Remembering Raymond Briggs: pioneering illustrator and creator of beloved book The Snowman

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Raymond Briggs, the British author and illustrator of the classic children’s books Father Christmas (1973), Fungus the Bogeyman (1977), and The Snowman (1978), died on 9 August, aged 88.

Briggs was uneasy at being described as a pioneering graphic novelist—he preferred to describe his creations as “picture books”. But the barely concealed emotional charge of his children’s tales, and their bucolic charm, acquired a stinging, subversive power when deployed, in an unaltered visual style, in his adult, satirical and autobiographical books, including Gentleman Jim (1980) and When the Wind Blows (1982).

Ethel & Ernest (1986), was an affectionate biography of his parents Ethel Bowyer, a lady’s maid turned housewife, and Ernest Briggs, a milkman. All Briggs’s books have an underlying empathy—sometimes explicit, sometimes concealed, even to the author, until critics and readers discovered it—for the life, loves and mortality of his working-class Londoner parents.

In later life, Briggs liked to present himself as a curmudgeon, or “grumpy old man”. He penned a column in The Oldie magazine, “Notes from the Sofa”, and his family recalled, following his death, how delighted he had been to be described in a leading article in The Guardian newspaper as an “iconoclastic national treasure”. He also told stories against himself at how resistant he had been to suggestions made by his collaborators, including the producer John Coates’s proposal that a scene with Father Christmas should be added in the 1982 animated film adaptation of The Snowman. Briggs had told Coates he was against the idea, but was later very happy to admit how well the addition had worked.

One of Raymond Briggs’s illustrations from The Snowman book Image: Raymond Briggs / Penguin

Briggs was an always inquisitive artist who had breathed in the artistic and popular culture of his time, and was most un-British in his willingness to show public vulnerability about his emotional state. He described in 2016, on stage at the British Film Institute, how he had wept through the audio recording sessions for the animated film of Ethel & Ernest and that listening to the actors Jim Broadbent and Bernda Blethyn had made him feel that his parents had come back to life, their south London accents caught to perfection. Watching the finished film, he said, he had cried several handkerchiefs worth of tears.

Becoming an artist

Briggs had a stable childhood in the 1930s and 40s, growing up in a terraced house in Ashen Grove, Wimbledon Park, southwest London. The house and its old-fashioned kitchen, scullery and outside lavatory feature repeatedly in Briggs’s work, from Father Christmas onwards—where Briggs based the title character, and his “blooming” cursing at the anti-social hours and conditions of his work, on the grind of his father Ernest’s labour, delivering milk to people’s doorsteps at all hours and in all weathers. In the half-century following his parents’ death in 1971, Briggs made regular return visits to the house, whose later owners kept it largely as Ethel and Ernest had left it, down to the 1930s wallpaper that still lined the inside of a hallway cupboard.

Briggs was drawn to illustration by his love of the newspaper comic strips of his childhood, when Mary Tourtel and Alfred Bestall’s Rupert Bear was a publishing phenomenon in the mass-circulation Daily Express newspaper and, from 1936, as an annual. He also grew up in the golden age of comics: the first Superman comic strip appeared in 1938 and the first comic book devoted to the character in 1939, the year that also saw the launch of Marvel Comics. It was also a time when art’s boundaries had been expanded by flight and aerial photography, whether it was the the airborne cinematic perspectives of the Italian Futurists such as Guglielmo Sansoni and Tullio Crali or the paintings of the British war artist Eric Ravilious, with an aerial vantage point level with RAF aircraft in flight over the patchwork landscape of southern England.

Briggs received a thorough professional schooling, first at Wimbledon School of Art (now Wimbledon College of Art), then at Central School of Art in London, the Royal Corps of Signals—for his national service, where he was put to work drawing diagrams for electric circuitry—and the Slade School of Art, University College London. At the Slade he overlapped with fellow students including the late Paula Rego and Victor Willing, and graduated in 1957, aged 23. Briggs put his meticulous research skills to use, mining historical dictionaries for redundant words that might give authenticity to his characters, including the more unsavoury bodily emissions of Fungus the Bogeyman.

