Jean and Gareth Adamson, creators of the famous Topsy and Tim series met whilst studying art and illustration at Goldsmiths College in the 1950s.
Jean was born in Peckham on 29th February 1928. After attending grammar school until the age of 16, she graduated to Goldsmiths college to study illustration. Gareth Adamson was born on 10th May 1926 in Liverpool and was evacuated to Northumberland during the war. He suffered ill health during his childhood and was in hospital for two years, where he spent most of his time writing stories. After leaving school at age of 14, Gareth returned to Northumberland to continue his creative work by joining an advertising agency.
Jean continued to teach illustration and design at Goldsmiths and also did work for a large animation company. Advertising campaigns she worked on included illustations for the Birds Custard and VAT 69 accounts.
Jean and Gareth met again in London and married in 1957. Having moved to Newcastle they decided to work together on children’s books and find an agent. “I would do the basic subject research and layout,” says Jean, “and I would sketch out the bare bones of the plot. Gareth would then take over and produce a beautifully crafted storyline. I would then do the illustrations. We made a very good team.” Publishers Blackie expressed interested in taking them on.
At the time, there were many of the less realistic children’s characters on the market (Andy Pandy, Noddy, Thomas the Tank Engine), as well as lots of books about dragons and witches. By contrast, Jean wanted to create a modern children’s look in keeping with the predominant mood of the early 60s - fresh and modern with a bright, contemporary feel - which showed children in situations they would actually experience.
For his part, Gareth was fascinated by the different reactions that young children would have to their surroundings. He learnt that children’s feelings about rain, thunder or lightening might be quite unexpected. Being something of a naughty child himself he also wanted to echo children’s feelings towards authority – to being told that they had to do something. Jean had to ensure that Gareth did not always give what she calls the ‘juicy bits’ to Tim, which he was inclined to do – Topsy had to have a share of the naughtiness too!
The result was a delightful series of stories about two ‘real life’ twins whose lives would reflect those of their young readers. The fact that the characters were twins allowed for different opinions and reactions to situations so the books would have more layers than a simple story. It also ensured that the stories would appeal equally to girls and boys. Jean drew the original illustrations straight onto a tiny mock up book (no bigger than 2 x 2 inches) so that she was not tempted to overcomplicate the drawings – there simply would not have been enough space.
Blackie were delighted with the response to the first book, ‘Monday’ and commissioned a full ‘days of the week’ series. The books were full colour all the way through and were sold in hardback. The series went from strength to strength and soon the publishers were requesting different types of books in varying formats. Topsy and Tim began to have more exciting adventures including sailing, riding and hill-walking – each activity and situation was carefully researched by Jean and Gareth. Activity and learning books were soon to follow.
During this busy time, Gareth and Jean had three children who enjoyed and influenced the series. When the family went to a safari park Jean would see how the children reacted to the animals and her observations would be mirrored in the book (for example when one of the tigers licked the window of the car, far from being afraid, the children were delighted, as shown in ‘Topsy and Tim go the Safari Park’
Over 130 Topsy and Tim titles have been published in many different formats. With sales of more than 21 million copies (over a million copies have been sold in the UK since 1998 alone) the series has never been out of print in one form or another.
Gareth died in 1982 but Jean continues to be involved in the Topsy and Tim publishing programme. Now a grandmother, she still sketches the rough concepts for a designer to illustrate up to artwork stage as well as having an input into the final designs - her work was recently recognised in the form of an MBE for services to children’s literature.