Marie-Helene Jeeves and I sit outside Caravan, overlooking Granary Square’s fountains. It’s early morning, misty, grey, a bit chilly. Our conversation starts with architecture — she compares Central Saint Martins’ King’s Cross building with the Palace of Versailles — goes on to the reality that illustrators face and ends somewhere along the lines of “Somebody said it was a good sign if you have never had to work as a taxi driver: then you were doing alright!” All the while, a little Chemex drips coffee in a glass between us.

“I did up to degree level in architecture, but by the time I had reached that, I had already realised that it wasn’t for me. The potential of making mistakes when you’re designing buildings is easy. I think architecture actually is a very, very hard thing to do nicely, and there are so many lousy buildings around and I didn’t want to wake up one morning and find myself walking past a one that I loathed that I had had a hand in, basically. I think that doing pictures was a default position. So I did a couple of years at Cambridge, it was CCAT at that point, but I think it’s called something different now, it was Cambridge College of Arts and Technology. Then because I wasn’t sure that I was doing the right thing, I did an extra year at St Martins. It was a very long process and I still draw the way that I drew then, it’s amazing.”

“I rather feel that illustration is like all of the other arts: you really need to do it if it is really the only other thing that you can do. If you really feel that you would die if you couldn’t do it.”

Were you in the Charing Cross building when you studied at CSM?

I think it was in the process of moving. At St Martins, I started studying in a very building on Charing Cross Road. I think it’s turned in Foyles now?

Yeah, and they made lofts there as well, for people to live in. 

Oh, did they do that? Well you see that’s very, very typical. Nothing is less than luxury these days. But in the middle of the year it moved on to Long Acre, in Covent Garden.

How was the scene there, years ago? Was it very mixed — like you would walk through the halls and you’d easily come across someone on a fashion pathway, and everybody was friends with everybody? 

I don’t know, it’s very possible, I was extremely shy about what I did. You were supposed to behave in the same fashion as you did at architecture school: you were supposed to be there all the time. But I didn’t like being like that, I liked working on my own without people watching and commenting and then coming in and sharing what I did and then coming home again. So I don’t think I made proper use of being at St Martins at all, but even so, I don’t remember it being like that. I remember entering a building and going up to a full class full of a mixture of graphic designers and illustrators and having a desk in a corner there which I didn’t use very much but it was there and that was where you were.

“It’s much easier to be a critic!”

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What did you go on to do after St Martins? 

I looked for a part time job, on the assumption that I wouldn’t get any illustration work. I didn’t look for illustration work at first; what I looked for was cartoon work. I produced little pictures which I hoped to offload onto people. One of my earliest jobs was illustrating language text books for the university press; it was quite boring.

Language press books?

Yeah, you know. Well you probably don’t know, but they have a lot of little cartoons to illustrate particular points of English language. There’s plenty of scope for that sort of thing. I found actually that although I would have liked to become a cartoonist, I’m not fast enough and I’m not funny enough. And so I sort of do a hybrid, I suppose. I like to think of them as cartoons but people who commission me like to think of them as illustrations

“Only a limited number of people have a great deal of talent and can make an ongoing living from it in a relatively easy way.”

Would you still consider yourself more of a cartoonist rather than an illustrator? 

No, no, no, no I don’t think of myself in any category anymore.

What do you enjoy most about it? Do you feel an urge to draw? 

I absolutely do feel an urge to draw and definitely the best ideas come from when an idea springs to mind and you are absolutely driven to put it down on paper. And I very much like working with my hands, so I like the feel of the pen and the paper and the ink and making a mess or whatever on the paper and I kind of regret that you can do things now on the computer at all. But I start everything off with a piece of paper and I still copy the drawing over. I don’t know, there is just a great satisfaction working with hands. Very often when you’ve done one picture it leads on to another, so you end up with a little series of pictures more or less on the same thing. Then you send them to someone, and you don’t hear anything ever again. [Laughs] I still do quite laugh at that!

“Sometimes when you look at people’s website you get the impression that they are the best thing since sliced bread from what they’re saying.”

You seem very modest about your work.

I think more people should be more modest about their work.

That’s true.

But these days… Sometimes when you look at people’s website you get the impression that they are the best thing since sliced bread from what they’re saying. That’s not true across the board. I think that there is a lot of woolish self-representation very often, and it has no bearing on the work, so you just need to just look at what they are doing and see if you like it or not.

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What do you think is difficult for young illustrators in terms of ‘getting their work out there’ in 2015 compared to the 80’s/90’s? Because now, the industry seems very much focused on social media and internet?

I think that in a sense it’s better today, because there is less of you hoicking your portfolio around and showing people, it’s easier to do that online. And if you are good at that, I think it makes life a lot easier because you can just post things up on Facebook or Pinterest or whatever there is out there, and then it is a public portfolio and other people will spread it for you. I think that is great.

