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

Shirley Hughes: Celebrated illustrator who brought children’s stories to life
The talented artist brought her whimsical style and an ability to evoke happy memories to more than 50 books

The undisputed doyenne of children’s illustrators in Britain, Shirley Hughes brought a unique brand of joyous energy to her work. Sole creator of more than 50 picture books, and the jobbing illustrator to innumerable other titles, she excelled at creating infant characters as bouncy as the real thing. Selling more than 12 million copies of her books over a long lifetime, she was a greatly respected figure in the publishing world and immensely popular outside it.

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

Favourite illustrators at this time included W Heath Robinson, in his fairyland vein, and Arthur Rackham. Both artists had a direct influence on Hughes’s own meticulous draughtsmanship in the years to come.

When she was 17, she enrolled on a course of fashion and dress design at Liverpool Art School, hoping this might lead to a career in the theatre. But after one year she transferred in 1946 to the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, where she briefly lived next door to JRR Tolkien. Bored by its narrow curriculum but delighting in the chance to attend life drawing classes, she eventually turned to book illustration following encouragement from Barnett Freedman, a charismatic visiting lecturer who was also a leading poster artist and lithographer.

Commissions eventually followed, most notably illustrations for later editions of Dorothy Edwards’s series My Naughty Little Sister. Making use of skills she had developed through the habit of sketching when and wherever she could, Hughes was the perfect choice for giving shape to the fictional little sister and Bad Harry, her friend and partner in all their various infantile mishaps. Having observed exactly how “small children move, squat down when absorbed in a game, roll about or curl up in sleep” , Hughes provided line drawings that perfectly matched the affectionate realism of the stories. Edwards was so delighted that she asked her to re-illustrate all the other books in the series too.

Hughes’s breakthrough as author-illustrator arrived with Lucy and Tom’s Day (1960). Now at last she could control every aspect of a book, sharing the storyline between text and illustration. Designing the whole work with her characteristically filmic imagination she drew from every possible angle, switching between wide tracking shots, aerial views and close-ups in the process. Starting off from rough drawings done quickly to preserve spontaneity, this story describes the domestic highs and lows in one day of the lives of two small children. Robustly drawn, her young characters with their stumpy legs, creased clothes and untidy hair were so realistic that they practically ran off the page.

<p>Hughes is made a CBE by the Duke of Cambridge at Buckingham Palace in 2017 </p>

Hughes is made a CBE by the Duke of Cambridge at Buckingham Palace in 2017

With their mums pushing buggies loaded with shopping and wearing nothing smarter than baggy jumpers and jeans or leggings, 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 peopled by leisured middle-class characters.

Children were now pictured in ordinary domestic mode, getting up in the morning, consuming meals, accompanying their parents shopping or to the park and, above all, playing. But what could seem humdrum from another artist is rendered luminous by Hughes’s fine line, delicate sense of tonality and telling eye for body language. Always providing for adult readers as well with her ability to evoke happy memories from everyone’s childhood, she was now firmly on her way to becoming a universal favourite.

Tom and Lucy went on to star in numbers of other picture books, variously enjoying Christmas, going on seaside holidays, starting school and learning counting and the alphabet. But Hughes’s even bigger success came with Dogger (1977) winning her the Kate Greenaway medal for the outstanding picture book of the year. This story about a small boy who briefly but poignantly loses his favourite toy shows all Hughes’s strengths. Drawing on her knowledge of her local London surroundings, this book satisfied on all levels. In 2007, Dogger won another award, this time for a 50th anniversary Kate Greenaway Medal. Once again, and not for the last time, Hughes was to be publicly linked to the prim 19th-century illustrator with whom she otherwise had little in common.

In 1980 Hughes wrote her first full-length children’s novel, Here Comes Charlie Moon. Enjoying favourable reviews it still could not compete with what came next. This was the famous Alfie Gets in First (1981), within which four-year-old Alfie runs off home ahead of his mother, only to accidentally lock himself into the family home. Much pleading through the letterbox follows, with Alfie’s mother backed up by a growing number of passing tradesmen. Hughes ingeniously converted the “gutter” running down the centre of a two page spread 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 peopled by leisured middle-class characters

Tousle-haired Alfie and his toddler sister Annie Rose went on to have many more mini-adventures, often involving their kindly neighbours Mr and Mrs McNally and their daughter Maureen. The focus is always on the potential excitements existing for small children experiencing ordinary domestic detail for the first few times. Whether splashing about in puddles wearing new wellington boots, camping in the back garden, going to a children’s party or visiting the seaside, Alfie and his sister constantly enter into things with enthusiasm often touched by a little wonder as well. Sales of their books currently stand at about 4 million.

Married to the architect John Vulliamy in 1952 and living in London’s Notting Hill Gate in a Victorian terraced house overlooking a large communal square, Shirley never used her own three children as models. Instead she preferred drawing the children she saw playing outside her window, eventually creating characters made up from innumerable individual sketches. Ceaselessly experimenting, her Up and Up (1979) was a wordless adventure story while Chips and Jessie (1985) used comic strip techniques, with the dialogue taking place in speech balloons.

More honours followed, with the Eleanor Farjeon Award for services to children’s literature in 1984 and a CBE in 2017. In 2003, Ella’s Big Chance, an ingenious re-working of the Cinderella story set in the 1920s, provided Shirley with her second Kate Greenaway Award.

Stately in appearance, continuing for years to make her own clothes on a hand-cranked Singer, Hughes spoke with the well-rounded vowels of someone required to take elocution lessons when young. Her high intelligence and wide range of interests are both on show in her generously illustrated autobiography A Life Drawing: Recollections of an Illustrator (2002). This is a fine contribution to social history, with much to say about conditions of work for illustrators starting out 50 years ago.

It is also an affecting story of how an initially uncertain individual still managed through hard work and determination to put her great talents to full use. She continued 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 untidy youngsters. In 2012, at the age of 84 and still with no thoughts of retirement, she wrote Hero on a Bicycle. This well-received children’s novel featured 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 aim was to help children to learn to look at pictures at leisure, so enabling them to make their own discoveries along the way. Preferring realism to fantasy and happy to reassure young readers rather than scare them, she remained loved as well as popular during all her working life.

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

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