An update from Peter & Gunvor Edwards

SiF is quite chuffed to share an update with you from none other than Peter and Gunvor Edwards – the Railway Series illustrators from 1963 to 1972. Peter was most gracious to have answered a few of our questions about their contributions to the Railway Series.


Peter’s reply is so beautifully and warmly written, that we don’t have the heart to interrupt it by inserting the original questions with his answers.  We wish to express our warmest thanks to Peter for permitting us to share their memories with friends and fans alike of their work.

Received from Peter Edwards, 30 September, 2007

How very pleasant to hear from someone who remembers our pictures for the Rev. Awdry's Books. I'm glad you like them.  The original little books are hard to come by now, and I don't think our ones have been in print for some time, any more than Christopher's books;  despite there being,  I understand,  a fair  demand for them. So we were very pleased to hear your news that Christopher and Clive's new book is about to be published. I understood that hitherto the current publishers weren't at all interested in producing any more 'originals'.


I think publishing is another business entirely these days. Having in later years attended events like the Frankfurt Book Fair, it seems to me that unless they can get tie-ins and agreements with no end of multinational companies, publishers just don't publish illustrated books. Certainly not eccentric little ones like the Railway Series.


It was very different in Eric Marriott's days as the Rev's original editor with Kaye & Ward. They were a small house connected to the Straker Printing Company.  It was before the days of metrication of paper sizes, and Strakers were used to producing books in all sorts of shapes and sizes for the stationery world, so it was easy for Eric  to decide on a little 27 page booklet to run in conjunction with another children's series called the Ant & Bee Books. We think it was this little pocketbook format that did so much to make it such a constant success with children. 


It was Eric who persuaded Wilbert to produce a sequel to Thomas the Tank Engine. He told me that Edmund Ward couldn't understand why anyone would want to buy more than a couple of the books, and even Wilbert seemed surprised when asked for more, so Eric had a job on his hands if he wanted a series.  Nonetheless, in 1947 James the Red Engine appeared.  Kay & Ward never looked back from there until the day they were taken over by Heinemanns many years later.


By the time we were invited to try our hand at the pictures, the books had been going strong for ages.  Kaye & Ward were no longer in Leicester but in London City, in a warehouse tucked behind Bishopsgate. The Reverend was treated with reverence by Kaye & Ward for he was probably by then their biggest earner, and the style of the books was well known.  


We had heard of them, of course, and had assumed they were all drawn by Reginald Dalby. It was not a style I felt I could emulate, any more than Gunvor could. She was making a name for herself as an illustrator for Kaye Webb at Puffin Books, and I was busy just then on covers for a new edition of Graham Greene's novels for Heinemann. Being shownt the more recent John Kenney Railway Books, we had second thoughts. His pictures were skilled and lively and looked like real trains, and if he could fit in, why not us?


We each made a picture of the line up of engines at their sheds with a big diesel alongside for a story called Bowled Out, and showed them to Eric.  Eric was a big amiable ex naval type, with an imperious nose and a twinkle in his eye. There was a lot of The Fat Controller in him.  He was a bit miffed. Apparently he had just been referred to by the diminutive lady author of Ant & Bee as a 'silly little man'.  Not usually insecure, this time he thought it best if we could accompanying him shortly  to visit the Rev at his vicarage at Emneth up near the Wash, to see if he approved of our work.


It was wintertime, and after a long drive past the fens, the light was fading as we found ourselves following a windy lane with a railway track alongside, before turning off to approach a Charles Adams style gothic tree-shrouded manse. Even Eric fell silent.


A tall and gaunt figure loomed in the doorway before us, rumbling in sepulchral tones. 


It was Wilbert himself.


And then a jolly lady came bustling past him to wave us in.  Mrs. Awdry ushered us around a cozy table where tea was laid. The business ends of a pair of Oars were crossed over the parlor doorway, and a fire crackled in the hearth.


Wilbert sat and pored over the drawings. Seated, he was no forbidding figure, but a gentle, scholarly man, bespectacled, white haired,  with bushy, dark eyebrows. He seemed preoccupied but affable, and after a while the pictures seemed to meet with his approval. The fire felt warmer. They were always small pictures, about ten by six inches, in designer's colour, opaque water colour. Apparently the detail was ok. The bane of his life, it seemed, was smart youngsters with eyes sharp enough to notice the number of wheels on any  side of tan engine and the regularity with which the same number might by found on the other side. They wrote in droves.  And buffers.  There was a problem with buffers. Poor Reginald Dalby had made them square on some pictures, and round on others, As a result, Wilbert had been forced to uncover one or two unreported accidents and rebuilds that were now recorded in his notes on the history of the Isle of Sodor,  Henry was a constant thorn in his side.  What did I think?


I explained that much as I loved steam engines, (perhaps because I loved steam engines) we couldn't match the early books manner readily. That wasn't his main concern. He wanted the detail do be as authentic as possible, Authenticity was what mattered.  He then showed us what he meant by authentic. 


He had several detailed trainsets upstairs. Notably, one of Thomas the Tank Engine's Branch line station. Eric and I were treated to a demo of the timetable of an average day around Tidmouth and Knapford. After some time it dawned on me that this marvelously complex world was the reason we were called there; the drawings were just an intro. 'Oh yes, they will do fine' he said as he and Mrs. Awdry cheerily waved us off. 


The book was about a London & South Coast Line Terrier Engine called Stepney. I must go and see the Sussex Bluebell Line.


Thus began a decade of yearly books and excursions.


