Asked what she considered her greatest achievement, acclaimed author and illustrator Shirley Hughes had the simplest of responses.
‘Creating picture books that some small child might enjoy,’ she said.
And she certainly did that.
Shirley — who, it was announced yesterday, died ‘peacefully at home after a short illness’ at the age of 94 on Friday — wrote more than 50 books and illustrated hundreds in a career spanning eight decades.
But it was her uncanny ability to find a simple beauty in the everyday hustle and bustle of childhood that made her a beloved feature of family bookshelves the world over.
How many children born in the past half century or so haven’t at some point been enraptured by Shirley’s gentle tales about a beloved stuffed toy named Dogger or an impish little boy named Alfie?
Shirley Hughes – who died ‘peacefully at home after a short illness’ at the age of 94 on Friday – wrote more than 50 books and illustrated hundreds in a career spanning eight decades
How many of them haven’t dusted off a battered old copy, or picked up a new edition (even in her 90s Shirley remained a prolific worker) to read with their own children?
Fellow authors Michael Rosen, Sir Philip Pullman and Sir Michael Morpurgo were among those paying tribute yesterday.
‘We have all grown up with the stories and drawings of Shirley Hughes deep inside us,’ said Sir Michael. ‘We’ve enjoyed them for ourselves, with our children, with our grandchildren.
‘Shirley must have [begun] the reading lives of so many millions. That moment when you’ve read a book like Alfie and sit back and think: “That was wonderful, tell me another.”‘
But some of the most heartfelt tributes came not from her peers, nor the publishing world, which twice awarded her the Kate Greenaway Medal, but from her many, many readers.
‘I was raised on Hughes. My Mum could still recite the opening pages of Dogger when I was 25. Now I read her books to my baby son,’ wrote one reader, on Twitter.
So prolific was Shirley (she clocked up lifetime sales surpassing more than 10 million copies of her books), her illustrations so evocative of childhood, it feels as if her best-known creations, Dogger and Alfie, have been part of children’s literature for ever
the eponymous figures broke into the literary world relatively late in her career — Dogger was published in 1977 and Alfie Gets In First, the first of her celebrated Alfie series, came in 1981
So prolific was Shirley (she clocked up lifetime sales surpassing more than 10 million copies of her books), her illustrations so evocative of childhood, it feels as if her best-known creations, Dogger and Alfie, have been part of children’s literature for ever.
In fact, the eponymous figures broke into the literary world relatively late in her career — Dogger was published in 1977 and Alfie Gets In First, the first of her celebrated Alfie series, came in 1981 when her own children Ed, a journalist, Clara, an author and illustrator, and Tom, a research scientist, were long past the age of reading picture books.
Born in 1927, the youngest of three daughters, and raised in West Kirby on the Wirral, Shirley was the daughter of T. J. Hughes, who founded what would be a successful chain of department stores and who died when she was just five.
Her mother was a keen theatre-goer and Shirley, too, was drawn to the world of theatre, cinema and art, so much so she toyed with pursuing a different career — she left grammar school aged 16 and enrolled at Liverpool School of Art to begin a course in fashion and dress design with a view to doing costumes for the stage.
Then, as she herself once put it, she decided to spread her wings, heading for Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art.
‘I needed to get away from a life revolving around mock Tudor houses, the tennis club and the importance of getting that engagement ring on your finger,’ she told one interviewer.
Born in 1927, the youngest of three daughters, and raised in West Kirby on the Wirral, Shirley was the daughter of T. J. Hughes, who founded what would be a successful chain of department stores and who died when she was just five
It was a tutor at Ruskin who encouraged the young artist to find an outlet for her theatrical ambitions in illustration, using the page as her set.
Building a career was far from easy, there was a spell in a ‘freezing cold bedsit’ while hawking her portfolio round publishers.
She married architect John Vulliamy in 1952 — moving into the Notting Hill house that remained her home and studio until the end.
The birth of her children, in 1954, 1956 and 1962, diminished neither her passion for work nor her time.
‘I reckoned I needed three hours, if I got them I was happy and I washed shirts and nappies and scrubbed floors and didn’t mind a bit,’ she once said.
Her break came in the 1950s when Dorothy Edwards asked her to illustrate the My Naughty Little Sister series. And in 1960 came the first book Shirley both wrote and illustrated, Lucy & Tom’s Day.
More books followed, but her publishers always said they were too English to be accepted abroad. Then came Dogger.
Shirley, then 50, was acutely aware it was ‘the most quintessentially English book’ imaginable — about a school fete, a beloved toy and its tousle-haired owner.
Shirley’s themes, universally appealing and so rooted in the day-to-day, remained as fresh as ever — albeit with the blissful absence of mobile phones or games consoles, which isn’t to say Shirley’s work was at all out-of-touch. Pictured: Hughes at home in London in 2013
But something about Dogger captured the public imagination. It has been translated into 13 languages and has never been out of print.
After Dogger there were other stories to tell, equally captivating, such as Alfie and his little sister Annie Rose, creations who remained frozen in time as rosy-cheeked children.
I was lucky enough to conduct the last interview with Shirley Hughes in late 2020, when Dogger was bounding back into the limelight — left ear cocked, as ever, in curiosity — for a Christmas sequel.
Hearing her own account of a lifetime’s work was a delight.
She had a lifelong sketchbook habit, she said. School fairs, sports days and jumble sales meant she had ‘plenty of material’ to draw on.
Shirley, whose husband died in 2007 and who was appointed a CBE in 2017, always maintained that her characters weren’t drawn from her own children.
She said they were crafted from a long line of children she had observed over the years, including those she would watch play from the window of the room of her home to which she would ascend each day to work.
‘I work upstairs, in what used to be Ed’s bedroom, but has now been my workroom for some decades,’ she told me.
‘I work in the mornings until I am tired, when I go down to the kitchen for lunch and to read the paper. I used to listen to music while I worked, some jazz perhaps, or the afternoon play on the radio, but these days I prefer silence.
‘There is nothing more exciting than starting work; sharpening pencils and squeezing out my paints on to the palette.
‘One of the toughest challenges is to translate the vitality of the rough, which is done at great speed with a B pencil, into the finished artwork, which, of course, is done at a much slower and more meticulous pace.’
Back when Dogger was a fresh young pup, Shirley would have his real-life counterpart (a battered old toy given to son Ed by his great uncle, GP Hugh Hynes) at her side.
‘Initially I would keep the real Dogger close by, so I could capture his exact qualities — the worn-away fur, one ear up and one ear down — but after a while I didn’t need to. He is so vivid in my imagination. I could draw him in my sleep,’ she said.
Shirley’s themes, universally appealing and so rooted in the day-to-day, remained as fresh as ever — albeit with the blissful absence of mobile phones or games consoles, which isn’t to say Shirley’s work was at all out-of-touch.
This, after all, is the author who, in the early 1970s, drew a mixed race playground in Lucy & Tom Go To School and who in Helpers, in 1975, had a male babysitter and working mother.
‘I’ve got two great-grandchildren now, too, there’s another generation coming through,’ she said.
‘The themes I deal with in my books are common to all young children, whether it’s putting the wrong boot on the wrong foot, slamming the front door with mum on the wrong side or going to nursery school.’
The inspirational author’s passion was in taking children to a place where phones weren’t necessary.
And as a generation of readers reach for their own battered copies of one of Shirley’s many books, it’s a lesson we can all learn from.