© 2015 Eric Hoffman
Raymond Briggs – the celebrated UK-based creator of such cherished Holiday-themed institutions and Father Christmas (1973) and The Snowman (1978) – in speaking with interviewer Nicolette Jones, complained that for all his success as a cartoonist, he “never quite fit in,” either in the children’s book environment with which he is most often associated, or with more “legitimate” artists and writers. “At meetings of the Society of Authors or the Royal Society of Literature,” Briggs explains, “I am not a proper writer. I only write short texts for picture books; it’s not real writing. Then, at meetings of the Cartoonists Club, the tough Fleet Street and Wapping lot make me feel as if I’m Beatrix Potter” (Jones, 7).
To this outsider status can be added the failure of the comic book intelligentsia to include Briggs as one of the pioneers of the form of comic book that has come to be known as the “graphic novel” – the comic book artist Seth, who composed an introduction to the recent Drawn & Quarterly reprint of Briggs’ seminal Gentleman Jim (1980), is among the few comic book artists to acknowledge Briggs’ significant contribution to the medium – because of his association with children’s literature, and despite his having produced several works of considerable sophistication and which are clearly intended for an adult audience (Gentleman Jim , When the Wind Blows , The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman , and Ethel and Ernest ). His works for children also tend to utilize formal conventions more commonly associated with comic books; namely, multi-paneled pages with all their associated narrative, thematic and stylistic considerations. This dichotomy is perhaps most clearly underlined in Briggs’ Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman, a book that – stylistically, at least – most closely approximates the average children’s book (a “storybook” narrative with full-page illustrations, often spread over two pages, with several black-and-white pages reminiscent of the once-common printing method of interspersing colored and black-and-white pages as a cost-saving mechanism), yet thematically is his most adult-oriented work to date, a biting satire of the Falklands War.
Prior to Briggs, the use of panels in children’s books was practically unheard of. Now, it is commonplace. Part of that is due to the acceptance of the comic strip or comic book as a legitimate narrative technique, and its growing legitimization among historians, scholars, art critics and other purveyors of taste (the comics’ rise out of the ghetto of illiteracy in other words), yet it is also due to Briggs’ early, path-breaking efforts, beginning with Father Christmas in 1973, published half a decade before the acknowledged “first” graphic novel, Will Eisner’s A Contract with God (1978) (though of course there were numerous other non-acknowledged first graphic novels, such as Jim Steranko’s Chandler (1976). Briggs’ work has also served to legitimize children’s books as a respectable medium, which, as with all classic works of children’s literature, can be enjoyed on its own terms by everyone, regardless of age.
Briggs’ eccentricities, such as they are, seem, as described by Jones, peculiarly English. While he is a notably wealthy children’s book illustrator, whose books routinely sell upwards of 100,000 or more copies, he lacks ostentation, financial or otherwise. He lives in a small house for nearly fifty years – he moved there in 1967 – which is decorated with full-length oil portraits of his parents on an old cabinet, maps of the British isles, promotional items for Fungus the Bogeyman (in the lavatory of course), and paintings from Briggs’ years at the Slade. He drives an old car and shops at charity shops and he’s an avid collector of everything from books with titles that are variations of When the Wind Blows, editions of Robinson Crusoe, and plastic coffee lids (“because,” notes Jones, “of a line from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “measured out my life in coffee spoons”).
His studio is downstairs, its windows looking out at charming English fields. He travels infrequently (a 1998 trip to Japan for an exhibition of English children’s books is one rare exception). “Although he co-operates with the demands of his publisher’s publicity and marketing departments, he does not court celebrity,” Jones observes. “He turns down invitations to appear on radio or television when he doubts he has anything significant to say … He has no computer, and communicates with friends and publishers, mostly by faxing elegantly handwritten jocular letters” (Jones 9-11). He and his partner, whom he met in 1973, live “semi-separately” – she has her own home nearby, as well as her own family; one of her grandchildren, of whom Briggs is particularly fond, helped to inspire Briggs’ magical The Puddleman (2004), when he innocently observed of an impression in the ground, that “they haven’t put any puddle in that one” (Jones 12-13).
