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Judith Kerr, beloved author of The Tiger Who Came to Tea, dies aged 95

The Guardian logo The Guardian 23/05/2019 Claire Armitstead
German-born British author and illustrator Judith Kerr. © Getty German-born British author and illustrator Judith Kerr.

Judith Kerr, the author and illustrator whose debut picture book The Tiger Who Came to Tea introduced generations of pre-school children to the joyful chaos of uncontrolled appetites, has died at the age of 95 .

Kerr, who dreamed up the tiger to amuse her two children, only started publishing in her 40s, and lived to see the Tiger reach its millionth sale as she turned 94. To her mild chagrin, it remained her best loved single book: “I’ve got better at drawing, obviously,” she told one interviewer.

Over a 50-year career she published more than 30 further books, immortalising a succession of family cats through the naughty but lovable Mog, and bringing to life her family’s flight across Europe as the Nazis came to power in the novel When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.

Last week, she was named illustrator of the year at the British Book Awards, although she didn’t attend the ceremony. A new book, The Curse of the School Rabbit, described as a “laugh-out story of a boy, a rabbit, and a lot of bad luck”, will be published in June; Kerr told the Observer in an interview last week, that her greatest fear was “not being able to work”. German-born British author and illustrator Judith Kerr,. © Getty German-born British author and illustrator Judith Kerr,.

Kerr was born in 1923 into the intelligentsia of interwar Berlin, where her father Alfred was a leading theatre critic and newspaper columnist and her mother Julia was a talented composer. As a Jew and an outspoken critic of the rising Nazi party, Alfred Kerr was a marked man, whose notoriety forced the family to leave Germany in 1933, fleeing first to Switzerland and then France, before settling in England three years later.

This journey was at the centre of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, which was published in 1971, the first in a trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels. In Pink Rabbit, her alter ego Anna muses on the cost to children of having famous parents and watches her mother struggle with knitting and scrambling eggs after being deprived of a maid for the first time in her previously cosseted life. The second volume, released four years later, describes their narrow escape when the down-at-heel Bloomsbury hotel in which they are staying is bombed.

While her brother was sent to public school and Cambridge, and went on to become a judge, Kerr’s own education was dependent on “three kind ladies”, who clubbed together to pay for a boarding school place until she was 16. After leaving, she took a course in stenography, helped to look after injured soldiers with the Red Cross, and took herself off to life-drawing classes, before winning a scholarship from the Central School of Arts and Crafts. She sold her first drawing for 3s 6d to a man she met at a Lyons Teashop. German born British children's books writer Judith Kerr. © Getty German born British children's books writer Judith Kerr.

In her 20s she worked as an artist for hire, painting nursery murals, “getting the odd picture into an exhibition and selling a few textiles”. She was teaching at a technical college when, by chance, she met the screenwriter Nigel Kneale in the nearby BBC canteen.

The couple were married in 1954 and, with his encouragement, she began to work as a television script-reader, going on to write a six-part serial based on John Buchan’s Huntingtower before giving up to concentrate on looking after their children. Tacy was born in 1958, and Matthew arrived two years later.

She conjured up the tiger when she and Tacy were home alone one day, wishing someone would drop in to liven things up. Over the next 32 years, she produced 16 picture books about the accident-prone Mog, who she killed off in 2002 and then resurrected in 2015 for a one-off Christmas adventure, which fronted a TV advertising campaign for the supermarket Sainsbury’s.

Kerr herself made a cameo appearance in the animation, which has had more than 38m views on YouTube, and that same year broadened her animal repertoire with an original picture book based on one of her father’s anecdotes, Mr Cleghorn’s Seal. In 2017, she was again inspired by her first love – cats – introducing her latest feline housemate in the eponymous Katinka’s Tail. “They say you slow down as you get older,” she told the Guardian, “but it seems to be the opposite with me.”

Despite her success she was always incurably modest – unable, by her own account, either to write like her husband or her son, the novelist Matthew Kneale, or to paint like her brother-in-law, the artist Bryan Kneale. As her fellow children’s author Michael Rosen pointed out, her very genuine diffidence became a part of her artistic signature in books that were “deceptively simple and artless” but well versed in the traditions of surrealism.

For decades she kept all her original artworks in the study where she worked at her west London home. Her archive – including early drawings that were rescued from Berlin by her mother – is now held at Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s Seven Stories centre for children’s books.

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