Raymond Briggs obituary | Raymond Briggs

Raymond Briggs, who died at the age of 88, went to great lengths to elevate the art of illustration to become more than just a servant of the written word. Although he is best known for his two most famous books Father Christmas (1973) and The Snowman (1978), his production has also explored themes such as war, politics, and the environment through a deeply humanistic and deeply British perspective often resting on the quiet heroism of ordinary life.

Briggs may be seen as sitting comfortably in the English fiction tradition exemplified by Randolph Caldecott in the nineteenth century and Edward Ardison in the twentieth century, but his graphic literature often built bridges between the picture book and the graphic or graphic novel, offering a new way of reading in the adult publishing market , or at least asking adults to relearn the act of reading a silent visual sequence.

He started in 1957 by selling his portfolio as a graduate of the Slade School of Fine Art, London, and has secured independent illustration work from newspapers, magazines and design studios. His first writing commission came from editor Mabel George at Oxford University Press, in the form of illustrations by Peter Buskees: Cornish Folk and Fairy Tales (1958) by Ruth Manning Sanders.

George advocated the work of a number of artists who would alter illustrations for comic books in the early 1960s, including Brian Wildsmith and Charles Kipping. I looked for printers who were at the forefront of technology development, and who could do justice to the work of these emerging artists. But, as with most painters, Briggs’ early years involved a bunch of commissions, painting anything and everything, beginning with his 1957 House and Garden magazine sketch—”How Deep Do You Plant Your Bulbs.”

Illustrations by Raymond Briggs for his 1978 book The Snowman, which was adapted into the 1982 film. Photo: © Raymond Briggs

When various narrative texts came his way, he realized that not all of them were of the highest quality, and had to write himself. In 1961, he wrote and illustrated two books, Midnight Adventure and The Strange House, for publishers Hamish Hamilton, with whom he had an enduring working relationship.

That year, he began teaching illustration part-time at Brighton College of Art (now University of Brighton School of Arts) at the invitation of then-chair of the department, calligrapher and engraver John R. Bigs. He continued to teach one day a week in Brighton until 1987, and his lessons were admired and greatly appreciated by generations of artists including the prolific painter and Observer political cartoonist Chris Riddell.

In 1963, Briggs married painter Jean Taprill Clark. Her death from leukemia in 1973 and the deaths of his parents prompted Briggs to throw himself into his work. Significant progress actually occurred in 1966, with The Mother Goose Treasury, for which he was awarded his first Kate Greenaway Medal. Father Christmas brought him a second, and threw him to fame. The grumpy, staged and flawed Santa Claus was very popular.

Raymond Briggs artwork for Father Christmas, about a flawed grumbling Santa.
Raymond Briggs artwork for Father Christmas, about a flawed grumbling Santa. Photo: © Raymond Briggs

As with all of Briggs’ subsequent titles, the book is filled with autobiographical items and references. His childhood home and Lake Fyne vacations appear regularly and he himself appears in the follow-up, Father Christmas Goes on Vacation (1975).

Briggs can be found standing in front of Father Christmas in the queue for haircuts at the camp site, along with painter John Vernon Lord (wearing his initials on his laundry bag). The author’s VW Camper will also appear on a regular basis. Fungus the Bogeyman (1977) can also be considered as a character very close to home, displaying an extreme version of the author’s own penchant for frankness and impatience.

In Hamish Hamilton, newly arrived editor Julia McRae (later to establish her own imprint) played a major role in the development of the artist’s career. Painter John Lawrence, also published by Hamish Hamilton, remembers those days with great interest: “All the talk was about ‘Is the world ready for the hateful mushrooms?'” And we all appeared at the launch party in green vats surrounded by buckets of green, suspicious-looking liquid, wondering if it was wine.

Raymond Briggs' Fungus the Bogeyman showed an extreme version of the author's own penchant for frankness and impatience.
Raymond Briggs’ Fungus the Bogeyman showed an extreme version of the author’s own penchant for frankness and impatience. Photo: © Raymond Briggs

The subject of mortality has been a recurring theme, taken explicitly in Briggs’ account of his parents’ lives, Ethel & Ernest: A True Story (1998), which was made into a full-length animated film that aired at Christmas in 2016, and implicitly dissolved into The end of The Snowman and the disappearance of the bear in the 1994 book of that name.