Raymond Briggs was born 18 January 1934, the son of a Cockney Co-operative Dairies milkman, Ernest Briggs, and Ethel, a housewife who had previously worked as a lady’s maid for an upper-class family in Knightsbridge. The couple were in their thirties (Ernest 30 and Ethel 34) when they “met and married”; in those days, an older couple (McCarthy, 12). With his Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society salary of three guineas a week, Ernest purchased a three-bedroom, Edwardian style home in Ashen Grove, Wimbledon Park, in south London. The youngest of eleven children, Ethel was nevertheless impressed by the comparatively copious amount of space the small home offered. The house, later depicted in Briggs’ Father Christmas, was a small gray terrace with “old cracked tiles and brass taps and home-made wooden draining boards” (Beckett, 7), where they remained until their death (their lives are lovingly and touchingly recounted in Briggs’ masterpiece, Ethel and Ernest). Except for a brief period during the London blitzkrieg during the Second World War, when his parents sent him to live in the countryside with extended family in Dorset, Briggs lived with his parents until he was twenty-five. The couple was immensely proud of their home, treating the bathroom as “holy ground”; returning home from work, Ernest refused to wash his hands in the bathroom sink, using the kitchen sink instead. They were decidedly lower middle-class, uneducated – yet not simple – live-and-let-live types, unquestioningly obedient to authority and the upper classes. Briggs drove his milk wagon in all types of weather. “I used to help him push this infernal thing around,” tells Briggs:
Terribly hard work, particularly in the snow. It was a tough old life; no one would do it now. I don’t think my parents were ever late for work in their lives. People were terrified of getting the sack. I suppose there was dole … but we never heard of anybody on it.
Aside from the war, there was little drama. “No divorces, no affairs,” says Briggs. Aside from Ernest imbibing an occasional brown ale, Briggs’ parents did not drink. During the war, Ernest found work as a fireman and Ethel was employed packing mail for soldiers. Promoted to the office, Ethel rejoiced in her newfound working-class status. During these years, young Raymond was very independent, arriving home from school to an empty house (ibid), and reading from his father’s Labour paper, the Daily Mirror, which published the work of various British comic strips he admired, including Belinda and the Bomb, Alley Boys, Buck Ryan, Ruggles, and Garth (the “early crudely drawn one by Steve Dowling”) (Gravett 1989, 14). Aside from a single incident of stealing a set of billiard cues from a boarded-up golf club (recounted in Briggs’ Midnight Adventure , his first effort as writer), Briggs was a well-behaved boy, “doted on and spoilt” by his parents, “because I came so late [Ethel was 38 when she gave birth to him] and was the only [child]. And the fact that I turned out bright enough to get into grammar school, and was therefore destined for the middle-classes, delighted my mother. She was the ladylike one of the family. She was so pleased that I was not going to do a working-class job like my father” (Hamilton, n.p.).
“We were not glamorously poor,” he explains, “although my mother went back to work as a civil service clerk. I always felt she was earning money for my benefit, which was a spur for me to do well” (Hamilton, n.p.). Young Raymond excelled at elementary school and so, at age ten, he was sent a year early to the Rutlish school in Merton (ibid). “My mother was over the moon” Briggs told interviewer Ruth McCarthy. “But the school was dreadful – founded ‘for the poor boys of Merton’ in the 18th century. All the younger men were in the war, so [for teachers] they wheeled out all these old chaps; some of them were ga-ga. The main religion was devotion to the school – you didn’t go to get educated, you went to serve the school. I never came to terms with that” (McCarthy, 12).
Initially, Briggs wanted to be a newspaper reporter, yet this was to change after Briggs first began drawing in earnest at twelve years of age, after first seeing the cartoons appearing in the popular and long-running British magazine Punch; Briggs corresponded with cartoonists he admired, requesting samples of their work with which to study their technique (Jones, 12). This ambition was to change again when Briggs later began contemplating a career as a painter, fearing that as an artist he would not be taken seriously doing cartooning. He began attending the Wimbledon Art School at age fifteen. Speaking with interviewer Paul Gravett, Briggs describes the school as “a bit mad” (Gravett 1989, 13). The school, he told Elaine Moss, was then attended by mere adolescents “trying to be like Piero della Francesca. We thought we were revolutionary liking the Impressionists, but we were out of date” (Moss, 26). “We were taught to do this very realistic style with loads of figure-drawing, old-fashioned still life and composition… all the other schools were doing modern art” (Beckett, 7).
