Raymond Briggs, who died at the age of 88, did much to elevate the art of illustration to more than a servant of writing. Although he is best known for his highly popular books Father Christmas (1973) and The Snowman (1978), his output has also explored themes such as war, politics and the environment through a deeply human and very Briton who often settled on quiet heroism. ordinary lives.
Briggs can be seen sitting comfortably in the English anecdotal tradition exemplified by Randolph Caldecott in the 19th century and Edward Ardizzone in the 20th, but his often wordless graphic literature built bridges between picture book and comic strip or novel. graphics, introducing a new way of reading to the adult publishing market, or at least asking adults to relearn how to read a silent visual sequence.
He began in 1957 peddling his portfolio as a graduate of the Slade School of Fine Art in London, picking up freelance illustration work from newspapers, magazines and design studios. His first book order came from publisher Mabel George of Oxford University Press, in the form of illustrations for Peter and the Piskies: Cornish Folk and Fairy Tales (1958) by Ruth Manning-Sanders.
George championed the work of a number of artists who were to transform picture book illustration in the early 1960s, including Brian Wildsmith and Charles Keeping. She sought out printers who were on the cutting edge of developing technology and who could do justice to the work of these emerging artists. But, as with most illustrators, Briggs’ early years of work involved undertaking a series of commissions, drawing anything and everything, starting with a schematic diagram for House and Garden magazine in 1957 -” how deep to plant your bulbs”.
As various narrative texts came to him, he realized that not all of them were of the highest quality and set about writing it himself. In 1961, he wrote and illustrated two books, Midnight Adventure and The Strange House, for publishers Hamish Hamilton, with whom he maintained a lasting working relationship.
That year he began teaching illustration part-time at Brighton College of Art (now Brighton University Faculty of Art) at the invitation of the then Head of Department, Calligrapher and engraver John R Biggs. He continued to teach one day a week in Brighton until 1987, and his tuition was much admired and appreciated by generations of artists, including the prolific Observer illustrator and political cartoonist Chris Riddell.
In 1963, Briggs had married painter Jean Taprell Clark. His death from leukemia in 1973 and the deaths of his parents led Briggs to embark on his work. A major breakthrough had already taken place in 1966, with The Mother Goose Treasury, for which he received his first Kate Greenaway Medal. Santa Claus brought him a second one, and propelled him to glory. His grumpy, lavatorial, imperfect Santa Claus was immensely popular.
As with all of Briggs’ later titles, the book is replete with autobiographical material and references. His own childhood home and Loch Fyne holidays appear regularly and he himself appears in the sequel, Father Christmas Goes on Holiday (1975).
Briggs stands in front of Santa Claus in the queue to shave at the campsite, along with illustrator John Vernon Lord (wearing his initials on his toiletry bag). The author’s VW motorhome also made regular appearances. Fungus the Bogeyman (1977) could also be seen as a character very close to home, displaying as he does an extreme version of the author’s own tendency to be outspoken and impatient.
At Hamish Hamilton, newly arrived editor Julia MacRae (who would later set up her own publishing company) played a major role in the development of the artist’s career. Illustrator John Lawrence, who was also published by Hamish Hamilton, remembers those days with great fondness: “The whole debate was about ‘is the world ready for Fungus the Bogeyman?’ and we all showed up to the launch party in green rubber boots surrounded by buckets of suspicious green liquid, wondering if it was the wine.
The subject of mortality formed a recurring theme, tackled explicitly in Briggs’ retelling of her parents’ lives, Ethel & Ernest: A True Story (1998), which was made into an acclaimed full-length animation that aired over Christmas in 2016. , and implicitly in the melting at the end of The Snowman and the disappearance of The Bear in the 1994 book of the same name.
But perhaps the most potent motivation was an authoritative hatred of injustice towards the helpless, naively respectful common man. The latter could be seen most directly in When the Wind Blows (1982), Briggs’ examination of an elderly couple’s attempts to follow government directives as a nuclear war breaks out; and The Tin-Pot General and the Old Iron Woman (1984), a thinly disguised general Leopoldo Galtieri and Margaret Thatcher.
In 1982, he told The Times: “When I did [When the Wind Blows] I was not at all a supporter of the CND. I just thought it was a good topic. It’s very depressing and quite political, and I didn’t even know who was going to buy it. But I never think about the potential audience when I embark on a book; it wasn’t even made specifically for children.
Nonetheless, the children of his longtime partner Liz provided inspiration and source material for other projects, notably The Puddleman (2004), which grew out of a remark made by one of the young children on the passage of a puddle while the family was out. walk in the countryside.
His latest book was consciously intended to be just that. Compiled over several of his later years, Time for Lights Out (2019) is a poignant, funny and deeply honest exploration of the experience of aging and reaching the end of life, in the form of a collage of verses, drawings and random thoughts.
Many of Briggs’ books have been successfully adapted for film and other media: Channel 4’s 1982 animated film version of The Snowman, with its familiar theme song Walking in the Air, became a staple of Christmas Day television. Briggs approved a sequel, The Snowman and the Snowdog, which aired in 2012. Other books have been translated for stage and radio, with Briggs taking a keen interest in the overall production.
He was born in Wimbledon, south-west London, to Ethel (née Bowyer) and Ernest Briggs. Their first meeting is beautifully described in the silent opening sequence of the book dedicated to their story. Ethel, a young maid in a house in Belgravia, had innocently waved her feather duster from an upper window as Ernest cycled past and confidently returned what he saw as a friendly wave.
Briggs attended the local school in Rutlish and later studied at Wimbledon School (now College) of Art, Central School of Arts and Crafts (now Central Saint Martins) and, after a two-year break for national service , at the Slade. His father, a milkman, had tried to dissuade his son from studying at art school, fearing it would equip him for a steady job.
Briggs’ keen interest in narrative drawing did not go down well at the Wimbledon School of Art, which was rooted in traditional figure painting. He remembers: “I went to art school to learn how to draw in order to become a draftsman. But I was soon told that comics were an even lower life form than commercial art.
Such prejudices, not yet entirely eradicated today, were commonplace in art schools of the time. Although he laments his tutors’ failure to recognize a “natural illustrator”, the formal training he receives gives Briggs a strong sense of structure and the importance of good drawing. These equipped him well in book illustration, although he left the Slade with what he considered a poor sense of color and an aversion to painting. When he finally arrived at the film version of The Snowman, he said he was delighted with the way it replicated his colored pencil technique so faithfully and painstakingly, despite the massively laborious approach it required.
The characteristic that journalist John Walsh described in a 2012 interview as a very English “arduous curmudgeonness” had later become a stereotype that Briggs embraced, exemplified by his column in Oldie, Notes from the Sofa, collected as a book in 2015. , where he railed against various incomprehensible aspects of modern life.
But the friends knew another side of Briggs – loyal and playful, an inveterate prankster. Lord once made the mistake of confessing an aversion to dogs in Briggs’ presence, thus immediately committing to becoming the recipient of all sorts of dog-related gifts on subsequent birthdays and Christmases. Like so many of his characters, Briggs’ moodiness never quite managed to conceal an underlying warmth and kindness. In 2017 he was appointed CBE.
Liz passed away in 2015. He is survived by his children, Clare and Tom, and his grandchildren, Connie, Tilly and Miles.