Briggs’s mature style, favouring crayon as a medium over earlier experiments in watercolour, has a fine-textured patina and muted palette that is as distinctive and unmistakable as the strongly outlined, vividly coloured images of two internationally popular Francophone comic-book series—Hergé’s Tintin adventures (starting in 1929) and René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo’s Asterix books (1959-2015)—both of which are reminiscent of the style and primary tones of the 19th-century posters and short books of the French publisher Imageries d’Epinal.

After leaving the Slade in 1957, Briggs needed to make a living, and came to illustration through his love of newspaper cartoons. After establishing a reputation as an illustrator of fairy-tale compendiums—including the prize-winning The Mother Goose Treasury (1966) for which he created 800 illustrations for over 400 traditional stories and verses—he turned author and illustrator, starting in 1961 with Midnight Adventure and The Strange House. Briggs had taken up writing, he said, as he thought he could do better than many of the writers whose work he was commissioned to illustrate. Briggs’s first comic strip book, his debut as a graphic novelist, was Father Christmas. He was forced into using the “laborious” format, he said, when he realised he would need far more than 32 images to tell his story in a 32-page book. In the process, he created a picture book that was also a comic, helping to make graphic novels respectable for children’s publishers in Britain.

Gentleman Jim, Briggs’s first homage to his parents and his upbringing, is an affectionate satire on the reveries of Jim Bloggs, a British lavatory cleaner, frustrated at his lack of education, who dreams of being a highwayman and other raffish, glamorous figures—episodes that gave Briggs scope to play with adventurous, painterly background imagery, overlaid with the default sequential square or oblong frames and speech bubbles of classic comic narrative.

Shaped by war

Briggs played an important part in the emergence of graphic novels in Britain, and—through the international embrace of his stories as musicals, ballets and animated films—to feeding his brand into the genre’s global development as a serious mode of visual storytelling in book form. His contributions are interestingly complementary to the work of two other influential graphic novelists of his era, Will Eisner and Art Spiegelman, not least because all three writers had their imaginative and visual worlds strongly formed by their individual and family experience of the global catastrophe of the Second World War. Eisner, 18 years Briggs’s senior, published Contract with God and other Tenement Stories (1978), after making his name as a cartoonist, who had served in the military and created war comics during the conflict. Art Spiegelman, 14 years Briggs’s junior, created his Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus (1986 and 1991) around interviews with his father Vladek Speigelman, about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor.

The secretary of the Inter-Church Peace Council (IKV) in the Netherlands, Mient Jan Faber (left), receiving the first copy of the comic book When the Wind Blows (called When the Bomb Fell in the Dutch version) by Raymond Briggs (right) in 1983 Photo: Dutch National Archives

During the 1939-45 conflict, Briggs was evacuated, like three million other city-dwelling children, to the countryside, in his case to life on a farm in Dorset. His books are freighted with visual and verbal memories of the conflict, from the Anderson bomb shelter adopted for other uses in Father Christmas; to the nostalgia of the lead characters in When the Wind Blows, his anti-war satire on the dangers of nuclear apocalypse, for how they had got by during “the war”.

The evil, and injustice, of war is also the subject of Briggs’s The Tin Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman (1984), a satire on the 1982 Falklands War, and is a running thread through Ethel & Ernest, which is told as a series of vignettes covering his parents’ 40 years together. Briggs used newspaper headlines and radio bulletins in Ethel & Ernest to build up the menacing rise of Hitler and the outbreak of war, narrating the putting up of blackout windows, the removal of railings to be turned into warplanes, the London Blitz, the internal Morrison shelter, Ernest’s 14-hour shifts fighting fires in the bombed-out London Docks—and the terrifying advent of the V1 Doodlebug. Critics seized eagerly on the book as a roman à clef that provided a key to all of Briggs’s preceding work, both in physical setting, family character and the engagement with love and mortality.

From books to film

Following Briggs’s death, his friend and fellow graphic novelist Posy Simmonds wrote in The Guardian newspaper of how she admired the skill with which Briggs paced his stories: “The way every page-turn is a surprise and his use of different mediums to create atmosphere… He was like a good film director, knowing exactly when to place the close-up or the long shot. He knew the right moment for silence, when to exclude speech balloons from a frame.”

