The name 'David Browne' will no doubt be unfamiliar to the vast majority of Three Investigators collectors and enthusiasts around the globe. However, David is a British artist who illustrated the covers of the following six paperbacks published in the UK in the late 1980s: Singing Serpent, Shrinking House, Sinister Scarecrow, Shark Reef, Missing Mermaid and Two-Toed Pigeon. While his portrayal of the Three Investigators may not be as iconic as the original American depictions by Harry Kane, they are, in my opinion, among the very best artwork ever to be used for the British Three Investigators series.
These extremely attractive oil paintings were produced by Browne in 1988 and 1989 for Armada Books, a division of HarperCollins responsible primarily for publishing children's stories. Originally, the six titles featuring David's artwork were published
with the Armada
covers, but a couple of
(Singing Serpent & Missing Mermaid) were used for a
second time on two Format E paperback reprints that were both released in 1993.
Ian: "Under what circumstances did you come to work for HarperCollins/Armada on the Three Investigators series?"
David: "After leaving art college in 1987, [Belfast Art College, in Northern Ireland] I moved to England to be an illustrator. Nothing really happened until I was taken on by the Artist Partners illustrators' agency in July 1988 (you can find them at www.artistpartners.co.uk). They took my work around the London publishers and within a couple of weeks had found me something like seven book jacket commissions, including two for the Three Investigators. I was very pleased, as they were labelled as being Alfred Hitchcock books."
Ian: "Do you recall the names of any of the other artists who worked on the series at the same time as yourself?"
David: "I never knew of any others working on the series."
David: "No, he had a different agent at the time, though he did model for me as one of boys (he was 23-24 so I had to make him look younger). He's the scarecrow, the diver, and the fellow being throttled on the Two-Toed Pigeon cover, as well as also looking scared on the other covers. Another illustrator from our studio, Miles, posed as the bad guy in the balloon, and the assailant in the Two-Toed Pigeon. As models were expensive (£35-£50 per hour) we would often use each other to pose whenever possible. We could claim model fees as expenses, but payment in general took three months to arrive."
Ian: "When did you first meet Kenny?"
David: "Kenny joined our school when he was 8 or 9, and was the only other child there that could really draw. He was certainly better than me at the time, and I distinctly remember him as the new boy, sat at his desk surrounded by awestruck children watching him draw. As always he was being ridiculously modest.. 'You can really draw'... 'I can't really...' "
Ian: "What exactly was the nature of your working relationship with HarperCollins/Armada? Did you have regular contact with an Art or Series Editor and, if so, do you recall their name(s)?"
David: "I worked entirely through my agent. I sent & faxed sketches and ideas to him, he liased with Collins, and then sent their instructions and amendments to me. I didn't meet their art director. His name would have been on the invoice, but it hasn't turned up as yet. It might have been Ian Hughes, but I'm not sure, he may have been the Hodder & Stoughton man.
Ian: "Were you given previous Armada paperbacks on which to base the new artwork, or did you have free reign as to what scenes you could illustrate?"
David: "I may have seen previous artwork. If I did, I wasn't impressed. I was given free reign generally with children's books."
Ian: "Did you read the stories before proceeding with the illustrative process?"
David: "I was usually given a previous edition of a book, or a manuscript if it was as yet unpublished. From looking at my Three Investigators thumbnail sketches (i.e. my original rough ideas), I must have read the books as I mention different scenes. I don't remember anything about them, however."
David: "The only publishers I ever came across who were strict about appearance were for a Famous Five cover. Photos of the models had to be okayed by Enid Blyton's estate. With regards to the Three Investigators, they weren't concerned at all. Sometimes I would visit my agency office and choose models for myself from their selection model agency catalogues, but often I left it to my agent. He would tend to defend any decision if he had made it himself! I do remember seeing Chesney Hawkes's little brother in the model catalogue and thinking he looked right. He wasn't available, so my agent hired big bro instead. Another model to try to make younger looking..."
Ian: "Of the six Three Investigators covers that you painted for Armada, do you have a particular favourite and least favourite? If so, could you give reasons why?"
David: "My favourites are the first two, the scarecrow and the diver. At the time I was struggling to come to terms with the quality level required in the illustration world (mind you I was dumped straight in at the deep end), and it was very important that I made a big impression with the first one especially (the scarecrow). I made a huge effort, and my agent loved the final painting. A real relief; it basically made my career safe.
"I put a similar effort into the Shark Reef painting. Reference hunting was very difficult. I ended up buying an air-fix model submarine for the background, and found a
photo-book about sharks for the underwater scene. The big problem was the diver. I ended up asking a diving equipment shop if I could borrow some stuff. They were helpful, saying that we could borrow gear, but we had to take the photographs in their shop. Kenny was kitted out in diving gear, and had to stand on one foot while holding a harpoon to get the right pose. Worse, his oxygen was not switched on, so he could only last a few seconds before the mask would steam up and he'd be needing air! Also, all this was going on while customers were entering and leaving the shop. I was honestly too keen to get good reference to feel embarrassed. I sent them a proof of the book jacket when it appeared, to say thanks and I suppose to show that we weren't just a bunch of nutters.
Ian: "If you had the opportunity, would you change anything about the covers that you painted for the series?"
David: "No. At the time I was very busy, and the jobs were buried among a welter of others. I guess if I did them now I'd make my life easier by choosing simpler scenes to find reference for, and then get better models for the boys. You can see from my photos that Chesney was fairly terrible, and it was a struggle to make his 'scared' expression look real. I was surprised when he appeared in a movie a year later
© Ian Regan 2004