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Drawing in the air - The gentle storyteller

Raymond Redvers Briggs CBE (18 January 1934 - 9 August 2022)

The work of Raymond Briggs has not only installed itself as part of British Christmas tradition but across much of the globe. Children and adults alike are annually spellbound by his masterpiece The Snowman. His trade was that of an illustrator, but his legacy is that of a master story teller.

Briggs was born in Wimbledon, son of a milkman, Ernest Redvers Briggs (1900-1971) and a former lady's maid Ethel Bowyer (1895-1971). During the Second World War he was evacuated to Dorset and returned to London at the end of the conflict. He pursued cartooning from a very early age, and despite his father's attempts to dissuade him, he attended Wimbledon School of Art to study painting from 1949 to 1953 and then the Central School of Art to study typography. Briggs enthusiasm for narrative drawing was frowned upon at Wimbledon School of Art. He spoke of it later in life “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.”

During his national service, 1953-1955, he was conscripted to the Royal Corps of Signals at Catterick and made a draughtsman. After that he studied painting at Slade School of Fine Art, graduating in 1957. He attempted to make his way as a painter for a brief period before becoming a professional illustrator, doing freelance work for newspapers, magazines and design studios quickly moving into working on children's books. In 1958 he illustrated Peter and the Piskies: Cornish Folk and Fairy Tales, a fairy tale anthology by Ruth Manning-Sanders published by Oxford University Press. He continued to build his reputation but he started to feel the stories were not of a sufficient quality, so he started to write his own. In 1961 he wrote and illustrated two books, Midnight Adventure and The Strange House. Both published by Hamish Hamilton, with whom he would have a long lasting relationship.

That same year he began teaching illustration part time at Brighton College of Art. A role he continued through to 1987. In 1963 Briggs married the painter Jean Taprell Clark before a major breakthrough in 1966 when his work The Mother Goose Treasury delivered him his first Kate Greenaway medal. (A British annual literary award for "distinguished illustration in a book for children"). His work Fee Fi Fo Fum (1964) had been listed a Highly Commended runner up.

It would be the devastating loss of his parents in 1971 rapidly followed by his wife's passing from leukaemia in 1973 that saw Briggs throw himself into his work and his curmudgeonly depiction of Father Christmas in his 1973 book of the same name catapulted him to global success, bagging him a further Kate Greenaway medal. The sequel Father Christmas Goes on Holiday (1975). Both these titles were peppered with references to his own life, his childhood home and holiday locations appear frequently. His next title explored some of his own personality. His habit to be outspoken and impatient are clear for all to see in Fungus the Bogeyman (1977). This was an ambitious and intricately detailed depiction of the Bogeyman society in which we follow Fungus through an average day. He undergoes an existential crisis as he doubts the value of his job scaring people in the human society on the surface. It is a much loved book and has had several adaptations for the stage and screen, despite the challenge of it having no real plot.

Fungus would be overshadowed by the next publication, possibly the defining work of Briggs's career. The Snowman (1978). Entirely wordless and illustrated with just pencil it has become an international classic exploring the innocence of Christmas and tackling mortality. The inspiration was partly found in his previous work. He mused "For two years I worked on Fungus, buried amongst muck, slime and words, so... I wanted to do something which was clean, pleasant, fresh and wordless and quick." The Snowman was a Highly Commended runner-up for the Kate Greenaway Medal and the American edition won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in the picture book category.

Gentleman Jim (1980) was his next publication but it was the follow up that was to be his next hit. When the Wind Blows (1982) as the elderly couple, Jim and his wife, try to follow Government advice in the build up to and fall out from a nuclear war. Briggs was clear that he was not a CND supporter but "simply thought it was a good subject. It is highly depressing and fairly political."

During that same year the TV musical adaptation of The Snowman was released. He was always extremely grateful at the painstaking and faithful reproduction of his coloured pencil technique in the animated short. The film was nominated for Best Animated Short Film at the 55th Academy Awards (Oscars) and won a BAFTA TV Award. The film had three different introductions, the original featuring Briggs describing the winter that inspired the story. A second intro for the American market had David Bowie playing an adult version of the boy and a third with Mel Smith reprising his role as Brigg's Father Christmas recalling meeting the boy at the North Pole. The film has been broadcast annually on Christmas Eve every year since (with the exception of 1984) and is revered by the British as a fundamental part of the Christmas tradition. The music written by Howard Blake also gave us the haunting Christmas song "Walking in the Air". The score is often performed as a stand alone concert or with a narrator providing the story. The first performance with a narrator was in the Summer of 1983, with Bernard Cribbins.

The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman (1984) was a satire of the Falklands conflict for young children. This seems to have been the end of his most prolific period of success but he would continue to be recognised with awards for his work. In 1992 alongside being named British Book Awards Children's author of the year he also won the Kurt Maschler Award (The Emil - recognising a "work of imagination for children") for his short graphic novel The Man (1992). His next work The Bear (1994) would eventually win the Phoenix Picture Book Award from the Children's Literature Association in 2014. In 1994 his two Father Christmas books were adapted into an animated film and even included the party from The Snowman from the perspective of Father Christmas. The curmudgeonly git bringer was voiced by British comedian and actor Mel Smith.

In the 1999 British Book Awards his loving portrayal of his parents 41 year marriage, Ethel & Ernest: A True Story (1998) won Best Illustrated Book and was then turned into a hand drawn animated film in 2016. Briggs was awarded a CBE in 2017 and a book about his life Raymond Briggs: The Illustrators was written by Nicolette Jones and published in 2020. Time for Lights Out (2019), his last work was a compiled across several years and provides a funny and deeply moving exploration of ageing and arriving at the last stages of life. Despite his descent into stereotyped British grumpy old man, Briggs had a warmth and kindness that all who knew him would recount with fondness. His imagination, poignant and delicate storytelling and attention to detail will ensure his work will live long in the memory for countless generations to come.

His long term partner Liz died in 2015 and Raymond Briggs is survived by her children, Clare and Tom, and grandchildren, Connie, Tilly and Miles.


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