Judith Kerr’s new illustrated biography was one of the beloved writer’s final collaborative projects before her death in May, aged 95.
Judith Kerr, who died in May aged 95, began life as a refugee from Nazi Germany, and ended it as one of the world’s best-loved children’s authors and illustrators. One of her final acts was a collaboration with Thames and Hudson: An illustrated biography, written by Joanna Carey, with whom Kerr worked closely before she passed away.
Judith Kerr, which went to press shortly before her death, is the product of conversations with the author, and contains numerous photographs drawn from her personal family albums as well as rarely-seen sketches from her archives. It tells the story of Kerr’s life — beginning with her upbringing in 1920s Berlin, describing her fortuitous escape from the Nazi regime as a 12-year-old, before charting her rise to prominence as the author and illustrator of The Tiger Who Came to Tea, a picture book about a friendly but ravenous tiger.
The story begins in the run up to 1933, when the Kerr family fled Germany for Switzerland after her father, Alfred Kerr, a famous writer and journalist, was targeted by the Nazi regime for his criticism of their policies. “Space was limited and Judith could take only one soft toy,” writes Carey. “Her favourite was her pink rabbit, but on an impulse she chose instead a black dog, because she had not had it long and had hardly played with it.”
The anecdote later became the inspiration for When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, a children’s novel now so revered that it is used in German schools to teach children about the Nazi era.
Subsequently, Carey explores Kerr’s early artistic efforts, displaying several drawings she created as a child while in exile in Switzerland, France and, from 1938, Britain. Thankfully saved for posterity by Kerr’s mother, the composer Julia Kerr, the images allow us to witness the emergence of an illustrator and storyteller intent on documenting her unusual travels with a steady stream of sketches and multi-lingual captions.
The Kerrs eventually made it to Bloomsbury, London, which by the start of the Second World War had become a hub for refugees fleeing from all over Europe. Kerr’s experiences during this time, and in particular during the Blitz, became the basis for her second of three autobiographical novels about the Nazi era, Bombs on Aunt Dainty.
“It was at this testing time that Kerr believes she ‘became a Brit’,” Carey tells us. “The tolerance displayed towards her family — officially ‘Friendly Enemy Aliens’ — and the humour and fortitude with which the population withstood the German onslaught impressed her deeply.”
The images in the book then take a more mature turn, as we follow Kerr’s efforts as a student at art school in London and then as an aspiring painter and art teacher. Intriguingly, she failed her illustration diploma at Central School of Arts and Crafts, and only returned to the form in the 1960s, after withdrawing from professional life to bring up her two young children, Tacy and Matthew.
It was only once they were at school all day that she considered returning to illustration — “largely because she had difficulty finding good books for her own children,” Carey writes. “The story for her first book came easily: she had been taking Tacy to the London Zoo, and it was the child’s unusual fascination with the tiger that gave her the idea.”
Kerr ultimately wrote or drew around 45 books, and the final parts of this biography explore the development of her style and storytelling over the course of her long career. The book explores how technology changed her work, explains her thoughts on pencils — her favourite is the 8B, “a really relaxing pencil” — as well as her love for her husband of 52 years, Tom Kneale, who died in 2006.
One of Kerr’s last works was My Henry, which depicts a widow who dozes off in her armchair while thinking about her dead husband, Henry. In her subsequent dream, the pair are reunited, flying off into a magical world of mermaids and unicorns.
Words by Eliza Apperly.