From the outset, illustrator Ron Brooks must have been a canny man. When he was a starving artist back in the 60s, humble bookshop clerk Albert Ullin took an interest in his work and bought two of his paintings. When Brooks illustrated his next book, John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, he wanted to know if Albert would be purchasing another work.
“I told him ‘I don’t think I can afford any more’,” Albert confesses to The First Tuesday Book Group. “But then I looked at the book and I saw that the Midnight Cat was my cat, Lucifer.”
And then, of course, he just had to have one of the works.
The striking image of the big shaggy John Brown arguing with the Midnight Cat is just one of more than 60 illustrations in the NGV’s Bunyips and Dragons exhibition (which is free and runs until October 4). The exhibition is actually made up of Albert’s private collection of children’s book illustrations which he has generously donated to the gallery.
When my First Tuesday Book Group assembles at the gallery for a guided tour with Albert, he shows up wearing a cool t-shirt that proudly proclaims ‘real men read’.
Albert is famous in children’s lit circles. He founded the Little Bookroom in the 1960s and is the benefactor behind several awards for children’s writing and illustration.
Albert began his working life as a bookshop attendant with Robertson & Mullins. He thinks he was employed because he was so tall and was the only person in the shop who could reach the top shelves without a ladder.
He grew up in a family that loved books. His mother was interested in art and fairy tales and introduced the young Albert to these. The story of Hans Christian Andersen’s the Snow Queen, particularly the illustrations, was one that stuck with him.
It was while working at Robertson & Mullins that he began to take a keen interest in children’s lit and struck up acquaintances with illustrators who were in the shop poring over children’s books.
From Albert’s collection acquired over 40 years, the exhibition features a veritable who’s who of Australia’s finest illustrator’s for children – they include Shaun Tan, Elizabeth Honey, Alison Lester, Bob Graham, Leigh Hobbs and Graeme Base.
“If it had not been for the support I received from members of the public (at The Little Bookroom) I would never have had the money to buy illustrations of children’s books and so this is my gift to the people of Australia.”