Melvyn Warren-Smith, Prolific Artist, Warwickshire Life
PUBLISHED: 23:50 07 February 2010 | UPDATED: 13:39 21 May 2013
Melvyn Warren-Smith has to be one of the country's most prolific artists - yet, while you have probably seen his work, it is very unlikely that you've ever heard his name. Jane Sullivan met the artist at his Warwickshire home. Photographs by Simon...
I've grown up with Melvyn Warren-Smith. Not that I knew that until I went to meet him at his quiet countryside home near Leamington Hastings. In fact, Melvyn had quite a part in my growing up. In my early teenage years I developed a bit of a romantic fiction habit. I read everything I could get my hands on. Victoria Holt, Georgette Heyer, Catherine Cookson. If it had a strong female lead with a bit of a romantic dilemma on her hands I wanted to read about it. And it wasn't just the romantic novels. I devoured short stories too. If I found my grandmother's My Weekly lying around I would soon have my nose in the serial and would then have to ask her to keep the next week's for me so that I could finish the story. My own mother was a Woman's Weekly subscriber and for years I followed the fortunes of many a plucky heroine who was unlucky in love before it all came right in the end. The thing about all these stories though was that they weren't just stories, they were stories with pictures that hinted at the promise of escape to another world.
And this is where Melvyn Warren-Smith comes in. For the chances are that many of the stories I so eagerly devoured as a teenager were illustrated by Melvyn. For over 25 years Melvyn has produced three or more pictures a week to illustrate the stories in virtually every national magazine you could name. He has produced thousands of paintings over the years and he hasn't just stuck to magazines. His work gazes down from the covers of hundreds of books by big name authors such as Maeve Binchy, Emma Blair, Josephine Cox, Claire Rayner and Edwina Currie, to name just a few.
It seems a strange line of work for a man with a degree in fine art to get into but it's been a prolific and interesting career.
Melvyn has his father to thank for encouraging him into art. "I was born in Kingston-upon-Thames where my dad had a job stoking the boilers at Hampton Court Palace. But he always drew and I grew up seeing him produce these wonderful drawings.
"In those days there were all these views about what you should do in life and art wasn't one of them. If you showed any interest in art you were generally encouraged out of it. But my Dad encouraged me by buying me art materials and when my headmaster suggested I should go to Saturday morning art classes at Kingston Art School he let me go - I was 10 years old. It was fantastic. These huge studios full of life models, that did it for me and I didn't want to do anything else."
At the age of 17 Melvyn went to art college in Epsom to study Fine Art, and stayed for six years. "In those days we concentrated on figurative art and we were taught to draw correctly. Of course a lot of the drawing was of life models and we had this one model who would come into the studio and tell us he would pose in any position we wanted him to. He used to say: 'I'll do anything, even the crucifixion, if you want.' It was only about 10 years ago I found out that that was Quentin Crisp. Nobody knew about him until The Naked Civil Servant...".
Music was also a big part of Melvyn's life "probably just as important as the art," he says. "I was in a band with Duster Bennett - he taught me to play the guitar, Top Topham [who went on to form The Yardbirds] there would be about 20 to 30 people jamming away - it was incredible."
Then after six years the cold wind of reality hit. "I didn't know what a mortgage was or a job and then suddenly I was faced with the big wide world and it was terrifying."
Washing up in a hotel in Studland, Dorset, was Melvyn's first job after art school. "I would work for six months and save up enough money to be able to paint for three months. I moved to St Ives for a year and by then I'd met a girl and we moved up to the Midlands where Miranda's father had a shop in Rugby."
With a new wife and a baby on the way the need to earn money became rather pressing. "It was 1973 - the three day week. Inflation was at 25 per cent. I went to London," says Melvyn.
He had picked up some illustrating work for IPC - publishers of Woman and Woman's Own. Then his big break came when he was employed by a firm of illustrators, Grestock and Marsh in Regent's Street. "The best illustrators in Europe," says Melvyn.
