The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

Artist Charlie Mackesy has been a cartoonist for The Spectator and a book illustrator for Oxford University Press. He has collaborated with Richard Curtis for Comic Relief, and Nelson Mandela on a lithograph project, ‘The Unity Series’. His first exhibition for the boy, the mole, the fox and the horse was in London in November 2018. Charlie lives in South London with his two dogs. Charlie Mackesy's work features in books, private collections and public spaces, including Highgate Cemetery in London, in hospitals, prisons, churches and university colleges around the UK, and in women’s safe houses around the world. His journey with the boy, the mole, the fox and the horse has consumed him. He lives in their world a lot of the time and has loved making the book.

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy is published on the 10th October by Ebury Press. talks to Charlie about his work and the release of his book

Congratulations on the book! How does it feel to have put the journeys of the boy and his friends into a bound cover?

It feels quite strange and quite surreal, fairly emotional. I still haven’t quite connected with the reality of it. A lot of my working life I’ve illustrated books for other people, so to suddenly see my name on a book is very odd. It makes me wake up in the middle of the night feeling scared, but also excited. I have no idea what people are going to think of the book at all. But I hope some people like it, I hope they are not disappointed by it!

We are fascinated by this ‘forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence’ you continue to search for through your work – how does the boy and horse compare with your other paintings in terms of this uncovering of spiritual truth/enlightenment?

That’s a great question! I think there’s a sort of naivety about them, the boy in his wonder of the world, and of all of them, I suppose it’s just a continuation of questioning what is this beauty? What do we do with this? How do we respond to it? How do we get through? Why is it beautiful and so difficult all at once? I love that quote so much, G.K.Chesterton is amazing, I love him.

Capturing movement seems crucial to some of your work. Can you tell us more about this?

I like it because nothing is static is it really? Particularly with animals. I think I’ve always enjoyed drawing movement, I can’t really say why, maybe because I’m always fidgety. I think there is occasionally the need for complete stillness, as the questions are pretty poignant. I hope they are not always moving, if they are that’s a mistake!

You show a great sensitivity towards race, gender, god and the human condition through your work – how were you inspired to begin your boy and horse drawings? 

They began slowly, bit by bit. I’ve always been obsessed with moles, one of my favourite books in the world is The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew it Was None of his Business, which is about a mole who is trying to find out who did this poo and I’ve always loved that book. I think the mole should be our national symbol, frankly. They are strange little creatures. So the mole has always been around in my head. The fox arrived inconspicuously one day, for no reason, just popped out, and eventually I drew him next to the boy and thought it was an unlikely combination to see a boy sitting with a fox, because as a boy I was always terrified of foxes, they always represented fear, and I wanted a creature that was fearful in amongst all the cuteness. The boy and the horse I’ve drawn as a subject for years and years, in my years of illustration I’ve drawn all of them in different guises for other people, and then I just decided to do them for myself, and put them all together and they all started talking, and that was that.Then a vague narrative happened around them, and I was processing a lot of questions at the time about life and existence and I decided to put those thoughts into conversation. They were generally questions that we don’t necessarily talk about. What’s the point of life? Why are we here? What do you think success is? All those things. I thought if I got run over tomorrow what I would like to say? So I made the book.

Your jazz scenes are incredible – you can almost hear the music, you depict a glimpse of high energy – and there is a spiritual sadness through some of the paintings that is so moving. Do you start out with an idea of what the end result will be or do the angels appear while you paint?

I don’t ever really know clearly what I’m going to do, they kind of appear, if I’m honest. Not completely, I have a certain idea of the subject, obviously, but things can develop. I always think paint is very different to words, words are very crystal clear, whereas paint has a life of its own. Sometimes the drawings come out of a conversation I’ve had, I was talking about loneliness this morning and how we can be lonely when we’re not alone for instance, and that came out of a conversation with a friend and then I immediately thought of that subject being talked about by the four characters, so I arranged the words first and then drew it. As for music, I love music. I’ve always listened to music ever since I was 3. I’ve written music, I’ve been in bands, so it’s central to me, music. I think it’s central to being human actually.

What advice would you give to young artists who struggle with mainstream education and want to achieve success?

I struggled with mainstream education. Be careful not to throw it away too soon, because sometimes you can dislike things but they’ll stand you in good stead later on. But recognise that your own voice is important, listen to it, really listen to it. Sometimes it means striking out on your own, and doing something that no one else understands and have the courage to just do it anyway. I did a drawing where the boy says to the mole ‘how do you make a good mole hill’ and the mole says ‘by making a lot of bad ones first’. I think we are very hard on ourselves. I know with me I tend to give up quite quickly on things. But if you just accept your mess, accept your mistakes and know that every mistake you make is a journey to not making a mistake the next time. So for other artists I’d say don’t give up, look at other artists, go to museums, whoever really moves you, study them.