Victor Ambrus obituary

Prolific illustrator of archaeological scenes for Time Team on Channel 4 and of books, particularly for children

The artist Victor Ambrus, who has died aged 85, instilled admiration and envy in colleagues for both the quality and the quantity of his work. He drew relentlessly, for television programmes, museum displays, postage stamps and Christmas cards, and especially children’s books – he stopped counting these, he told me, at 300. He could have had a brilliant career as a humorous caricaturist.

From interpreting Homer and Shakespeare, and the first edition of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, to 20 years working with archaeologists on the Channel 4 TV series Time Team, Ambrus was one of Britain’s most outstanding illustrators, to be ranked with such of his childhood heroes as Arthur Rackham and EH Shepard. Yet Britain was his country of choice, not birth.

In 1956 he was a student at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest when Soviet forces entered the city to suppress the revolution. As a member of the National Guard, Ambrus was entrusted with securing the principal’s office but, as he told it, fell deeply asleep in the padded leather seats. Woken by hammering, he pulled aside curtains to find himself staring into the barrel of a Russian tank. He was taken down into the building’s basement, where his captors, working from a list of names, shot four of his friends and four soldiers. He escaped, left his family and walked overnight through heavy snow to the safety of Austria. When the opportunity came, he was asked where he wanted to go? Without hesitating he said: “England”.

Victor Ambrus at work in Somerset.
Victor Ambrus at work in Somerset. Photograph: Justin Owen

It was a choice driven by art. He had been drawing since he learned to use a pencil as a young boy, inspired by British illustrated books and Hungarian artists, among them Mihály Zichy. Like them, he drew tales – including scenes from Hungarian history – and throughout his long career, whether he was illuminating history, fiction or fantasy, storytelling was at the heart of his work. Britain was the place where he could continue to draw, to put into books the illustrations and stories he had already imagined.

Within months of arrival at Blackbushe airport, Hampshire, Ambrus was working at the nearby Farnham School of Art, Surrey. The principal immediately recognised his talent and proposed him as an associate at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London, where – now calling himself Victor, translating his first name, Győző, from Hungarian – he was supported by a three-year scholarship from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

He published his first book before he graduated in 1960, and moving from one commission and recommendation to another, left a trail of illustrated volumes that have inspired generations of children. He had an enormous back catalogue when, in 1990, he was approached to illustrate a new archaeology series for television.

Ambrus had previously drawn for the BBC children’s series Jackanory, but what had attracted the TV producer Tim Taylor, who was on the way to creating Time Team, was a Reader’s Digest book he had found in a second-hand shop, Heritage of Britain – to which Ambrus had contributed some spectacular illustrations. Taylor had designed an as-live excavation format that would run over a three-day dig, and was seeking a speedy artist.

Victor Ambrus on a Time Team dig, with Phil Harding, hatted, leading the excavation
Victor Ambrus on a Time Team dig, with Phil Harding, hatted, leading the excavation. Photograph: Time Team

“How long to draw this?” he asked, showing Ambrus one of his own pictures. When other interviewees had said weeks, Ambrus said minutes, and clinched the job with an instant portrait of Taylor. By Time Team’s last episode in 2013, Ambrus may well have drawn more than 2,000 scenes, a cumulative story of Britain that ran from the earliest humans to the 20th century.

Born in Budapest, Victor was the son of Irén (nee Tóth) and Győző Ambrus. His father, an industrial chemist, encouraged him to become an artist, and in 1953 he went to the Hungarian Academy to learn graphic design, etching and engraving. He never finished his fourth year. Still at the RCA, Ambrus was asked by Blackie and Sons to illustrate White Horses and Black Bulls (1960), a children’s book by Alan Jenkins; the Times Literary Supplement printed some of his work in a review, and his career began.

He met Glenys Chapman at the RCA, and they married in 1958. She became a successful artist and children’s book illustrator.

After college Ambrus worked for an advertising agency, soon returning to Farnham to teach. He continued to lecture at the Farnham, Guildford and Epsom schools of art (all now part of the University for the Creative Arts) until 1985, while expanding his freelance work and establishing a lengthy relationship with Oxford University Press.

The Art of Victor Ambrus, as celebrated at the Museum of Somerset, 2016

Several early Time Team programmes were made in Somerset, and the Museum of Somerset in Taunton Castle features specially commissioned illustrations by Ambrus. He drew for an exhibition about the archaeology and history of the nearby nuclear power site at Hinkley Point, and in 2016 the museum celebrated Ambrus with a special show.

Some of his RCA work was dark – black-heavy lithographs depicting war and torture (as well as escaping the invasion in 1956, he was nine when he witnessed the brutal siege of Budapest, for three months from December 1944). By contrast, the style for which he is known faded into white, with delicate, densely drawn lines conveying muscular forms in pencil or ink, enlivened in graphic compositions with watercolour and pastel. He peopled his pasts and his stories with individuals, but he did not sentimentalise his subjects, whether depicting Moby Dick tossing boats and crews into the ocean, the menace of wizards and goblins or the horror and brutality of historic battles – not least when it came to the suffering of horses.

It was his practice to research his topics thoroughly, often in the field. To better understand cavalry, he learned to ride a horse. On one occasion he terrified a forest mushroom-picker, who came upon him swiping at branches with a sword. He was charmed by a gorilla in London Zoo, and chastised by a parrot that snapped his pencil in two. Factual accuracy was important, he said: but not at the expense of drama and humanity.

A charming, modest man, he was much honoured. The Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers, the Society of Graphic Fine Art, the Royal Society of Arts, and the Society of Antiquaries of London all gave him fellowships, and the members of the Pastel Society chose him as their vice-president. He won the Royal Watercolour Society’s Daler Rowney prize in 1993 and the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition drawing prize in 1996.

Ambrus had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease. He is survived by Glenys and their sons, Mark and Sándor.
Mike Pitts

Julia Eccleshare writes: Victor Ambrus’s prolific career as an illustrator of picture books, fiction and nonfiction for children spanned 50 years. During that time he had the unusual distinction of winning the Kate Greenaway medal twice, for The Three Poor Tailors (1965), the first picture book he both wrote and illustrated, and then, a decade later, for two books published in 1975, the nonfiction Horses in Battle and Mishka, a lyrical picture book set on the Danube.

Don Quixote illustrated by Victor Ambrus
Don Quixote illustrated by Victor Ambrus Photograph: none

It was during Ambrus’s childhood holidays in the Hungarian countryside that he developed a talent for drawing horses in particular. After his commission for the illustrations for White Horses and Black Bulls, a story set in the Camargue, it was his horses that brought him to the attention of the Oxford University Press and led to him illustrating Hester Burton’s historical novels, starting with Castors Away! (1962), KM Peyton’s novels, including the popular Flambards series, and, from 1963, historical novels by Rosemary Sutcliff. Also from OUP came two stories retold by Geraldine McCaughrean, The Canterbury Tales (1984) and Moby Dick (1998). Illustrated retellings for the Spanish publisher Vicens Vives included Don Quixote, a Tale of Two Cities and Tom Sawyer.

Visually engaging, Ambrus’s illustrations were also founded on meticulous research, which made him much sought-after for stories based on myths and legends. He wrote and illustrated Dracula: Everything You Always Wanted to Know, But Were Too Afraid to Ask (1980), a farcical version of the Bram Stoker original, which he followed with Dracula’s Bedtime Story Book (1981) and Blackbeard, a zany pirate story (1982).

• Victor (Győző László) Ambrus, illustrator, born 19 August 1935; died 10 February 2021

Contributors

Mike Pitts and Julia Eccleshare

The GuardianTramp

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