Updated: Apr 2, 2021
Victor Ambrus, who died on 10 February 2021 at the age of 85, was a highly prolific reconstruction artist comparable in stature with Ronald Embleton, Alan Sorrell, Angus McBride, and Peter Connolly.
Britain was his home for 65 years, though he was born in Hungary and had first studied at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest.
He was lucky to escape that city alive. Serving in the National Guard – effectively a working-class militia set up to defend the 1956 revolution – he was captured by the Russians and held in a basement as four of his friends were shot.
He had no doubt where he wanted to go when he escaped, and his exceptional talent ensured a highly successful career. His first book published in 1960, even before his formal graduation as an artist. More than 300 children’s books followed, along with much other work for TV programmes, museum displays, guidebooks, even Christmas cards and postage stamps.
His images were already famous, but the man himself became a minor celebrity when he was ‘discovered’ by Tim Taylor’s Time Team and hired as the instant on-site reconstruction artist in 1990, able to transform walls, potsherds, and some enthusiastic archaeological speculation into tongue-in-cheek visualisations of what it might all have been like – all at the tremendous speed required by three-day shoots.
Ambrus’s Time Team reconstructions shared with the rest of his vast oeuvre (running into many thousands of images) a highly distinctive look. He worked in pencil or ink, coloured in watercolour or pastel. The inessential background was left sketchy and often faded away into white space. The people were always individuals, never ‘types’, each a character in her or his own right, each a convincing participant in the scene.
And at the heart of every composition was a central event – a burial, a battle, a building project, a marketplace squabble – and to this the viewer’s eye is drawn from every part of the picture. But then it wanders back to notice the quirky, fanciful details among the bystanders, to catch the humorous asides missed at first glance.
The visual imagination of Victor Ambrus brought the past to life for millions of children, TV viewers, and museum visitors over two generations. He will be missed. We are grateful for his artistic legacy. And those of us privileged to have met him will remember a quiet, modest, unpretentious man who was yet possessed of awesome creative powers.
Neil Faulkner reporting.