But perhaps the most powerful motive was the power’s hatred of injustice toward the helpless common man who is naively respected. The latter can be seen more directly in When the Winds Blow (1982), Briggs’ examination of an elderly couple’s attempts to follow government guidelines as nuclear war broke out; and The Tin-Pot General and the Old Iron Woman (1984), a thinly disguised general of Leopoldo Galtieri and Margaret Thatcher.

In 1982 he told the newspaper: “When I did that [When the Wind Blows] I was not a fan of CND remotely. I simply thought it was a good topic. It’s so frustrating and somewhat political, I couldn’t even think of who would buy it. But I never think of a potential audience when I start a book; This is not even done specifically for children.”

Raymond Briggs in 1980.
Raymond Briggs in 1980. Photo: Rex/Shutterstock

However, his partner’s children, Liz, provided inspiration and a source for other projects, notably The Puddleman (2004), which arose from an observation made by a young child as he passed a pool while the family was out. He walks in the countryside.

His last book was consciously intended to be just that. Compiled across many of its final 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 poetry, drawings, and random thoughts.

Many of Briggs’ books have been successfully adapted for films and other media: The 1982 Channel 4 animated version of The Snowman, with its familiar song Walking in the Air, became a staple on Christmas Day television. Briggs endorsed a sequel, The Snowman and the Snowdog, which aired in 2012. Other books have been translated for theater and radio, with Briggs taking an interest in the overall production.

Raymond Briggs, second from left, is among the authors and publishers who submitted a recommended reading list of Margaret Thatcher to No. 10 in 1985, in support of the book's work on nuclear disarmament.
Raymond Briggs, second from left, is among the authors and publishers who submitted a recommended reading list of Margaret Thatcher to No. 10 in 1985, in support of the book’s work on nuclear disarmament. Photography: Matt Krusik/PA

He was born in Wimbledon, southwest London, to parents Ethel (née Boyer) and Ernst Briggs. Their first meeting is beautifully described in the wordless opening sequence of the book dedicated to their story. Ethel, a maid in a small saloon in a house in Belgravia, was innocently flicking her ashtray from an overhead window as Ernst passed his bicycle and confidently returned what he considered a friendly wave.

Briggs attended the local Rutlich School and went on to study at Wimbledon (now a college) School of the Arts, Central School of Arts and Crafts (now Central Saint Martins), and, after a two-year break for National Service, Slade. His father, a milkman, tried to dissuade his son from studying at art school, fearing that this would not qualify him for stable work.

Briggs’ keen interest in narrative painting was not welcomed at Wimbledon School of Art, which was rooted in traditional representational painting. He recalls: “I went to art school to learn to draw until I became a cartoonist. But soon I was told that caricatures are a form of life inferior to commercial art.”

A scene from Ethel and Ernst, the 2016 film from Raymond Briggs' book dedicated to the story of his parents.
A scene from Ethel and Ernst, the 2016 film from Raymond Briggs’ book dedicated to the story of his parents. Photography: a rotating film

Such prejudices, which have not been completely eradicated until today, were common in art schools at that time. Although he bemoans his teachers’ failure to recognize the “natural painter,” the formal training he received at Briggs imbued with a keen sense of structure and the importance of good drawing. These provided him well in the book illustration, though he left Slade with what he saw as a poor sense of color and a dislike of paint. When he finally got to the movie version of The Snowman, he was pleased with how the crayon style so faithfully and painstakingly replicated, despite the labor-intensive approach this entailed.

A trait that journalist John Walsh described in a 2012 interview as an “extremely edgy” in English became in later years a stereotype espoused by Briggs, exemplified in his Oldie column, Notes from the Sofa, compiled in book form in 2015, where he was He criticizes various incomprehensible aspects of modern life.

But friends knew another side of Briggs – loyal and terrifying, inherently practical Joker. Lord once made the mistake of admitting his dislike of dogs in Briggs’ presence, and so he promptly committed himself to becoming the recipient of all kinds of dog-related gifts on Christmas and subsequent birthdays. Like many of his characters, Briggs’ anger never manages to mask the underlying warmth and kindness. In 2017, he was appointed to the Central Bank of Egypt.

Liz passed away in 2015. She is survived by her children, Claire and Tom, and grandchildren Connie, Tilly, and Miles.

Raymond Redvers Briggs, illustrator and author, born January 18, 1934; He passed away on August 9, 2022

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