When Briggs informed the principal that he wanted to produce strip cartoons, the principal is said to have responded, “Gosh, boy! Is that all you want to do?” (Moss, 26). The principal believed the modern world “had gone downhill from the Italian renaissance onwards. Modern things like magazines, films … were bad. You weren’t even supposed to look at magazines” (Gravett 1989, 13). Nevertheless, Briggs admits that this early training was crucial to the development of his later style: “I’m wedded to realistic settings,” Briggs tells interviewer Andy Beckett, “I like all the homely details: cups of tea and buns and all that” (Beckett, 7). As Beckett notes, when Briggs made the transition to illustrating children’s books, such realism “seemed not conservative but radical, and sellable. Instead of the usual spaceships and supermen, he conjured up traditional children’s fantasy figures – Santa, talking bears and snowmen – and set them unexpectedly in grimy reality” (ibid).
Despite the school’s attempt to hone Briggs into a “serious” artist, Briggs was nevertheless quickly pigeon-holed: “Within the first two weeks … I was dubbed a ‘commercial artist’,” Briggs explains, noting that he “knew nothing at all about Art of Fine Art painting and, at the time, had not even heard of Van Gogh. I had gone to art school to learn how 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” (Jones, 7). Students were warned by the principal not to engage in anything that could be considered “rubbishy”; Briggs later admitted that he was even afraid to open up his father’s copy of the Daily Mirror, though he believed that an occasional look at the cartoons “Would probably not corrupt him too much” (Hamilton, n.p.). “I went through quite a period of agony at the beginning,” Briggs explains, “when they kept saying that my work was like commercial art. I didn’t know what they meant: I was only fifteen. I still don’t know the difference now” (Kilborn, 25). Nevertheless, the old-fashioned training provided by the art school was beneficial as it provided him with “absolutely perfect training for an illustrator, in that you learnt about tone and color, and figure composition in general” (ibid, 27).
Briggs attended Wimbledon for four years; following graduation, Briggs spent ages 19 to 21 (1953-1955) in the National Service, where, he says, he “carried on drawing – I was quite the workaholic” (Gravett, 14). The National Service, says Briggs,
was the epitome of everything I hate, I think, the worst possible thing for a person of my temperament as I like being alone. I’m very keen on privacy and that’s the one thing you don’t get in the army. The only time you’re on your own is in the lavatory and even then there’s somebody pounding on the door. So that was hell on earth. I didn’t realize I was the slightest bit unusual but a lot of the blokes there were amazed when I said I’d left school at 15 and done four years in art school. They were aghast and indignant and when I told them I was going back to college for another two years they simply couldn’t believe it. One said why should he pay for my education. I thought why should you, that’s dead right. There’s him paying taxes which indirectly went to keep me in relative idleness. (May, n.p.)
Offered a post in Egypt, Germany or nearby Cutterick, Briggs chose Cutterick. He did a small amount of painting in the service; a painting, 3 a.m. on the ‘Cutterick Flyer’, which depicts the overnight journey from King’s Cross to the army barracks, was later shown at a Young Contemporaries Show. The painting garnered praise from none other than esteemed art critic John Berger, who wrote a glowing review of it in the New Statesman. Encouraged by Berger’s positive review, Briggs enrolled in the Slade School (the “home of pure painting” [Gravett, 14]; two of his contemporaries were painter Patrick Proctor and author David Storey). Briggs hoped, as Richard Kilborn observes, that “here he would be able finally to expunge any lingering desire to be a strip cartoonist” (Kilborn, 27). Instead, Briggs gradually realized he had no aptitude for painting; he “disliked oil paint,” but did find that he enjoyed drawing. Where painters focus on color, explains Briggs, “the illustrator is interested in the storytelling aspect of the picture” (Jones, 7). His parents, while “tolerant” of his decision to attend art school (Greene, 10), were also “absolutely horrified” that their son decided on art as an adult occupation; a childhood lark was fine but as a career? “They looked upon artists as dangerous and unable to make money,” Briggs explains. “Fortunately, it was in the days when you could get grants to go to art school and I managed to get one” (Gravett 2003, 258).
