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Q&A – Making art and mischief with Nick Ellwood


Fri 22 Oct 21

We sat down with our friend and award-winning illustrator Nick Ellwood to talk to him about his wonderful mischievous and playful drawings that make up the 500 Years of Mischief & Mayhem in Greenwich exhibition.

It closes at the end of October, so make sure you and the family don’t miss this delightful exhibition.

It’s free and open daily (10am–5pm) in our gallery in the Visitor Centre at the Old Royal Naval College.

What were your first impressions of the Old Royal Naval College?

Coming to the Old Royal Naval College was just “wow”. I wasn’t familiar with the Painted Hall; when I first saw it, it just knocked me for six. A tour guide took me round and told me a lot of the stories about the ceiling, everything from Greek gods to historic characters and other connections to the place. My curiosity was sparked, and every story was opening my imagination!

What themes and which moments in history did you explore for the exhibition?

I’ve created two characters to take children and families round and talk to them and help explain the themes and stories. They can learn along with them, and actively engage in the story happening around them.

One of the themes was showcasing the astronomers as everything about the scientific revolution absolutely fascinated me. It was like tapping into new stories, so I suggested the idea of creating some hidden tales such as John Flamsteed’s (English astronomer and the first Astronomer Royal) moving the Royal Observatory from the Tower of London over to here because the ravens were pooping on his equipment. The quirky hidden stories are gold dust and make it fun.

Have you always worked with museums?

I never thought I’d ever be working with museums, it never crossed my mind, but it’s become a fascinating strand of my work. I’ve worked with newspapers, I still work in publishing, and teach degree students at York St John university, and freelance work in reportage – drawing from observation – with the Arts Council England, and it ties in with history in that I’ve always been fascinated with how illustration can document time, events, as well as story and imagination. I remember the history books and the drawings, particularly the more humorous ones jumping out.

Certainly, great artists like William Hogarth, who deal with social history, documenting the time and people’s behaviour – and it was always the human stories behind the big events that fascinated me.

How do you pull out characters’ personalities in your drawings?

You draw inspiration from everywhere and how to tell a story through one drawing!

As I was drawing Queen Anne, The Favourite had just come out, and that gives us so much more of an idea about her and her relationships. So in trying to draw a portrait of her here in Greenwich, with Lady Sarah Churchill, whom she apparently gave the paintings from the ceiling in Queen’s House, I introduced in the background two footmen rolling up a big painting, whilst Churchill is looking slightly manipulative.

What’s different about putting together an exhibition for children and families, rather than adults?

Primarily it’s about engaging rather than telling. So, with creating an exhibition for young people, it was playing very much on the fun and the playfulness of the characters, rather than going too far into the historical details.

I think also in museums now, there’s been a big, big move towards creating engaging content and immersive exhibitions, which are more child friendly. It was only recently that someone realised that children can’t see most of the work that’s in museums because it’s too high up!

Why is illustration such a good medium for telling stories?

It’s naturally accessible, drawing needs drama and it’s a universal language. Something with illustration is that I hold it in high esteem, but also love the fact that it can be chip paper, and so it’s accessible to everybody. You don’t need to see it in a gallery space, you can enjoy it in many different formats.

And if you create work for children, you actually engage more grown-ups, because everyone likes a bit of colour and fun. I also love the research and the academic side.

For example, if you read something on a plaque, you’ll remember it for the 30 seconds you stand reading it, whereas if you interact and physically engage with something, it evolves into a part of your own story and how you communicate information in your own life.

There are some fun interactive elements to the exhibition – how did those come about?

One thing I’m very keen on as an illustrator is that everything is hand-created and that you do observe, and use your hands, and react, and make things. But I’m not anti-digital in any way whatsoever, and I think that in this case, it was a perfect fit to bring in the augmented reality elements. It was huge learning curve as I had to create animations, which was a first. It is magical because I grew up loving animation, and seeing the drawings animate was simply wonderful. It allowed us to open up those layers of information and enhance the engagement and bring more fun and surprise into the exhibition.

Who were your favourite characters to illustrate? 

Touching on all of those stories was just wonderful.

John Worley – he’s got such a good face! Personally, when I found out about James Thornhill, he was the father-in-law to William Hogarth, which felt like I was getting closer to one of my biggest heroes and influences, looking at his original sketches. And learning that John Worley was known to be a very mischievous character, which was the springboard for the title, and bringing out that sense of fun and humour in these otherwise stuffy figures.

I enjoyed the Royals, trying to tell another story, a more personal side, rather than the grandiose moments people already know about.