Drawing inspiration from horrible history

Horrible Histories illustrator Martin Brown on his Dorset life

‘What I’ve realised since I came to Dorset is that history is not preserved in aspic, it’s part of people’s everyday lives, they live in it – it’s all around us.’

Martin Brown at work in Shapwick. Photo by Paul Marriott

History is something that Martin Brown knows a bit about. Since he teamed up with writer Terry Deary in 1993 to create the first books in the Horrible Histories education-entertainment franchise his illustrations have featured in more than 32 million books sold worldwide and since May 1999 those drawings have been made in Dorset, mostly in a studio above his garage at home in Shapwick.

Horrible Histories has given me a broad, but very shallow, knowledge of British history. What I love about a lot of it is that’s it’s just there, part of today. I’ve also learned that you can never have enough poo…!’

Two decades after he arrived here Martin calls Dorset home He also calls his native Australia home – it’s where his family live – although he doesn’t get really homesick until he goes back there.

‘I’m like that about Dorset as well. There are times my wife Sally and I have to pinch ourselves – how did we end up in this amazing place? I’m an incomer and I’ll always be an incomer; my children, one of whom was born in Dorchester, will always be the children of incomers, that’s the way it is, but Dorset is so much a part of us now with its beaches and countryside, the incredible coastline, its towns, the people, it’s like Camelot – I’m convinced the sun shines more often here as well.’

This isn’t mere flippancy. Like many an Australian before him in 1983 Martin Brown landed in London, got a job, met a girl, got married and started a family. By then they were living in a small flat in North London and faced with the choice of moving to an only slightly less small flat near the North Circular, or a three-bedroom home in Dorset close to where they had visited friends in the Winterbournes…


‘Other people said it was a tough choice, but it was the easiest decision we ever made,’ he says. ‘We rented a house in Iwerne Minster in a lovely spot and spent a couple of years getting to know the area before we found out about the house that became our home in Shapwick. All I needed to do my work then was a postal service, Sally was ready to give her work a rest and our eldest, Emily, was joined by Bella, who was born in Dorchester, and here we are. I commute to work from my back door to the studio above my garage; we can walk to the Anchor in five minutes and that does me.

‘Shapwick is too small for cliques, so you sit at the bar next to the farm worker who’s next to the NHS consultant, next to the company director, who’s sat next to the truck driver. There’s a dryness of wit in Dorset people that reminds me of Australia and that people are generally really friendly here – we get chatting to people on the beach at Studland or Sandbanks and they’ve saved all year to spend two weeks here whereas we live thirty minutes away. I don’t mean to be smug but there is a real danger of becoming too self-satisfied so we guard against it.’

Corfe Castle and Maiden Castle both feature in Horrible Histories, but Dorset has yet to find its way into Martin’s other book project – Lesser Spotted Animals, the second volume of which was published in April. They are quirky, easy to enjoy and the ideal antidote to run-of-the-mill children’s animal books. There are no lions, tigers, pandas or koalas; instead there is all a young person could ever want to know about creatures like the hirola antelope, the dagger toothed flower bat and the lesser pink fairy armadillo.

‘There’s the celebrity animals, the A-listers, and there’s everything else. The koala is a top line, fluffy, cute celebrity and if it was about to become extinct everyone would know about it. The ili pika is also fluffy and cute and endangered, but nobody knows about it, so these books are a giant PR job in favour of animals you may not know are even out there.’

The natural world is clearly important to Martin and his books deliver gentle but firm messages about conservation, sustainability and environmental responsibility. He applies similar reasoning to the place in which he lives.

‘Dorset is a magical place but there are enormous pressures on services and infrastructure. We need more houses so the development at Wimborne makes sense, but not if you put all that extra traffic on Walford Bridge and even less if building a new first school out there forcing all the people that live in the town to drive over that bridge to take their children to school.

Martin with the young artists at Lighthouse

‘There’s a short termism at work that makes me very annoyed. Our local authorities have been chipping away at funding for schools, hospitals and libraries for years, but some money has to be spent – they are taking books out of the hands of children and that’s not on.’

It’s why he gets involved with schools projects when he can, such as a recent collaboration between pupils at Ferndown Middle School and students at Arts University Bournemouth to create a collection of illustrations inspired by an unexplored archive found at Lighthouse, Poole. He also worked with young people from Allenbourn Middle School to produce lift up banners based on the stories of four men from Wimborne who fought in World War 1.

‘When I saw the kids from Ferndown sitting with the students at AUB and talking about the work I swear they each sat an inch taller and the same at Allenbourn when they unveiled the banners in front of the school – those kids all seemed to sit a little straighter with their heads higher. 

‘That’s what drawing can do and if I’m proud of anything I’ve done, it must be that.’

• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine

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