Judith Kerr was a most unexpected woman — as unexpected as the visitor in her best-loved book, who rang the doorbell and interrupted a little girl’s teatime.
The visitor was a tiger and, after politely inviting itself into the kitchen, it proceeded to eat the family out of house and home, even guzzling ‘all Daddy’s beer’ and ‘all the water in the tap’.
The Tiger Who Came To Tea has a happy ending though . . . and so, despite all the odds, did the story of Judith Kerr herself, who died on Wednesday aged 95 following a short illness.
Judith Kerr, author of The Tiger Who Came To Tea, died on Thursday aged 95 following a short illness
After a childhood of terror and death threats in Nazi Germany, she escaped to Britain and eventually became one of the most successful children’s illustrators in the world.
Even people who haven’t opened a picture book for 50 years are likely to know her work — she invented Mog, the accident-prone cat who starred in a famous Sainsbury’s Christmas TV ad three years ago.
Her death provoked a rush of tributes from stars who grew up with her books. Author Philip Pullman called her ‘a lovely person, a creator of delight’. Bestselling children’s writer David Walliams described her as ‘a legendary author and illustrator, whose stories gave pleasure to millions around the world’.
But she very nearly did not survive to write any of them. Her father, a Jewish newspaper columnist in Weimar Germany and an outspoken critic of the Nazis, was forced to flee Berlin with his family in 1933. As Hitler rose to power, Alfred Kerr was thrown out of work and Josef Goebbels ordered his books to be burned.
A child of nine at the time, Judith did not realise how desperate their plight was until much later when she found a letter her despairing father had written to a friend. Her mother Julia, much younger than Alfred, was talking constantly of suicide, he said — and of ‘taking the children with her’.
They escaped to Switzerland and then to France, but Alfred still found it impossible to earn a living because he was Jewish and couldn’t write well in French. In desperation he wrote a film script, imagining the rise of Napoleon from the viewpoint of the dictator’s mother, and sent it to celebrated film-maker Alexander Korda. Though the movie was never made, the £1,000 that Korda paid for the rights enabled the Kerrs to get to Britain and safety.
These traumatic years left a deep mark on Judith, who never forgot how political upheaval looked through the eyes of a child. On the day she and her older brother Michael had to flee Berlin, she was told she could take just one toy.
The book is about a tiger who, after politely inviting itself into the kitchen, proceeded to eat the family out of house and home, even guzzling ‘all Daddy’s beer’ and ‘all the water in the tap’
She won a scholarship to the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where she met lifelong friend Peggy Fortnum – who went on to draw Paddington
Judith chose a woolly dog that she had recently been given. Before long, she was tearfully regretting her decision — she had left behind a pink cloth rabbit that was her favourite comforter from babyhood. Her sense of injustice at the loss lasted all her life: when she wrote the first volume of her autobiography in 1971, she called it When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.
By then, she was already drawing avidly. Her earliest memory was of sitting on a kerb aged two, ignoring the children playing around her and drawing in a puddle of oil with a stick.
A few years later, she presented her mother with a drawing of the Garden of Eden. A figure in a beret stood under one of the trees. ‘That’s God,’ explained Judith. Even as a small girl, she had a knack of creating improbable images that somehow made perfect sense.
After the war, she won a scholarship to the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where she met lifelong friend Peggy Fortnum — who went on to draw Paddington Bear.
Her initial success came when she won first prize in a Daily Mail art competition in 1949. She spent the money on a trip to Spain, to see Goya’s masterpieces, and then got a job teaching at a college in Lime Grove, close to the BBC studios that she would sometimes visit to eat in the canteen. It was there she bumped into a writer, Nigel ‘Tom’ Kneale, and fell in love almost instantly: ‘There was total recognition,’ she said.
After a childhood of terror and death threats in Nazi Germany, Judith (pictured aged six) escaped first to Switzerland and France before being moving with her family to Britain in 1933. She was nine years old at the time
Kneale was in demand, the creator of the sci-fi scientist Quatermass, and he helped Judith get work as a script editor. They married in 1954, at Chelsea Register Office.
They bought a flat in Kensington and painted all the walls in bright colours, as a protest against the drabness of the times — ‘nothing to eat except dried egg, but you hadn’t been killed and you could work at anything you liked’.
When her children Tacy and Matthew were born, she tried her hand at textile design, selling patterns for children to John Lewis. To entertain her toddlers, she began making up stories. Their favourite was the one about the hungry ‘tiger who came to tea’, which they wanted to hear again and again. ‘Talk the tiger!’ Tacy would demand. Her favourite part was the ending, when Daddy came home and took the family out ‘in the dark’ for sausage, chips and ice cream.
Many parents might suppose the appeal of this image lay in a takeaway supper. Judith, with her instinctive understanding of a child’s mind, saw that the real excitement was the thought of an adventure in the dark.
She drew the illustrations, basing the father on her husband, and then faced three years of rejections from publishers before the story was published in 1968.
It has been subjected to intense analysis ever since by readers trying to understand its magical appeal.
The former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen drew parallels, in a 2013 BBC documentary, between the book and the author’s life: she was no stranger, he pointed out, to the knock on the door, the monster tearing her world apart.
Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis admitted yesterday that she asked the author ‘if the tiger symbolised the 1960s revolution where normal mores and suburban life became upended by this wild creature’. Judith’s patient answer to these theories was always the same. The tiger was just a tiger. It was hungry, and it wanted its tea.
Her next book was based on the family cat, Mog: ‘I always longed for a cat because as a refugee I couldn’t have one.’
Judith (pictured receiving the BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award) loved to work, and always said her greatest fear was becoming too old to write
Mog went on to star in more than a dozen tales, and the writer was convinced her pet enjoyed the fame: ‘Mog used to come and sit with me while I was working. She’d push the paintbrush with her nose.’
Beginning in 1970, the cat’s adventures included encounters with babies and rabbits and a trip to the vet — everyday occurences, made magical by Judith Kerr’s uncanny instinct for a child’s perspective.
Her publishers were horrified in 2002 when she presented the last book in the series, Goodbye, Mog. Ready for one final adventure, the old cat lies down: ‘Mog thought, “I could sleep for ever”. And she did.’
Judith was convinced that children would understand, and that the story might help some readers cope when their own pets died. She was right, though she often missed the character and was glad to bring her back in 2015 for Mog’s Christmas Calamity, a computer animated story for Sainsbury’s festive campaign.
Her husband died in 2006, after 52 years of marriage. ‘Happy marriages make stronger widows,’ she said phlegmatically.
Even in her 90s, Judith Kerr loved to work, and always said her greatest fear was becoming too old to write.
The thought of taking it easy never occured to her. As she said: ‘If you’ve got a life that so many people didn’t have, you can’t waste it.’