Was the real ‘Mog’ eccentric? And was the tea-guzzling tiger drawn from life? Judith Kerr, who has died aged 95, shared the stories behind her most beloved illustrations with the Telegraph in 2014 upon turning 90.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to draw. It seemed a normal way to pass one’s time, just as it was normal for my brother Michael to kick a ball about. I liked to draw figures in motion, and I always drew them from the feet up, which I would now find difficult. My visual memory has always been very eccentric. My memory holds onto people walking on the street, how their trousers hang, how they move their arms. That stays.
No one else in my Jewish family drew, but my mother was very proud of my drawing and carefully preserved my better efforts. We had to flee Germany early in 1933, and moved to Paris. I loved the brief clarity of French as opposed to the long convolutions of German and was inspired, before the end of our stay, to write an 80-page French story about some children heroically averting a train crash.
In 1936, my parents decided to travel to England to see if we could start a new life there. When the war was over I was desperate to go to art school full-time, but we were refugees and money was always a problem. One of my teachers found something called a trade scholarship, which meant having a job connected with drawing two days a week and being paid enough to go to art school the other three days. I managed to get a job in the studio of a textile manufacturer. As I knew nothing whatever about textiles, the job was interesting at first, and I made up for the time I missed at art school by going to evening classes.
I wanted to be a painter, but I didn’t do enough to get really good. After I left art school I was offered a job as a script reader for the BBC. I said yes, and loved it, though I sometimes felt a bit guilty, as though I’d betrayed something. It seems extraordinary to me now that for about 12 years of my life, I did not do any serious drawing. On the other hand, I feel I’m catching up now.
When I had my first child, Tacy, my husband Tom and I both made up stories for her. Quite often we went to the zoo. In those days, before David Attenborough, it was the only way you could see animals. After these visits I used to make up stories about the animals, and one she liked was about a tiger. She would say imperiously, “Talk the tiger.” That story became my first picture book, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, published in October 1968.
My next book, was also based – well, more or less based – on fact. I had always wanted a cat as a child, but we couldn’t keep one because we were always moving. When Tom and I moved into our house, we acquired a rather eccentric cat called Mog. She almost never meowed, but made wonderfully expressive faces instead. Mog the Forgetful Cat was published in 1970.
How Mog and the tiger were born
“Mog was a composite of many cats. Every cat is extraordinary – they all do different, very strange things. Our cat Wienitz was the strangest one: a very solid cat who was terribly fearful. She was frightened of heights and she was terrified of Christmas trees. I never meant to do a whole lot of books about Mog but I thought I could do a book about that.”
“After The Tiger I thought I would be very methodical, and so before I wrote Mog I bought all these inks, and decided that I would try them out on a bit of paper. It was probably a delaying tactic so as not to have to start work! I drew the family as well, to refer back to.”
“When you start doing an illustration of a tiger or whatever it is, you think, well, I’ve got to go and look at tigers. And you draw them and draw them and then you think, yes, I know how tigers work, and I can make it do what I want it to do. When I did The Tiger Who Came to Tea, I went to the zoo. Now you can Google things, which is fantastic; it’s saved me hours and hours. I made up The Tiger Who Came to Tea for my daughter when she was two going on three. Because she liked the story so much and made me tell it to her again and again, I think she edited it. You leave out the bits that obviously don’t work.”
“I can remember drawing this as a child. I’d drawn two children going down the slide, one sitting and the other going down on his stomach. I knew there had to be a third one, and finally I thought of drawing her with her knees bent, rather than stretched out, and felt very clever.”