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Neil Packer   Biography

Neil Packer

My earliest memories are from Libya in the mid 1960's and amongst them are those of my first encounters with books. These would have been American picture books from the golden age of the 1950's and 60's, books by Virginia Lee Burton, Alice and Martin Provenson and Richard Scarry to name a few. It was also around this time that it occurred to me that making these books must be an actual job for some people and that this was something that perhaps I should consider as a future career option.

As a result of my total immersion into US picture books, in my imagination the entire world beyond Libya at five years old was adorned with large red barns and picket fences set amongst rolling green countryside so imagine my disappointment when during the particularly harsh winter of 1966 my family moved to Grangemouth in Scotland.

Drawing was the one constant in a childhood dominated by family moves and so by the age of 17 having attended 11 schools and not surprisingly flopped most of my final exams I embarked on one of the happiest four years of my life at Colchester School of Art. I studied graphic design and although in my heart I would have preferred to be an illustrator what I learnt as a graphic designer turned out to be far more valuable and 40 years later I still work with typography and page design every day.

The early years of my career were probably similar to most illustrators' experiences, not an awful lot of work about. Having to take on not very well paid work and working outside my stylistic comfort zone just to make ends meet. I didn't feel that I had found my voice for at least the first 17 years of my career, but gradually I found more interesting and better paid work and I was lucky enough to catch the last of the better paid US advertising work in the late 90's.

In 2001 I illustrated The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco for The Folio Society and only then, 17 years after the start of my career, did I finally find a style and a subject that I was happy with. I think this was at least in part due to the fact that the work was becoming more interesting and over the next two decades I forged a wonderful relationship with The Folio Society who to this day continue to commission profoundly interesting work.

These have included, The Satyrica, Petronius Arbiter 2003, Catch 22, Joseph Heller 2004, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez 2006, Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges 2007 and Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco 2016.

More recently I have been commissioned by The Folio Society to illustrate a limited edition of Dante's The Divine Comedy, published to commemorate the 700th anniversary of Dante's death, comprising of 100 illustrations bound in goatskin leather and limited to 700 volumes and it sold out within a month. Last year we built on the success of The Divine Comedy by producing an even more lavish limited edition of The Complete Plays of William Shakespeare to mark the 400th anniversary of The First Folio.

My first Children's book was published in1985, publishing was a very different world then, where an influential art director or editor at a publishing house would have enough stature to decide almost single handedly whether or not a book should be published. So it was in the case with The Rest of the Day is Your Own, my first book. In my memory I walked out of the first meeting with a publishing deal agreed and signed, the truth is that it must have been a little more involved than that but it was nevertheless pretty straightforward by comparison with today's standards.

I loved making that book and I thought that this would be the start of a long and happy career in the children's publishing industry but it turned out that it was something of a false dawn. I found it difficult to get another project off the ground. It required at least 6 to 12 months for me to put a book together (it still does) and I simply couldn't afford to take that amount of time away from work which paid regular(ish) money. I was still illustrating but I had begun to find work as a miniaturist making private commissions for people, and better still I was beginning to get commercial work in the design and advertising industries.

Along with regular commissions from The Folio Society this work sustained me throughout the 90's and the early years of the 21st century through some pretty tough times, but a bit of me had always wanted to get back to children's books again and then in late 2006 I had a call completely out of the blue from Amelia Edwards at Walker Books asking if I would be interested in illustrating a children's book.

I started work on The Odyssey that same year. At that time Walker were producing a series of classics for children illustrated by a contemporary illustrator and rewritten by a renowned children's writer. In the case of The Odyssey, the writer was Gillian Cross who mined the riches within Odyssey and served it up with pace and suspense making it an irresistible page turner, and again four years later with The Iliad she brought out its' totally relatable playground politics, hissy fits and all, perfectly pitched for a young readership. It was an absolute joy to illustrate both of these books and give a visual life to Gillian's brilliant words. The success of these two books enabled me to for the first time in decades begin to think about doing more children's books.

In 2017 I started work on One of a Kind which was the first book I had written as well as illustrated, making it a particularly important book for me. At the same time, I was working on The Silk Roads, Peter Frankopan's condensed illustrated edition of his bestseller. It was cleverly never marketed as a children's book by Bloomsbury - it is however a very good introduction to the subject for adults and children alike and is now translated into at least 12 languages.

In 2021 I would return to Bloomsbury this time as the collaborating Illustrator on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Sandwiched between the Dante and Shakespeare books for Folio, it was a very different beast and working on such a commercial project has both advantages and disadvantages but even after 40 years as an illustrator it is always a good thing to challenge yourself in new ways. I learned a lot from this project about having to re-adjust to the restraints of the corporate world, and working on such an iconic book alongside my friend, and truly great illustrator Jim Kay, was a humbling experience.

Back in 2017 as I began work on One of a Kind my son and I were about to be evicted from the flat we had lived in for 11 years. The area which I had lived in since 1984 had become 'gentrified' and rent had more than quadrupled in the time that I had lived there. As a consequence, many of my favourite shops, restaurants, pubs and venues had simply disappeared. In the case of my favourite patisserie, it was aggressively bought out by a private equity company who took the brand but ditched its superb quality and cloned it hundreds of times in increasingly miserable versions of its former self to the point at which it imploded and died. This was to become the inspiration for The Parable of the Independent Bakers which is my latest book, recently published by Camelozampa at the Bologna Book Fair.

The Parable of the Independent Bakers, which I wrote in a state of anger in 2017, is a love letter and a tribute to the artisan, not just to bakers but to everyone who makes, bakes, builds or creates on a small scale. People who are immensely skilled and who have often obsessed over their work their entire lives and whose work steadfastly refuses to be scaled up, not unlike my own.

I was incredibly fortunate to find a home for this book in Italy with the wonderful Camelozampa, who are the very definition of an Artisanal independent publisher. They are joyous to work with and have brought insanely high levels of production and love to this book. As if to reinforce the ideology, not just within the book's narrative but also surrounding the story of the book itself (which are inseparable), it was printed at Grafiche Veneziane, the last remaining commercial printers on the island of Venice, and true artisans themselves. The book proudly carries the legend 'Baked with love by Camelozampa and printed on water by Grafiche Veneziane' I am prouder of this than I can ever adequately express.

This then is the back story of The Parable of the independent Bakers, a story informed by a problem not unique to London but a global issue. It is a warning to us all of the importance of cherishing and championing small independent retailers and creators everywhere and this book is dedicated to all those who every day fight the relentless advance of homogenisation.


2021 The Bologna Ragazzi Award, non-fiction, for Unico nel suo Genere, the Italian edition of One of a Kind

2022 The winner of the Limited Editions category of the British Book Design and Production Awards, for The Divine Comedy

2023 The Cento Children's Literature Prize, and also the Premio Andersen, also for Unico nel suo Genere, the Italian edition of One of a Kind

  Gutenberg type