The Art of Selina Young

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798 sel3

Just over a year ago a talented young artist took her life. But the legacy remains. Selina Young’s father, the highly regarded writer Eoin Young, writes about a display of her special art. Photography by Terry Marshall.

Selina Young took her life in Lyttelton on that awful summery afternoon of February 8 last year. There were those who have murmured since that it was an act of tragic irresponsibility to rob her young son Alfie of a mother as he sets out in life. Yes, it was a dreadful waste of a life and an out that I certainly don’t condone, but it was an act of supreme personal sacrifice that I can’t condemn.

It took a courage I know for a fact that I don’t have. Selina was our daughter. She had her reasons and she made the ultimate decision. It has been the chosen exit of artists consumed by their talent down through time.

She was on the crest of a creational wave, a free spirit with a talent to illustrate dozens of children’s books in the UK and New Zealand that earned the respect of many, including Margaret Mahy. They teamed to produce “A Summery Saturday Morning” based around the bays of Banks Peninsula, a book that would earn them both the “New Zealand Post” award. 

The delightful art pieces from that book prompted Bob and Anne Munro to stage an exhibition of Selina’s work in their Salamander Gallery at the Christchurch Arts Centre in February, ironically over the anniversary of her death, but the amazing sell-out sales mirrored her talent.

It won’t bring her back but it certainly underlined what her world of capturing a child’s mind was all about. I wrote in my address for the celebration of her life last year, that Selina was the only thing I ever made that looked good and worked well. It seems flippant now, looking back, but it was true.

Selina’s early influence

Selina was born in Surrey in 1971 and grew up in a world of Grand Prix racing. When I met Selina’s mother Sandra in the mid-sixties she was secretary to John Surtees and I was secretary to Bruce McLaren. Selina would sit with us as a tiny in the media viewing area, high up in the grandstand above the Zandvoort track in Holland and she amused top Motor Sport journalist, Denis Jenkinson, by her ability to sparkle in the roar of exhausts as the cars came to the grid…and then fall asleep as the race started, waking when the chequered flag came out.

She was educated at St Teresa’s at Effingham in Surrey and went to Epsom Art School, taking a foundation course which was the course of choice taken by the army of students who didn’t know which artistic path, if any, they planned to follow. She found an affinity with children’s book illustration and created her own distinctively personal style which took her to the art college in Cambridge where she shared digs with three other girls.

Her first award

I remember her tearful phone call to me in South Africa for the Grand Prix, sobbing that the other girls had been sent entry forms for the coveted Pan-McMillan prize for the best children’s book illustrator in Britain, but she had not received one. I did my best to assure her on the transworld phone line that it was just a mistake and to ask for a replacement. The form arrived, she completed it, sent it off with her chosen work…and won the award!

That was the beginning. We have covered the end. But in between were the glorious summers when she came out to live in New Zealand and started a new life around the Lyttelton harbour bays, with homes variously at Allandale with the Sarginson family, Lyttelton, Charteris Bay, Port Levy and finally her beloved Lyttelton again where she and a growing young Alfie and her girlfriends enjoyed life. And work.

It is not easy to commit what talent you have to creating in a solo environment, but Selina conquered those problems with ease. 

I was flattered when she told one interviewer that she had inherited the self discipline to work at home, setting her own limits of pace and production, from her father.

A rare ability

Selina enjoyed the rare ability to transfer scenes via her colourful imagination from the place via the palette to the page. She had written and illustrated a number of books under her own name for publishers in the UK and the USA and worked with other writers, converting their words into art that always slotted in where you and the junior readers expected it would be. Margaret Mahy and Selina were Banks Peninsula bay neighbours, covering their span in ages with a joint talent to entertain from the pages of bedtime readers anxious to hang on to the words and pictures before being overtaken by sleep…

Bay harbour readers could identify with “A Summery Saturday Morning” because the art captured the gentle, warm, lapping feeling of being there on the beach with them as they created their book on a summery bay weekend morning.

