Tom Benjamin RB 1793

Ditchling Museum presents Bloomin’ Brilliant: The Life and Work of Raymond Briggs

Sussex-based artist is Bloomin’ Brilliant

“I’d like people to see Briggs as someone who was an innovator, and not somebody who only produced Father Christmas and The Snowman. Delightful as those things are, he had an enormous range of work.”  Steph Fuller, Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft’s Director, is musing on the scale of Bloomin’ Brilliant: The Life and Work of Raymond Briggs – the most in-depth look yet into a remarkable talent.

Taking over the whole museum, the exhibition features 30 items from the late author’s estate, alongside over 100 original artworks from an incredible career spanning six decades, celebrating Briggs’s work and life in the heart of a countryside he’d made his home. “Hopefully, we’ll get a feeling for the person. He might have had a curmudgeonly reputation, but it was a persona he put on in public. Those that knew him say he was very funny and warm towards others.”

Briggs studied at the Wimbledon College of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art, going on to make a name for himself illustrating children’s books. Moving to East Sussex, he started creating his own stories, becoming one of the first British artists to release graphic novels as we now know them. With a few notable exceptions, most such releases were previously just collections assembled from material printed elsewhere. Briggs forged a sweet spot between picture books, novellas and three panel comic strips from the daily press, developing the format as a platform for both compelling narratives and his expansive illustration talents.

Tom Benjamin RB 1765

“He took what was essentially a cartoon form and made it into a way of telling a story, which was unusual at the time. He also produced books for adults as well as children in the same way. He used different techniques side by side, so you get the frame-by-frame storytelling, but you’ll also get illustrations with different techniques in the same book.” From the intricate illustrations leaping from the page in When The Wind Blows to the dialogue free adventures of The Snowman, Briggs constantly pushed the boundaries of what was possible in the printed form. It’s an ambition which characterised his entire career. “Even from early days, he was doing quite leftfield things. He illustrated a book about giants in the 60s. There’s an image where one of their footprints is shown, with loads of tiny humans around it. He’d inked up his foot and stepped on the paper. It’s a quirky thing to do, and very off the wall for the era.”

The Museum was approached by the Briggs’s estate, who were very keen to do an exhibition near where he lived and worked. The artist was a regular patron in Ditchling’s The Bull pub, and over in Plumpton’s Half Moon. “It’s been a privilege to work directly with the family. We’ve had access to his house, studio and lots of personal stuff, so it’s given us a chance to tell the story of the person, as well as looking at the work.” Curating a show which acknowledges 60 years of work might have been quite a challenge, but Bloomin’ Brilliant seems to offer a comprehensive look at all aspects of his practice. 

Tom Benjamin RB 1683

Items include work from Briggs’s pioneering and most enduring titles, including The Snowman, Father Christmas, Father Christmas Goes on Holiday, Fungus The Bogeyman and When The Wind Blows, plus the autobiographical graphic novel Ethel and Ernest. The exhibition delves into the origin and creation of his most celebrated characters and stories, while also gathering drawings, hand-lettered typography and page designs – from his earliest commissions to his 2004 book The Puddleman. Alongside this, there’s also a selection of ephemera from his studio and home. “There are things like his drawing desk and a special chair which he’d sit in when thinking. One of the most special items is a pair of cupboard doors, which he’d painted with life-sized portraits of his parents, Ethel and Ernest, which obviously no-one has seen, unless they’d been in the house.”

The local area had a big impact on his output; the sights of this verdant strip between the South Downs and the Mid-Sussex commuter belt can be seen throughout his books. He moved to the area in the late 60s, buying a house in Westmeston and teaching at (the then) Brighton Art School. “After his wife died, he got together with another woman called Liz, who already had two children. She had a house in Plumpton. So, he developed a set-up where he’d live his domestic life in Plumpton but did his work in Westmeston.” Eagle-eyed readers can spot his house in 1973’s Father Christmas, providing a handy parking spot for a magical sleigh. 

The people in his life also pop up repeatedly. Aside from Briggs’s account of his parent’s lives, both make regular appearances in other books. Inclusions like these provide some interesting Easter eggs. John Vernon Lord, himself a celebrated illustrator and author living in Ditchling, appears in Father Christmas On Holiday. In a sequence reminiscent of Briggs’ own experiences of holidaying with Lord’s family, his friend can be seen queuing for a campsite’s washrooms.

While giving the impression of being otherworldly and uplifting, much of Briggs’ output was also subtly political, whether it’s championing the everyday heroes of the British working class or examining the Falklands War. Much of it also centres on family and life. “There’s also quite a class element in his work,” says Fuller. “He was a working-class boy from Wimbledon, who went to art school and became massively successful. He really loved his parents, but you can see his frustration over the years at how they didn’t understand his job or that you can make money from drawing pictures. It was the first generation where people from those backgrounds would be going to university and developing wider horizons and ideas. So there’s an intergenerational tension around that. Everybody cares about each other, but they also find each other a bit confusing.”

Tom Benjamin RB 1774

Briggs had a talent for looking beneath the surface and truly understanding people’s motivations. He explored the intricacies of ordinary English lives, constructing his stories with a mischievous and slightly dark sense of humour. Certain themes resonate throughout all his work, including illness, duty and loss. Perhaps confronting these in narrative form provided some sense of catharsis. “There’s an underlying melancholy. He wasn’t looking for the grand fairytale ending. But he also grounded things very much in reality. His Father Christmas was like a grumpy DPD driver. He’s a working-class deliveryman, who’s got a loo at the end of the garden. That was a fresh way of looking at things and is part of what makes his books so relatable. They’re not taking place in some other realm; they’re set in a place which we can all recognise.”  Even The Snowman, a much-loved Christmas staple, ends with the departure of the boy’s friend. Fuller suggests Briggs endured plenty of grief during his life, which manifested in his work. In the early 70s, he lost his wife, Jean, and both his parents within just 18 months. “All of that knocked him about. The idea that things might be quiet now, but everything can just disappear, is quite a prevalent theme.”

Tom Benjamin RB 1652

Briggs would write, illustrate and design the books himself, tasks usually occupying at least three creatives. “No, he’d do the whole thing. It would take a long time to produce them, and I don’t think he gets enough credit for that.” With that holistic approach in mind, one of the ambitions for the exhibition is to encourage others to pursue their artistic bent – offering a range of reading and drawing activities, along with an illustration competition. They’re even offering a unique treat, inspired by one of Briggs’s most iconic characters, Fungus. Their new Bogey Lollies have been crafted with Chloe Edwards at Seven Sister’s Spices and combine grapes, lime cordial and jelly.

Tom Benjamin RB 1532

Fuller has a particular connection with Fungus The Bogeyman, a story of a day in the life of a normal bogeyman, who starts questioning the value of his work. “I remember loving Fungus. My brother and I would have all kinds of jokes where we’d swap bits of the dialogue. But that kind of disgustingness is part of the fun. But he’s really a sensitive character. He cares about his family and is very gentle. He’s not a monster, he’s just someone who lives in a tip.” 

As an exhibition, Bloomin’ Brilliant attempts to both inspire and provide insight into a brilliant and complex character. Amongst the unique items on display are the original art from Father Christmas On Holiday. “We have these sheets with the borders on them, which are full of little notes, like the dates of when the pencil drawings or watercolours were completed. Occasionally, there’s one that says something like: ‘terrible hangover’. They’re very alive. You can really feel the person lurking in the background.”

Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft presents Bloomin’ Brilliant: The Life and Work of Raymond Briggs until Sun 27 October
www.ditchlingmuseumartcraft.org.uk

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