John Burn­ing­ham

Chil­dren’s au­thor and il­lus­tra­tor best known for Borka, Av­o­cado Baby and Mr Gumpy’s Out­ing

The Guardian - Journal - - Obituaries - Martin Sal­is­bury John Mack­in­tosh Burn­ing­ham, artist, au­thor and il­lus­tra­tor, born 27 April 1936; died 4 Jan­uary 2019

‘If you do a lot of trav­el­ling and mov­ing about, it’s easy to go on do­ing just that,” the artist and pic­ture­book-maker John Burn­ing­ham, who has died aged 82, once re­marked. He was re­fer­ring to his peri­patetic up­bring­ing and sub­se­quent work for the com­mu­nity in Cal­abria, Is­rael and Scot­land as a young con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor dur­ing his pe­riod of na­tional ser­vice. But “Brum”, as he was known to friends, might just as eas­ily have been speak­ing of his fear­less creative jour­ney.

The evo­lu­tion of the art of pic­ture­book-mak­ing, of com­pos­ing a graphic se­quence of pic­tures and words in in­ter­de­pen­dent har­mony, owes much to Burn­ing­ham, who, along with Mau­rice Sen­dak, was one of the great­est masters of the medium. With one or two no­table ex­cep­tions, al­most all of his work was self-au­thored, words and pic­tures de­vel­oped in tan­dem, with in­creas­ing sub­tlety and econ­omy.

His first book, pub­lished in 1963, was Borka: The Ad­ven­tures of a Goose With No Feath­ers, about a goose whose mother knits him a jersey and who has to un­der­take a jour­ney by boat when the time comes to mi­grate. It won that year’s Kate Green­away medal and its suc­cess launched a ca­reer that spanned six decades and more than 60 books.

There are many high­lights, but the sec­ond Green­away medal win­ner, Mr Gumpy’s Out­ing, in 1970, stands out as a bril­liant ex­am­ple of cu­mu­la­tive graphic sto­ry­telling. Other much-loved ti­tles in­clude Av­o­cado Baby (1982), Oi! Get Off Our Train (1989) and Granpa (1984), the last of which won the Kurt Maschler award in 1984 and was adapted into an an­i­mated film in 1989.

Burn­ing­ham also il­lus­trated Ian Flem­ing’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in 1964 and Ken­neth Gra­hame’s

The Wind in the Wil­lows in 1983.

In cre­at­ing what might be termed (in Sen­dak’s words) “vis­ual po­etry”, Burn­ing­ham con­stantly pushed at the bound­aries of how much could be left un­said, al­ways treat­ing the reader’s imag­i­na­tion with the ut­most re­spect, what­ever that reader’s age might be. In his books, the space be­tween pic­to­rial and ver­bal in­for­ma­tion is of­ten large, invit­ing the reader to fill in the gaps.

In con­trast to many of his con­tem­po­raries, such as Charles Keep­ing, Brian Wild­smith and Ray­mond Briggs, Burn­ing­ham was not by any means a gifted draughts­man. It may be that the ab­sence of man­ner­ism or stylis­tic trick­ery in his draw­ing was key to the pu­rity of voice that con­nected with so many read­ers and led to such wide­spread ap­pre­ci­a­tion,

He al­ways treated the reader’s imag­i­na­tion with the ut­most re­spect

not only in the UK but also across the globe – Burn­ing­ham’s books are es­pe­cially revered in the far east.

His ge­nius lay in an abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate in a child­like but never child­ish vis­ual lan­guage and in his un­der­stand­ing of the mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive worlds of child­hood and adult­hood. This theme was ex­plored in Come Away from the Wa­ter,

Shirley (1977) and in Granpa.

Born in Farn­ham, Sur­rey, Burn­ing­ham spent much of his child­hood be­ing moved around a succession of pro­gres­sive schools that his lib­er­ally minded par­ents Jessie Mac­in­tosh and Charles Burn­ing­ham wanted to try out. His fa­ther had fought in the trenches in the first world war but was reg­is­tered as a con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor at the out­break of the sec­ond world war in 1939.

The fam­ily let out their house in Farn­ham and dur­ing the war years trav­elled the coun­try in a car­a­van, setting up in re­mote ru­ral spots in Glouces­ter­shire, Here­ford­shire and York­shire, where his fa­ther would find work and John and his older sis­ters, Mar­garet and El­speth, would be sent to the local schools.

While Burn­ing­ham re­called with fond­ness the free­dom of a child­hood seem­ingly spent mostly in trees, he was hope­lessly dis­ad­van­taged aca­dem­i­cally, with his ar­rival at each new school seem­ing to in­volve grap­pling with a whole new sys­tem. At the age of 13 some sta­bil­ity ar­rived when he was sent to AS Neill’s Sum­mer­hill in Suf­folk, the orig­i­nal “al­ter­na­tive” board­ing school, where he stayed, leav­ing with a school cer­tifi­cate in English lit­er­a­ture but hav­ing failed the art exam.

