Barbara Firth achieved success relatively late in life with her rich, warm, evocative illustrations for children's books, the most successful being the classic "Can't You Sleep, Little Bear?" written by Martin Waddell. Barbara Firth grew up in Cheshire and although encouraged in her art at school Barbara Firth never studied it and she delighted in this lack of training: "I have been very lucky, as my career in drawing is also my favourite hobby."
After training in pattern-cutting at the London College of Fashion, Barbara Firth was offered a job in Marks and Spencer's design department, but she turned it down in favour of a position at Vogue, where she worked for 15 years as a production director on knitting, crocheting and dressmaking books. Barbara Firth then worked in production for Marshall Cavendish books, as well as supplying freelance illustrations and it was there that she met Amelia Edwards, one of the founders and the first creative director of the children's publisher Walker Books. Barbara Firth's career as an illustrator started to flourish, " My style started to get livelier: now I can be too exuberant, but once I'd found it was acceptable to draw in that way, there was no holding me."
Though she was a very private person, Barbara Firth knew much about people, animals and the world. And she shared her knowledge with deep feeling and sensibility. Generations of children have loved, and will always love, her books; and her long collaboration with Martin Waddell brought a joyful richness - at once emotional and comical - to story times across the world.
Barbara Firth lived in Harrow, London, for the greater part of her adult life, with her sister Betty, who survives her, with a large family of animals always at hand - including the original Waldo, the tortoise, now more than 100 years old.
"I've been so lucky to have a career doing what I love best. I've always drawn plants and animals from a very young age."
Her realisation of Martin Waddell's touching story of Big Bear helping Little Bear overcome his fear of the dark by bringing him bigger and bigger lanterns, before taking him outside to show him how the moon - the biggest lantern of them all - is always there, touched a chord with parents and children. Barbara Firth created an engaging, rumpled and shambling Big Bear and an enchantingly bright-eyed and eager Little Bear. Their cave is a haven of cosiness and Firth's illustrations are full of depth and surprise, as well as charm. The book became a bedtime classic and won several prizes around the world, including the 1988 Nestlé Smarties gold award and a Kate Greenaway medal.
"I have always been biased toward illustrating natural history, so it was a joy to draw pages and pages of bears."
"The most perfect children's book ever written" The Sunday Times
"Wonderfully reassuring for small children. I cannot praise this picture book too highly. It will delight reader and listener alike." The Sunday Telegraph