It's a strange feeling having such an emotional reaction to somebody dying who you don't know and have never met. There are certain people in life who you observe from afar, follow closely and ultimately form a "reality" as to who you think they are. When I heard the morning news yesterday that the Author and Illustrator Raymond Briggs had died aged 88, it hit me in the same way that losing a close family member might have done. The instant outpouring of collective grief was felt all over the social media platforms, and I felt comforted reading about all those who were lucky enough to know him or meet him.
I was trying to trace back to my earliest childhood memory of seeing Raymond's work for the first time. The first memory that popped into my head out of the blue, was watching my friend stick a Snowman pencil up her nose in primary school!! I remember uncontrollably laughing at the time and also being slightly disgusted that she had defaced her stationery in this way! I had the same Snowman stationery set and loved looking at the flying Snowman on the rubber in particular (why do all kids love erasers so much?). Like many people, my first introduction to his Briggs' work was the animated short film of his classic picture book, "The Snowman". I don't think there has ever been an animation that impacted so greatly on me as child. Watching it, I remember experiencing a whole range of emotions like joy, excitement, suspense, fear, sadness and loss. You cannot fail to be affected by that last image of the back of the boy with his scarf and melted snowman - something that stays with you and never really goes away.
It would be years by the time I actually got round to buying the book and there, of course, lies the true genius of what a talented artist can conjure up with a handful of crayons. Most days I refer back to this book as inspiration. It seems to give me strength and direction when I feel at a loss with how I want to illustrate a particular viewpoint or communicate a particular tone in a scene. I have been over analysing the book for years, trying to work out how Briggs created his magic. It's always the first book that I talk about when I visit schools. To me, there is no finer example of the very definition of illustration. To communicate a whole story without text, setting a specific tone and somehow creating movement within the storyboard imagery...it still feels as fresh today as the day it was first published in 1978.
Last Summer I insisted on making the journey to Winchester to visit the touring exhibition of Raymond's work. Despite owning an enormous book of most of his work, the exhibition confirmed that seeing hand made art in real life, is something else altogether. I could have spent hours and hours in that little exhibition room, eagerly feasting my eyes on his body of work and watching with pure delight as he became a better and more accomplished illustrator. By the time you get to the original Snowman drawings, Briggs' art is soaring high. As I looked at his little scribbles and annotations around the clean artwork (e.g. how many hours it had taken him to create an image), I could almost put myself in his shoes, working away at his desk. Looking at the way he really had used pencil crayon to create those final images, and finished them with little paint dots for the snowflakes, I just knew that a lot of the digital artwork that I see on Instagram was never going to be enough for me.
I was so disappointed when I popped into a big book shop in Winchester to buy a copy of one of Raymond's books. They only had a very small selection which was difficult to find and the emphasis was on bold colourful books written by a whole hoard of different popstar celebrities. After the quiet wonder of Raymond's exhibition, these modern books just seemed too loud and over bearing. I came away feeling people just didn't appreciate his work enough, but this clearly wasn't true. Yesterday it was evident that he has influenced generations of storytellers, from artists, actors, animators, film makers, writers and so many more. What a wonderful legacy he has left behind.
I tried to imagine a world where Raymond Briggs hadn't existed and what this might've meant for me as an illustrator. Without his work I don't think I would be on a constant quest to better myself as a storyteller. I might have settled for a simpler life as an illustrator, rather than trying to delve into my own memories and feelings and what I want to say visually in my own way. I find it a constant struggle but one that I enjoy. Hearing about the way Briggs created his masterpiece, "Ethel and Ernest", the incredible but also normal story of his parents and their lives together, shows that the best illustration work shouldn't be easy. Of course Raymond found it hard to complete at times, pushing himself to confront the moment of his parents' deaths, but the more joyful occasions must've been wonderful to create. A true reflection of how we all live our lives.
Watching the news yesterday, the question that kept cropping up was "Why is his work so enduring?". For me, the reason is, Raymond's best work comes from a place deep within himself first and foremost. Nobody will ever be able to replicate his work because they are simply not him. This is the best thing any of us can take away from it all. We all have something within us which make us who we are. We all have stories to tell and there will always be somebody who wants to listen. These are the positive things I like about social media, I'm just as obsessed with the life of somebody like Raymond Briggs as I am with my best friend in New Zealand. I'm just as fascinated with the life of my favourite popstar, as I am with the life of the old lady that I see collecting litter down the street.
Raymond's work will live on much longer than any of us. He will continue to inspire new generations of artists and storytellers. His body of work has given us glimpses into his sense of humour, the people he has truly loved, his utter pain of grief and loss, his grumpy every day tasks and his Britishness off "carrying on". To pick up a Raymond Briggs book is to look through a window into his heart. Thanks for everything Raymond.