“Be realistic about if you have enough talent.”

Marie-Helene takes a sip of coffee, looks past me and observes the Central Saint Martins building for a few seconds, then says: “It’s nice here at Saint Martins…”

It’s an interesting space…

It’s a very nice space, it’s a nice space because it is open to all, and so it bloody well should be because I am sure that it was a financially viable deal!

You have tourists coming around; kids playing in the fountains in summer…

That is good. You almost don’t get that, because everything comes down to the use and the cost of every square metre. I think it is very good that they manage to incorporate public spaces, and in fact open spaces where random things can happen in buildings. In a sense it is very old fashioned, it is an outward looking/presentational approach to building that you might have got in previous century. If you were designing a big palace at Versailles, you would waste a great deal of space on a magnificent courtyard in front and a really magnificent space waste of stairs to get up to the front door. Two sets of stairs in fact, matching, coming down on either side!

You wouldn’t get that these days because it is not wheelchair friendly and it is a waste of space. But it is a very intentional and generous gesture I think, in terms of the public — it tells you what sort of person you are. It allows a different interaction with the building, most of the time you don’t get that. Even if you go to a place like The Shard, a very high flouting building, which has had a lot of publicity and what you get is a lot of security guards at the front, checking whether you have the right to enter the building at all. Then you are shuffled into a tiny lift… It is my least favourite building of them all. So I like the open space and I like that they have made an open gesture to the public by not cutting it off entirely with fences to be used with certain purposes or whatever. I have never been inside the Central Saint Martins here, it’s a great idea to have it here, I don’t know what the facilities are like inside but…

“Talent helps but determination helps more.”

Modern, spacious, messy in the fashion studios… 

Oh well of course, all of that should be messy and they should be able to cope with messy.

Do you still look at spaces a lot?

Oh absolutely, I do but I don’t think I had the talent to actually do it myself. Yes I do, increasingly as I get older.

How do you look at it? Do you look at it with a certain criticism?

Oh absolutely! [Laughs] It’s much easier to be a critic!

“There will always come a period when people are not interested in you anymore, they are interested in someone else, you have to be strong enough to face that, you have to prepare for that.”

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Are you very persistent with pushing your work? 

Oh no, I am way too un-pushy a person, that’s part of my trouble!

Would you have any advice for young illustrators who are just graduating or starting out? Are there any things that you think you should have or would have done?

My advice tends to be negative, I’m afraid. If I had to do it over again… I rather feel that illustration is like all of the other arts, you really need to do it if it is really the only thing that you can do. If you really feel that you would die if you couldn’t do it. Because the chances are that it isn’t a safe and secure profession in which you are able to get a mortgage and have a regular income, and you have to be much more prepared for that.

I was very very uncanny myself about it when I was at college, I just assumed that people would like my pictures and that I would have employment for the foreseeable future. But in fact, illustration tends to be very fashion driven, so people like your style for a certain number of years, and then it will look old and they will move onto new people. Unless you’ve got a plan for other ways of making money within illustration, or other strings to your bow, or unless you have a great deal of talent. Only a limited number of people have a great deal of talent and can make an ongoing living from it in a relatively easy way. So I would say that you have to be absolutely driven to do it. Sometimes it helps to have another source of income at the same time, so you not only do that, but you teach. So many people teach at the same time, so really they are getting their income from teaching and they then combine that with illustration, or they print T-Shirts or they do music at the same time or whatever.

I would also say that you have to be realistic if you have enough talent. Talent helps but determination helps more so you need a great deal of determination. It’s alright for the initial flush of enthusiasm when you get out of college — you might get picked up as the new style, so you have a number of years where you are the flavour of the month, but that is very likely to end after a period. There will always come a phase when people are not interested in you anymore, they are interested in someone else, you have to be strong enough to face that, you have to prepare for that.

You have to either have your own projects and be sure enough on what you want to work on, or you have to be prepared to move on to something else, or rely on that other source of income. I kind of wish that I had been more clear sighted on all of that when I started out. [laughs]

It’s a shame you can’t just have the one fashion…

Well you can’t any more!

Because there are so many people out there?

Exactly. There are many, many other things now that there didn’t use to be. Illustration just used to be on a flat piece of paper in a magazine or a book, but these days you see people decorating shop windows and walls for particular events or comic books…

It’s very broad. 

Yes it is, but I think it is having resurgence at the moment, so it all looks good for the young illustrator coming out of college frankly!

Bright future! 

Yes that’s it, bright future.

Have you ever done a 9 to 5 job? 

No. I don’t know whether that is good or not but I have managed to survive for so long! Somebody said it was a good sign if you have never had to work as a taxi driver, as a creative: then you were doing alright!

See more at MHJeeves.com

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