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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

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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.

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BITS & PIECES...

  • 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.

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