Raymond Briggs, who drew mute ‘snowman’, dies at 88
Raymond Briggs, the children’s author whose cheeky illustrations worthy of British working life and a bold breadth of emotion, most notably in the wordless escapades of ‘The Snowman’, died in Brighton, England on Tuesday. He was 88 years old.
His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by its publisher in Great BritainPenguin Random House.
By stacking square and rectangular frames like toy blocks, Mr. Briggs, whose work has reached a global readership, helped bring the visual language of comic books to children’s stories. The technique allowed him to cram the action onto a page before delighting or shocking a reader with a large canvas – two new friends hovering over an English palace, or five warplanes approaching so worrying.
Although he mainly oriented his work towards children, some of his most successful books are meditations on death. ‘The Snowman’ (1978), which was adapted into one of England’s most popular Christmas films, centers on a fleeting friendship between a young boy and a snowman. “When the Wind Blows” (1982), an argument for nuclear disarmament, shows a retired English couple blithely following government precautions before being killed in a Soviet attack.
“I don’t think about what kids want,” Mr Briggs told the BBC in 2017. “You have an idea and you do it.”
These offbeat ideas included “Fungus the Bogeyman” (1977), whose main character was a shy green creature whose long umbilical cord was censored by the publisher; “The Man” (1992), about a rude homunculus who vexes a boy; and “Jim and the Beanstalk” (1997), about the makeover of a bald, clairvoyant giant.
Mr. Briggs often depicted domestic life and working-class routines. In “Gentleman Jim” (1980), a lavatory cleaner imagines what it would be like to have more fashionable careers; “Ug: Boy Genius of the Stone Age” (2001) follows a young caveman whose parents think he should be content with chores instead of pursuing his ideas of fire and wheels.
Mr Briggs admired the Northern Renaissance’s focus on everyday life – his studio wall included ‘Children’s Games’, by the Flemish master Bruegel – but he was not interested in oil painting . After using tacky gouache for the grotesque in “Fungus,” he turned to colored pencils to emphasize the light in “The Snowman.”
He was meticulous about his background – drawing, say, hundreds of bricks for a facade, and his stocky, rounded humans often wondered if there was more to life than toil. His accessible nonhumans—giants were an early specialty—suggested there might be.
Yet failed aspirations and loss were recurring themes for Mr. Briggs, a soulful soul. He later told interviewers he considered suicide after his wife, Jean, died of leukemia in 1973, two years after losing both parents.
In “The Snowman” – which, unlike Mr. Briggs’ other books, has no words – rounded frames house the emotional arc of a boy’s winter adventure. The boy rejoices in a fresh snowfall, happily explores his home and country with a magically animated snowman, and in a crushing final panel stares at a green hat and scarf.
“Books are funny and books are also sad,” said Nicolette Jones, who wrote the biography “Raymond Briggs” (2020), in an interview for this obituary earlier this year. “And he’s walking this incredible tightrope between those two things.”
A film adaptation of “The Snowman,” which was released in 1982 and features the haunting song “Walking in the Air” in its symphonic score, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short. Mr Briggs briefly set the scene in the film’s introduction, which was later re-recorded, much to his chagrin, by David Bowie. “He has it all wrong, terribly. Hopeless,” Mr Briggs told the BBC.
His frustrations extended to the brief appearance of Santa Claus in the film. On its pages, not a present in sight.
In his previous book ‘Santa Claus’ (1973), Mr Briggs portrayed the giver as an old man burdened by freezing weather and his demanding job rather than a joyful soul. His complaint “I hate winter!” was delivered on the toilet.
This irreverent spirit was essential to “When the Wind Blows”, a satirical graphic novel published during the throes of the Cold War. The book has been adapted several times, including as a West End radio drama and play starring Patricia Routledge.
Ahead of impending nuclear annihilation, a husband paints the windows white and builds a lean-to shelter while his wife worries about her staining the curtains and marking the wallpaper. Frames upon frames of frantic preparations and pointless chatter are interrupted by gray images of a missile or a submarine.
The explosion itself fills two pages with white, plus shades of pink.
After ruling out their symptoms – fever, loss of appetite, blue spots on their limbs – the couple succumbs struggling to remember a prayer.
Raymond Redvers Briggs was born in Wimbledon, London, on January 18, 1934, the only child of Ernest and Ethel (Bowyer) Briggs. His mother was good, his dairy father. During World War II, he was briefly sent to live with his aunts in the countryside.
Growing up in a home without many books, he instead turned to the storytelling found in newspaper cartoons. As a teenager he studied at the Wimbledon School of Art and, after spending two years as a draftsman in the British Army’s Royal Corps of Signals, he graduated from the Slade School of Fine Art in 1957.
Mr. Briggs dabbled in professional portraiture before focusing on illustration. His first commission, of tulip bulbs and daffodils for House & Garden magazine, was eventually followed by anthologies on mythical beasts and Cornish fairy tales.
He spent 18 months drawing nearly 900 illustrations for “The Mother Goose Treasury” (1966), for which he won the Kate Greenaway Medal, awarded to the best illustrated children’s book in Britain.
With more ideas than he could fit in a traditional picture book, Mr. Briggs, who had added writing to his repertoire for artistic and financial reasons, introduced his approach to comics in ” Santa,” which also won a Kate Greenaway Medal.
“Since then I’ve been stuck with this method, which is very laborious,” he said on the BBC’s “Desert Island Discs” program in 1983.
After the death of his wife, he spent four decades in a relationship with Liz Benjamin, who died of Parkinson’s disease in 2015. “The Puddleman” (2004) is dedicated to his three grandchildren, who survive him. He is also survived by a daughter-in-law, Clare, and a son-in-law, Tom.
Mr Briggs taught illustration part-time at the Brighton School of Art from 1961 to 1986. He didn’t like leaving England and lived in a somewhat eccentric house in East Sussex, where he collected jigsaw puzzles of the queen mother. The living room ceiling was lined with maps. On the cupboard doors were portraits of her parents.
He referred to them repeatedly in his books – his mother’s broad face, his father’s blue-collar job, their longtime home. In “Santa”, the only person the main character interacts with is a milkman.
A book about his parents’ long relationship and their traumatic deaths, ‘Ethel and Ernest’, was named Illustrated Book of the Year in 1999 by the British Book Awards, which declared Mr Briggs its children’s author from year at the beginning of this decade. .
For his latest published work, “Time for Lights Out” (2019), Mr. Briggs blended quotes, sketches and verse in exploring a theme that had captivated him throughout his life: l inevitability of death.