these early years, Victor's work was still focused on creating lithographs and etchings.      

After graduation in 1963, he worked for an advertising agency and freelanced for Oxford University Press where he had met its Children's Editor, Mabel George who gave him Hester Burton's historical novel, 'Time of Trail' to illustrate. With its themes of social reform and freedom of speech at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Hester received the 1963 Carnegie Medal for that year. 

After two years at the agency he returned to the Farnham 
School of Art to teach, while continuing illustration part-time and in the same year he won the 'Kate Greenaway Medal' from the British Library Association, recognising the year's 'Best Children's Book Illustration' by a British subject for his 'The Three Poor Tailors'

This was the time that Victor was forced to change his modus operandi. When he looked back he said : “Etchings have played a big influence in my life because they produce fine quality lines and nice deep tones which appeal to me". The problem was they "need quite sophisticated machinery, making it hard to do at home" and so because he "was almost addicted to using very fine lines", he switched his technique and said that his : "early illustrations are very like etchings except that they were not actually printed etched into glass plates, rather, I just used a very fine nib”

At the same, historical scenes involving action forced him to change his technique and he reflected : "I was getting a lot of free flowing, fast action historical illustrations, where people might be riding a horse or fighting, and to start using very fine etching lines was not practical. It took a long time and gave the wrong effect. It became very laboured”. In addition, colour illustration was making its presence felt in publications and this forced him to make further changes : "I’d draw things up very quickly in pencil making sure everything moved the way I wanted it to and then I’d apply colour and more sweeping lines". These changes in his technique are reflected in his work for Rosemary Manning's 1963 novel 'Arripay', based on the exploits of Harry Paye, a privateer, who terrorised French and Spanish ships on the Dorset Coast in the early 1400s.

In 1967, 'Miss George', as he called Mabel, gave him K M Peyton's first 'Flambards' novel to illustrate, followed by 'Flambards in Summer' two years later. Both authors, Hester Burton and Kathleen Peyton, used his talent for drawing horses and with both, he built up a strong working  relationship. 

In his public life, Victor now moved on to work an art lecturer at the Farnham and Guildford Colleges of Art and would finally teach at the Epsom School of Art and Design. With his freelance work, as he started to get more commissions for historical scenes, he concentrated on historical accuracy and said : “I really enjoy the research. It’s important as otherwise the illustrations don’t feel convincing. It’s got to be right” and "All illustration is an extension of yourself. You have to feel what your characters are feeling and understand about their lives which is why research is also so vital". Working on a book about slaves in Egypt building the Pyramids he said : "I had to understand the heat, the terribly hard work, and the importance of the thing they were building'. 

In terms of authenticity, Victor said in an interview in 2016 that : "Most of all I would like to convey, not just what it looked like, but almost the smell of the place". Archaeologist Carenza Lewis confirmed his success when she said : "What Victor did so brilliantly was to bring the past to life". 

With more commissions involving riders on horseback, Victor felt it was important for him to accurately capture how people sit when they are riding and subsequently he took lessons and mastered the art himself. It was then he realised he didn’t know how horse soldiers had used a sword while in combat and that being the case, he said : "Now I happened to have a sword and so I took it out and practiced with it. I rode in the local forest where there were a lot of pine trees and I would take aim at a branch, swipe at it and see what was the best way of cutting it. Oh, I enjoyed it. But then I had to stop because one day a swipe revealed a white-faced mushroom picker who was scared out of his skin. I hadn't realised he was there and at that point I thought I’d better not do this any more and so I put the sword away”. 

His efforts were rewarded in 1975 when he won the Kate Greenaway Medal for the year's 'Best Children's Book Illustration' for 'Horses in Battle'. He later admitted : “ I love drawing horses. Why? Because they are so complicated. So impressive."    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAIdU8uILek&t=3m05s and https://www.youtube.com/watch?UAIdU8uILek&t=26m13s 

Victor was also fastidious when it came to accuracy in historical costume and clothing, something he had studied looking at the exhibits in the Victoria and Albert Museum where he had spent many hours just down the road from the Royal College of Art, when he was a student in the late 1950s. His verdict was that contemporary clothes were boring : "There’s no colour. Whereas the 17th, 18th century, they are fabulous”. 

In addition to historical illustrations, Victor enjoyed drawing animals and spent a lot of time observing them in zoos. He recalled : "One of my favourite drawings I did in London Zoo, of a fantastic male gorilla. He sat there and stared at me for a long time and when I finished the drawing and walked away he came up to the fence, right up to the edge. And other people nearby said, ‘Show him, show him your picture of him,’ and so I turned around and showed the picture to him and it was quite amazing. He took it all in, with his eyes wide open. I don’t know what he thought of it but he was definitely puzzled”. 

It was when he was 59 in 1994, thanks to 'The Reader’s Digest', that Victor became part of Channel 4s Television 'Time Team' crew when, in a Bristol library, the Director of the new programme came across Victor’s illustrations in a copy of 'History of Britain' published by The Digest. When Victor then met the Director, Tim Taylor, he was asked : "Can you draw quickly?" To which he replied "Yes, I can try". To which the Director responded : "Well, draw a portrait of me then". Victor recalled : "So I drew a quick-as-lightning pencil drawing of him and he was suitably impressed and the following week I was invited to go to Oxfordshire". This was the pilot episode of the programme in 1994 and from that point, Victor stayed with the programme for its 20 year duration until September 2014. 

