Farewell to Bosham author Val Biro

Val Biro who opened the Racton Fete
Val Biro who opened the Racton Fete

A BOSHAM artist, illustrator, motoring enthusiast and author of the Gumdrop children’s books, has died, aged 92, after a short illness.

Balint Biro, known as Val, who died on July 4, was born in Budapest to a socialite mother and lawyer father, also Balint.

He spent his early life in Hungary, a country he described in an unpublished short history as being ‘a veritable spaghetti junction between East and West’.

After an idyllic childhood, in 1939 as the war was approaching, Val was sent to study art at the Central School, in London.

He worked as a fireman, spending nights on the Old Kent Road watching for incendiary bombs and riding on the fire engines for which he would always harbour a nostalgic affection. He lived in a Toc-H hostel, making friends with other young exiles, one of whom introduced him to his first wife, Vivien Woolley. They married in 1945 and their daughter, Melissa, was born in 1951.

After the war, he worked for Sylvan Press and then for John Lehman Ltd as art director. At the same time he was building a freelance career, finally giving up the day job in 1953 to work full-time at illustration.

His big break came with his first commission for Radio Times. Val’s trademark drawings covering art, theatre and sporting events were regular features for many years.

In 1955 the family moved to Germains in Chesham where they lived until the couple divorced in 1969.

Working often 16 hours a day, his output was prolific: book jackets, book illustrations, magazines such as Country Life and The Field and many others. He and Vivien were party people with a wide circle of friends. They loved the theatre, concerts and opera, too. Holidays were rare, and always abroad in the early years. Wherever he went, Val looked at art and painted watercolours.

After a brief falling-out with cars and a couple of years driving a horse and carriage everywhere, Val spotted a vintage Austin Clifton ‘Heavy 12/4’ on a garage forecourt. ‘Gumdrop’ became the family car. The first of 36 Gumdrop titles was published in 1966.

Gumdrop’s owner was based on his first father-in-law and stories were often set in the towns where he lived, with himself and family members portrayed in crowd scenes. The books would be translated into many languages.

In 1970, Val married Marie-Louise and moved to Old Amersham with her son Philip and daughter Caroline. Val and Marie-Louise later moved to Bosham.

He hugely enjoyed story-telling in primary schools. In recent years people would often come up to him at events and say ‘You came to my school and now I read your stories to my own children’.

His motoring enthusiasm continued with rallies and events with the Vintage Austin Register and to all who met him, Val was quintessentially English, though his illustrated collections of folk tales for children showed he’d kept his enthusiasm for European stories and imagery.

His last collection of retelling Tales from the Arabian Nights was published in 2013 and he was working on a new collection at the time of his death.

Still driving at 92, he regularly went up to London to enjoy art exhibitions with his daughter and stepson, and motoring events and shows with his step-grandchildren.

Gregarious and endlessly curious, he was an inspiration to all and changed how they saw the world.

- Balint (Val) Biro, October 6, 1921 – July 4, 2014