Richard Kidd: Artist and children's writer

Thursday 31 July 2008 00:00 BST

Richard Kidd was a highly original landscape painter and later also a talented author and illustrator of children's books. Although widely exhibited and consistently well reviewed, he never achieved the popular artistic or literary breakthrough that always seemed just about to happen, and might well still have done so had he lived to a greater age.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1952, Richard Kidd as a child was told by his father, a coal-miner, that he could follow whatever ambition he liked, providing he didn't go into coal-mining. He gained a First in art at Newcastle University and was awarded the Abbey scholarship to the British School in Rome in 1975 as "an exceptionally promising emergent painter". He married Karen, a fellow fine art student; she became known professionally as Lindsey Kidd, and the couple had two adored daughters, Rachael and Daisy.

Now living near Stratford-upon-Avon, Kidd produced abstract paintings taken from smaller drawings executed during climbing expeditions exploring remote locations in Skye, Arran and Mull. Back in his studio, he would create a more impressionistic effect, with vivid splashes of colour combining with strong brushwork. As he put it himself about his landscape pictures, "I make them in ways which push my control of materials to the limit because that feels like being there." A keen runner as well as rock climber, he led an active life, twice struck by lightning during his outdoor pursuits.

Returning from a six-year spell in the United States following the closure of the Rowan Gallery in London which had exhibited much of his work, Kidd branched out into children's books. The result was Almost Famous Daisy! (1996), within which a sprightly girl visits, with her dog Duggie, five different locations all associated with a great artist in order to paint her own pictures. Exuberantly illustrated, with each page taking on the mannerisms of the artists involved, stretching from Van Gogh to Jackson Pollock, it was shortlisted for the Mother Goose Award in 1996 for "the most exciting newcomer to British children's book illustration". For The New York Times Book Review, Kidd's picture book "could persuade youngsters to create their own art – a realisation as priceless as anything hanging on the walls of the Louvre".

It was followed by the equally original Monsieur Thermidor: a fantastic fishy tale (1997). This took its origins from his wife's salt dough models, painted by herself and then left to dry hanging from the kitchen beams. One day spotting 12 little lobsters Kidd decided to write a book about them. And so was born Monsieur Thermidor – great underwater chef and unlikely survivor against all the odds. As the publisher's deadline approached, Kidd took his daughters away for five weeks while his wife occupied the kitchen creating yet more models. Incorporating these into his own swirling, atmospheric illustrations, the finished book was well received.

It was succeeded by Lobster in Love: a whirlpool romance (2001), where this time Monsieur Thermidor, after falling in love, leads his bride to safety following another untoward adventure with fishing nets. As with its predecessor, strong shapes and colours create an immediately arresting series of images, linked by an amiable story where everything works out for the best.

Kidd also tried his hand at fiction, with notable success. The Great Goldfish Robbery (1999) is a junior detective story in which young Jimmy Stoker foils a plot to steal his friend's valuable koi carp. It was shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award for an outstanding first novel. Then followed Deadly Famous (2001), a sadly prescient story in which an artist disappears in a flood. Perhaps the best of this series is The Tiger Bone Thief (2002), an entertaining story bringing in Henri Rousseau, Vivaldi, tiger conservation, taxidermy practices and local anti-Chinese prejudice. Full of good jokes, it deserves to become a minor classic.

Amicably divorced from his wife in 2001, Kidd returned to the North-East to help look after his parents. On a working trip to the Philippines with his partner, Ailsa Lamble, he visited the Dunsulan Falls in Bataan province, and, going for a swim, he drowned after becoming overpowered in the strong currents.

Nicholas Tucker

Richard Kidd, artist and writer: born Newcastle upon Tyne 22 June 1952; married (two daughters); died Dunsulan Falls, Philippines 19 July 2008.

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