"I'll never forget my first day. I walked into the studio and the walls were covered with the paintings these guys had done and they were brilliant. I didn't think I'd ever be able to produce what they'd produced."
He did though and pretty soon was on the illustrating treadmill producing three works of art a week, week in, week out. Virtually every magazine you care to name - The People's Friend, My Weekly, Annabel, Woman, Woman's Own, and more - has published Melvyn's pictures. Nowadays only a handful of magazines carry short stories and magazine work in this country has dried up a bit much to Melvyn's disgust (although there is a lucrative market in Scandinavia for this type of illustration).
"We did away with fiction in this country and it was a big disaster because when they took these stories out of the magazines sales slumped."
He is also scathing about attitudes towards illustrators in this country.
"In America illustrators are treated like rock stars. In this country we don't even bother to put their names on their pictures," (which is one reason you may not have heard of Melvyn Warren-Smith!).
Yet illustrations can convey so much more than a photograph, says Melvyn. "The reason you have an illustration and not a photograph is that you are saying to the reader 'this girl could be you' and a photograph just cannot get into the imagination in the way a picture can. An illustration creates an illusion, it allows the reader to escape. With a photograph there is nowhere to go. The reader cannot get into the story in the same way."
There is one area where Melvyn's artistic skills are in great demand - book publishing. In this field, at least, photographs cannot replace an illustration. Many well-known authors have been illustrated by Melvyn and the work that goes into producing book covers is astonishing.
I had always assumed that the paintings of girls gazing winsomely from the covers of novels such as Edwina Currie's book She's Leaving Home (see picture) were the product of an artist's fertile imagination. Not so. Every book cover is intensively researched. Real life models are dressed in period costume and photographed on location. Then Melvyn begins on the painting.
The work starts with reading the book from start to finish and Melvyn admits that he doesn't entirely enjoy every book he's sent to read. "I read them because it is a necessary part of the job."
Melvyn may then talk to the author to discuss period settings and costumes. "If the story is set in a 17th century farmhouse then we'll go and find a 17th century farmhouse," he says.
The painstaking work is worth it as Melvyn has never had a front cover rejected. In the case of Edwina Currie's book the cover took three months of research including finding pictures of the Mersey ferry from the time the book was set.
Melvyn admits that his work was sometimes all consuming. "I would paint seven days a week sometimes and I did that for 25 years." But with two daughters (now aged 30 and 36) to put through private school he felt it was worth it.
Then he and his wife Miranda separated after 30 years of marriage and Melvyn admits it was a tough time. "We'd been together since we were 23. When you've been with someone for a long time and the children go off to university and you almost become strangers again. If you can't get through that big change then you're going to struggle."
Nine years ago Melvyn met his current wife Marie, who is an events manager for a catering company. "My life took off again," he says. In the living room of the converted barn that they share there is a beautiful picture of Marie floating in a swimming pool. It hangs over the fireplace and your eye is constantly drawn to the serene figure floating in the azure blue. There are many other paintings around the house - a fox running through emerald green grass, paintings of Melvyn's daughters and grandchildren, sunsets and one in particular a striking nude on a red background. There are many paintings which Melvyn has collected together for a selling exhibition of his work this month.
Melvyn recently posed in the nude himself for the advertising poster for his forthcoming art exhibition. "The photographer said to me 'you expect people to strip off for you but you're too scared to do it yourself!' so I did it!"
Meeting Melvyn has been an interesting experience because I always wondered who drew those pictures for short stories in the magazines - and now I know I won't ever pick up a Maeve Binchy or a Josesphine Cox or any other illustrated book without checking the name of the illustrator.
* You can see Melvyn Warren-Smith's work for yourself at Leamington Hastings (2nd-4th May, 2pm to 6pm). Visit www.melvyn-warren-smith.com to request an invitation.