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Raymond Briggs 1934-2022
A unique voice in children's literature and the creator of countless iconic characters from Fungus the Bogeyman to a gloriously irascible Father Christmas, Raymond Briggs has passed away at the age of 88. In this piece, we recall the extraordinary career and work of one of the greatest author-illustrators of all time.
When Raymond Briggs was a teenager studying at Wimbledon Art College he dared to express a love of cartooning and commercial art to one of his teachers. “Good God, is that all you want?” came the appalled reply. Little did that teacher know that their rebellious student would go on to become one of the most revered figures in post-war British children’s literature, with a style and worldview so dazzlingly singular that it is quite impossible to think of another author-illustrator to compare him to.
Briggs was born in Wimbledon in 1934 to parents that he immortalised in the richly affectionate graphic novel Ethel & Ernest over sixty years later. His decision to drop out of school at the age of 15 and enrol in art school - to the bafflement of his socialist milkman father - was the first sign of the young Raymond’s staunchly contrary streak. But it proved an astute choice, as his talent for realistic illustration secured him plentiful work for the advertising industry upon graduation.
After a brief flirtation with painting, Briggs settled into a comfortable living providing the illustrations for other authors’ picture books. It wasn’t long, however, before he became disillusioned with the quality of the writing on offer and decided that he could do better himself. His debut work as both author and illustrator, The Strange House, was published in 1961 but it was still his artwork that attracted the plaudits and five years later he scooped the prestigious Kate Greenaway medal for illustration for his contributions to The Mother Goose Treasury.
It was his second Kate Greenaway win that really kickstarted his extraordinary career, however. Published in 1973, the picture book Father Christmas views Santa through Briggs’ deliciously curmudgeonly eyes, as the titular festive icon grumbles and grouses his way through yuletide declaring everything from cats to chimneys as thoroughly ‘blooming.’ Written very much as a comic with panels and speech bubbles rather than the separated text and image format of conventional picture books, Father Christmas and its 1975 sequel Father Christmas Goes on Holiday endure as the perfect antidote to the sickly sweet sentimentality of many festive children’s books.
1977 saw Briggs create another unforgettable character in the icky yet lovable Fungus the Bogeyman, whose working day as a child-scarer is pored over in minute detail as our disaffected hero ponders the worth of his profession. Fungus is a prime example of Briggs’ uncanny ability to speak equally compellingly to both child and adult audiences; grown-ups revel in the satirical realisation of a bogeyman society with strong echoes of our own, whilst kids love the gooey, snotty yuckiness of the bravura illustrations. The Times labelled it ‘the ideal picture book for the age of punk rock.’
The following year, Briggs – now on one of the hottest streaks in picture book history - swapped the grimy greens of Fungus the Bogeyman for the clean whites and soft crayons of the seminal The Snowman. Courageously wordless and with its iconic images of its characters soaring over the South Downs, the heartbreakingly beautiful tale of the fragile friendship between a boy and the snowman he builds on a winter’s day has entered the pantheon of immutable literary Christmas classics, alongside A Christmas Carol and Twas the Night Before Christmas. A 1982 animated television adaptation added a visit to Father Christmas (an altogether more jovial version than Briggs’ own) and the vocal skills of choirboy Aled Jones. Briggs, predictably, hated it.
Now a bona fide living legend of children’s literature, Briggs continued to produce bold and challenging work but now for a more mature audience. His natural irascibility found the perfect outlet in the tumultuous political events of the era, with his intensely powerful 1982 graphic novel When the Wind Blows (a sequel of sorts to his earlier Gentleman Jim) detailing the effect of a nuclear attack on a retired couple, and the sadly out-of-print The Tin Pot General and the Old Iron Woman (1984) ruthlessly satirising the dreadful human cost of the Falklands War. Through the 90s and into the 21st century, Briggs delivered consistently excellent work, including The Bear, the aforementioned graphic biography Ethel & Ernest and Ug: Boy Genius of the Stone Age, whilst playing the part of curmudgeonly-old-gent-with-a-heart-of-gold to a tee.
His final publication, fittingly enough, was a terrifically grumpy yet deeply moving graphic memoir called Time for Lights Out. As Briggs said of The Snowman in an interview with the Radio Times in 2012, “the snowman melts, my parents died, animals die, flowers die. Everything does. There’s nothing particularly gloomy about it. It’s a fact of life.” But when beloved literary figures from countless childhoods pass away, it can be difficult to view it quite like that.
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