For the past five weeks, the Collection team has had a lovely new member, Charlotte Dunhill, who is currently studying illustration at York St. John University. During her time at Seven Stories, Charlotte has done some fantastic work box-listing the newly-acquired Fritz Wegner Collection. Read about her experience below.

My 10 day placement with Seven Stories was an amazing insight into the working life of an illustrator. I spent my time working on the Fritz Wegner archive, going through his work and making a box-list as part of the cataloguing process. I am a second year illustration student at York St. John University and, when asked to find somewhere to complete work based learning, I could not think of anywhere better than Seven Stories. I visited the museum a lot as a child and the exhibitions and activities there were a part of what sparked my interest in illustration and storytelling in the first place, so it has been amazing to see the amount of work that goes into preserving, cataloguing and maintaining the Seven Stories collection.

I had never heard of Fritz Wegner when I was asked to work on his archive, but after some research I discovered a little bit about his career and couldn’t wait to look at the work in the collection. Seven Stories have six boxes of Wegner’s work, all containing original sketches, roughs and proofs for many of the books he worked on during his career, as well as correspondence with publishers and friends about his work.

When I opened box number one on my first day, the first thing I found was a folder full of letters from publishers Wegner worked with. As someone with ambitions to go into the illustration business, it was quite intimidating to see the amount of working and re-working that goes into published illustrations. There were letters asking for the most minor of changes to drawings and entire legal contracts detailing exactly how many illustrations must be completed and when they must be done by.

It was something that I knew existed, but seeing the legal documents was especially fascinating, as when a book is published it all seems to just fit together and it is hard to imagine how much work goes into perfecting the layout. It re-affirmed what art and design students often have to tell people – working in the creative industry is not just sitting around doodling all day!

From my general research surrounding the archive I pieced together a lot of information about Fritz Wegner’s life. Though he was born in Austria in 1943, he spent his entire working life in London. Wegner said in an interview for Line journal that when Austria was invaded during the Anschluss, he angered one of his pro-Nazi teachers by drawing a cartoon of Hitler. Later, he was thrown out of his school, not as a direct result of the cartoon but because he was Jewish. He moved to England at the age of just 14 after being offered a place at St. Martin’s School of Art. He lived with one of his teachers, George Mansell, while he studied until his family joined him in London a few years later. During his time living with Mansell, Wegner worked as a studio hand for him as a way to earn his keep, where he says he learnt a lot about the artistic process that he wouldn’t have learnt anywhere else. Later in his life, Wegner would return to St Martin’s to work as a visiting lecturer in illustration on the Graphic Design course.

Of everything I looked at in the archive, my absolute favourite was a book called 'The Little Cat Baby' (Puffin, 2003) by Allan Ahlberg. In the story, a couple who go to the ‘baby shop’ to adopt a child end up leaving with the little cat baby. The world where the story is set is ‘topsy-turvy’ and everything is slightly mixed up: it is a ‘long hot winter’ and Santa’s Grotto is in a hot air balloon that the children must climb to. The writing is whimsical and funny, and the illustrations really capture every single one of the characters. Even the size and shape of the book was interesting to me – where most of Ahlberg’s books are conventionally rectangular, this one was square and almost pocket sized.

Pen and ink illustration by Fritz Wegner for 'The Little Cat Baby', written by Allan Ahlberg (Puffin, 2003)
© Estate of Fritz Wegner

'The Little Cat Baby' is a part of the archive that has some of the most extensive re-working of images I have ever seen. There are sketches on the early manuscript, and then more sketches after that with the text laid out beside them. There is then a huge collection of roughs and several versions of the same image with only the slightest changes. There is even an image showing a Mickey Mouse baby in the ‘baby shop’, which he removed in the final version and replaced with a teddy bear. From reading through correspondence between Wegner and the publishers, I discovered that even choosing which image to use as the end paper pattern was an important task, even though it was something I had barely even considered.

Pen and ink illustration by Fritz Wegner for 'The Little Cat Baby', written by Allan Ahlberg (Puffin, 2003)

© Estate of Fritz Wegner

Overall, the story really caught my attention and I could have spent a whole afternoon just staring at the incredibly detailed illustrations. I wish this book had been a part of my childhood. The completely bizarre world that Ahlberg and Wegner created would’ve been just as inspiring to me then as it is now.