In each episode, where the archaeologists on the Team had three days to excavate, Victor would draw interpretations of the site and the archaeological finds, whilst being watched both by members of the public visiting the excavations and then by millions of viewers when it was broadcast on TV.  Victor later reflected : "It was sometimes a bit of an ordeal because your hands get so cold drawing outside, but the hand-drawn illustrations brought something special. By being hand-drawn, the image is more alive, it is saying this how it could have been, whereas a computer printout will say this is how it was and there is no argument”. Victor drew without gloves since they hindered his feel of the paper. 

The 'Time Team' audience soon came to appreciate both Victor’s skill and hardihood in creating work for the programme. Many of the pictures shown were worked under difficult and uncomfortable circumstances, whether he was precariously perched on castle walls, or making his drawings drawing 27 metres in the air in a cherry-picker, or being strapped to the chimney of a small boat, or sheltering in a great many cold and draughty cow-sheds, Victor steadfastly pursued his task with discomfort on set occasionally eased with a little whisky.

Tony Robinson, a presenter of Time Team said : "I worked with Victor for twenty years watching him breathe life in to the past. He effortlessly provided the colour, human scale and imagination which enabled our viewers to visualise how people lived, worked and died". https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAIdU8uILek&t=6m37s and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAIdU8uILek&t=31m18s

A pencil drawing of a fed up looking Alfred the Great tending burning cakes accompanied Victor’s story of the Team Team’s reconstruction of the infamous incident using authentic recipes and cooking implements. Victor recalled that the oatcakes tasted "quite awful!" and were liable to burn easily. In those days stone-ground flour meant that pieces of stone and grit left in the flour caused the bad teeth seen in many of the skulls of the period. He explained that the King's grumpy countenance might be explained by the fact that he suffered from the discomfort of piles.

In fact, Victor worked closely with his pathologist colleagues and used information such as gender, age, ailments and broken limbs to form an accurate depiction of the individuals to be painted. By working in such details, allowed his humanity and empathy to infuse his subjects whether he was drawing the village drunk, a member of the nobility, or victims of horrific execution practices which had the TV audience wincing in sympathy. He was also able to accurately depict the violence that has punctuated people's lives in the past : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAIdU8uILek&t=16m33s

The sheer range of the historical illustration Victor undertook is indicated by : 
1992 : his first Dracula illustrations appeared in the publication of 'Count Dracula' and he said that they were "especially dear to his heart"
1997 : he said he enjoyed the challenge he faced illustrating Geraldine McCaughrean's version of  'The Canterbury Tales' and five years later, 'El Cid'. 
1998 : Victor was one of seven leading British illustrators whose work was shown in the exhibition, 'The World of English Picture Books', which toured Japan. 
2008 : he designed a set of six historical stamps for the Jersey Post Office and one for the Royal Mail. 


In 2012 the discovery of the skeleton of King Richard III under a car park in Leicester led to the University commissioning Victor to capture his combat in the 1485 Battle of Bosworth.

                                    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gswlhoZ6rP0&t=5m34s

Throughout his life, the experiences in Victor's formative years in Budapest, both as an artist and as a person, always influenced his work and his thinking, but over his 60 years in Britain he had become Anglicised and he once said : "I am Hungarian, but, the Americans enjoy my books because, they say, they are full of English humour".

It seems entirely appropriate to recall Victor's illustration of the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial at time when the Netflix production of 'The Dig' has been shown on cinema and TV screens around the world. In fact when the 'Time Team' held a retrospective exhibition of his work in 2009, they chose Sutton Hoo as the venue. In addition, the two archaeologist protagonists in the story, Basil Brown and Peggy Piggott, like Victor, had no idea, when they were young, where their passion for digging, like his for drawing, would lead them. 

With Victor's passing, Michael Morpurgo, whose novel 'War Horse' was illustrated by Victor  has said :

"A great tree in the park has fallen, a tree many took for granted. He was just always there, drawing and painting our history for us. For so many young people, the first Viking they ever saw, the first castle or king, was drawn by Victor. He also happened to be always most kind and generous".

Victor's advice to would-be artists was : 

“Draw and draw and draw. And it’s important not just to do the drawing you have to do, but to draw for yourself, just to please yourself”.


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In acknowledgement to Zoe Toft, whose 2015 interview with Victor provided substance and insight into his work and thinking. 


7 comments:

  1. What a wonderful piece, thank you. I had no idea Mr Ambrus had such an enormous body of work. As a child I loved the "Flambards" books, which meant I recognised his distinctive style the first time he took part in Time Team. A great artist. RIP.

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  2. Freyalyn Close-Hainsworth4 March 2021 at 06:46

    Lovely writing about a great man.

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  3. What a wonderful biography and tribute to Victor. I realise now that I grew up with his illustrations in the books I read as a child and the covers of them. What an extraordinary man and wonderful artist, we visited an exhibition of his work in Taunton and actually seeing his paintings rather than on TV or in books was just wonderful. I am surprised there has not been more coverage of his death, and more tributes to his work and life.

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  4. I had heard something of Victor's back story so it's particularly nice to have it fleshed out in this obituary. It was always a pleasure to watch him at work and admire his fluency of line and the great energy his illustrations always showed. I'd give my eye teeth for an original.

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  5. What an amazing life and legacy. Requiescat in pace

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  6. Amazing life adventure,I believe netflix would perhaps bring this very talented man's art quest to life. RIP Victor.

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  7. very sad to hear of Victor's passing! I always looked forward to his drawings on Time Team and have wondered whether his works from the show were for sale?

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