Drawing friendship and kindness
Jen Johnson introduces artist and illustrator Charlie Mackesy, author of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
During months of uncertainty, millions of people have turned for comfort to four loveable characters created by artist Charlie Mackesy. The book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse and its beautiful illustrations have touched hearts and minds. Charlie’s words and illustrations have been shared online around the world, as well as on t-shirts for Comic Relief, on magazine covers, on lampposts in lockdown, in classrooms, cafés, and hospital ward walls. They’ve even been used as screensavers for NHS hospital computers in difficult times.
Penguin Books’ list of ‘Books that shaped 2020’ described The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse as a ‘soothe-a-thon about friendship, kindness and connection’, which ‘felt like a hug’.
Charlie Mackesy grew up in rural Northumberland, surrounded by sheep farmers, and always preferred time spent outdoors to formal education. When he left school, he spent three months in America learning from a portrait painter. His art career began as a cartoonist for The Spectator and a book illustrator for Oxford University Press. Since then, he has created numerous pieces of work for galleries and has spent time living in South Africa, Southern Africa and America. These days he lives between London and Suffolk, where he and his sister care for their mother. He describes himself as happiest ‘lying in a field with my friends and my dog, laughing [and] listening to good music’.
The four characters that the British public have fallen in love with are relatively recent creations of Charlie’s, though. He started ‘almost absent-mindedly’ posting pictures of them on Instagram about three years ago. In an interview with GQ magazine, he described how a conversation with his friend, the adventurer Bear Grylls about the meaning of courage, was the inspiration behind the first picture in the series. ‘I started thinking about what the bravest thing I’d ever done was,’ says Mackesy, ‘and I realised it was having the courage to ask for help, so that’s what I drew. The boy says, “What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever said?” And the horse says, “Help.”’
That image very quickly went viral on social media – and Charlie kept drawing. When asked in an early interview what inspired him to write his book, he said, ‘It was more a feeling – about us, how we are and what we really need as people. And what I wish I’d known, what I could tell myself if I could go back in time. Perhaps I’d have shown myself some of this stuff about love and kindness and self-acceptance, to take the worry out and make me feel more connected.
‘And people inspired me, really. I have some close friends who find life very difficult, and when I sent them [or] texted them drawings and I saw their responses, that inspired me. I saw that the drawings had a small effect on them. The book really made itself after that.’
Alongside his kindness, good humour and artistic talent, perhaps one of the most endearing things about Charlie is his humility. He has expressed his total surprise at the success of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, and sometimes worries that people will ‘suddenly realise it’s not a very good book’.
‘Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night feeling incredibly vulnerable that I’ve said these things and they’re so widely looked at, but that’s fine,’ he said. ‘I just hope it carries on helping people… Some, I’m sure, will loathe it but for people who it encourages, inspires and lifts – what a privilege!’
He also offers a characteristically hopeful view of the times we have recently lived through. ‘No doubt there will be silver linings to this,’ he said in his interview with GQ. ‘“But sometimes, for some, it’s hard to see. What we have to do now is just keep going and try to be positive and be kind to each other.’
Sweet social enterprise
Beyond work on the book, Charlie and his friend Bear Grylls are also both ambassadors for a Zambian-based social enterprise called ‘Mama Buci’. Mama Buci, which means ‘Mother Honey’ in Bemba, the local language, was started ten years ago by Martin Zuch. A former hedge fund manager, Martin underwent a spiritual conversion that shook up his life and ‘left him looking for a different way of living’.
He ended up installing beehives in trees across the bush in Zambia and paying the families who owned the land to harvest the honey. They have constructed 110,000 beehives so far and produce over a million jars of delicious, raw, ethically-produced honey each year. It was Mackesy who designed the brand’s distinctive logo, and he is involved in raising awareness about the important work of Mama Buci.
Mama Buci honey is made by wild African bees in the Zambian Forest. The Mama Buci business model focuses on happy bees, healthy hives, and quality raw honey while positively changing the lives of Zambian beekeepers. The hives preserve the trees and protect bees, unlike traditional methods, and the bees are free to forage in the natural flora that gives the honey its unique flavour. The Winter Harvest honey has a rich, sweet, dark amber flavour with hints of black treacle. The Summer Harvest honey has a light, amber, floral taste with hints of aniseed and fennel. Mama Buci honey was the winner of two London International Honey Awards in 2020. Order it online at mamabuci.com and look out for it in Oxfam shops and Ocado.