Briggs left the Slade in 1957 and, realizing that it was impossible to make money as a painter “unless you were someone like David Hockney” (Gravett 2003, 259), Briggs at first attempted to find commercial work in advertising, newspapers, magazines and book publishers. For his first commissioned work, “How Deep to Plant Your Bulbs,” a how-to gardening spread for the UK House and Garden in 1957, he received a payment of eight guineas (Gravett 1989, 14). Unable to afford an apartment, Briggs continued to live at home. In 1959, at age 25, Briggs moved from Wimbledon Park to Wimbledon (not a great distance, as one might imagine). Despite the commercial nature of his initial work following art school, Briggs admits he found it exciting that his work was reaching an audience and that he was managing to make a living off his artwork. Explains Briggs:
It was so exciting when you left art school. After six years of just doing these endless bloody paintings and putting them away afterwards, show them to your mom, your girlfriend, and that was it … stick them in a cupboard and forget them … suddenly you started doing commercial work and there was this man actually waiting anxiously to see what you’ve done. On top of that, he was going to give you money for it. That was even more incredible. I found that very inspiring, really. It became real for the first time. (May, n.p.)
“When I first started,” Briggs explains to interviewer Barbara Baker,
the only thing I was trying to achieve was to earn a living – that was my main obsession… you couldn’t make a living painting in those days. So I tried doing illustrating … I liked books the best although they were the worst paid – advertising was the best paid, but awful work, and magazines were better paid than books, but rather ghastly subject matter. So I decided on books, but then to my horror, realized that books meant children’s books, which I wasn’t really remotely interested in! But I … found there was marvelous stuff, like nursery rhymes to illustrate (Baker, 28).
Briggs certainly did not intend a career as a commercial artist (which, he tells Gravett, he “hated,” despite the money [Gravett 2003, 259]) any more than he intended a career as a children’s book illustrator; “It was just a way of making a living,” he states (Jones, 12). Despite its not paying fabulous sums of money, the subject matter was at least more interesting than advertising, as well as often being published in color, unlike magazines at the time (Gravett 2003, 260). He went from publisher to publisher, before landing a contract with Oxford University Press to illustrate what was his first children’s book, Peter and the Piskies: Cornish Folk and Fairy Tales (1958); notably, Briggs, who showed imagination and aptitude in his visual interpretations of fairy tales, would illustrate many more books on this subject. The editor at Oxford, Mabel George, asked Briggs, “How do you feel about fairies?” Briggs’ initial thought Briggs initial thought, he told interviewer Pat Triggs, was “Bloody Hell, has it come to this? A so-called painter with ideas of joining Francis Bacon and that kind of world being asked what you feel about fairies” (Triggs, n.p.). Peter and the Piskies, written by established children’s book writer Ruth Manning-Sanders, was a bestseller, thereby cementing Briggs’ career as a children’s book illustrator. Briggs and Manning-Sanders, who never met, later collaborated on two additional books, The Hamish Hamilton Book of Magical Beasts (1965), and Festivals (1972).Also in 1958, Briggs approached the publisher Hamish Hamilton – where he was encouraged by the receptivity of its editor Dick Hough, later replaced by the equally receptive Julia MacRae (Moss, 27) – initiating a fruitful publishing relationship that lasted forty years (Hamish Hamilton would publish most of Briggs’ best known work), until Hamish Hamilton was folded into Penguin. The first book Briggs illustrated for them was The Wonderful Cornet (1958) by Barbara Kerr Wilson.
Briggs was not only proficient, he was prolific: during this roughly first decade of work in children’s books (1958-69) – in which he would primarily illustrate the work of other authors – Briggs would produce nearly thirty books. Some of them he also wrote, including Midnight Adventure and The Strange House (both 1961), semi-autobiographical books he wrote because, according to Briggs, some of the books he was hired to illustrate were so poorly written he thought he certainly couldn’t do any worse (Baker, 28). Observes Richard Kilborn, “Increasing familiarity with book production [resulted in a] greater awareness of the product being offered and … the recognition that in some cases shoddy wares were being passed off to an undiscriminating audience. This provided the necessary spur for [Briggs] to branch out into story-telling in his own right” (Kilborn, 36).
