Artist Charlie Mackesy: ‘I haven’t hugged anyone for so long, I’ve forgotten what that feels like’

Telegraph reporters
·4-min read
Illustrator Charlie Mackesy - Rii Schroer
Illustrator Charlie Mackesy - Rii Schroer
Bryony Gordon's Mad World podcast - Charlie Mackesy
Bryony Gordon's Mad World podcast - Charlie Mackesy

When award-winning illustrator Charlie Mackesy was young, his best friend Jamie was killed in a car crash.

“My whole world was upside down and I drank a lot,” 59-year-old Mackesy told Bryony Gordon on the Telegraph’s Mad World podcast, which you can listen to on the audio player above. “And one day I discovered a drawing pen, and I sat down and started drawing. And like Forrest Gump, I suppose, I couldn't stop. And as I was drawing I would cry, and I didn’t know why.” A recurring drawing was of a boy, talking to a horse.

Mackesy grew up in Northumberland, and was an introvert, preferring to spend time with animals over people – he had a pet dog, ferret, chickens, guinea pigs and rabbits. He then attended Radley College, and twice attempted to attend university before dropping out, preferring instead to draw, and selling some of these drawings to strangers on the streets of London. One day he was asked by a gallery to mount his own exhibition, which led to work as a cartoonist for the Spectator magazine, and as an illustrator for Oxford University Press. Since he took his work onto Instagram, where he counts over a million followers and via which he shares some of his drawings, his career has soared.

Last year, Mackesy published his first book: The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse, about four animal friends (originally drawn for his Instagram) who teach each other about courage, love and friendship. The book, which struck a chord with families coping with loss and solitude in lockdown, sold over a million copies and hasn’t left the bestseller lists since.

“When I see schools or hospitals using printouts of my drawings, I just cry,” Mackesy told the podcast. “You know, the bestseller lists are not really the thing for me. What does move me genuinely is when nurses send me photographs of all the drawings on the walls. Someone told me that their mum was dying and they were reading the book together and she got to the page where it says, ‘What do we do when our hearts hurt? We wrap them in friendship, shared tears and time, until they wake hopeful and happy again .’ And they processed her death that was about to happen with the book. And when I heard that I wept like a child.”

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Mackesy also spoke frankly about how lockdown has exacerbated his social anxiety.

“I think I might have gone slightly mad. I seem to have been alone largely in the barn with the dog. I’m also a carer for my 91-year-old mum,” he said. “I think the solitude, even though normally I'm a bit of an introvert and I quite like my own world, but I think it's affected me. I haven’t hugged anyone for so long, I’ve forgotten what that feels like. I feel like I’m in a vacuum.”

The conversation also took an unusual turn when Mackesy revealed that one way he coped with grief after his friend passed away was by streaking at a public event, leading to his arrest one day at a racecourse.

“I was at a racecourse meeting, and I got overwhelmed with this notion that everything we were doing was a bit silly in the light of death. All these people were trying to wear the right clothes and the right ties and the right cars and say the right things and be tribal and have the right noises in their mouths. Bollocks! My best friend is in the ground. What is really important here? It all seems silly.

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“So I did the silliest thing I could think of. Somebody was talking to me about something, then I started taking my clothes off while he was speaking to me. And I just started running through cars and onto this open race course.

“I got arrested, and the police officer asked me why I did this. I told him my best friend just died, and nothing makes sense. He said that he understood, but to perhaps try to express myself in a way that’s less offensive. He listened. He made me feel seen.

“An act of kindness or a moment grace can change so much. A moment of someone completely accepting you as you are, and therefore you can accept yourself as you are. And you suddenly find yourself feeling more comfortable in your own skin because of it.

“There was a drawing I did in the book where the Boy says, 'You know all about me, and you still love me?' and the horse says 'Yes, we love you all the more'. And it's that terror of being discovered, but then once you are discovered you're loved more... that's a beautiful idea to me..”

Listen to Charlie's full interview on Bryony Gordon's Mad World podcast on the player at the top of this article, or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your preferred podcast app.