Shirley Hughes: Famous illustrator who brought children’s stories to life


The undisputed doyen of children’s illustrators in Britain, Shirley Hughes brought a uniquely joyful energy to her work. The sole creator of over 50 picture books and the illustrator of countless other titles, she excelled in creating baby characters that were as bouncy as they were real. Selling over 12 million copies of her books during her long life, she was a highly respected figure in the publishing world and immensely popular outside.

Born the youngest of three sisters, Hughes was born in West Kirby, Merseyside. His Welsh Methodist father owned a large store in town; the cause of her untimely death, when Hughes was five, was something she always refused to discuss. But otherwise, what she later described as a “rather buttoned-up childhood” passed off happily enough, with plenty of time spent reading, drawing and playing intensely imaginative games with her sisters.

Favorite illustrators at this time included W Heath Robinson, in his fairy vein, and Arthur Rackham. Both artists had a direct influence on Hughes’ meticulous drawing in the years to come.

When she was 17, she enrolled in a fashion and dress design course at Liverpool Art School, hoping it might lead to a career in acting. But after a year she transferred in 1946 to the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, where she briefly lived next to JRR Tolkien. Bored with her narrow schedule but delighted to be able to take life drawing lessons, she eventually turned to book illustration under the encouragement of Barnett Freedman, a charismatic guest speaker who was also a poster artist and lithographer for foreground.

Commissions eventually followed, including illustrations for later editions of Dorothy Edwards’ series My naughty little sister. Using the skills she had developed through the habit of drawing whenever and wherever she could, Hughes was the perfect choice to shape the fictional little sister and Bad Harry, her friend and partner in all their various childhood misadventures. . Having observed exactly how “little children move, squat when engrossed in play, roll or curl up in sleep”, Hughes provided line drawings that matched the loving realism of the stories perfectly. Edwards was so thrilled that she asked him to re-illustrate all the other books in the series as well.

Hughes’ breakthrough as a writer-illustrator came with Lucy and Tom’s Party (1960). Now she could finally control every aspect of a book, dividing the storyline between text and illustration. Conceiving the whole work with her characteristic cinematic imagination, she drew from all possible angles, alternating between wide shots, aerial views and close-ups. Starting with crude drawings done quickly to preserve spontaneity, this story describes the domestic ups and downs in one day in the lives of two young children. Robustly drawn, his young characters with their stocky legs, rumpled clothes and messy hair were so lifelike they practically flew off the page.

Hughes was appointed CBE by the Duke of Cambridge at Buckingham Palace in 2017


With their mothers pushing strollers laden with groceries and wearing nothing smarter than baggy sweaters, jeans or leggings, the inhabitants of this new urban world of children’s picture books represented a conscious break with the old domination home county settings largely populated by middle-recreation. class characters.

Children are now depicted in ordinary domestic mode, getting up in the morning, having their meals, accompanying their parents to the races or to the park and, above all, playing. But what might seem mundane in another artist is made luminous by Hughes’ fine line, delicate sense of tone and sense of body language. Still providing adult readers with her ability to conjure up happy memories of anyone’s childhood, she was now firmly on her way to becoming a universal favorite.

Tom and Lucy went on to star in many more picture books, enjoying Christmas, going on seaside vacations, starting school, and learning to count and learn the alphabet. But Hughes’ even greater success came with Dogger (1977) won her the Kate Greenaway Medal for Outstanding Picture Book of the Year. This story of a little boy who briefly but poignantly loses his favorite toy shows all of Hughes’ strengths. Drawing on his knowledge of his London surroundings, this book satisfies on all levels. In 2007, Dogger won another award, this time for a Kate Greenaway 50th Anniversary Medal. Once again, and not for the last time, Hughes was to be publicly linked to the early 19th century illustrator with whom she otherwise had little in common.

In 1980 Hughes wrote his first children’s novel, This is Charlie Moon. Enjoying favorable reviews, it still couldn’t compete with what was to follow. It was the famous Alfie gets it first (1981), in which four-year-old Alfie runs away from home before his mother, only to accidentally lock himself in the family home. Much letterbox pleading ensues, with Alfie’s mother supported by an increasing number of passing traders. Hughes ingeniously converted the “gutter” running down the center of a two-page sheet into the wall separating Alfie from all the activity on the other side.

The inhabitants of this new urban world of children’s picture books represented a conscious break from the former dominance of home county settings largely populated by middle-class characters.

Tousled-haired Alfie and his little sister Annie Rose went on to have many more mini-adventures, often involving their kind neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. McNally, and their daughter Maureen. The emphasis is always on the potential excitements that exist for small children experiencing ordinary household details for the first time. Whether they’re splashing around in puddles in new wellington boots, camping in the back garden, attending a children’s party or visiting the seaside, Alfie and his sister walk in constantly into things with enthusiasm, often touched by a little wonder as well. Sales of their books currently stand at around 4 million.

Married to architect John Vulliamy in 1952 and living in London’s Notting Hill Gate in a semi-detached Victorian house overlooking a large common square, Shirley never used her three children as models. Instead, she preferred to draw the children she saw playing outside her window, eventually creating figures made up of countless individual sketches. Constantly experimenting, she From top to top (1979) was a wordless adventure story as Chips and Jessie (1985) used cartoon techniques, with the dialogue taking place in speech bubbles.

Further accolades followed, with the Eleanor Farjeon Award for Services to Children’s Literature in 1984 and a CBE in 2017. In 2003, Ella’s Big Luckan ingenious reworking of the Cinderella story set in the 1920s, won Shirley her second Kate Greenaway Award.

Stately in appearance, continuing for years to make his own clothes on a crank singer, Hughes spoke with the well-rounded vowels of someone who had to take elocution lessons when young. His great intelligence and wide range of interests are both on display in his lavishly illustrated autobiography. A Life Drawing: Memories of an Illustrator (2002). It’s a fine contribution to social history, which has a lot to say about the working conditions of beginning illustrators 50 years ago.

It’s also a touching story of how an initially insecure person achieved success through hard work and determination to put their great talents to full use. She went on to live a full life after the death of her beloved husband in 2007, illustrating the Prime Minister’s Christmas card for that year with a beaming group of cheerfully disordered young people. In 2012, at the age of 84 and still without thinking of retirement, she wrote hero on bike. This well-received children’s novel starred Paolo, a 13-year-old Italian determined to save the lives of two escaped Allied prisoners in Nazi-occupied Florence.

Always encouraging to young illustrators, her constant goal was to help children learn to look at images at their leisure, allowing them to make their own discoveries along the way. Preferring realism to fantasy and happy to reassure young readers rather than frighten them, she remained beloved and popular throughout her professional life.

She is survived by her three children, Ed, Tom and Clara.

Shirley Hughes, children’s author and illustrator, born July 16, 1927, died February 25, 2022


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