Happy Blooming Christmas

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 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

14 Books for Keeps No.245 November 2020

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