Earlier in June we made our way to the beautiful town of Cheltenham where we met with Rebecca McMillan & Karl Maguire, a lovely and passionate couple who joined forces three years ago and founded the illustration and stationery studio, Wildflower Illustration Co. ‒ whose simple yet intricate, wild but also ordered style is a true and honest reflection of the meeting of these two creative minds. Rebecca and Karl welcomed us in their serene and light-filled home and talked to us about the things they love, their travels and daily routines and the ethos behind their joint creative venture, and later in the afternoon they invited us to explore the neighbouring Cotswolds town of Winchcombe.
Who are Rebecca and Karl, the people behind Wildflower Illustration Co.? Tell us a bit about your backgrounds.
Rebecca: We are a husband & wife team who took an interesting and slightly long-winded route to running our own business!
I studied Philosophy first, dabbled in creative writing and poetry along the way, before converting to Law. Alongside my legal studies, I experimented with making my hobby of watercolour painting into a small business sideline. It did unexpectedly well in quite a short period of time, so I kept it going.
Meanwhile, Karl had trained to be a teacher and was in his first years of teaching at a school. He loved it, and was an absolutely brilliant teacher and a huge inspiration to the children he taught.
At the end of my studies, we fulfilled a dream that we had had since the start of our relationship: travelling the world together. We set off for a year with just a backpack each and a half-baked route around the globe. It was the most incredible experience and it shaped a lot of our thoughts on happiness and the purpose of life. It’s quite a statement, but I think without our year travelling, we would not have been brave enough to embark on our business and all the risks & joys that it entails.
My incredible mum had insisted on taking on the business whilst we were away (alongside being a doctor!), so she kept it going selling greetings cards, art prints and wedding stationery, using a ‘bank’ of illustrations that I had built up and a font of my handwriting that I created. I will always be grateful to her for that, because I think it would have been so easy to forget all about it otherwise. When I returned, we took back the reins and Karl & I balanced running our busy online shop with our full-time jobs.
In what seems to be, sadly, an ever-more common narrative, Karl became quite disillusioned with teaching and its inevitable red-tape and restrictions on out-of-classroom learning. He found himself in a school which was not right for him, and decided to hand in his notice. This happened to coincide with the business becoming increasingly more demanding of our time, and us struggling to contain it into our scarce evening hours. We decided that he could try supply-teaching whilst devoting a bit more time to the business on the days off. This lasted about a month before the business had billowed out to fill all of his ‘free time’, and he found himself with probably more working hours than he had in his teaching job!
After two years of training at a solicitors’ firm, I had learnt a huge amount, but didn’t feel that I was necessarily on the right path for me. I felt pulled in both directions ‒ I enjoyed the intellectual rigour of life in a law firm but I was struggling to find the energy to devote creativity into my paintings in the evenings too. In hindsight, I had not chosen the best day job to balance with a sideline business! The crunch-time came when I reached the end of my training contract. Was I to apply for a job as a newly-qualified solicitor, or give our business a real shot? When it came to it, it was actually an easy decision to make. A quote I remembered from my creative writing days kept coming back to haunt me: “Vocations which we wanted to pursue, but didn't, bleed, like colours, on the whole of our existence.” (Honore de Balzac)
I knew I would never forgive myself if I didn’t at least try and pursue this. This ‘decision’ was around a year ago now, and I haven’t looked back.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
Rebecca: Picking tiny wild strawberries in the flower beds of my parents’ garden at my fourth or fifth birthday party. I remember running in and out of the paddling pool, my little friends around me, and the sun shining. It’s a very happy memory.
Karl: Being packed into the car with bags like game of Tetris for summer holidays to France!
How did you two meet?
