Raymond Briggs, the writer and illustrator who delighted children and inspired adults with bestselling cartoons and picture books, passed away Tuesday morning at the age of 88, according to his publisher Penguin Random House.
Ranging from the spellbinding magic of The Snowman to a devastating apocalypse in When the Wind Blows, Briggs created a host of beloved characters, including his fear-ridden Fungus the Bogeyman and his rambunctious version of Father Christmas. A career spanning six decades has earned him numerous accolades, with television adaptations making him a fixture of British Christmas viewing.
Hilary Delamere, Briggs’ literary agent, said: “Raymond loved playing the professional miser, but we will remember him for his stories of love and loss. I know from the many letters he received how his books and animations touched people’s hearts. He held onto his curiosity and amazement until the very end.”
Born in 1934, Briggs attended the local Wimbledon secondary school. His decision to drop out of school at 15 to attend Wimbledon Art College may have confused his milkman father, but he didn’t dream of becoming Michelangelo.
“I never thought of becoming a gold-framed gallery artist and was only pushed into painting when I went to art school,” he told the Guardian in 2004. “I went there because I wanted to make cartoons. “
Briggs’ interest in commercial art was met with horror in college – a teacher sputtered, “Good God, is that all you want?” – and after conscription, Briggs encountered more snobbery while studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. But when he left at the age of 23, his talent for drawing realistic images from memory made it easy to find work as an illustrator for magazines, advertisers and books.
At the dawn of the 1960s, Briggs began to despair at 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 said he said he would publish it, showing what the norm was when a complete novice who had never written more than a school essay could publish his first attempt.
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 heartfelt sequel to the traditional story, came out in 1970.
In 1973, he won a second Kate Greenaway Medal and a wider audience with Father Christmas. This 24-page cartoon depicts Santa Claus as a grumpy old man trying to make his way through the busiest day of the year: Christmas Eve. We follow him as he wakes up – “Blooming Christmas here again!” – and begins its round, the sparse dialogue a litany of complaints about “Blooming Antennas”, “Blooming Cats”, “Blooming Soot”, “Blooming Chimneys” and all the “Stairs, stairs, stairs”.
Speaking about his bestseller in 2014, Briggs said, “He’s been doing this terrible job as a donkey for years: going out all night, in all kinds of weather. He’s sick of it: who wouldn’t be? So it makes sense that he gets grumpy.”
The same spirit permeated Briggs’ 1977 Fungus the Bogeyman, which imagined Fungus living in damp, foul-smelling tunnels evoked in a palette of mud brown and acid green. Fungus sets out at night to frighten people on the surface and ponders the futility of existence: “There must be more to life than this.” The Guardian declared it suitable “for children over 10 – or adults – with a murky mind and hideous humor”, while the Times called it “the ideal picture book for an era of punk rock and general glorification of ugliness”. Within a year, 50,000 copies were sold.
Briggs starred alongside pastels in 1978’s The Snowman, a wordless tale about a boy whose snowman comes to life. But this magical story was still based on the harsh reality; the next morning, the boy wakes up to find only the snowman’s hat and scarf in a pile of melting snow. “I don’t have happy endings,” Briggs told the Radio Times in 2012. “I create what seems natural and inevitable. The snowman melts, my parents died, animals die, flowers die. Everything works. There’s nothing particularly gloomy about it. It’s a fact of life.”
Channel 4 didn’t dodge the problem with its 1982 animated version, but softened the pill by adding a visit to Father Christmas and a soundtrack with a whistling choirboy. Despite acknowledging that a film had to be commercially viable, Briggs told the Guardian in 2015 that he hated it at the time and still thought it was corny. But the animation became a fixture on festive TV shows, giving Briggs a Christmas-like reputation that only grew after television versions of Father Christmas in 1991 and Fungus the Bogeyman in 2004 and 2015.
Meanwhile, Briggs turned his back on fantasy, with picture books about nuclear war (When the Wind Blows), the British invasion of the Falklands (The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman), and an account of his parents’ marriage ( Ethel and Ernst). But he rejected the idea that his work was divided into books for adults and books for children.
“There are a few books that are obviously for little kids,” he told the Guardian in 1999, “but I usually don’t think about whether a book is for kids or adults. After a child has learned to read fluently, around a year or eight, nine, the whole idea of categorizing them seems a little crazy.”
Briggs’ latest book Time for Lights Out, a “hodgepodge” of drawings, verses and quotes from memories, published in November 2019, looks death right in the face. In it he imagines “future ghosts” looking around his home in Sussex: “There must have been / some merciful old fellow here,” he writes, “Long haired artsy farts, / Took pictures for children’s books / Or something A tripe. / You should have seen it / It got stuck in that attic! / Snowman this and snowman that, / Tons and tons of tat.”
Briggs is survived by his stepchildren and stepgrandchildren, who said in a statement he will be “deeply missed”.
“We know that Raymond’s books were loved and touched millions of people around the world who will hear with sadness this news. Fan drawings – especially children’s drawings – inspired by his books were cherished by Raymond and hung on the wall of his studio,” the statement read.
“He played practical jokes and liked that they were played on him. Everyone close to him knew his irreverent humor – this could bite into his work when it came to those in power. He loved the Guardian editorial staff who described itself as an ‘iconoclastic national treasure’”.
The family also thanked staff at Overton Ward of the Royal Sussex County Hospital “for their kind and attentive care of Raymond in his final weeks.”
Francesca Dow, director of Penguin Random House children’s books, said: “Raymond was unique. He has inspired generations of picture book, graphic novel and animation creators. He leaves an extraordinary legacy, and a big hole.”