Eric Hill: Illustrator whose invention of the lift-the-flap book helped make his creation, Spot the Dog, a children's favourite

 

Eric Hill was the illustrator behind Spot the Dog, the much-loved character which appeared in a bestselling series of books and went on to be adapted for television and children's toys. Key to the success of Hill's creations was his invention of lift-the-flap books, where a simple paper flap would open to reveal a surprise for the young readers. Since their debut in the early 1980s, Hill's books have sold over 60 million copies and been translated into more than 60 languages.

"Spot's Dad", as he called himself, was born in Holloway, London in 1927 and educated at Tollington Park Central school. On leaving formal education at 16 he worked in an art studio, initially as a messenger, where he was encouraged to draw cartoons in his spare time. This led to a weekly strip in Illustrated and sketches for Lilliput magazine.

After a year at the art studio he joined an advertising agency as a visualiser, helping to present ideas to clients through the use of a storyboard. He then went on to work for the graphic designer Henri Kay Henrion at Erwin Wasey, a London-based agency. From there he was headhunted by a new American outfit, which took him to the States. But within four weeks the new company had folded and he was left without a job. Hill returned to UK and to the job he was best at, being an artist, and took up freelancing as a graphic designer and illustrator.

Hill's son, Christopher, was born in 1976. When he was two, Hill would take pleasure in telling him stories about the escapades of a small puppy called Spot. His idea for a flap of paper on the page, hiding some secret character or surprise, came from seeing Christopher playing with a sheet on which Hill had drawn a draft of an advertising design.

His debut book, Where's Spot? (1980), featured the simply-drawn, mischievous yellow puppy with brown spots and a brown-tipped tail. It was the first publication to use the lift-the-flap concept. The ingenious addition to a cartoon book served to pique the curiosity of young readers, encouraging them to interact with the book and to read on, waiting for the next hidden drawing to be revealed.

The plots and drawings were simple, involving the dog and his adventures with his family and with animals, such as a bear, hippo or crocodile. But his philosophy in publishing the illustrated stories was driven by his need to "acknowledge from the start that children have far more intelligence and style than many adults credit them with". He emphasised that "I believe children all have a basic creativity which needs to be encouraged and nurtured and the Spot books seem to provide that encouragement."

Spot became an immediate success, and Where's Spot? was followed in 1981 by Spot's First Walk then by Spot Goes to School (1984) and Spot Goes on Holiday (1985). Hill said in a later interview, "I am quite convinced now, as I look back, that the actual training of drawing cartoons – which is, of course, my style – led to my producing Spot. Cartoons must be very simple and have as few words as possible and so too must the Spot books."

The Adventures of Spot (1986) was a series of 13 television adaptations of the Spot stories, produced by King Rollo Films for the BBC. With narration by Paul Nicholas and voicing by Jane Horrocks, the episodes included original music by Duncan Lamont and would always end with the sign-off "And that's Spot!".

Leo Nielsen, managing director of King Rollo, told The Independent, "When I came to work on this project, I knew of the Spot books because my children were quite young at the time. Myself and David McKee collaborated with Hill on the production of The Adventures of Spot. He was very keen to keep an eye on what was going on and was always extremely supportive and very easy to work with."

Further additions to the Spot franchise included audio books, soft toys and, somewhat later, DVDs. An educational series, It's Fun to Learn With Spot, narrated by Peter Hawkins, was aired during 1990. By now Hill was living in America, at first in Arizona then later on a California ranch. He also had a home in France.

Hill was awarded an OBE in the 2008 New Year's Honours list for his services to literature. His family said in tribute, "Although this time of loss is a great hardship for us, we can honestly say that we take some solace in the joy he brought to so many children and families through his work. We know Spot, and therefore Eric, has had a beloved presence in so many homes and bedtime readings. And we know we share our grief with many."

Francesca Dow, Managing Director of Penguin's Children's Books, said "Eric Hill was a master of simple design. He created one of the world's most loveable children's book characters – Spot, the charming, naughty, playful puppy, loved and appreciated across the world. Eric's ingenious lift-the-flap device turned the reading of a Spot book into a glorious game of hide and seek, enjoyed by children and adults alike."

MARCUS WILLIAMSON

Eric Hill, graphic designer and illustrator: born Holloway, London 7 September 1927; married firstly Barbara (divorced; one daughter), secondly Gillian (one son); OBE 2008; died California 6 June 2014.

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