Rebecca: On holiday! Well, at least, I was on holiday. Karl was just home in Jersey for a university summer. My best friend & I were waitressing at weddings that summer, and we were getting a little stir crazy. We decided on a whim that we wanted a quick getaway and flights to Jersey were cheap. My friend had been to Jersey before so knew plenty of people and Jersey summers are filled with barbecues and campfires on the beach. I met Karl on my first night. By the end of the week, we knew we weren’t going to be able to just go back to our old lives and forget about each other. It was magnetic. We had to go through long distance for two years, but we never questioned it once because we always saw our life together at the end of it.
Rebecca, what or who inspired you to pursue illustration?
I strongly believe that we are all born with an innate desire to create. I was very lucky that I had someone around to nurture it: my Great Uncle Colin. An artist in his retirement, he was a grandfather figure to me who always encouraged me from when I first held a crayon. He used to send me art books and paintbrushes and his draft paintings and sketches in the post. When I saw my name and address inked onto a brown-paper package, it made me so indescribably happy, and my love for art, paints and pens began.
His advice to me was always to ‘draw a little, every day’. It is such a simple advice, but I think it’s all that is needed to keep on improving. He has sadly passed away now, but one of his paintings hangs in pride of place in our living room. It inspires me everyday.
How did the idea of Wildflower Illustration Co. come about and what made it worth pursuing?
Rebecca: Our business only evolved into ‘Wildflower Illustration Co.’ at the point when Karl joined the business officially too, after our travels. Previously known as ‘Rebecca McMillan Illustration’, we wanted a name that would reflect the fact that it was now a joint enterprise. Karl has influenced the business from its earliest days, and has been there to guide me right from its humblest beginnings. It felt right to create a new entity altogether that would belong to us both, and not bear only my name.
We pondered the name for a long time, but settled on something that incorporated the word ‘Wildflower’ because for us it encapsulates the beauty and freedom of nature, which inspires all of my paintings. Wildflowers are persistent, beautiful and often unexpected. A bit like our business.
How would you define the Wildflower Illustration Co. style?
Rebecca: I think our style reflects a meeting of two minds, and may therefore seem a little oxymoronic. I like to think of it as simple yet intricate ‒ wild but somehow also ordered. My creative forces are tamed by Karl’s refined taste and love of negative spaces. Rather than feeling constricted, I always love the end result more when I’ve had Karl’s input. It’s almost as though I need taming when I’m in the midst of a creative burst. Like a rose that blooms more brightly when it has been tamed.
Tell us a bit about your collaborative relationship. How do you influence each other and what are your strengths as a team of creatives?
Rebecca: We are very different people. I am the stereotypical wild, messy creative. Karl is measured, considered and balanced. This means we work perfectly together, both as creatives and as a couple. We always meet somewhere in the middle, and this is almost always for the better. He calms me when I get carried away, I encourage him when he needs to reframe something or is holding back.
What was the biggest challenge you had to face as a team of young entrepreneurs?
Rebecca: Honestly, I think we’ve been very lucky so far. Our business has been fairly smooth-sailing, and we are very grateful to our loyal customers and clients for this. The only bumps in the road have been the real-life messy stuff that any business owner has to think about. Finding a good accountant has probably been the hardest thing, but I’m happy to say that we’ve found her now!
In the near future, I think our biggest challenge will be balancing our business with the family that we are in the process of growing (Rebecca is currently four months pregnant). I know it will be a big learning curve, but I have no doubt that it will be worth every gritty sleepless night along the way. I’ve always longed to be a mother, and most of all I am grateful that I now have a career which will allow me to devote what I need to both motherhood and my creative endeavours.
When it comes to commissioned work, how do you draw the line between your aesthetic taste and the expectations of a client?
Rebecca: This is something that I struggled with more before finding my own distinctive style. Now that I have one, I rarely have to draw a line that is uncomfortable to me because the client has usually chosen my work because they like my aesthetic taste, and want me to channel it in a commission. When I was starting out though, and people were choosing me because I was less expensive than other options rather than because they liked my work, it was a lot harder. My advice to any aspiring or young illustrators would be just to ride it out, and keep working to find your style. It will get easier from there.
What is your approach to finding work and retaining clients?