Every late winter a set of stories would arrive, and we would go off as soon as the weather allowed to sketch and take snaps of another little line far out in the country. Often with our growing family.


Sometimes we'd be sent a picture of people involved, like the Small Controller, or Wilbert's friend Teddy, but more often than not, we'd be left to find most of the detail ourselves. Wilbert would say which way the engine would be facing in each picture, and where it was on its line. He did not want to portray too 'dramatic' scenes; no crash impacts or mortal disasters; and all the events were to be based on real life incidents.To begin with I'd provide pencil roughs, but as we grew used to each other, I'd deliver half finished paintings.


He retired from active priesthood after a few years and he and Mrs. Awdry moved to Stroud, in Gloucestershire, and there once a year we and our young family of four children would share tea with them and see a railway-set display.  Perhaps he was too considerate, but I was seldom asked to alter anything. The pictures mostly took a couple of days each to finish: one or two, much longer, if I needed a lot of reference.


We planned to move back to London from our little house by the windmill in Stansted, before that area became a major airport; but the sale in London fell through and suddenly we needed a place to live with our now five children. We were offered a few months in a cottage in mid winter in remotest Wales, Snowdonia. Just in time for Mountain Railways.


Pity it was snowbound, but as soon as we could we went exploring and the landscape was wonderful. The coast line was useful for a lot of subsequent books, too, like Oliver the Western Engine. So Mountain Railways is still our favorite book.  But then there came Enterprising Engines and the chance to clamber all over the Flying Scotsman one winter in Doncaster. I could walk under it, between the wheels, they were that tall. And Tramway Engines last story was of a near disaster set of pictures that at last I was allowed to get away with!


Wilbert had a big map of his Island of Sodor in his upstairs room with the Railway layouts. All I had was the small map that came folded into a Railway book format, so I suggested I made up  a fresh one based more on the Ordinance Survey quarter inch to the mile maps of those days, that I had found invaluable for cycling expeditions, They were clear and colourful. I just copied the style and fitted it as closely as I could in the space between the Isle of Man and the Lake District Coast ; no layers, no graphics, just  a dial mapping pen for the roads and fiddly drawing and full colour. It was very useful. Some years later I was at the British Museum and happened to see an exhibition display of  Legendary and Curious Maps, and there in their midst for all to see was my own Map of Sodor. As far as I know, it's still there, along with Magna Carta and other sundries.


It became clear towards the end of our connection with the Railway Series that Wilbert was having difficulty digging up real events to base his stories on. He was meticulous about that. One year when nothing appeared forthcoming I produced a twelve inch LP Record format booklet called the Awdry Surprise Packet of pictures and puzzles with a few notes from Wilbert. It eased the pressure from Kaye & Ward for a bit, but it came as no surprise when in the end his stories ground to a halt.


A decade later, his son Christopher began taking over the reins, but the new publishers Heinemann wanted illustrations more like the original Dalby ones. Our pictures had apparently become too 'grown up' for their age group, we found some years later. We were told nothing about this at the time, and it was only when we picked up the first new books that we found that Clive Spong had been given the job of illustrating them. He had obviously begun by taking great pains to follow Dalby, but before long had worked out a real style of his own, and the team has been very successful. It was surprising to find their more recent publishers uninterested in keeping up the good work.


We kept in touch with Wilbert and his wife over the years; Christmas Cards were exchanged and we had the occasional phone call, and he was always complementary about our books. But we were busy writing and illustrating children's books of our own then, and Stroud was a long way off, and he no longer demonstrated at Model Railway Exhibitions.


And then in 1997 we heard that he had died.


We attended a crowded Remembrance Service in Gloucester Cathedral, where we met up with many friends in the publishing world, but it wasn't until only a few years back when a diesel loco  was (rather ironically) named after him and a bun fight was arranged,  that we eventually met up with many of the people whose names were involved in the Series, notably Christopher, Clive, the widows of the earlier artists, sundry publishers and also Johnny Morris, one of our favorite broadcasters who had produced really great recordings of Wilbert's Books.


The last echo of the series for us took place at Eric Marriot's house near Maldon, Essex, some time back, where a television company filmed Eric & I about our memories of Wilbert and his books. We hadn't met for years, since he retired from being Editor for Rupert Hart Davis publishers, and it was a marvelous day.  Shortly afterwards he died, but we were able to keep in touch to the end, as had Christopher.


We are still working. Apart from a couple of year's National Service in the army years back for me, we have never received a salary or wages in our lives. Just idle freelancers. Our website of more recent work is currently down, as the last display was a Flash too many in the pan. Something simpler and downloadable next time, I hope.


The Family Count came to six children in the end. Martina the oldest is an artist married to a professional sax player and teaching Art to Adults in Essex.  Adrian is Spokesman for UN in Afghanistan (don't ask me) married to a beautiful Hong Kong journalist. Josephine was a ballet dancer and now is a nurse married to a Bass player who is also a medical lecturer. Gavin is a leading natural horn player in British Orchestras, His Japanese wife is a great flautist and their ten year old daughter plays horn and piano with gusto. Tamsin was a film producer for SkyTV and now raising a family; and PerAnders is a freelance computer artist in Santa Rosa California.


I think this has become a bit interminable now, so I'll bring it to a close. Thanks for the nice things you had to say about our books, and if there's anything else I may have forgotten to reply to, do let me know. Best wishes to you and all the Railway Aficionados


Peter & Gunvor Edwards

Peter later sent me some recent photos of himself and Gunvor taken during the summer of 2007 in Sweden - with our many thanks!