Author-illustrator known for The Snowman and Father Christmas whose books often explored the quiet heroism of ordinary lives
Raymond Briggs, who has died aged 88, did a great deal to elevate the art of illustration to being something much more than a servant of the written word. Though he was best known for his hugely popular books Father Christmas (1973) and The Snowman (1978), his output also explored themes such as war, politics and the environment through a deeply human, very British lens that often settled on the quiet heroism of ordinary lives.
Briggs may be seen to sit 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 the picture book and the comic or graphic novel, introducing a new way of reading to the adult publishing market, or at least asking grownups to relearn the business of reading a silent visual sequence.
He started out in 1957 by hawking his portfolio around as a graduate of the Slade School of Fine Art, London, picking up freelance illustration work from newspapers, magazines and design studios. His first book commission came from the editor Mabel George at Oxford University Press, in the form of illustrations to 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 at the cutting edge of developing technology, and who could do justice to the work of these emerging artists. But, as with most illustrators, Briggs’s early working years involved undertaking a range of commissions, drawing anything and everything, starting off with a schematic diagram for House and Garden magazine in 1957 – “how deep to plant your bulbs”.
As various narrative texts came his way, he realised that not all of them were of the highest quality, and took to writing himself. In 1961 he wrote and illustrated two books, Midnight Adventure and The Strange House, for the publishers Hamish Hamilton, with whom he would have a lasting working relationship.
That year, he began teaching illustration part-time at Brighton College of Art (now Brighton University’s faculty of arts) at the invitation of the then head of department, the calligrapher and engraver John R Biggs. He continued to teach for a day a week at Brighton until 1987, and his tuition was much admired and appreciated by generations of artists including the prolific illustrator and Observer political cartoonist Chris Riddell.
In 1963 Briggs had married the painter Jean Taprell Clark. Her death from leukaemia in 1973, and the deaths of his parents, led Briggs to throw himself into his work. A major breakthrough had already come in 1966, with The Mother Goose Treasury, for which he received his first Kate Greenaway medal. Father Christmas brought him a second, and catapulted him to fame. His grumbling, lavatorial and flawed Santa was immensely popular.
As with all Briggs’s subsequent titles, the book is full of autobiographical elements and references. His own childhood home and Loch Fyne holidays appear regularly and he himself pops up in the follow-up, Father Christmas Goes on Holiday (1975).
Briggs can be found standing ahead of Father Christmas in the queue for a shave at the campsite, along with the illustrator John Vernon Lord (sporting his initials on his wash bag). The author’s VW Camper van would make regular appearances too. Fungus the Bogeyman (1977) could also be seen as a character very much close to home, displaying as he does an extreme version of the author’s own tendency to be outspoken and impatient.
At Hamish Hamilton the newly arrived editor Julia MacRae (later to set up her own imprint) played a major role in developing the artist’s career. The illustrator John Lawrence, who was also published by Hamish Hamilton, recalled those days with great fondness: “All the talk was about ‘is the world ready for Fungus the Bogeyman?’ and we all turned up at the launch party in green wellingtons surrounded by buckets of suspicious-looking green liquid, wondering whether it might be the wine.”
The subject of mortality formed a recurrent theme, addressed explicitly in Briggs’s account of his parents’ lives, Ethel & Ernest: A True Story (1998), which was made into an admired full-length animation broadcast at 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 that name.
But perhaps the most powerful motivation was a hatred of injustice by authority toward the powerless and naively respectful common man. The latter could be seen most directly in When the Wind Blows (1982), Briggs’s examination of an elderly couple’s attempts to follow government guidelines as 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 remotely a CND supporter. I simply thought it was a good subject. It is highly depressing and fairly political, and I could not even think who was going to buy it. But I never think of the potential audience when I embark on a book; this was not even done specifically for children.”
Nevertheless, the children of his long-term partner, Liz, provided inspiration and source material for other projects, notably The Puddleman (2004), which grew from a remark made by one of the young children on passing a puddle while the family were out walking in the countryside.
His final book was consciously intended to be just that. Compiled across several of his last years, Time for Lights Out (2019) is a poignant, funny and deeply honest exploration of the experience of ageing and reaching the end of life, in the form of a collage of verse, drawings and random thoughts.
Many of Briggs’s books were 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 TV. Briggs endorsed a sequel, The Snowman and the Snowdog, broadcast in 2012. Other books were 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 (nee Bowyer) and Ernest Briggs. Their first meeting is beautifully described in the wordless opening sequence of the book devoted to their story. Ethel, a young parlour maid in a Belgravia house, had been innocently shaking out her duster from an upper window as Ernest passed by on his bicycle and confidently returned what he took to be a friendly wave.
Briggs attended the local Rutlish school and went on to study at Wimbledon School (now College) of Art, the Central School of Arts and Crafts (now Central Saint Martins) and, after a two-year break for national service, the Slade. His father, a milkman, had tried to dissuade his son from studying at art school, fearing that it would not equip him for stable employment.
Briggs’s keen interest in narrative drawing was not welcomed at Wimbledon School of Art, which was rooted in traditional representational painting. He recalled: “I had gone to art school to learn to draw so as to become a cartoonist. But I was soon told that cartooning was an even lower form of life than commercial art.”
Such prejudices, still not entirely eradicated today, were commonplace at art schools of the time. Although he bemoaned his tutors’ failure to recognise a “natural illustrator”, the formal training that he received imbued in Briggs a strong sense of structure and of the importance of good draughtsmanship. These equipped him well in book illustration, although he left the Slade with what he saw as a poor sense of colour and a dislike of paint. When he eventually arrived at the film version of The Snowman, he expressed pleasure at how it so faithfully and painstakingly replicated his coloured-pencil technique, despite the massively labour-intensive approach that this necessitated.
The characteristic that the journalist John Walsh described in a 2012 interview as a very English “strenuous curmudgeonliness” had become in later years a stereotype that Briggs embraced, exemplified by his column in the Oldie, Notes from the Sofa, collected in book form in 2015, where he would rail against sundry incomprehensible aspects of modern life.
But friends knew another side to Briggs – loyal and playful, an inveterate practical joker. Lord once made the mistake of confessing to a dislike of dogs in the presence of Briggs, thereby immediately committing himself to becoming the recipient of all manner of canine-related gifts on subsequent birthdays and Christmases. Like so many of his characters, Briggs’s grumpiness never quite managed to conceal an underlying warmth and kindness. In 2017 he was appointed CBE.
Liz died in 2015. He is survived by her children, Clare and Tom, and grandchildren, Connie, Tilly and Miles.
Raymond Redvers Briggs, illustrator and author, born 18 January 1934; died 9 August 2022