Thursday, 17 January 2013

OPEN STUDIO: The Sunny Side of the Street - with Linda Edwards

I first came across Linda Edwards strolling between the stalls in Shrewsbury Market.  She was a nice, smiley lady with blondish, quirkily-cut hair, wearing bright colours and wheeling around a basket on wheels.  I’d always wanted a basket on wheels, so I went up and asked where she’d bought it.  I can’t remember what she said, but not long afterwards Linda set up the Shropshire Illustrators’ and Children’s Authors’ Café [SICA] and since then we’ve been friends.
I tell you this because I’m sitting in Linda’s kitchen, beneath an array of woven baskets that she brought back from Kenya after having lived there. Tea is served in her mugs, and when I say ‘her’ I mean it quite literally. From design stage to manufacture, these beautiful mugs decorated with Shrewsbury’s finest facades have ‘Linda Edwards – Designed in Shrewsbury’ stamped on the bottom of them.  ‘Life can be so sweet I read on the inner rim of my mug, and around the outside I find ‘on the sunny side of the street – in Shrewsbury’.
There’s an abundance of sunny side to be found in Linda’s work.  Early in her career, she noticed the way that people were drawn towards the positive.  They wanted sunny and uplifting - and Linda could do sunny and uplifting. 
The Usborne Children’s Bible is a case in point. That’s the complete Usborne Bible we’re talking about here – not just some picture book with selected stories, but the whole Bible, Old and New Testament, with full-colour illustrations on every page. Quite a break for a first-time illustrator of children’s books, but Usborne’s view was that commissioning any artist was a risk, so they might as well take risks on artists they liked.
When it first came out, the Usborne Bible garnered praise in The Daily Telegraph from non-less than Carnegie Medal winner, Gillian Cross. When someone said that Linda could make anything smile, even a spider, I knew just what they meant.  In the Usborne Bible even the camels are smiling.  
So how did Linda get started as an illustrator and commercial artist?  And just as importantly for the readers of this blogsite, how did she discover Shrewsbury? I ask the question and it turns out that the two things happened more or less together. Linda studied Geography at Cambridge University, but had always drawn and painted in her spare time.  ‘I used to sell on the railings in the Kings Road, Chelsea - watercolours and things like that,’ Linda says.  She shows me an example of the sort of thing she used to paint. ‘They always sold. Even then, I seemed to have a feel for what appealed.’

In 1993, a relative newcomer to Shrewsbury, having come here for her husband’s work, Linda found herself alone with two young children to support.  She joined forces with Ludlow-based card publishers, Clare Maddicott, and designed and built them trade stands as well as illustrating cards. It was one of her Clare Maddicott cards that was noticed by Usborne Books, and led to her commission to illustrate their Children’s Bible.

‘It all took off from there,’ Linda says, ‘it all’ referring to nineteen books for Usborne, cards, stationery and gift-wrapping for Clare Maddicott, kitchen textiles, ceramics, enamelware and numerous of Linda’s own illustrations and distinctive merchandising, all in the vibrant and uplifting style she’s made her own. 

Whilst we’re talking, Linda leads me round her house and down the garden to her summerhouse, which I’ve only ever glimpsed over her garden wall. This summerhouse is a tiny Georgian house in miniature.  We take a glance inside and a chaise sprawls against a crumbling wall, resplendent beneath an empty gilt frame. Cushions and rugs are scattered about.  A decorated table, painted by Linda, sports dripping candles, a sprinkling of dust and a few cobwebs Over it all hangs a rusty candelabra. In one corner stands an old record-player. Tiny red apples are stacked in trays.

This summerhouse is even older than the house, apparently. Set in a garden  that overlooks the town park [called the Quarry] and its walkers, cyclists, children, mums, prams and even rowers, rowing merrily down the Severn stream, it calls to mind another of Linda’s merchandised slogans ‘Life is But a Dream’.  And this garden is a dream, no doubt about that - a romantic, dreamy corner of Shrewsbury. It’s not hard to see where Linda finds her inspiration. 

In the centre of the garden is an enormous Himalayan birch with snow-white branches and trunk, and a few tenuous leaves still clinging on from autumn. Linda planted this tree when she first came to Shrewsbury.  It was just a sapling then, but now it’s put down roots and so has she.  In fact, the Tree of Life is the perfect leitmotif for her working life. It crops up again and again.  