At the very bottom of the second box, I came across Wegner’s illustrations for Brian Alderson’s 'Tale of the Turnip' (Candlewick Press, 1999). The title immediately caught my attention before I had even worked out what the illustrations were for, with their amazingly vibrant colours and beautifully formed animals. I was even more excited when I came across the title because although I never had this particular version, this was one of my favourite stories as a child. One particular image, of which there were a few versions, really caught my attention, and that was of a procession of horses.  Each one is intricately decorated and colourful and it took a while to really take in every detail of the drawing. I feel very privileged to have had the chance to see the original drawings because, as stunning as the final print of the book is, the reproduction process can unfortunately never capture the vibrancy of the colours and the smoothness of the line in Wegner’s work and these particular drawings are possibly the best example of this.

Watercolour, pen and ink illustration by Fritz Wegner for 'The Tale of the Turnip', written by Brian Alderson (Walker, 1999) One of Wegner's many versions of the procession of horses
© Estate of Fritz Wegner

For “The Sneeze” (1986) by David Lloyd, Wegner drew different ways to combine a man, a girl, a dog, a suitcase, a newspaper, and a hat to make different narratives. The illustrations for this book are striking for the same reason as the illustrations for Brian Alderson are:  they are colourful and vibrant and purposefully formed. One particular, very large drawing for this book, featuring a giant handkerchief that is revealed to have been inside the suitcase all along, is one of my favourite drawings in the whole collection. It spans two double page spreads and is a sudden burst of pink compared to the rest of the book. The handkerchief is so large that a couple and their dog walking on a hill some way away see it and look up.

Watercolour, pen and ink illustration by Fritz Wegner for 'The Sneeze', written by David Lloyd (Walker, 1986) 
page left 
© Estate of Fritz Wegner

Watercolour, pen and ink illustration by Fritz Wegner for 'The Sneeze', written by David Lloyd (Walker, 1986) 
page right 
© Estate of Fritz Wegner

This kind of detail in Wegner’s illustrations is a huge part of what makes them so fascinating to look at. In his drawings for Ahlberg’s various poetry collections (including 'Please Mrs Butler' and 'Heard it in the Playground') there will be an entire playground full of children, each one with a different style, a different expression and, you imagine, a different personality. They are playing in groups or alone, chasing or balancing or talking or hiding, and each child seems to have their own story.

In other illustrations, the detail can be found in the clothing worn by the characters. Wegner illustrated many short stories for a whole variety of authors for Cricket magazine throughout his career, but one that stands out as an example of the intricacy of his drawing is 'The Imperfect Princess' by Charlotte Stark in the October, 1974 edition. The illustrations show elegantly carved fireplaces and extravagant clothing with swirling patterns and individually drawn jewels and buttons.

A title that came up repeatedly in my research, but that I didn’t encounter any drawings for within the archive until the final box was 'Fattypuffs and Thinifers' (1968) by Andre Maurois. The story is about two kingdoms underground: one of the Fattypuffs, who eat hourly meals, rarely work and spend most of their time napping, and one of the Thinifers, who eat their two tiny meals a day standing up and are ruthlessly efficient (when they make arrangements they make them to the second). Wegner’s illustrations create a clear distinction between the two kingdoms and really help the reader to see what this strange world would look like. Like all of his illustrations, the life that he brings to his visualisation of the characters does so much for the way the reader understands the text.

As much as I loved Wegner’s illustrations, I noticed through the collection of correspondence that he seems to have been very critical of his own work. There are letters of encouragement from Faith Jacques, another illustrator who worked on some projects with Wegner, which imply that he had been negative about his illustrations. There are often references in letters from publishers to his negativity, too. This was interesting to me because I usually associate self-criticism with artists who are struggling to get their illustrations published, but even when Wegner was in the midst of a book deal he wasn’t always happy with his work. Insights like this are what have made the archive so interesting to look through.

Seeing the way an artist works is something that not too many people get to experience, but it has been an inspiring experience for me. Five weeks ago, Fritz Wegner was a completely unknown name to me, and now I have a great appreciation for his work and I can almost immediately recognise his style. His methods of repeated re-drawing and tracing of his images to get them just right and his use of strong, black marks have massively inspired my own practice, so it has been a privilege to have had the opportunity to look at his original work.

- Charlotte Dunhill, student placement, BA (Hons) Illustration, York St. John University

Seven Stories was able to support the acquisition of the Fritz Wegner Collection 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:

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