Raymond Briggs, the writer and illustrator who wowed children and inspired adults with best-selling cartoons and picture books, has died at the age of 88 said his publisher, Penguin Random House.
From the enchanting magic of the snowman to the devastating apocalypse in When the Wind Blows, Briggs has created a variety of well-loved characters, including his terrified Fungus the Bogeyman and his grumpy version of Santa Claus. A career spanning six decades has garnered him numerous awards and television adaptations have made him a permanent fixture on the British Christmas scene.
Briggs was born in 1934 and attended the local grammar school at Wimbledon. His decision to leave school at 15 to attend Wimbledon Art College may have confused his milkman father, but he never dreamed of becoming Michelangelo.
“I never thought of becoming a gold-framed gallery artist and wasn’t pushed into painting until I went to art school,” he told the Guardian in 2004. “I went there to do cartoons.”
Briggs’ interest in commercial art was met with horror in college – one teacher stuttered, “Good God, is that all you want?” – and after national service, Briggs encountered more snobbery while studying at the Slade School of Fine Art. But by the time he left at 23, his talent for drawing realistic images from memory meant it wasn’t hard finding work as an illustrator for magazines, ad agencies and books.
As the 1960s approached, Briggs began to despair of the quality of the books he illustrated. “They were so bad I knew I could do better myself,” he told the Guardian, “so I wrote a story and gave it to an editor hoping he would give me some advice. But instead he said he would publish it, showing what the standard would be for a complete novice who has never written more than one school essay to publish their first work.”
The Strange House was published in 1961 and five years later he won the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal for his 800 illustrations for an edition of The Mother Goose Treasury. Jim and the Beanstalk, a warm-hearted sequel to the traditional story, was released in 1970.
In 1973 he won a second Kate Greenaway Medal and a wider audience with Father Christmas. This 24-page cartoon introduces Santa as a grumpy old man scolding his way through his busiest day of the year: Christmas Eve. We follow him awakening – “Blooming Christmas here again!” – and making his rounds, the sparse dialogue being a litany of laments about “blooming antennae”, “blooming cats”, “blooming soot”, “blooming chimneys” and all the “stairs, stairs, stairs”.
Speaking about his bestseller in 2014, Briggs said: “For asshole years he’s been doing this horrible job: going out all night, no matter the weather. He’s fed up: who wouldn’t be? It follows, of course, that he will be grumpy.”
The same spirit pervaded Briggs’ 1977 Fungus the Bogeyman, in which Fungus lived in damp, fetid tunnels conjured up in a palette of mud brown and acid green. Fungus sets out at night to frighten those on the surface, musing on the futility of existence: “There has to be more to life than that.” The Guardian explained it was suitable “for children aged 10+ — or grown-ups — with sombre minds and terrible sense of humor,” while The Times called it “the ideal picture book for an age of punk rock and universal glorification of ugliness.” 50,000 copies were sold within a year.
Briggs turned to pastel colors in 1978’s The Snowman, a wordless story about a boy whose snowman comes to life. But this magical story was still based on harsh reality; The next morning, the boy wakes up to find only the snowman’s hat and scarf on a pile of melting snow. “I don’t have a happy ending,” Briggs told the Radio Times in 2012. “I create what seems natural and inevitable. The snowman melts, my parents die, animals die, flowers die. everything does. There’s nothing particularly sinister about that. It’s a fact of life.”
Channel 4 didn’t hide the problem with its 1982 animated version, but sweetened the pill by adding a visit to Santa Claus and a soundtrack featuring a whistling choirboy. Although Briggs acknowledges that a film must be commercially viable, he told the Guardian in 2015 that he hated it at the time and still found it cheesy. But animation became a staple of festive television programming, giving Briggs a Christmassy reputation that only grew after the television versions of Father Christmas in 1991 and Fungus the Bogeyman in 2004 and 2015.
Meanwhile, Briggs turned from fantasy to writing picture books about nuclear war (When the Wind Blows), the British invasion of the Falkland Islands (The Tin-Pot Foreign General and The Old Iron Woman), and an account of his parents’ marriage (Ethel and Ernest). But he rejected the idea of dividing his work into books for adults and books for children.
“There are a few books that are obviously for young children,” he told the Guardian in 1999, “but I don’t usually think about whether a book is for children or adults. After a kid learns to read fluently by eight or nine, the whole idea of categorizing them seems a bit silly.”
Time for Lights Out, a hodgepodge of drawings, verses and memoirs that Briggs worked on for a decade, looks death straight in the face. In it he envisions “future ghosts” looking around his Sussex home: “There must have been / a daft old fellow here,” he writes, “long-haired, artsy-farty guy, / did pictures for children’s books / or some such tripe. / You should have seen that stuff / It got stuck in the attic! / Snowman this and snowman that, / Tons and tons deed.”