Peter had been commissioned by the gallery to paint me, and this was the first time we had met. He gave me a lot of insight into the art of portraiture, and I think he also picked up on my weakness for pictures of rooms. At any rate, when he later came to visit me in Glasgow to do some preliminary sketches, he was very taken with my “props room”. This is the smallest room in my house, with floor-to-ceiling shelves on three of its walls. The shelves are crammed with the props I use when acting out my stories at book festivals and in theatres. This performance aspect of my work means a lot to me – probably as much as the writing itself – but I had rarely been able to interest any visiting journalists in the props room or get photographers to snap me there. They would usually take a cursory glance and then say: “I see – and can you tell me, what gave you the idea for The Gruffalo?” To my delight, Peter clearly thought the shelves would make a suitable background, at once illuminating and mysterious. I didn’t want it to be too obvious what the different objects behind me were. It would have seemed a bit corny and condescending to show a children’s author with a mermaid, a witch’s hat, a monkey puppet and so on. To my relief Peter agreed, and was happy for me to turn some of the things around, presenting just a glimpse of the Gruffalo’s purple prickles, the mermaid’s blue shimmering tail and the tresses of the ghost’s disembodied head; the idea was that these should come across as glimpses into my imagination, as well as providing interesting colours and textures.
I think it was Peter’s idea for me to be holding a notebook and pencil, as if I might be writing a story about the viewer. I’d never had my portrait painted, but since I absolutely hate lengthy photoshoots I wasn’t entirely looking forward to the experience. I imagined I wouldn’t be allowed to twitch a muscle, and I also had a terror of feeling bored, since sitting still and unoccupied is not something I normally do. If I haven’t got a book, a crossword or a game of sudoku, I tend to panic. In fact the whole procedure was surprisingly enjoyable. On that visit to my house Peter did some quick sketches and took some (mercifully even quicker) photos as a way of becoming acquainted with my features, and perhaps, too, as a way of getting to know me, since we talked quite a lot. When I next saw him, several months later in his studio, he’d already painted a lot of the portrait using the sketches and photos. He then needed me to do four two-hour sittings over two days, so he could change some things, add some details and paint my hands. This time I had to remain even more still, but I found it was soothing to be able to fix my gaze on a picture on his wall and contemplate it at length, while listening to hours of Radio 4.