We’re up in the studio now, and trees of life are on show everywhere I look - in packs of cards, on tea cloths and framed in endless variations on the wall.  I seem to remember there was even a white tree of life on show as I came in through the front door.

Linda apologises for everything being so tidy. Recently she's been clearing up, but she wouldn't like me to think her studio is normally like this.  It's a lovely studio, full of light, which would have come in useful, Linda says, back in the days when it was used as an operating theatre. I express surprise.  Linda explains that this house and the ones on either side used to be a nursing home.  It's hard to imagine old folk, and sick ones too, living in a house that now feels so vital and alive. But lots of children were born here, which is a happy thought.

I browse amongst Linda’s merchandizing – bags, mugs and framed prints, shelves of books and stands of greetings cards.  What does the future hold, I wonder for Linda Edwards?  I pick up one of her mugs. Behind it I see coasters, bags and prints, all bearing Linda’s drawings of Shrewsbury’s finest facades.  So successful has this range been, Linda tells me, that she and her partner, Nigel, are planning to do something similar in other towns, including several London Boroughs. I browse through digital collages which Linda worked on a while back in collaboration with Shrewsbury Museum. I don't linger, however, because time's moving on and I haven't made it yet down to the Rusty Bike Gallery in Linda's basement to see some of her paintings. 

These are packed with colour, every bit as alive and vibrant as Linda’s commercial work.  Inspired by poetry, especially ancient Chinese poetry, they’re painted in oil and acrylic, with elements of collage and more than a hint of gold.  Here I notice the Tree of Life again, only this time enclosed, the garden in the city, the artist’s studio in the heart of town.  How appropriate, I think.  

My tour is nearly over – or so I imagine.  Back in the hall, beneath a fine Jane Ray painting, I notice a series of objects in a cabinet.  What are these? Elephants? How could I have failed before to notice a cabinet full of elephants? Linda explains that these lovely little porcelain collectables are based on her card designs. She brings out one of the cards to show me.  It’s of a smiley elephant. In Bavaria, where the company who made these collectables was based, Linda was known fondly as the ‘elephant lady’.  

And in Africa - thanks to the contents of the next cabinet, which is lined with rows of jewel-like, brightly enameled miniature teapots - schools have been built.

I am astonished.  Everything in Linda’s house has a story, and this is one I definitely want to hear.  Linda lifts out a little teapot, selecting one decorated with the design that first caught Usborne’s eye. Together she and Clare Maddicott donated Linda’s card designs to a charity called Trade Plus Aid, which funds development projects in Africa, Asia and South America.  The charity’s aim is to alleviate poverty and assist disadvantaged communities to become self-sufficient.  And enough of Linda’s enamelled teapots were sold to build two whole schools.   

From Africa back to Shrewsbury.  I ask before I leave what Shrewsbury means to Linda, why she’s stayed, and what makes it stand out from anywhere else.  Cambridge was a beautiful city, she says, but more competitive. People in Shrewsbury come across as far more willing to share. Take the Shropshire Illustrators’ and Children’s Authors’ Café – people come to it to share their work, pool their knowledge, offer professional advice. There’s no point-scoring. The atmosphere is friendly and laid back
 And people come a long way too.   One of the interesting things about Shrewsbury is that an hour from it in any direction will take you to such divergent places as Stafford, Manchester, Birmingham and Mid-Wales.  
‘After city life, Shrewsbury can appear a bit sleepy,’ Linda says,  ‘but it’s not when you get to know it.  And it’s especially not now. The town is absolutely buzzing with life.  It’s full of new people, exciting prospects, shops opening, individuals and groups coming up with ideas, trying things out, giving things a go.’
Linda describes herself as rooting for Shrewsbury.  She doesn’t just say it either.  Her work backs up her words. ‘Life can be so sweet on the sunny side of the street – in Shrewsbury’ proclaim her mugs and bags.  And it might be night time in the rest of Shrewsbury, but the sun's still shining on Linda Edwards’ street. 



  1. A very interesting read Pauline, about a very interesting and lovely lady - who I've known for a very long time! Jean x

  2. Thank you Jean. It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, every bit as sunny as I made it sound, and full of surprises too. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.