When Mum died, we expected that it might just squeeze into the “and finally” section of the news. This was a great misjudgment. We were overwhelmed by the outpouring of sadness and love, from all around the globe, and realised just how immensely important her books are to so many people.
Parents see themselves in the chaos of the reassuringly untidy homes and unbrushed hair she depicted. The sagas of childhood, which feel huge on the inside but appear to be nothing much from the outside, are taken seriously. These stories are a deep source of comfort in uncertain times. And right at the heart of it all, readers don’t just love her books, they love the people they have shared them with.
There is so much more, though, than close observations and domestic detail. In the pages of her books Mum paints a universe of wild weather, crashing waves, mile upon mile of city and landscape… it’s a big beautiful world out there, she always said, and she invites the small child to see it. These images inform and enrich how we live in the space around us. When a red winter sun sets behind the rooftops, how many of us think to ourselves, that’s a Shirley Hughes sky?
Mum understood small children so well, but she wasn’t a particularly child-centred person, and definitely not a “child at heart”. It was her work, her job. Her life didn’t revolve around us while we were growing up, and I’m pretty sure she resented time doing housework that could have been spent at the drawing board. But I have precious memories of drawing and painting my own pictures alongside her, both of us totally absorbed, and being given her paints to use up at the end of the day.
The last few months have been a journey of discovery, as we sorted through Mum’s enormous archives and cleared out her home. We hadn’t known quite how prolific she was. More and more of her artwork has come to light, particularly from the early years. Her dad died in tragic circumstances when she was six. She recalled an atmosphere of melancholy, and it was very difficult for her own mum. How did she and her two sisters respond? They threw themselves into making up stories. Imagine our joy to recently find, at the bottom of a cupboard, a package labelled “The Reckless Three, a girls’ magazine written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes aged 8½”.
I think I got to know her best when she was old. I’d drop off her shopping, and we would sit for a while at the kitchen table and chat about all sorts of things: the old days, her grandchildren (“What news from the outposts?” she would ask), and the state of the world. There are some things that just didn’t change. She was kind and loyal, and she was engaged, enlightened and progressive to the last. She looked back at a life richly lived with a wry shrug, and faced death with tremendous courage.
Now I find myself navigating a new, unfamiliar landscape with a huge piece of the map missing, and I have finally begun to accept that we have said goodbye. But it’s comforting to imagine that Mum has simply slipped through a gate into the next garden, and sits with her sketchbook and a glass of wine in the sunshine, doing what she loved best.