Rebecca: Instagram has been very important in our growth, but I am mindful that social networks do not usually last forever, so I am always looking for ways to build my own authentic and engaged audience through a newsletter and our website and blog. Generally though, our approach is very passive. We don’t really advertise in the traditional sense ‒ we quite like for people to ‘find us first’!
What is the most frequent subject of your conversations?
Our dog, Martha!
You live and work in the Cotswolds. What do you love about this area?
Rebecca: I have always loved old architecture and cottages, there is something so incredibly romantic to me about them. Karl loves natural beauty and is a keen cyclist. The rolling Cotswolds hills are the perfect playground for him.
What would the dream commission look like?
Rebecca: I’ve actually already received it! It’s to illustrate a children’s book which my sister has written. She’s an amazing writer and I’m so glad that she wants me to create the illustrations for it. For now, it’s just a case of finding the time and a publisher. Watch this space!
What was the best advice you have ever been given?
Rebecca: It wasn’t given to me personally by anyone, but I think it might have to be the quote above from Honoré de Balzac. I think it’s so important that we pursue the things that light a flame inside us and make us excited to be alive. It doesn’t always have to be our full time job, but I think we have to give things a go. Even when it’s difficult, or seems crazy, or defies logic.
What do you do or where do you go to unwind and get inspired?
Rebecca: For Karl, that is definitely cycling. I don’t have any one go-to place or activity. But I have a list of things to try ‒ I go for a walk, take a yoga class, or write in a journal. One of those usually does the trick!
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Don’t try and plan too much, because things will always change. If external things don’t change, you will change. Embrace change, be kind to yourself and others, and don’t make decisions when you’re hungry.
What does a regular day look like for you?
We always start the day with a dog walk. We head up into the woods above Cheltenham and look back down on the town. It’s such a grounding start to the day. Then we head home and always try to have a good breakfast together. We both love breakfast, it’s our favourite meal!
From there it changes a lot depending on what is on the to-do list. It could be painting for me, designing for Karl, emails, packaging or making local deliveries by bike!
What are some of your favourite places to hang out in your area?
Our dog-walking favourite is Leckhampton Hill. Castle Combe, a beautiful Cotswolds village near Bristol with a great dog walk nearby. We love afternoon tea in Broadway. Actually, anywhere that serves cake!
What are your dreams and ambitions for the future?
We have always been on the same page about our business: we would ideally like to stick to our small-business roots and continue to offer a personal, thoughtful service to all of our clients and customers. We also want to ensure that our business is always something we enjoy, and feel in control of. So even if it was available to us, you won’t see us lining the stationery aisle of every shop. We’d like to stay a little bit special, a little bit hard-to-find. As long as it supports us and our future family, we’ll be happy.
And now a Max Frisch question: Would you like to have perfect memory?
Rebecca: Absolutely not! A lot of my creativity comes from nostalgia, which I see as a sort of daily-life filter. We have to forget the mundane, everyday things to remember the really perfect moments. If a moment is perfect enough, we will remember it or capture it somehow.
A great example of this is from our travels. The beaches in New Zealand are absolutely stunning, but they are plagued with sand flies. We were told of an ancient Maori legend that says that sand flies were a creation of the gods to remind humans that they are humans, not gods. I think by forgetting things, we allow ourselves to re-enter that magical realm of ideas. We have forgotten the experience of sand flies now, and remember only the beauty. I think that is magical in itself.
And finally, can you recommend us:
A book: Seeing Stars, Simon Armitage (Poetry) The Christening is our favourite poem. We went to a recital by Simon, and when I read the poem I still hear his booming Yorkshire voice in my head.
A song: Roo Panes: Know Me Well.
A film: Boyhood. An incredible coming-of age film, filmed over 12 years with the same cast.
A dish: Anna Jones’ Sweet Potato Dahl. A real crowd-pleaser, it’s what I cook for my non-vegetarian friends & family. No one has complained about the lack of meat yet.