Raymond Briggs has changed the face of children’s picture books, with his innovations in both form and subject. Stylistically versatile, he has illustrated some sixty books, twenty of them with his own text. In this extract from her new book, Raymond Briggs, Nicolette Jones finds the refrains of his work – class, family, love and loss – in his classic, Father Christmas.
We tend to think of cartoon strips with simplified, rounded figures and carefully observed everyday settings as typical of Raymond Briggs, but on close inspection, this underrates his breadth. His books reveal a mastery of an impressive variety of materials and techniques – in ink, pastel, pencil, watercolour, crayon, pencil crayon, chalk, gouache, collage, etching and the smudged line produced by old photocopiers. He has even incorporated correction fluid into his pictures and his earliest published work was on scraperboard, showing skilled and precise draughtsmanship: it was an illustration to a guide to how deep to plant your bulbs.
For his entire career Briggs has been a one-man band, responsible for all aspects of his books – which is time-consuming, as he has observed: ‘You can easily spend more than two weeks on a single page. Writing, drawing and design are all going on at the same time. In most publishers there is more than one person at work: writer, designer, illustrator and colourist. But there are some who do the whole jolly lot themselves, can you believe?’
Briggs’s great success, Father Christmas (1973), brought to fruition techniques that had been germinating in his work to date: notably the observation of the domestic detail of ordinary lives, and frame-by-frame storytelling. Wishing, he says, to fit more on a page than conventional picture books allowed, he resorted to the comic strip, unleashing his inner miniaturist. (The form requires, for translation, empty speech bubbles in the artwork, with the text on an acetate overlay.)
Hitherto, cartoon strips were not a feature of British children’s book illustrations. Briggs helped to elevate the status of the comic strip and the graphic novel in Britain, which at the time did not generally show the respect for the form that existed in, say, France, where bandes dessinées are valued as a literary and artistic form. A similar attitude may account for Briggs’s huge popularity in Japan, where manga is an established cartoon tradition, received without snobbery. (When Briggs was included in the World of English Picture Books exhibition that toured Japan 1998– 99, audiences queued round the block to see him.)
His Father Christmas broke a mould. Santa had, until now, been saintly, regal, powerful: a factory owner managing a production staff of elves. Briggs responded to the ‘Father’ part of Father Christmas, and based the character on his. After all, Ernest and Santa Claus had in common the obligation to work a delivery round in all weathers. This made Briggs’s the first working-class Father Christmas, and everything follows from this: his morning routine, his way of expressing himself (the idiosyncratic ‘blooming’), his kitchen, his outside loo, his opinions, possessions and habits. The connection between Briggs’s father and his Father Christmas is acknowledged in one frame: Ernest Briggs, whose milk float’s number plate has his initials and year of birth (ERB 1900), encounters Santa. ‘Still at it, mate?’ asks Ernest. ‘Nearly done’ is the reply. Also personal is the inclusion of Briggs’s houses on Father Christmas’s round. Alongside an igloo, a caravan, the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace the sleigh lands on the roof of Briggs’s Sussex home (as a signpost confirms) and visits his parents’ terrace in Wimbledon Park. In a double-page spread of Buckingham Palace, the sleigh’s last call, Briggs’s experience of detailed architectural drawing in his books of houses, churches and castles shows. But he uses a new technique with the snow on the palace forecourt: it is made of granular watercolour, so the surface of the picture is rough.
The book is both funny and sad, realistic and escapist. The sleigh round is a tiring slog, but there are comic touches. Briggs worked while his wife was in hospital with leukaemia, and was presumably transported into another time and place by this project. And as he showed her the work in progress, perhaps he hoped to amuse and distract her too.
Jean died in 1973.
Her death followed closely the death of Briggs’s parents. Ethel died in 1971 at 76, as Raymond recorded in Ethel & Ernest – an experience so painful that twenty-five years later he could only work on the relevant images for ten or fifteen minutes at a time. Ernest, who struggled to cope without his wife, was diagnosed with stomach cancer and died nine months later. The grief of these few years of Briggs’s life was profound and lasting.
Yet the book he worked on throughout this sad time is a great achievement. Briggs’s process is meticulous. It is partly because his work belongs to a pre-digital era, with no ‘click-and-fill’ and no ‘cut-and-paste’. Everything is handmade, despite repetitiveness. Even on a tiny scale Briggs conjures textures: the fur on Father Christmas’s cuffs echoes his fluffy beard; bricks and hung tiles are ubiquitous in this book, not only individually drawn but shaded in graded colour, pink to purple, as in reality, or elsewhere the matt yellow of newer bricks; skilled watercolour creates skies of louring rain clouds, lightening at dawn to a lilac blue.
So much is communicated in the pictures, such as how Father Christmas feeds his reindeer, his cat (who likes to sleep on his head and sit across his shoulders), and his dog, a Jack Russell, and how he wears long johns under his trousers, and collects eggs from his brown hens. We see his old-fashioned cooker and copper water-heater, his chamber pot, mechanical alarm clock, non-electric kettle, and two radios, the Art Deco wireless and the more modern transistor. The pictures have depth and an abundance of information. Each tells a story in itself, and the plethora of artwork multiplies the effort most picture books require. He builds the narrative as painstakingly as he draws walls, frame by frame, like a bricklayer. No wonder this book has endured. And no wonder the publisher wanted a sequel.
Nicolette Jones, writer, literary critic and broadcaster, has been the children’s books reviewer of the Sunday Times for more than two decades.
Raymond Briggs: The Illustrators Series by Nicolette Jones is published by Thames and Hudson Ltd., 978-0500022184, £18.99 hbk