Raymond Briggs, best known for his books Santa Claus (1973) and The Snowman (1978), died on August 9 of pneumonia at the Royal Sussex County Hospital, where he spent his final weeks. Relatives praised the “caring and caring care” of hospital staff.
Over a career spanning nearly 60 years, Briggs wrote 26 picture books or graphic novels which he illustrated in his highly original style. He also provided the illustrations for several other authors.
Briggs was born in London in 1934, the only child of a milkman and a former maid. His parents met at the height of the Depression. Their first meeting was wonderfully portrayed by their son many years later in the book’s wordless opening sequence. Ethel & Ernest: a true story (1998). Ethel, a young maid working in the affluent area of Belgravia, central London, had apparently shaken her feather duster from an upper window as Ernest cycled past and confidently returned what he thought was a wave friendly.
At the age of 6, during World War II, Briggs was evacuated twice as one of the millions of children who, along with pregnant women and the infirm, were turned away from heavily populated parts of England to escape Nazi air raids. Briggs said he enjoyed what he later described as a happy but uneventful childhood. Despite outward appearances, however, the anxieties over the ever-present threat of death and destruction did not fail to leave a mark on the impressionable boy (already 10 years old when the war ended) and undoubtedly explain these themes so important in his later work.
After the war, Briggs won a scholarship to Rutlish Grammar School in Merton. But he found the compulsory elocution lessons elitist and didn’t like that they emphasized his least favorite subject, sports. Despite parental reluctance, at age 15 he enrolled at the Wimbledon School of Art, hoping to train as a designer. His interviewer, who considered cartoons the lowest art form, told him that was neither a serious nor appropriate ambition. After deciding to study oil painting instead, Briggs focused on figurative drawing.
As part of his national military service, he worked in the Royal Corps of Signals, where he mainly drew electrical and radio circuits. By the time he had completed his graduate studies at the Slade School of Fine Art, he was already receiving commissions from publishers and advertising agencies.
Driven by the poor quality of some of the novels he illustrated, he produced his own, The strange house (1961), an adventure story, and gave it to a publisher friend in the hope of constructive criticism. To Briggs’ amazement, the publisher had it published.
Around this time he also got a part-time job as a lecturer teaching illustration at the Brighton School of Art, which helped him survive when commissions dried up. He continued to teach until 1987. His teaching was greatly admired and appreciated by a generation of artists.
In 1963 Briggs married painter Jean Taprell Clark.
A breakthrough came for Briggs in 1966, with Mother Goose’s Treasurefor which he contributed nearly 900 illustrations and received his first Kate Greenaway Medal.
His parents died in 1971 and his wife soon after in 1973 from leukemia. This led Briggs to throw herself into her work with determination. Santa Claus (1973) is the result. Conceived in comic book fashion, Briggs took an iconic, mythical figure and portrayed him as an ordinary worker performing often tedious and repetitive work.
Many traits typical of Briggs’ later work were present, above all a genuinely felt sympathy for the workers (Briggs’ father appears once in the story as his milk run and Santa’s delivery route intersect early on the morning). He has a sense of working-class life, with its sometimes comical difficulties and inconveniences. Briggs has drawn the ire of conservatives for breaking social taboos, such as depicting Santa on the toilet and constantly grumbling about “Bloomin Christmas!”
An equally grumpy but essentially warm character was Croquemitaine Mushroom (1977), who lived among a race of subterranean creatures that visit the surface to “bump the night”.
But it was The Snowman (1978) which became Briggs’ biggest commercial success and with which his name is popularly associated.
In the beloved story, a young boy makes a snowman that magically comes to life later that night. They play in the house while the boy’s parents sleep before flying across fields and seas to the North Pole. A strong bond is formed between the couple. But the story ends the next morning, with the boy discovering that the snowman has melted. The searing final image, with the boy’s back turned, invites us to share his grief.
An animated adaptation of The Snowmaninvolving a labor-intensive process using pastels and pencils on celluloid to preserve Brigg’s illustrative style, complete with a memorable soundtrack, first aired on UK television in December 1982. It has been repeated every Christmas since.
Briggs was ready to tackle much more complex themes. When the wind blows (1982) depicts nuclear war from the perspective of a retired couple, Jim and Hilda Bloggs. One afternoon, the couple heard a message on the radio about an imminent “outbreak of hostilities”. Jim begins making a fallout shelter as recommended by government advice. While carrying out similar futile actions, born of a naive trust in the authorities, the old couple gradually succumbs to radiation sickness.
The official story advice was taken from an actual leaflet published by the British government in 1980, “Protect and Survive”. When the wind blows was attacked by right-wing media and politicians and Briggs was accused of “peddling CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] propaganda”. Briggs replied, “I wasn’t even in the CND at the time. People criticized me for making fun of rather dark working class people. people were thick enough to follow such ridiculous advice.
The growing danger of nuclear war, along with the similar unnecessary and therefore deadly advice being given during the COVID-19 pandemic, is proof of the continued relevance of Briggs’ moving story.
When the wind blows inspired an excellent film adaptation in 1986, with the central characters voiced by John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft, and a soundtrack by Roger Waters featuring David Bowie and Hugh Cornwell of The Stranglers.
Tributes to Briggs have mostly been silent on his next work, The Foreign General Tin-Pot and the Old Iron Woman (1984). A passionate denunciation of the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas war begins with two quotes, one from Albert Einstein, “Nationalism is a childhood disease. It is the measles of mankind” and that of Samuel Johnson, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a villain”.
Briggs depicts a war on “a sad little island” between Argentine General Leopoldo Galtieri and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, which is won by the Old Iron Woman at terrible human cost – “all real men, made of flesh and blood “.
At victory celebrations hosted by the Old Woman of Iron, “soldiers with parts of their bodies missing were not invited to participate…in case the sight of them spoiled the festivities.”
Briggs’ last book, Lights out time (2019), is a poignant, funny and honest exploration of the experience of aging and coming to the end of life in the form of a patchwork of random verses, drawings and thoughts.
Briggs’ work is admired, even loved, by millions of children and adults because he didn’t compromise on what he told them. Loyalty to ideas and principles, generally celebrating the downtrodden and castigating injustice, was always more important to him than what he should say and to whom. As he once told a journalist, “I don’t usually think about whether a book is for children or for adults. Once a child learns to read fluently, around eight or nine years old, the very idea of categorizing them seems a bit silly.