CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Surrey Life today CLICK HERE

Making jigsaw puzzles with Gibsons of Sutton

PUBLISHED: 17:11 05 April 2012 | UPDATED: 12:21 13 October 2014

This Gibsons jigsaw was inspired by the farmers’ market held outside the old Town Hall in Reigate

This Gibsons jigsaw was inspired by the farmers’ market held outside the old Town Hall in Reigate

Despite the recession, sales of jigsaws are soaring as many of us seek comfort in nostalgia. No surprise then that demand is greater than ever for the much-loved puzzles made by Gibsons of Sutton, with even the Queen among their fans. Self-confessed jigsaw addict Angela Wintle meets the chairman, Dorking resident Michael Gibson, to learn more about the humble jigsaw’s enduring appeal

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine May 2011


THERE are few greater pleasures in life than piecing together a 1,000-piece jigsaw. When there’s a particularly tricky area to complete, time stands still. Meals get forgotten. Washing piles high in the laundry basket. Even the family pet goes hungry.

Silent and calming, they offer that rare thing – the chance to impose order out of chaos. Personally, I always do the straight pieces first; then pick out the brightly coloured areas. Words are a particular favourite. If there’s an advertising slogan to piece together, I’ll pounce on that. I’m also partial to people and faces, though I detest vast swathes of sea or sky. Doesn’t everyone? Life’s just too short.

It seems I’m not the only jigsaw junkie either; in fact, thousands of us thrive on our daily fix. Dame Margaret Drabble recently revealed that when her husband, the biographer Michael Holroyd, was diagnosed with bowel cancer, jigsaws helped save her from sinking into paranoia and depression. Piecing together framed pictures gave her an illusion of control when everything else was uncertain.

Theatre producer Michael Codron has similarly been completing a puzzle a day for more than 30 years – and jigsaws have the royal seal of approval too. The Queen has been a keen borrower from the British Jigsaw Puzzle Library for years and it’s even rumoured that some of their 3,500-piece wooden puzzles have been returned with the odd Corgi bite mark.

To crown it all
But she buys as well as borrows. And when she set off on a family holiday to the Western Isles last summer, what should be seen poking from her luggage but a brand new 1,000-piece Gibsons jigsaw depicting a 1950s shopping basket. Her 1953 Coronation was even mentioned on the box!

You can imagine the excitement back at Gibsons, a family-run business in Sutton, which enjoys the distinction of being the best-selling adult jigsaw manufacturer in the country. But her Majesty’s predilections didn’t surprise the chairman, Michael Gibson.

When he introduced their first jigsaws back in the Eighties, he determined to bring a new, luxurious feel to a decidedly lacklustre market. There was to be no skimping at Gibsons. Along came nice, chunky puzzle pieces and sturdy boxes printed in smart royal blue.

Best of all, he dispensed with the usual dreary subject matter. Out went Bavarian castles, Swiss mountains, cutesy kittens and thatched cottages surrounded by acres of monotonous shrubbery and unvarying skies. In came delectable new themes, often drawn by specially commissioned artists.

Nostalgia, he decided, was what the great British public wanted and he dished it out by the box-load. Steam trains, village greens, potting sheds, blacksmiths, traditional crafts, Cornish harbours, period advertising, Hornby train sets and snippets from those vintage comic favourites The Beano and The Dandy were the new order of the day. Customers lapped it up.

“The most important thing we offer is escapism,” says Michael. “We present our customers – many of whom are aged 65 and over – with images that make them smile. And that often tends to be memories of their childhood.”

Game over
Ironically, though, Gibsons didn’t actually sell jigsaws at the outset. When hard-headed businessman Harry Percy Gibson founded the company back in 1919, they specialised in traditional board and activity games. They enjoyed steady success – even surviving the war years when their London headquarters took a direct hit during the Blitz. But when the country’s appetite for chess, cribbage and chequers began to wane with the onset of computer games, Gibsons were forced to move with the times.

They decided their future lay in jigsaws and their first images depicted aerial shots of well-known British landmarks, wildlife scenes and French Impressionist paintings. Michael admits they made some terrible mistakes. “The Impressionists’ loose brushwork wasn’t best suited to jigsaws where it helps to have as much information as possible,” he grimaces, “though we did sell a few. Some people love a challenge.”

All in the detail
These days, of course, Gibsons are well versed in jigsaw mechanics and produce around 50 new puzzles a year. Michael enjoys working with the company’s dedicated band of artists and considerable thought goes into the selection of each image.

“A picture that hangs on a wall needs to breathe, whereas a good jigsaw puzzle requires as much detail as possible to hold the interest. You also need a good variety of colour and tonal quality.

“One of our most popular artists is Mike Jupp, who packs his cartoons
of car boot sales, farmyard scenes and London life with hundreds of humorous details. In fact, there are usually so many that impatient puzzlers have to wait an extremely long time for his next jigsaw.

