The 30-year journey from door-stepping The Scotsman to becoming one of the UK's leading illustrators

Exactly 30 years ago, Jill Calder would spend her days door-stepping companies in Edinburgh trying to persuade them to give her work.

The art school graduate was so determined to get a career as an illustrator off the ground she took her portfolio on “cold-calling” trips around the city during time off from two part-time jobs.

However, it was The Scotsman that was to give her a crucial break that would lead to Calder working for some of the biggest names in publishing and becoming one of Britain’s leading illustrators.

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Illustrator Jill Calder with her very first paid commission, which she secured from The Scotsman. Picture: Michael Gillen

Her regular visits to the newspaper’s then North Bridge office paid off with a commission to accompany an article about dyslexia.

Now that illustration and the page it graced are among the exhibits in the first major retrospective of Dundee-born Calder’s work as an illustrator and calligrapher, which has taken her all over the world.

The free exhibition at Callendar House, in Falkirk, explores a career that has involved work for magazines, campaigns for drinks brands, accompanying the work of poets and authors, and – most recently – publishing children’s picture books.

Now based in Upper Largo, in Fife, Calder can trace her own interest in illustration back to her childhood in Dundee.

Jill Calder is an award winning illustrator and calligrapher, based in Upper Largo in Fife. Picture: Michael Gillen

She said: “I still have books that I absolutely love, like the poetry collection Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls, which had these lovely black-and-white line drawings by the illustrator Tomi Ungerer, and books by the American author and illustrator Richard Scarry.

“My dad had signed up to one of those book clubs. All these art books used to arrive at the house. Some of them were weird and wonderful, but to this day I’ve still got these beautiful big books on Van Gogh and the Impressionists. I just loved looking at them.

"I didn’t think I was good enough to get into art school in Scotland – I didn’t even bother applying. I ended up going to Carlisle, but very quickly had to decide what I wanted to specialise in. I was all over the place. One minute I wanted to do theatre design, then fashion.

"It was a tutor in Carlisle that said to me ‘you’re good at telling stories through your work, you should consider doing illustration’.”

Jill Calder's illustration of a youthful Robert the Bruce, with his wife and baby at their castle in Turnberry.

Calder returned to Scotland to the art schools in Edinburgh, then Glasgow.

She said: “When I left, my focus was to try to get work in newspapers and magazines. A lot of illustration was being commissioned at that time and I thought if I could get a few a week, I’d be OK.

“But it was a struggle. We were going through a recession. I had two part-time jobs, was staying with my sister, and just trying to make ends meet.

“But I was determined to get work as an illustrator. It was the days of cold-calling people. I went around design and advertising agencies, and anywhere else I thought would commission illustrations. If you got through the door, you had literally five minutes to show them your work. It was absolutely brutal. I grew a thick skin, but it was pretty demoralising.

Jill Calder collaborated with James Robertson on a Robert the Bruce picture book.

“I was determined to pester The Scotsman. I would go up to the art department at the North Bridge office. I’d always be met with ‘that’s great, we like your work, keep coming back to us’. About a year after I had graduated from Glasgow, I got a call to illustrate an article for the main paper.

"I remember thinking I had made it to be commissioned from a proper newspaper. I had about three days. I remember doing around three different versions and going into a blind panic thinking it wasn't good enough. I ripped it up the day it was meant to be handed, started again, rushed to the office and delivered it before the deadline. It was a fantastic feeling to see it in the paper the next day."

Calder gradually became a regular illustrator for The Scotsman and sister title Scotland on Sunday, where her work accompanied a weekly column by Scottish model Honor Fraser.

Calder sought out work in London, securing commissions from The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, then the likes of Condé Nast Traveller, Elle and The New Yorker.

However, a “game-changer” came with Garden Detectives, a summer exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh in 2009.

She said: “It was all about encouraging children to reconnect with nature. Right from the start, they said that some of my work was going to be on a very big scale.

Jill Calder created illustrations for a new children's unit at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London.

“Most of my work had been for the page before. It was an amazing experience working with a huge team of people and was transformational, as it really turned my focus onto doing work for a younger audience.”

Calder would then receive another very different commission – installations for a new children’s unit at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London.

She recalled: “I started off doing workshops, getting the children to make little books and draw pictures about coming into hospital.

"We got brilliant content from them, everything was so imaginative and positive. It all became much more inclusive, it was very much created with children for children.”

Calder, who was invited to stage her new exhibition by Falkirk Council, has increasingly focused on children’s picture books since an approach to work on a Robert the Bruce one with writer James Robertson.

She said: “I wasn’t sure about it – all I really knew about was the spider story and Bannockburn.

"I also hadn’t illustrated a book before, but James was absolutely wonderful to work with. It was fantastic to illustrate the way he interpreted the story.

"It was a labour of love. I spent about a year and a half on it, but suddenly I was being asked to do book festivals and events in schools. It turned into a bit of a ground-breaker. Non-fiction picture books are huge in publishing now.”

The exhibition, A Blink of Ink…The Creative World of Jill Calder, is at Callendar House in Falkirk until 22 September. The exhibition is open every day except Tuesday and admission is free.

Kissy Kissy, one of the illustrations Jill Calder created for Scottish model Honor Fraser's column in Scotland on Sunday. .
Illustrator Jill Calder at the new exhibition charting her career at Callendar House in Falkirk. Picture: Michael Gillen
Jill Calder collaborated with James Robertson on a Robert the Bruce picture book.
Illustrator Jill Calder was given her big breaking after door-stepping The Scotsman. Picture: Michael Gillen
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