That underlying feel for timing, the musical pacing and symphonic structure of his work, with nods to the tropes of dance and mime, was made explicit in the 1982 animated film of Briggs’s The Snowman. The 26-minute short was produced by John Coates of TVC productions for television, for the UK’s nascent Channel 4. The composer Howard Blake was asked to write music for the film and, when he heard talk of dialogue being written, successfully begged to be allowed to write a through-composed score that would remove the need for voices, and maintain the purity of the work’s non-verbal narrative.

The making of the Snowman film brought a whole new world of collaboration, and audience reach, to Briggs’s work. The TVC studio worked on several later Briggs films: Coates as producer, Blake as regular composer, and a fleet of animators who were still working on Briggs projects 35 years later. Hilary Audus, one of the lead animators on The Snowman, worked on later Briggs films including directing the 1998 short of his book The Bear, with a through-composed soundtrack by Blake. Roger Mainwood, one of eight animators on The Snowman, who created the opening scenes of that film, with the boy’s waking to discover a hushed, snow-covered landscape, also worked on the TVC production of Father Christmas (1991) and was director of the animated film of Ethel & Ernest.

The Snowman

The purest form of Briggs’s work can be found in the wordless graphic novel The Snowman, where the narrative is entirely visual. The book’s narrative is beautifully paced, the scale of the images expanding to meet the demands of the most lyrical moments when the Snowman and his boy creator take flight over the Sussex cliffs and the South Downs where Briggs lived for the last 60 years of his life, and over the streets of Brighton where Briggs taught at the School of Art from 1961 to 1986. The book’s landscape backgrounds feel suffused with the cartographic structure of the 1930s London Underground posters of MacDonald “Max” Gill and the atmospheric finish of the landscapes of Ravilious, another London-born artist who found his creative feet in Sussex. The vivid, but unsentimental, human characters feel like an adroit 1970s corrective to the more cloying aspects of the grand British tradition of book illustration represented by Randolph Caldecott, Walter Crane and Edward Ardizzone.

By the mid-1980s, The Snowman had become a global sensation thanks to the 1982 animated film and its global merchandising, from lavatory seat covers to chicken nugget advertisements in Snowman-mad Japan (a line was apparently drawn at the idea of a Snowman condom). The breakout moment for the film, and for Briggs, was a 1985 Christmas advertisement for a toy brand that featured a new recording of “Walking in the Air”— Blake’s song from his film soundtrack—sung by the boy treble Aled Jones. It became a chart-busting hit and has been an unavoidable feature of Christmas sound-tracks in Britain and elsewhere ever since.

Seeing his work remediated on stage, radio, and in film adapatations gave Briggs fresh insight into himself and his work. The film of The Snowman, and the letters he received about it made him realise that it is both a love story and a story about death, written a few years after the death of his parents and of his wife, Jean Taprell Clark. The snowman has to melt as we must all “melt” and die. Briggs was filmed studying the final page of The Snowman, and referencing the syntax of a film script: “Bright sunny day. Death. End.” In the film, the melody of “Walking in the Air” moves into A Flat Minor over the melted snowman.

Briggs’s life moved into a minor key in the 2010s with the death in 2015 of his partner of 40 years Liz Benjamin, who had brought a stepson, a stepdaughter and stepgrandchildren into his life. He remained as involved as ever in his writing and adaptations of his work, and was the executive producer on the film of Ethel & Ernest, although his health kept him from attending as many production sessions as he would have liked. One of his final works was Time for Lights Out (2019), which he described as a “big fat book on old age and death”.

He was very amused when Liz Benjamin’s three-year-old granddaughter announced one day at the dining table that “Raymond is not a normal person”. “The best compliment I have ever had,” he said. And words that he would like as his epitaph.

• Raymond Redvers Briggs, born Wimbledon, London 18 January 1934; CBE 2017; married Jean Taprell Clark in 1963 (died 1973); partner Liz Benjamin (died 2015; one stepson, one stepdaughter); died Brighton, East Sussex 9 August 2022.

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