Meet the Illustrator: The David Axtell Archive

On Tuesday 2nd August we had a visit from David Axtell, illustrator of the award-winning children’s book Fruits, written by Valerie Bloom and first published in 1997. David was delivering his archive of preliminary research and finished illustrations, as well as notes and correspondence for Fruits, which has just been acquired by Seven Stories. It was brilliant to meet the artist, see his collection and hear him discuss his work.

Fruits won the Smarties Bronze Prize Award and is a significant poetry book for children. Valerie Bloom’s rhyme is strong and funny, with a bold colloquial voice, and David’s illustrations complement this in his use of punchy, vibrant colour and realistic style.

David was commissioned for the project when showing his portfolio to Macmillan after finishing at art college. His portfolio included a Caribbean book cover and the editors asked if he’d like to work on a project of a similar subject – which turned out to be Fruits! Fruits is a Caribbean counting poem by Valerie Bloom, which follows two sisters, one of whom manages to eat an extraordinary amount of Caribbean fruit (sweet-sop, naseberry, jack fruit, pawpaw and more) away from the gaze of her parents. (We won’t ruin the end, but it’s definitely worth a read to see what happens.)

David Axtell with his original artwork for 'Fruits' in the Seven Stories Archive 
Photograph © Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children's Books

Shockingly, David has never been to the Caribbean – which is quite unbelievable as his illustrations seem so authentic and fitting. He worked from photographs: “I spent weeks and months thinking, photographing, collating and trying to find things to fit into the backgrounds I wanted and then piecing it all together”. The original sources for the backgrounds in the books range from the old Headington Labour Club and a door in a community centre, to farm buildings in Oxford, where David was born. Different elements of his photographs were combined into his view of the Caribbean. He also used cuttings from holiday brochures and cuttings of bright colours in advertisements, which provided inspiration for the stunning palette he used.

He sourced his Caribbean fruits from Shepherd’s Bush Market and Lucky Mini Market in Shaftesbury Avenue, taking his finds home on a bus. The archive contains photographs of these fruits, as well as David’s oil paintings vignettes of fruits that appear on the pages adjacent to the full-page illustrations. He remembers the jack fruit being especially delicious and slippy in texture.

The girls who appear in David’s paintings for Fruits were daughters of friends, called Cherry and Sophie. The girls and their mother spent a day with David at their local community centre, where he took substantial numbers of photos in order to plot out poses and compositions. The photos that were successful were marked with an ‘x’ on the back.

Once he had the poses to work from, he sketched out a kind of storyboard with notes and made pen line drawings of compositions. These drawings were provided to the publishers as indicators of the final product. He then began painting, working in oil paints on Osborne and Butler canvas board. In Fruits, he used more of a drybrush method of painting, building up layers over time, beginning with a red ground and working other colours into the image.

It was fascinating to hear about David’s methods and the process of illustrating Fruits. Amazingly, Fruits was David’s first job after studying at Falmouth! It was also really interesting to hear about the publishing process – he was given quite a lot of freedom from MacMillan, but had no communication with Valerie Bloom throughout the project – they only met at a party at the publisher when Fruits had already become a huge success.

David Axtell painting at Seven Stories 
Photograph © Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children's Books

Some of the paint on the vignette illustrations used in Fruits had sadly started to decay and flake, as due to time constraints in the publishing schedule David had used acrylic paint over oils. We were lucky enough to watch David restore these works to the brilliant fresh colours and surface he had originally intended with Titanium White oil paint. It was a real treat to watch the artist at work (and it gave us more time to quiz him about his amazing collection!)

David’s artistic inspirations are a mixture of figures from the worlds of illustration and fine art, ranging from Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth to Lucien Freud, Vincent Van Gogh and Edward Hopper. When asked why he was originally drawn to illustration, he told us that his Dad worked for an illustration firm and how he would visit in the school holidays, working alongside illustrators working at technical drawing desks. He’d always loved drawing and remembers enjoying copying illustrations from comics and magazines with Rotring pens at a young age.

David Axtell and Kris McKie (Archivist at Seven Stories) gathering David's collection in the store
Photograph © Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children's Books

It’s always interesting to see how illustrators work, and this collection demonstrates a totally unique way of working. Now that David’s collection has been acquired, we will make a boxlist of what is in the collection, then begin to catalogue and repackage it, so that it can be used by researchers, visitors and students. As realistic oil paintings, David’s work (and all of the evidence of his delicate and thorough photographic process) adds an exciting new perspective to the Seven Stories Collection.

When we asked if he enjoyed working on Fruits, David said “I was at the start of my career. I was trying to find my style and I think I did with Fruits. I’m proud of the book. It’s done well.”

Seven Stories was able to support the acquisition of the David Axtell Archive through support from a Heritage Lottery Fund ‘Collecting Cultures’ grant. This has been awarded to Seven Stories in recognition of the museum’s national role in telling a comprehensive story of modern British children’s literature. For more information on our HLF Collecting Cultures project see:

If you’d like to find out more about the Seven Stories Collections, you can browse our catalogue, explore our archives online, email us via or leave a comment below!