Harry Harrison: a life of sketchy behaviour

Illustrator Harry Harrison made a name for himself doing what he loves best. He tells Annemarie Evans about his sketchy career path

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 February, 2013, 4:06pm


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Sybil hisses out of the page, green and yellow coils tucked neatly beneath her. The imperious reptile is a creation of British illustrator Harry Harrison for The Tale of Sybil Snake, his latest collaboration with children's writer Sarah Brennan.

"I wanted to make her slinky, sexy and also knowing," 51-year-old Harrison says of the titular character in the tale to mark the coming Year of the Snake.

Harrison, who has lived in Hong Kong for 19 years, is perhaps better known for the satirical cartoons that he creates six times a week for the South China Morning Post's opinion pages. But he also does many illustrations for other publications and is a long-time collaborator with Brennan on children's books, including a series on Chinese zodiac animals, featuring among others Oswald Ox, Rhonda Rabbit and Temujin the Tiger.

He has drawn Temujin as a more brutish character: "It was all about his strength, but later he meets his comeuppance," he says.

Run Run Rat, however, is a more likeable-looking rodent who goes travelling and ends up in Beijing for the Olympics. A scrawny fellow dressed in Chinese-style jacket, Run Run is starving, so "he chases this guy who has a char siu bao hanging out of his pocket and chasing that down he wins a medal!"

Sybil Snake is based on Wu Zetian, China's only female emperor. "She was one of China's serial killers by all accounts," he says. "She killed the original empress when she was a courtesan. It is thought she killed at least one of her children and husband. She killed her child because he was coming of age and would have been a threat."

As part of Sybil's dynastic tale, Harrison has also created a series of animals with fun expressions. One scene, for instance, pictures the rhinoceros next to a slightly demented chap intent on cutting off his horn with a saw - even in children's stories Harrison can't help getting the jibes in.

Hanging above the desk at his Sheung Wan office are several intimidating masks from Bali along with a cow's skull, but they are placed there not so much for inspiration but simply because "the wife wouldn't let me have them in the house and said I had to put my junk elsewhere".

The cow skull is a memento from the manager of a Tsim Sha Tsui hostel where Harrison stayed when he first visited Hong Kong in 1991 on a backpacking tour - and where he first met his wife Helena, then a chef. The couple revisited Hong Kong three years later, and have remained here since.

It's not unusual for Harrison to put in a 15-hour day. Daytime is usually taken up with children's books and illustrations for other publications (he is also about to work with SCMP deputy news editor Alex Lo on a compilation of Lo's pithy columns). Then at 6pm, Harrison discusses the day's news with Post editors to identify which story lends itself to the daily editorial cartoon. He has until 11pm to make that idea work on the page and get the go-ahead from the editor.

Harrison frequently draws caricatures of well-known politicians, but another artistic device he uses on occasion to convey the message are two old Chinese men sitting at a table with a caged bird.

"The tea shop men are based on guys I've met in Hong Kong," he says. "One was Mr Wong, who used to be the doorman [in my building] - well before they legitimised the doormen ... We used to go for dim sum and he would tell me about the war. About once a week I use the bird to back up whatever the cartoon is saying. So I get the bird to do something related to the story."

One recent cartoon that Harrison is particularly fond of features a guide dog that was created after blind mainland activist Chen Guangcheng escaped his minders last year. "The guide dog is a favourite cartoon of mine. The weekend [Chen] escaped, his friends and known associates were rounded up, so in the cartoon I have two police officers interviewing a guide dog with the caption: "We have reason to believe you may have helped Chen Guangcheng to escape."

I haven't quite got [Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying] yet. He looks like a wolf

Harry Harrison

As an editorial cartoonist, Harrison looks back nostalgically on the days of former chief executives Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and former chief secretary Henry Tang Yin-yen - "the three stooges" as he calls them - because they made his job much easier.

"Tung Chee-hwa looks like a grouper - with a buzz cut. I also like drawing Albert Ho Chun-yan because he looks like some sort of fish. All the politicians now are a bit bland. Donald Tsang was easy - glasses and a bow tie. If I had all of him I'd draw him wearing spats."

While many Hong Kong business leaders hoped that Tang would triumph in the chief executive elections last year, Harrison was also rooting for him but for different reasons. "I was praying Henry would win because I've been drawing him for the past three years."

"I find caricaturing quite difficult. Sometimes you can draw someone and get him right first go and other times you're at it for a week trying to get them right. I don't know what the recipe for success is for that."

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is still causing the cartoonist some difficulty. "I haven't quite got him yet. He looks like a wolf."

Harrison had a peripatetic life when as a child; his father worked for the British Royal Air Force and the family moved around a lot until he was about 12.

"When I was very young we were in Libya, and I lived for several years in Singapore. My parents always encouraged me to draw, even though none of us had a clue that you could actually earn a living doing it," he says.

A "typical boy", he drew cowboys, dinosaurs, a lot of soldiers and cats. "We had a lot of cats," he says. At school he had active encouragement from an art teacher who told his parents that if young Harry would concentrate on "serious art", he could make a career of it.

Harrison, however, persevered with cartoons. "I always saw [illustration] as a hobby and did jobs loosely associated with drawing until some time in the late '80s when I realised there was actually a whole industry out there and went looking for it."

Harrison cites the late cartoonists Carl Giles and Ronald Searle as major influences. "Ronald Searle was a fantastic artist. I now collect his books. In the second world war he was a prisoner of war and still kept drawing," he says.

Although he attended what he describes as an "ordinary comprehensive school" in London, Harrison says artistically inclined students like him received plenty of encouragement and he is disappointed that art is not given more weight in Hong Kong schools.

"I'm appalled at the lack of art. ... For those who aren't good at it I can appreciate it will be like doing more sport or another subject they don't like, but there should still be way more art outside of school or as an extra activity."

Both of Harrison's children seem to have inherited his enjoyment of art: 15-year-old Charlie is good at design, while Lucy, 13, reminds him of himself at that age, often taking off to sketch and doodle.

While we live in the age of computers, Harrison reckons drawing skills remain vital - in his view you can't simply illustrate on a machine, he says. He sketches with 4B pencils and completes the illustrations using dip pens attached to chopsticks.

The old-fashioned pens are a legacy of his father, a skilled calligrapher. His dad and uncle were good at drawing, but both had "proper" jobs because his grandparents were farm labourers and weren't aware of that world.

"But my parents encouraged [me] and kept me well stocked with drawing materials. I used to experiment with my dad's dip pens too, which is probably why I still use them now."

Opportunities for cartoonists and illustrators have dropped in recent years due, in part, to cutbacks in media, but Harrison says young people who want to become artists or cartoonists should persevere.

"You should really keep trying and keep trying and don't be put off. You will get criticism but you just need to grow a hard skin," he says.

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