Kindness, tenderness, love, honesty and vulnerability run like golden threads through Charlie Mackesy’s exquisite pen and ink drawings. One shows a boy, a horse, a fox and an adorable tiny mole all huddled together in a dark and forbidding forest.
In others, they cower beneath a looming thundercloud, struggle to find their way through thick undergrowth, or just knot tightly together. Always together. Always close. Always cheering one another on with simple but uplifting thoughts.
‘I can’t see a way through,’ said the boy.
‘Can you see your next step?’
‘Just take that,’ said the horse.
Another shows them beneath a dark swirly sky.
‘Those are dark clouds,’ said the boy.
‘Yes, but they will move on,’ said the horse. ‘The blue sky above never leaves.’
Mackesy, 59, has been posting drawings on social media throughout this past difficult year. They are designed to be warm and nourish the soul and — as we wrestle to find light and hope in another long, dark, cold lockdown — resonate now more than ever. Millions have been cheered by Mackesy’s drawings, sharing them on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook — and beyond.
The impact has been nothing short of extraordinary. They have been used in schools, the Armed Forces, and among NHS medical staff who tag the drawings onto internal emails and paste them in hospital wards and staff rooms to help bolster morale. Celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Joan Collins and actress Carey Mulligan have also raved about them.
Meanwhile, Mackesy’s illustrated book, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse — which, through their conversations, charts the journey of an inquisitive boy, a cake-driven mole, a rather jaded fox and a wise horse — remains the publishing sensation of the past 18 months, selling well over a million copies. It is one of the books recommended by the Duchess of Cornwall in her new book club, The Reading Room, and has been praised by many, including the writer’s pals Richard Curtis and Bear Grylls, for its wisdom and power, and its celebration of kindness and understanding.
As Mackesy himself once put it: ‘We all struggle, and that’s the point. I’ve never met anybody who doesn’t struggle with something. Being human is really difficult and we just need to be as kind to ourselves, and to each other, as possible.’
He talks from experience. He didn’t settle at school, was left heart-broken when his best friend died in a car accident when he was 18, tried university twice (but left after a week both times), didn’t go to art school and has long battled with depression and anxiety. But eventually he landed a job at The Spectator magazine as a cartoonist, went on to work as an illustrator for Oxford University Press and has exhibited in galleries across the UK and America.
“We all struggle, and that’s the point. I’ve never met anybody who doesn’t struggle with something.”
His drawings, evocative of E.H. Shepard’s illustrations for “Winnie-the-Pooh,” are not nearly as simple as they look. A single picture can take up to 50 attempts until he is happy that the ink lines properly convey the emotion he’s after, ‘through the angle of a head or the swish of tail’. The words, meanwhile, are searing.
‘What’s the best thing you have learnt about storms?’ asks the boy.
‘That they end,’ the horse replies.
‘What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever said?’ asked the boy.
‘Help,’ said the horse.
The latter was based on a conversation he had with Bear Grylls about courage and it was this picture, when posted on social media, that went viral and eventually led to the book.
Unaccustomed to fame, recognition or even company — other than from his dachshund Barney — wild-haired and perennially crumpled Mackesy has been left both bemused and alarmed by his sudden success. ‘I’ve already got a roof over my head and can pay for my food. For me, success is about listening to stories from people who’ve struggled,’ he once said in an interview. ‘It’s a privilege that the book has helped others. I am so pleased it speaks to people and gives courage.’
The public’s current favorite — shared over a million times and pinned up in kitchens, offices and hospitals around the world to give hope and strength — is a simple drawing of the boy, horse, fox and mole, their heads bowed in a barren-looking landscape. ‘Everything is cancelled.’
‘Love isn’t cancelled,’ said the horse.
We all need to remember that, every single day.
Jane Fryer has covered everything from champagne sabering to champion turkey pluckers for the Daily Mail