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The deep humanity of Shirley Hughes animates every page of her work

4 March 2022

The author and artist Shirley Hughes, who has died aged 94, illustrated and wrote more than 60 books for children. But besides being books for children, Hughes’s books are about children. Her work amounts to a vast and precious catalogue of the world of children, their nature and moods and poses and priorities; it is a loving record of everyday domestic detail, capturing the whole world of British childhood through the second half of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st.

Dogger (1977) by Shirley Hughes

Dogger (1977) by Shirley Hughes

This is exemplified by her most famous book, Dogger (1977), which won the Library Association’s Kate Greenaway Medal when published, and in 2005 was selected as the public’s all-time favourite Greenaway winner. In it, a small boy loses a prized soft toy, seeks it, finds it through chance in unlikely circumstances, but is able to recover it only through an act of kindness. Anyone with childhood memories of Dogger will viscerally recall Dave’s growing despair, which culminates in the cruelty of seeing his toy again but in the rightful possession of someone else, savage childhood emotions captured perfectly in Hughes’s ink and watercolour pictures. Those scenes are embedded in perfect vignettes: Dave’s older sister Bella with a bed so full of soft toys there’s hardly room for her, which underscores how special Dogger is, or Dave’s father searching in the back garden by torchlight as the crisis mounts, his face a perfect blend of seriousness and – possibly – unspoken annoyance, unseen by the others in the picture and noticeable only to the reader.

That ambiguity in the father’s expression is the kind of deep truth Hughes lovingly put into everything – her books are full of children getting over-tired, grown-ups with fraying patience, magnificent scowls and eye-rolls. Her words and pictures are always match perfectly, but it’s in the art that the richness of the story comes out. Often characters are revealed by their demeanour – for instance, in Don’t Want to Go! (2010) a little girl ‘loses’ her gloves but her guilty expression makes it plain that this was a deliberate delaying tactic. It’s this quality that makes her books so suited to re-reading, something that has cemented their popularity: knowing the story in advance only enhances the enjoyment of picking up on these threads. Dogger’s rediscovery is heralded by a tiny hint on the page, a brown ear sticking out from behind other toys on a jumble sale stand, which children delight in seeing and pointing out, ‘finding’ him before Dave, and before (it seems) the author.

Hughes studied at the Walker School of Art in Liverpool and the Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford. She began her career illustrating the work of others, notably Noel Streatfeild and the Naughty Little Sister books of Dorothy Edwards, before she began producing books on her own. In 1954 she and her family moved into a townhouse in Notting Hill, at the time a shabby and bohemian neighbourhood, and she lived there for the rest of her life. There, she was a near-neighbour of my grandparents, and a dearly loved friend of my grandmother for many decades. As a child, it was an immense honour to know the author as well as the books, and the deep humanity and kindness that animates her work was an expression of the person. Though her work was obviously based on meticulous observation, Hughes often did not draw directly from children, using them as models – she simply knew them, how they look, how they act.

Alfie Gets in First (1981) by Shirley Hughes

Hughes’s style is realist and quite traditional, but she was often highly inventive in her use of the page, finding new ways to play with the medium of the picture book. In Alfie Gets in First (1981), the eponymous hero – star of a long-running series of Hughes books – returns from the shops with his mother and baby sister and, while mum is distracted with the pushchair, slams the front door, locking himself in the house and the others out. The book shifts to split screen, showing what is happening outside the door on one side of a page spread, and inside on the other. Adults pile up on front step, coming up with more and more drastic ideas to get into the house, while the relative emptiness of the other side stresses Alfie’s sense of isolation. But an important shift in the action takes place only in the art, not in the words. While the text focuses on the grown-ups faffing about, the pictures show Alfie pulling himself together, fetching a little chair, climbing on to it, and reaching the latch. Children can see this happening for themselves, sharing in Alfie’s regained composure and resourcefulness.

This facility with the page is also displayed in Up and Up (1979), which Hughes counted as a personal favourite. A small girl watches the birds and dreams of flying, but her experiments with home-made wings and bunches of balloons end in embarrassment. After eating a giant chocolate egg from the inside out, she find that she is able to fly without assistance, prancing up to the ceiling of her house, and then going on an airborne spree through her neighbourhood. In her wake follows a growing crowd of delighted children and annoyed adults, including an irascible professor, who pursues her with a butterfly net and then a hot-air balloon.

Up and Up is wordless, and communicates a vast array of feeling – chiefly the little girl’s magical insouciance and the 57 varieties of frustration and vexation shown by the adults and the professor. Hughes’s exquisite interiors and streetscapes are found throughout, but besides detail, its frames are filled with negative space, showing the vast openness the little girl suddenly has at her disposal. Buildings are shown in Heath Robinson cutaways, combining what is happening inside with the action in the sky outside, contrasting confinement and clutter with freedom. It is a mute masterpiece.

 

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