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Drawing the Queen & Thatcher: In conversation with Nick Ellwood


Martin Amis, Will Self, Michael Rosen, Bill Nighy, Cerys Matthews, Nye Bevan, David Dimblebly… the list of well-known faces York-based illustrator Nick Ellwood has drawn is almost endless. So it was no surprise that York Theatre Royal called Ellwood to ask him to draw the Queen and Margaret Thatcher for the artwork of their co-production of Moira Buffini’s satirical comedy Handbagged. Starring Susan Penhaligon, the play entertainingly imagines what may have happened at the Queen’s infamous weekly meetings with Margaret Thatcher.

“An opportunity that was definitely too good to pass by”, Ellwood says of drawing two icons of 20th century Britain. “But drawing famous people always brings its challenges as really you are drawing from second or third hand material and their public personas can hide their more human qualities at times. It is a challenge to look beyond the surface and to try and pull out these more subtle and human characteristics.

“Watching films and listening to recordings of the famous people I draw helps me to observe and catch some of the subtleties of their expressions and characters, along with carefully looking at their posture and body language too. Then I keep redrawing them, pushing and pulling features until they start speaking to me off the page, and I can sense their characters and hear their voices in my mind as I’m drawing them!”

Ellwood himself grew up in the 80s, so his own memories of these two characters influenced the work. “It is always interesting and challenging to draw such famous public figures that we all feel we know so well. And I can’t help but be influenced by the media of course, and the hundreds of images already out there of the Queen and Margaret Thatcher as well as cartoons and drawings I’ve been looking at again since the 1980s – the Spitting Image characterisations were never too far from my mind.”

It was not the first time Ellwood had drawn Thatcher, who is “forever etched into my mind as I started first drawing cartoons of her when I was at art college in the 80s/90s.” More recently he drew the former Prime Minister as part of a fantasy Question Time panel exhibition at the National Coal Mining Museum on the subject of nationalisation. Revisiting the subject was like talking to an old friend, or as Ellwood puts it, “rather an old demon”.

“After discussing it with the team at York Theatre Royal, we felt it was more important to focus on an aspect that we can all relate to – the rivalry, suspicion and respect that these two people had towards one another. With this in mind I tried to put myself in their shoes, so to speak, and pulled a few odd expressions in the mirror. I guess it was a slightly more sympathetic approach than I had taken before, particularly with Thatcher, looking hard for her more human characteristics rather than her public persona. A more rounded approach and a softening of the edges slightly.”

People are Ellwood’s favourite subject. “All people, both someone you meet in the street or see in a crowd as well as the more famous and well known. Everyone has their story and has something we can learn from.” Figurative and character-led, his style mixes a touch of humour with a more serious side. “I like to try and look beyond the surface or the purely representational view of a person, instead responding more to their expressions, character, behaviour and sense of being. Primarily all my work is fed by drawing first hand from life and what is called reportage illustration – a bit like a reporter but drawing instead of writing when on location.”

Presented by York Theatre Royal, Wiltshire Creative and Oldham Coliseum Theatre, Handbagged in our Main House 24 April – 11 May, tickets on sale now.

For more information on Nick Ellwood’s work and upcoming exhibitions, visit