Chris Riddell’s tips for young artists: bunk off school sports and study Raymond Briggs

The illustrator and Observer political cartoonist talks of his mentor – and his first crush – on Desert Island Discs

A smattering of schoolboy truancy, followed by the guiding hand of The Snowman’s creator, Raymond Briggs, were both crucial in setting the children’s author and illustrator Chris Riddell on the path to life as an artist,he has told Desert Island Discs.

Riddell, a publishing phenomenon as well as the Observer’s political cartoonist, is Lauren Laverne’s guest on the show, where he discusses the influences on his career. Bunking off school as a young boy, he tells Laverne, allowed him to develop an interest in the arts. “When I was meant to be doing games I would abscond the minute the games master had gone off to do other things,” admits Riddell, who was children’s laureate from 2015 to 2017. “I’d go across the river to the Tate gallery.”

Riddell, best known for his work on The Edge Chronicles and the Ottoline series, goes on to express his fear that children’s early artistic inclinations are often accidentally crushed by schools. He tells Laverne: “It’s one of those wonderful creative things you can do that doesn’t really rely on technique.

“It’s not like playing a violin. Anyone can pick up a Biro, a pencil, and they can draw. Children have an innate grasp of that, then it is educated out of them and they decide they can’t draw and that is such a shame. I think part of my remit as children’s laureate was to push through that.”

A self-portrait of the illustrator on a desert island.
A self-portrait of the illustrator on a desert island. Illustration: Chris Riddell/The Observer

Riddell, 57, also believes looking at work by the young can be refreshing. “It is good, as an old cartoonist, to be refreshed by children’s art,” he said.

Having Briggs as his personal tutor between 1981 and 1984, while he was a student at Brighton Polytechnic, provided early inspiration, he recalls. An encouraging teacher, Briggs also allowed his student to glimpse his own creative processes, despite his famously private and shy nature.

“Raymond was hugely influential, and really shaped my work. Not only is he an author and illustrator, he also has a strong political sense, as you see in books such as When the Wind Blows – his extraordinary book about the aftermath of a nuclear attack.”

Riddell tells Laverne that producing satirical images for this newspaper frequently proves therapeutic: “It stops me shouting at the radio often, not because the radio coverage isn’t excellent, but because drawing a political cartoon is a way of voicing my own thoughts and ideas. Sometimes it feels good to draw Donald Trump in a nappy.”

Riddell said he had the satisfying sense that he was completing a circle when he chose Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis as one of his eight tracks for the radio show: “I first heard that piece of music when I was listening to Desert Island Discs as a young man who was a little bit in love with Jenny Agutter. It was her choice on the show and I’ve since listened to it many times – so it was nice to choose it myself for Lauren.”

The illustrator, who also selected the folk music of the band Bird in the Belly, a Brighton-based collective, said he had found being interviewed by Laverne a pleasure. “She was so natural and relaxed. We had a lovely conversation, then I realised the show was over.”

Unsurprisingly Riddell selects a supply of sketchbooks as his one sanctioned luxury on the island, confessing to an addiction that makes it hard for him to pass a stationery shop. It was Briggs who first advised him to carry a sketchbook at all times. “He’d tell me to just get on and do it – to keep filling up the sketchbook.”

And it was thanks to an introduction from Briggs that Riddell secured the book deal that began his publishing journey.

Riddell’s choice of book for the island is a bound copy of both Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. In June, Lewis Carroll’s publisher, Macmillan, is to bring out a new edition of Alice in Wonderland accompanied by Riddell’s new drawings to coincide with the new Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition dedicated to illustrations of the famous story. The show will include some of Riddell’s images, alongside the original work of John Tenniel and the Tim Burton designs made for his film version.


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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