Illustrator Helen Oxenbury remembers riding a Lambretta across the desert with her husband John Burningham
Illustrator Helen Oxenbury on a desert adventure
AFTER WE LEFT art school, John was doing some work for an animator in Israel and I went out to see him. He’d taken his Lambretta with him so we rode it through the Negev desert in the south of the country, on a little road with just a few scrubby plants around. During the day it was very, very hot, and at night it was freezing. I didn’t realise it was going to be quite so cold.
This picture was taken with one of those cameras with a timer – you have to set it up and then run back into position. We got quite hysterical while doing it – John propped up the camera and ran like mad to get back on the scooter. Then we drove on to Eilat, which was just a few huts in those days. But even so, it was rather wonderful.
When I think back, it was quite dangerous riding a scooter through the desert in the daytime – we could have got very bad sunstroke, but we were young and we didn’t think.
It was before we were married – we’d been together for about three years, after meeting in the canteen at the Central School of Art in London; John was doing a course in illustration and graphic art, and I was doing theatre design. We got married when I was 25; I’m now 80 and John is 83 – it’s incredible.
We did a few further trips on the scooter and then got a Jeep. When we camped on the beach in Camargue [southern France], the mosquitoes were attracted to the lights of the Jeep and I got bitten all over – I looked like Quasimodo – but it was all terribly enjoyable.
When we had a family that kind of travelling got rather difficult. I was 27 or 28 when my first child was born. We then bought a house in France for about £80. It was just a ruin with a tree growing up in the middle of it, and it was in a little village hanging on the side of a mountain, near the Lodève, west of Montpellier. The views were unbelievably beautiful. John and some friends cleared the house out, put floors in, and plumbing and electricity and whatnot, and that’s where we would go on our holidays when the children were little.
A few years later, we sold it and bought a house further east, in Montélimar, where the nougat comes from. We still go there sometimes, but John finds it very difficult to travel now and I haven’t felt the need to. We had such a wonderful summer here this year, and we have a lovely garden. Travelling is a bit of a nightmare now – it’s just not fun any more. I think I’d like to sell the French place and get somewhere by the sea in England.
— Interview by Jessamy Calkin
Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration, by Leonard S Marcus and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury (Walker Books, £30), is out now
When I think back, it was quite dangerous… but we were young and we didn't think
Helen Oxenbury and John Burningham in the Negev desert in the early1960s