That Summery Saturday art would form the basis of the sell-out exhibition at the Salamander Gallery last February when eager buyers of new art for nursery walls, and not a few with an eye to the investment future, bought nearly everything on offer on that preview evening and further art had to be sought from Selina’s archives of delicious, dainty original illustrations.

Selina’s Pan-McMillan prize win in Britain earned her an exhibition in Cambridge and another in London where she met up with Rosemary Sandberg who would become her agent. Contracts were signed in London for Selina and Margaret to start work together and when they won the New Zealand Post award, I arranged to meet her in Wellington where they would be presented with the prize in Government House. I was in the Christchurch airport lounge with photographer, Euan Sarginson, when he mentioned that Margaret had just arrived. We had not met and when Euan greeted her, congratulating her on the win she said “Don’t congratulate me…congratulate the artist!” Euan said “I’ll bet you’re glad you said that!” 

When a puzzled Margaret asked why, Euan pointed out that I was Selina’s father and introduced us. For the rest of that memorable day in Wellington I was the Mahy minder, having a great time with the presentation lunch, a drink or several, and then home to Christchurch that evening. A good time had by all and a different world for me. It was some sort of fate that Euan’s daughter, Alice, took the photo of Selina and Alfie that captured the way they were together.

Selina created a different world for herself and the tributes from stunned friends around the world after her passing, underlined the impact she had made. There was the dinner party she threw after buying her first house beneath the Timeball in Lyttelton. It was a ‘Chair and Bottle Party’. Why? “Because I’ve invited fifty people and I’ve only got four chairs…” Nothing was ever a problem. 

Life might not have been easy for a vibrant young solo mum, but Alfie was her mate as well as her five-year-old son, the youngest of landlord Brian Prisk’s regulars at The Rat & Roach. I recall one of Alfie’s pub arrivals at The Royal Oak in Great Bookham on one of their visits to Surrey and to parents coincidentally living at either end of the village. 

Pub lore in Britain has it that when a newcomer steps through the door, all conversation stops and the new customers are covertly scrutinised. Alfie was up for this. He stepped in onto the flagstone floor of the bar and announced “Hi. I’m Alfie, and this” pointing back over his shoulder, “is Selina…” They became instant regulars and we all met up for lunch a world away from their new home in Lyttelton. Life seemed to be like that then. It isn’t now.

But grieving was not what Selina was about and her free spirit came through from all of her art.
The exhibition poster art was created by Sandra and Bob and Anne Munro at Salamander, based on Selina’s artwork for “Once Upon a Tide”, modified to “Once Upon a Time” which seemed to better capture the spirit of the special exhibition. Sandra placed the posters in various shops, galleries and restaurants down London Street in Lyttelton and I put them in The Empire snug where Selina would surely have transferred when The Rat & Roach closed, in my local, The Brewer’s Arms in Merivale and in our lunch place of choice, The Twisted Hop downtown. Richard Ballantyne devoted a Colombo Street window the department store to a display Selina’s art. 

A unique chalk rendition of the poster came from the fresh hand of Francesca Tuuta, one of the hairdressers, on the hand-written current events blackboard in The Groom Room for Gentlemen in New Regent Street. It seemed that the City and the Bays were up for the exhibition.

Sheila Sinclair at the Children’s Book Shop in Victoria Street, Christchurch, says that they sold an amazing number of “A Summery Saturday Morning” at the Salamander exhibition and there were scores of tourists visiting the book shop having met up with and been fascinated by Selina’s fresh art in the gallery. “Our Margaret and Selina books out-sell Harry Potter these days!”

Christopher Moore, art critic in The Press, wrote of Selina’s work: “Fresh, energetic, whimsical and beautifully observed, Selina Young’s illustrations are an enduring – and endearing – reminder of a unique artistic talent.”
A selection of Selina’s original artwork from her various children’s books are available for sale from a folio display at the Salamander Gallery, The Arts Centre, Hereford Street, Christchurch. P.O. Box 845, Christchurch, New Zealand. Email: