Sara Midda has gained an international reputation for her illustrated books and her product designs. While her work is often enchantingly diminutive in scale, it ranges in character from delicate, jewel-like watercolours to sharply humorous, even surreal, pen and ink drawings. Handwritten words combine actively with the images, as when they evoke the thoughts and emotions of ever characterful figures. If humans and animals are revealed at both their most vulnerable and their most endearing, the world that they inhabit is essentially edenic, a veritable garden of delights. Sara Midda was born in Brighton, in Sussex, on 8 November 1951, and remembers ‘drawing since my earliest recollection and certainly since I was 2 years old’ (quoted in Suzanne Slesin, ‘Stylemakers: Sara Midda: Illustrator’, The New York Times, 9 April 1989).
Sara took a two-year foundation course at Eastbourne College of Art before moving to London to study Graphics at Goldsmiths’ College School of Art, where her tutor was Wendy Coates-Smith. She then confirmed the direction of her artistic development by taking a postgraduate course in Illustration at St Martin’s School of Art.
Among her teachers, Silvie Turner and Fritz Wegner proved particularly inspiring.
As a student, Sara developed a love of lettering that led to her working on an idea that an alphabet could be created from just 11 components. (She would revisit this idea some decades later with the aid of Paul Hanson of Workman Publishing. He saw her drawings of little figures hauling shapes to build letters, and helped to create a kit to help children understand how the alphabet is formed. The result was published, in 2008, as How to Build an A.)
Soon establishing herself as a freelance illustrator, Sara began to design cards, and contribute to such periodicals as Cosmopolitan, the Guardian, Harpers and Queen, The New York Times, Radio Times and The Sunday Times. She illustrated her first books in the mid 1970s.
By this time, Sara had developed a form of illustration in which lettering played as lively a part in each design as did image. The ground-breaking book, In and Out of the Garden (1981), extended the fusion of word and image into parterres of prose and beds of poetry. It also gave her an extended opportunity to exhibit her skills as a watercolourist in pages that combine precise observation of the natural world with exuberant fantasy.
With In and Out of the Garden, Workman Publishing of New York became Sara’s regular publisher. On her visits to the city, she developed happy working relationships with Peter Workman (chief executive), Sally Kovalchick (editor in chief) and Paul Hanson (creative director) – and also with Ted Riley, who, for the few years before his death, was her agent. Together they gave her creative freedom.
Winning the V&A’s Francis Williams Award in 1982, for the best descriptive illustration, In and Out of the Garden also attracted the attention of Toru Ando, the merchandise planning manager of Mitsukoshi. After a preliminary visit to Japan, she began a 20-year collaboration in which she designed many and varied products for the Japanese department store company, including babywear and linen, crockery and glasses, and stationery and product packaging. Sara also collaborated with Workman on various items of stationery, including the In and Out of the Garden Day Book.
After spending much time in France, Sara produced Sara Midda’s South of France: A Sketchbook, which Workman published in 1990. Combining images, photographs and hand- written texts, it provided a rich scrapbook of a year of experiences, from anthologies of house fronts and shop signs to varied depictions of mouth-watering foods. She recently returned to the subject and approach in A Bowl of Olives: On Food and Memory, for which she had envisaged a large format; however, in publishing it in 2002, Workman presented it as uniform with South of France.
Having exhibited at the Workshop Gallery, Sara began to show work at Chris Beetles Gallery in 1991. In three books produced through the following decade, she applied her unique view of the world to the human condition, from birth through growing up to growing older.
First published by Jonathan Cape in 1994, Growing Up and Other Vices was, in the words of its flyleaf:
a magical evocation of the mysteries of childhood and also a gentle satire on adulthood. Through her captivating watercolour illustrations Sara Midda conveys the perceptions and inner feelings of children in a way that is both profound and revealing.
It had been developed with the stimulating editorial encouragement of Tom Maschler, the head of Jonathan Cape, and won the Bologna Ragazzi Award in 1995.