The first, The Strange House, written when Briggs was 27, was done “just for fun, and showed it to the editor, hoping to get some advice on how to proceed as a writer, but to my absolute amazement, he said he would publish it” (Baker, 28). About the story, Briggs states “In those days, post-war, we explored bombed houses, which were the most wonderful playground. You could do as much damage as you liked” (Jones, 13). Briggs based The Strange House on his memories concerning an abandoned house near his parents’ home in Wimbledon Park; the home had once been the property of a Russian count who had escaped Russia following the Communist revolution. They had left the home “in a hurry,” explains Briggs, “leaving behind a collection of Rolls-Royces and Mercedes … We didn’t do any damage, we would just roam the house. I remember the paneled walls of one room being entirely covered up with a collection of rare birds’ eggs. Now and again an old Russian would turn up and chase us off, calling us ‘criminal brains’” (Hamilton, n.p.). Midnight Adventure, arguably the more accomplished of his two initial efforts as author, tells the story of a group of boys who, while night-fishing, unintentionally run into thieves burgling a golf club. (Ethel & Ernest would later reveal that this run-in with police was autobiographical.) These books would introduce the distinctly Briggsian trait of utilizing autobiographical details in illustrations of even the most fantastic stories; this peculiarity would culminate and play a major role in Briggs’ later more mature work, from Father Christmas on.
Despite these initial forays into authorship, Briggs found that illustration was a far rarer talent than writing and therefore his skills as an illustrator were in far higher demand. “I found I couldn’t earn a living doing my own writing and realized that illustrating was a much rarer ability. For everyone who could illustrate well enough to get into print, there were twenty who could write well enough to get into print” (Kilborn, 36). Briggs had reason for wanting to make money. In 1961, he moved to the middle-class neighborhood of Burgess Hill and two years later, Briggs married the painter Jean Tarrell Clark (like his mother, four years her husband’s senior). “We were both studying at Wimbledon,” Briggs explains,
but she was four years older and I thought I was an awful little squirt, and I think she would have been appalled if anyone had told her she would be marrying that horrible little guy … We met again by accident outside an antique shop on the edge of the Common. I was looking for somewhere to live and Jean discovered there was a free room – a bedsit – in her house. So I moved in and we gradually got to know each other. We got married in 1962 and moved to Sussex (Briggs 1996, 15).
To help supplement their income, Briggs found employment as a part-time lecturer at Brighton College of Art. Among the other books from this period, Briggs published books on architecture: Alfred Duggan’s Look at Castles (1960) and Look at Churches (1961), and Clifford Warburton’s The Study Book of Houses (1963). Additionally, he would illustrate a number of adventure books, including Sydney Frank Stevens’ The Missing Scientist (1959), The Onion Man [1959) and Danger on Glass Island (1960) by Alan Ross, John Tedman’s The Secret of the Castle (1960), Briggs’ Sledges to the Rescue (1963) – his third effort as author, a semi-autobiographical tale of a boy and girl assisting a milkman, Ernie, with his deliveries on a snowy morning, and the first appearance of Briggs’ father – as “Ernie” – later revisited as Jim in Gentleman Jim and Where the Wind Blows – Mariol Trevor’s William’s Wild Day Out (1963), William Mayne’s Whistling Rufus (1964), Elfrida Vipont’s Stevie (1965), Alan Ross’ The Wreck of the Moni (1965), James Aldridge’s The Flying 19 (1966), Mabel Esther Allan’s The Way Over Windle (1966), and Ian Serraillier’s The Tale of the Three Landlubbers (1970). Briggs would also try his hand at several historical books, including Arthur Calder-Marshall’s The Fair to Middling (1959), Bruce Carter’s Jimmy Murphy and the White Duesenberg and Novalori and the Alfa Romeo (both 1968), Nicholas Fisk’s Lindbergh the Lone Flyer and Richtofen the Red Baron (also both 1968), Shovell Styles’ First Up Everest (1969), Michael Brown’s Shackleton’s Epic Voyage (1969).