“Another favourite is the American artist Thomas Kinkade. His style is very chocolate box and you either love him or hate him, but he has been a hugely important licence for us. Malcolm Root, who specialises in nostalgic steam scenes, is another of our popular illustrators. There are some very good railway artists around, but Malcolm also manages to tell a story, which is vital for the puzzle market.”

Boxing clever
Jigsaw production has changed little over the years. The image is printed on one-sided art paper, glued on to board and then cut into individual jigsaw shapes with a die press. It’s then passed through a shredder where air is blown through the puzzle to break it into pieces before it’s dropped into a polythene bag, sealed and boxed.

If, in the rare event, a piece goes missing, Gibsons will happily dispatch a replacement puzzle. “Customer service is terribly important to us and we get many letters from people saying they can’t believe such good service is still available,” says Michael.

The company moved to its present headquarters four years ago and all its staff are recruited from the locality. “I live in Dorking and have always loved the county,” says Michael. “It’s close to the cultural centre of London, but there’s plenty of undulating countryside and the seaside isn’t far away if you fancy a trip to the coast.”

The final piece
It’s the perfect subject matter, in fact, for a Gibsons jigsaw. And guess what? The hustle and bustle of Reigate farmers’ market, complete with traditional red telephone box and even a stray chicken, features in one of their best-selling images by artist Susan Brabeau.

Who knows? It might even be scattered over the Queen’s breakfast table right now. Let’s just hope the corgis don’t get hold of it.



  • London mapmaker John Spilsbury manufactured the first jigsaw puzzle in the 1760s. It featured a map and was intended as an educational tool.
  • It takes four times as long to do a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle as a 500-piece one.
  • Princess Margaret was thought to have been a jigsaw addict, but in reality she didn’t share her sister’s enthusiasm. After her death, no fewer than 1,700 jigsaws were found in her attic – well-intentioned but unopened gifts.
  • The most expensive jigsaw was sold in 1993 for more than £8,000.

More from Surrey Life

Yesterday, 10:52

Surrey is full of secret hideaways and hidden gems. Slades Farm on the Wintershall Estate is definitely one of them

Read more
Wed, 16:05

The new hotel is set to open in spring 2019 and will be located in the heart of the vineyard, offering sweeping views over the North Downs Way.

Read more
Tue, 10:53

From Santa’s Grottos, to Victorian Christmas markets and late-night shopping, we’ve covered what’s on in Surrey this season

Read more
Tue, 10:47

Whether you're looking for fine dining, pub grub or exotic dishes, eating out in Surrey has something for everyone. Here's our guide to the best local restaurants and pubs

Read more
Tue, 10:41

Having bloomed in Brighton’s restaurant scene over the past decade, The Chilli Pickle opened its second site in Guildford this summer

Read more
Mon, 14:32

Historic Royal Palaces and IMG have announced that Kylie Minogue is the first headliner confirmed for Hampton Court Palace Festival 2019. These will be her only London shows of summer 2019. Here’s how you can get tickets

Read more
Mon, 12:56

Enjoy this linear rail to ramble section of the Thames Down Link route taking the short train-ride from Box Hill & Westhumble to Ashtead before walking back

Read more
Mon, 12:13

Great things to do in Surrey this weekend (16, 17 and 18 November): art exhibitions, walks, concerts, theatre, places to visit and other events and ideas.

Read more
Tuesday, November 6, 2018

It’s that time of year when our beautiful countryside is alight with the colours of autumn. Here, we pick out some of her favourite spots to enjoy the seasonal splendour – as well as some perfect places for a post-walk refresher

Read more
Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Found on the stretch of the River Thames between Weybridge and East Molesey, Sunbury-on-Thames is blessed with a village feel where it meets the water. From antique hunts to the joys of river life, here are a few of our favourite reasons to visit

Read more
Monday, November 5, 2018

Verity & Violet are Loui and Jess – a singing duo from Surrey who specialise in blending vintage classics with modern favourites. The two have achieved success in the capital, but are now hoping to attract an audience closer to home

Read more
Friday, November 2, 2018

With the Christmas celebrations seemingly starting earlier every year, it all feels a little too ‘soon’ sometimes, but what if you want to look your best for Christmas & New year celebrations and are considering having cosmetic non-surgical procedures? The Bella Vou Pantiles Clinic offers surgical and non-surgical cosmetic procedures and treatments from a purpose-built private clinic in the heart of Royal Tunbridge Wells

Read more
Thursday, November 1, 2018

Living in England’s most densely wooded county, it’s always a pleasure to witness Surrey donning its autumn finery. Here’s some of the best places to do just that - plus a few pub pit stops to enjoy on route!

Read more
Wednesday, October 31, 2018

We are regularly reminded of the high cost of housing with statistics revealing that only one in three millennials will be able to afford their own home during their lifetime and that most will remain in the category known as Generation Rent

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Topics of Interest

Follow us on Twitter

Like us on Facebook

Subscribe or buy a mag today

subscription ad

Local Business Directory

Property Search