Af­ter two and a half years of non­mil­i­tary ser­vice as a con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor, in­volv­ing heavy labour on forestry and hous­ing projects, Burn­ing­ham bumped into a for­mer Sum­mer­hill school­friend on Water­loo Bridge in Lon­don, who men­tioned that he was study­ing il­lus­tra­tion and graphic de­sign at the Cen­tral School of Art. John de­cided to try for a place him­self. De­spite not hav­ing at­tended the usual art foun­da­tion course he pre­sented a port­fo­lio of drawings and was ac­cepted.

At the Cen­tral he was taught by the painter Keith Vaughan, the de­signer and il­lus­tra­tor Lau­rence Scarfe and the tex­tile de­signer Bernard Nevill. Here he met and later mar­ried, in 1964, He­len Ox­en­bury. Although He­len was study­ing theatre de­sign, her own ca­reer as an il­lus­tra­tor blos­somed too, and she went on to cre­ate many award-win­ning pic­ture books in­clud­ing, with Michael Rosen, We’re Go­ing on a Bear Hunt (1989). Mus­ing on how two artists so suc­cess­ful in the same field man­aged to stay to­gether for so long, John spec­u­lated that the rea­son must be that each of them al­ways thought of the other as the bet­ter artist.

Burn­ing­ham grad­u­ated from the Cen­tral with dis­tinc­tion in 1959. Con­tem­po­raries there in­cluded the il­lus­tra­tor John Lawrence, who re­called with great af­fec­tion Burn­ing­ham’s wicked sense of hu­mour

and the fact that, un­usu­ally for the time, he al­ways had trans­port of one kind or an­other, ini­tially a Vespa scooter and later a mil­i­tary jeep.

Burn­ing­ham trav­elled again af­ter grad­u­at­ing, in­clud­ing a trip back to Is­rael, where he made pup­pets for Yo­ram Gross’s an­i­ma­tion film Joseph the Dreamer (1961). But his first big break came in Lon­don shortly after­wards when he was com­mis­sioned by Harold Hutchin­son, the pub­lic­ity di­rec­tor at Lon­don Trans­port, to pro­duce a num­ber of posters. This was some­thing of a dream com­mis­sion, be­ing com­par­a­tively well paid, printed to the high­est stan­dards and pre­sent­ing the artist’s work at large scale to a wide au­di­ence.

This ex­pe­ri­ence of de­sign­ing bold posters clearly had an im­pact on the evo­lu­tion of Burn­ing­ham’s work in pic­ture­books. Most il­lus­tra­tors at the time would serve their ap­pren­tice­ship through com­mis­sions for tightly con­trolled black and white line draw­ing, grad­u­at­ing to the oc­ca­sional colour job if lucky.

But it was the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing told that his work was “poster de­sign rather than book il­lus­tra­tion” when hawk­ing his port­fo­lio around that led Burn­ing­ham to take mat­ters into his own hands and to cre­ate a com­plete pic­ture­book to show to pub­lish­ers. The book was Borka, and was taken up by Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape.

Lawrence and an­other il­lus­tra­tor, John Ver­non Lord, the lat­ter a ben­e­fi­ciary of the brief pe­riod that Burn­ing­ham spent teach­ing at the Cen­tral, re­called vis­it­ing him in his Lon­don flat at the time he was work­ing on Borka. They both spoke of their amaze­ment at climb­ing down into the Percy Street base­ment and see­ing the emerg­ing spreads from the book laid out across the floor and Burn­ing­ham con­tin­u­ing, ap­par­ently ran­domly, to ap­ply bursts of car paint spray and swipes of boot polish.

This fear­less, painterly ap­proach to me­dia was sud­denly pos­si­ble as new de­vel­op­ments in print­ing tech­nol­ogy al­lowed for bet­ter re­pro­duc­tion. The richly tex­tured Wild­smith’s ABC had paved the way, win­ning the Green­away medal in 1962, and these two artists were at the fore­front of a new and vi­brant era of pic­ture­books. Later, Burn­ing­ham would ex­plore fur­ther the pos­si­bil­i­ties of pho­to­graphic collage and paint through ex­per­i­men­tal books such as Eng­land (1992), Cloud­land (1996) and France (1998).

In 2010 Burn­ing­ham and Ox­en­bury col­lab­o­rated for the first time to pro­duce There’s Go­ing to Be a Baby. Last year, they were jointly awarded the BookTrust’s life­time achieve­ment award, for their out­stand­ing con­tri­bu­tion to chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture.

He­len sur­vives him, along with their son and two daugh­ters, and seven grand­chil­dren.


Burn­ing­ham in 2011 with art work for his first book Borka: The Ad­ven­tures of a Goose With No Feath­ers. Right, Av­o­cado Baby, first pub­lished in 1982

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