Pepper and Jam is the story of two oversized cats, the aptly named Longbody and his noisy brother Tractor. They live in an end of terrace house in Swindon with their humans, the social climbing Mrs Pepper and her son Reginald, who also provides the illustrations. When Mrs Pepper plans a holiday the cats do everything in their power to thwart her plans and avoid being sent to THE HOME.
These gargantuan pets and their pin headed owners are in fact the creations of the artist Joanna Carrington, the hugely respected fine artist who was the niece of the Bloomsbury group’s Dora Carrington. Reginald came about after a bout of artist’s block, his naive style allowing her to approach painting in a new way. The freedom it offered is evident in these works and there’s real joy to be found in this children’s book spin off published in 1984.
Pepper became an artistic phenomenon in the mid 70s, though at first Carrington didn’t reveal that she was the true artist. Her husband Christopher Mason writes in his biography of the artist that Pepper was more than just an art hoax, “She painted ‘Peppers’ with the same sincerity and imagination that characterised everything she did. She created a complete Pepper world… in which perspective was absent, the cats were as big as sofas and the people had tiny heads (supposedly reflecting his own mental capacity).”
The real star of the story is Mrs Pepper, the social climbing matriarch desperate to impress her cousin who is visiting from Australia, where she believes he hasbecome hugely rich ‘through oil wells and things like that’. Poor Reginald is put to work beating rugs and shopping for ingredients for an unfeasibly large cake.
But inevitably her familial pride leads to a very real fall.
Pepper and Jam was Joanna Carrington’s only story for children, though she did continue to produce ‘Peppers’ until the end of her life. This artistic ‘deception’ was perhaps less of a surprising career move than you might have thought. Carrington never met her celebrated aunt, and throughout her career forged her own artistic identity – something she undoubtedly achieved in her ‘real’ art and these wonderful primitive diversions.
Perhaps the greater influence on her work as Reginald Pepper was her father, Noel Carrington – one of the most important figures in 20th century English children’s literature. He founded Puffin Books and commissioned some of my all time favourite titles including Mervyn Peake’s Captain Slaughterboard and High Street by Eric Ravilious. Fitting too that his daughter would also choose to stay behind the scenes, preferring to pass the credit on to Reginald and his peculiar pets.