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A cartoon strip from a book called Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs.
Grumpy Santa in Raymond Briggs’s classic Father Christmas. Raymond Briggs / Leigh Simpson

Raymond Briggs: new exhibition reveals bloomin’ brilliant life and work of much-loved cartoonist

When he died in August 2022 at the age of 88, there was a great outpouring of affection for the British cartoonist and illustrator Raymond Briggs. He was loved by children and adults alike for his detailed, humorous and often poignant portrayals of British life, stinky green-hued creatures, a grumpy Father Christmas, and a magical snowman and the little boy who loved him till he melted.

Now, a new exhibition at the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft brings together items from Briggs’s estate, with over 100 original artworks from his 60-year career. It focuses on his genius for book illustration, and includes work spanning early illustrations for fairy stories and nursery rhymes to later books such as Ug, Boy Genius of the Stone Age (2001) and The Puddleman (2004).

A grey haired white man, Raymond Briggs smiling in a park on a summer's day.
Briggs in 2008. Wenn / Alamy

Walking from the station to the museum, the South Downs rise up, revealing the landscape that Briggs and Liz Benjamin, his partner for 40 years, enjoyed together from their homes in the nearby villages of Westmeston and Plumpton. It’s hard to imagine a better place for this exhibition to take place, given the museum’s location and its founding commitment to preserve and show works by the artists and craftspeople of the area.

The significance of Briggs’s work as an author and illustrator for children and adults is considerable, going beyond the animated adaptation of The Snowman (1982) that has become such a reliable staple of British Christmas.

He was among the first illustrators to disregard the trashy reputation that dogged comic strips, and use them to tell stories published for the children’s market. Father Christmas (1973) and The Snowman (1978), both popular hits – as well as other books in which Briggs used comic-strip storytelling – did a great deal to rehabilitate comics as an “approved” form for children’s literature.

Not that Briggs was interested in sanitising comics. Anyone familiar with his books will know that he refused to gloss over everyday bodily functions in his books, and evidently relished any tight-lipped responses this provoked.

A letter from a disgruntled reader to Raymond Briggs complaining about his grumpy Father Christmas.
A very unhappy reader complains. Tom Benjamin

Briggs didn’t believe in making books for a particular audience, saying “books are not missiles, you don’t aim them at anybody”. Some of his books are more suited to an adult readership. These too have been acclaimed and adapted for film and TV, helping to create space for graphic novels across different genres of adult literature.

A beautifully realised show

The exhibition combines a touring retrospective from the Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration with artworks and objects on loan from Briggs’s own home and archive. As a result, it echoes museum director Steph Fuller’s feeling when visiting his studio: that Briggs just popped out and could be back any minute.

An illustration of a baby and an elephant stealing pies from a butcher's shop.
An illustration from The Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont Foulds. Raymond Briggs / Leigh Simpson

For one thing, the drawing desk where he worked for decades has been carefully installed in the gallery, a cluttered glimpse into his working life. The photographs that surrounded him are part of it: one shows his dad driving the electric milk-float that features in Ethel and Ernest (1998), the biography Briggs drew about his parents’ lives together.

Briggs’s account of their relationship is powerful for many reasons, not least in its attention to the smallest particulars. He brings the full force of his interest in visual detail to chronicling their life, and his own as seen through their eyes.

A spread Ethel and Ernest, a cartoon strip book by Raymond Briggs
From Ethel and Ernest, the story of his family life. Raymond Briggs / Leigh Simpson

Every detail contributes to our understanding of their characters and experiences, from the way his dad would pull out a drawer for an armrest when sitting at the kitchen table, to the bright blue underside of a doodlebug flying over their allotment, to the packet of Vim left by his mother’s head in the hospital after her death.

Briggs relied largely on his keen visual memory when making Ethel and Ernest, remembering even the pattern on the airing cupboard wallpaper. This capacity to notice the world around him and recall it when drawing made Briggs a natural illustrator. He was also clear on the importance of being, as well as seeing, the characters he drew, becoming a “mini-actor” in order to know each figure from the inside.

Briggs didn’t see the need to risk the safety of original artworks by exhibiting them when, as he put it, “the book itself is the work of art”. But for fellow illustrators and other readers of Briggs’s work, the chance to see his originals up close, including the separations (and the corrections!) is fascinating and encouraging.

A beautiful illustration of a polar bear from a children's book called The Bear by Raymond Briggs.
An exquisite illustration from The Bear (1994). Raymond Briggs / Leigh Simpson

For instance, the exhibition at Ditchling Museum includes a spread from When the Wind Blows (1982) showing the moment that a nuclear blast hits, in which Briggs decided to use a collage of little paper shards, as if the book itself has been blown to pieces. Double-page spreads have been framed to include wide margins, so that visitors can see the scribbles, sketches, notes and jokes surrounding the artwork.

Those margins also show the completion date that Briggs wrote for each page as he finished it, a small insight into the enormous labour of making books. One of the museum’s captions notes that the hand lettering for a spread from Fungus the Bogeyman (1977) would take Briggs four hours to complete.

An illustration layer from Fungus the Bogeyman. Raymond Briggs / Leigh Simpson

No wonder he later tried to give up making such ambitious projects. Several discouraging “notes to self” have been included in the exhibition:

DO NOT WORK IN STRIP CARTOON
DO NOT WORK IN CRAYON
70 IS COMING

A cluttered desk at a window.
Raymond Briggs’s desk. Tom Benjamin

Alongside the beautiful detail in his drawing and his brilliant storytelling, the clearest impression of Raymond Briggs this exhibition gives is his warmth and wry sense of humour. The exhibition continues through the summer, alongside a programme of talks and workshops and an illustration competition for under-18s in June.

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