Il­lus­tra­tor He­len Ox­en­bury re­mem­bers rid­ing a Lam­bretta across the desert with her hus­band John Burn­ing­ham

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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

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