Before the decade’s end, Briggs would also produce one book of children’s poems (Poems for Me, Books 4 & 5 by Kit Patrickson), and, more notably, The Elephant and the Bad Baby (1969), Briggs’ second collaboration with author Vipont, one of his last collaborative efforts. This work proved a milestone effort in Briggs’ already voluminous output. In this endearingly simple tale of an elephant carrying a baby on its back, for whom it steals treats from shopkeepers, Vipont and Briggs created an enchanting and timeless children’s book, one that remains in print some forty-five years after its initial publication. As Briggs notes, the title of the book is inaccurate: “the baby is supposed to be bad because it doesn’t say please, but the elephant is the thief” (Jones, 22). As in Briggs’ other work, children are more observant witnesses; they notice the elephant’s bad behavior while the adults, occupied by their busy work, do not appear to notice. “This,” Nicolette Jones notes, “is not implicit in the text: it is part of Briggs’ contribution” (ibid). During this period, Briggs would also produce a number of fantasy books (including one Christmas book, unimaginatively entitled The Christmas Book (1968, written by James Reeves)), many of them based on folk tales and nursery rhymes.
“I had fallen in love with nursery rhymes,” Briggs tells Baker, “and so … I did a series of nursery rhymes” (Baker, 28). The first, the superbly illustrated Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses (1962), is a tender evocation, in watercolor and line drawing, of much-loved nursery rhymes, principally that of Jack and Jill, which takes up nearly half the book. The poor reproduction of the water colors – due to the limitations of printing at that time – disappointed Briggs; nevertheless, the book was a great success, leading to two equally well-received follow-ups, including the haunting The White Land: A Picture Book of Traditional Rhymes and Verses (1963) and the sublime Fee Fi Fo Fum: A Picture Book of Nursery Rhymes (1964). In these two collections, Briggs utilized a much “sharper technique” of gouache with a black line overlay (Jones, 52).
These three short books represent, for author Douglas Martin, “a plateau between illustrating other people’s titles and defining some of the possible directions that his own future books might take” (Martin, 234). Taken together, they certainly inspired Briggs’ own further interpretations of nursery rhymes – Briggs would also illustrate a lovely adaptation of The Swan Princess (1964, author unattributed), The Hamish Hamilton Book of Myths and Legends (1964), and The Hamish Hamilton Book of Magical Beasts (1965) – culminating in what is arguably Briggs’ first breakthrough volume, his largest and – until Father Christmas – best-known work, The Mother Goose Treasury (1966), for which he provided 897 individual illustrations, some taking up two pages, others only a fraction of a page.
The book, a critical and commercial success, came about after Briggs’ fairy tale books came to the attention of editor Alice Torrey. Briggs initially proposed illustrating a single fairy tale but Torrey instead convinced him to make the book into what Briggs describes as a “Caldecott kind of thing,” illustrating nearly the entire contents of the Mother Goose verse (Moss, 27-8). The book, 224 pages in length, took Briggs a year and a half to complete and is a masterwork of children’s book design, evincing Briggs’ careful attention to detail and growing awareness on his part of fashioning his books so that they met his particular demands for quality and the importance of presentation. Still, Briggs, ever the perfectionist, would later confess his disappointment in the end product, finding the design “rather messy … I just stuck the rhymes down and drew round them” (Jones, 57).
As Nicolette Jones observes: “The book is a wealth of comic invention, sometimes wild, sometimes contemplative, sometimes literal, often unexpected, unpacking all the violence, humor … and sweetness contained in nursery rhymes” (ibid). According to Richard Kilborn, it is upon The Mother Goose Treasury that “Briggs’ reputation as an illustrator principally stands … [Briggs’ work] appeal[s] to children … by focusing on the childish foibles and follies of adults, and by frequently introducing a distinctly macabre, even grotesque element” (ibid, 30). Certainly, these characteristics, first evident in his fairy tale work from the mid-60s to early-70s, anticipate later works, principally Fungus the Bogeyman and the Unlucky Wally books (1987, 1988).
