British children’s author and illustrator Brian Wildsmith, praised for his creative range of style and subject, died on August 31 in Grasse, France. He was 86.
Wildsmith was born on January 22, 1930 in Penistone, Yorkshire. In his autobiography, he said he was always strongly influenced in his art by the landscape, climate and people of his hometown.
As a child in primary school, Wildsmith fed his passion for cricket and love of music, becoming proficient in piano, especially. He also had a latent for the sciences, and was on track to become a chemist when at the age of 16, he left his high school to attend Barnsley Art School, where he studied for two years. During that time he did illustration work for the local paper, and met his future wife, Aurélie Ithurbide, whom he would wed in 1955.
Following his studies at Barnsley, Wildsmith received a scholarship to the Slade School of Fine Art at University College, London. After three years, he received a fine arts degree from the Slade School before being called up for military service. Wildsmith served in the Royal Army Education Corps, first as a math teacher and then in a post teaching at the Royal School of Music in Twickenham. After 18 months, he left the army and worked as an art teacher at Sellhurst Grammar School for Boys in London.
While at Sellhurst, Wildsmith began shopping around his art portfolio in hopes of seeking book illustration work. He did his first book jacket in 1954, for Daffodil Sky by H.E. Bates, and by 1957, Aurélie suggested that he leave his teaching post and work on his art full-time. By the late 1950s Wildsmith had met editor Mabel George at Oxford University Press, with whom he would form a longtime working relationship. In 1959, George commissioned Wildsmith to create 12 color plates for Tales from the Arabian Nights and encouraged him to write and illustrate children’s books. His first solo outing was his ABC, which was published in 1961 and won the Kate Greenaway Medal. Other early works included retellings of five fables by Jean de La Fontaine, including The Lion and the Rat, which received a Greenaway Medal commendation in 1963. Into the 1970s, Wildsmith’s books were published in the U.S. by Franklin Watts. He remained loyal to his U.S. publisher, he explained in his autobiography, because publisher Helen Watts had bought his ABC book from George upon first sight during a trip to London, “raising the money by mortgaging her life assurance policy.”
Wildsmith’s books Birds, Wild Animals, and Fishes, focusing on the use of collective nouns, appeared in 1967 to warm praise, with Birds garnering a 1967 Greenaway Medal commendation as well as being named a New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year. The year 1971 held several milestones for Wildsmith. He published The Owl and the Woodpecker, of which he wrote in his autobiography, “marked a turning point in my career; for the first time I illustrated a story that I had written.” That title received yet another Greenaway Medal commendation. The same year, Wildsmith and his family, which now included four children, moved to the south of France where he believed he could explore fresh inspiration for his art and writing, and where he continued to live.
Other of his well-loved works include A Christmas Story, a retelling of the Nativity from a child’s eye-view, and Cat on the Mat, featuring a tabby cat who has a meltdown when a string of animal encroachers temporarily take over his favorite red rug. In all, Wildsmith wrote and illustrated more than 80 books during his long tenure with Oxford University Press; his works were translated into more than 30 languages. A statement from the British publisher quotes author Michael Rosen remembering his reaction when first seeing Wildsmith’s work in the 1960s: “Floods of colour exploding across the pages with a name to match: Wildsmith. He was a wild smith. I remember feeling envious: why hadn’t I had books as wild and lush as these?”
Wildsmith’s wife Aurélie died in 2015. He is survived by four children, three grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.