Whatever Briggs’ reservations concerning the quality of this work, The Mother Goose Treasury was quite influential on similar books which followed, including Briggs’ own The Hamish Hamilton Book of Giants (1968) and Virginia Haviland’s notable (and equally sizeable) The Fairy Tale Treasury (1972). The Mother Goose Treasury would also win Briggs his first major award, the coveted Kate Greenaway medal. “I came to realize that fairy tales are absolutely fantastic to illustrate, the best thing in the world,” Briggs later explained. “To look down on the Brothers Grimm and Hans Anderson is idiotic” (Designer October 1982, n.p., quoted in Kilborn, 27). They are, he continues, “the finest things in the world from the illustrator’s point of view” (Baker, 28) and appealed to Briggs primarily because he found them “quite rude, quite tough, adult gutsy material about money and marriage and work and laziness and theft – not sweet innocent pink and blue baby stuff” (Moss, 28).
This is indicative of classic authors respecting their audience and, unlike many of Briggs’ contemporaries, accepting that children are perfectly capable of comprehending much of the complexities of existence, and of the adult world. Briggs, notes Douglas Martin, “has consistently refused to accept that young children lack the requisite open-mindedness and stamina to take in the realism of folk material and his own unsentimental gloss on it” (Martin, 234). It is an ethos that would largely guide the work upon which Briggs’ reputation now largely stands: from work (Father Christmas) to death (The Snowman) to aging (Gentleman Jim and the Unlucky Wally books) to nuclear war (When the Wind Blows). In many ways, the fairy tale material can be regarded as marking Briggs’ transition from the children’s books of the 1950s and 1960s to the more adult-oriented material of subsequent decades.
This style is hinted at in Briggs’ self-penned Jim and the Beanstalk (1970). In Briggs’ take on this well-known fairy tale, a young boy, Jim, climbs the fabled beanstalk and meets the Giant, who, since Jack robbed him of his treasures, is now old, defeated, lamenting his poor eyesight, bad teeth, and hair loss. Jim takes pity on the giant, and obtains a giant-sized pair of eyeglasses, dentures, and wig for the Giant. Out of gratitude, the Giant allows Jim to escape before he eats him. Here, Briggs introduces several themes that would be further explored in later works, and which were present in gestative form in earlier books, namely the blending of reality and fantasy, where the relative safety of the everyday is intruded upon and violated by the fantastic . The Giant, prefiguring, for example, Father Christmas as a bumbling East Ender with a Cockney accent, a young person’s interaction with a magical being in The Snowman, The Man, The Bear, and The Puddleman (note also the similarities of the titles). The Man in particular shares a number of themes with this story, including a boy trying to assist a magical creature who, while he shows affection for the Man, also treats him quite poorly. It is also notable that in Jim and the Beanstalk the magical being is a giant while in The Man he is an unnaturally diminutive man.
In 1966, Briggs was assigned to Hamish Hamilton editor Julia MacRae, who would oversee the creation of Briggs’ most revered and commercially successful work, as well as his most controversial. The first book on which they collaborated was Virginia Haviland’s magnificent The Fairy Tale Treasury, for which Briggs provided 190 individual drawings, in a stunning array of styles, including his first use of comic strip sequences. The book, in Jones’ estimation, is a work of “fertile inventiveness that shows the range of what Briggs could do, but also shows an illustrator still searching for his style” (Jones, 50). It is true; Briggs’ efforts during this period presented an artist at a crossroads. Stylistically speaking, Briggs was of two minds: the more cartoonish, round-headed, pupil-less, exaggerated figures of his nursery rhymes and the more realistic, detailed work of his adventure and historical stories. His career from this point forward would adhere more closely to the former, though some later works – most notably Gentleman Jim, When the Wind Blows and Ethel and Ernest – would feature an inspired mixture of both styles. Briggs’ backgrounds, meanwhile, arguably always maintained a high degree of realism (without any concomitant loss of expressionistic beauty), with the exception of only his most cartoonish and narratively outré works, such as The Tin-Pot General or the Unlucky Wally books.
1973, the year Father Christmas, Briggs’ first masterwork, was published, was to prove a watershed year in more ways than one, a year of triumph and tragedy.
Next: Part Two: Father Christmas. The Snowman. Fungus the Bogeyman. 1973-1977.
A bibliography of works cited will be included in the final installment of this essay.