John Burningham obituary

Children’s author and illustrator who enjoyed success with Borka, Mr Gumpy’s Outing, Avocado Baby and Granpa

“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 once remarked.

Burningham, who has died aged 82, was referring to his peripatetic upbringing and subsequent community work in Calabria, Israel and Scotland as a young conscientious objector during his period of national service. But “Brum”, as he was known since schooldays 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. The word “illustrator”, as it is traditionally employed, is inadequate when attempting to describe Burningham’s oeuvre. With one or two notable exceptions, almost all of his work was self-authored, words and pictures developed and refined in tandem, with increasing subtlety and economy over the course of his career.

Borka: The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers was John Burningham’s first book, published in 1963.
Borka: The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers was John Burningham’s first book, published in 1963. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

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. The book 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 and highly influential 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 which won the Kurt Maschler award in 1984 and was adapted into an animated film in 1989. Burningham also illustrated with distinction 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. These brazen narrative ambiguities fly in the face of the traditional advice to creators of children’s books that all loose ends must be firmly tied up.

Mr Gumpy’s Outing, 1970, is a brilliant and highly influential example of cumulative graphic storytelling.
Mr Gumpy’s Outing, 1970, is a brilliant and highly influential example of cumulative graphic storytelling. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

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

He was never a confident speaker or writer in the traditional sense; 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 explicitly explored in Come Away from the Water, Shirley (1977) and in Granpa. In each of these masterly works, the respective internal universes of child and adult are contrasted with consummate graphic and verbal economy.

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 idyllic 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 of learning. 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.

Granpa, 1984, won that year’s Kurt Maschler award and was adapted into an animated film in 1989.
Granpa, 1984, won that year’s Kurt Maschler award and was adapted into an animated film in 1989. Illustration: John Burningham

After two and a half years of non-military service as a conscientious objector, involving heavy labour on forestry and housing projects, Burningham bumped into a former Summerhill school friend on Waterloo Bridge in London, who mentioned that he was studying illustration and graphic design at the Central School of Art. John liked the sound of this and decided to try for a place himself. Despite not having attended the usual prerequisite 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. “He was always dashing off somewhere. He would roll up and say ‘I’m just off to Salisbury Plain, John, do you want to come?’”

Avocado Baby, 1982, by John Burningham.
Avocado Baby, 1982, by John Burningham. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

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, publicity director at London Transport, to produce a number of posters. This was something of a dream commission for a young illustrator, being comparatively well paid, printed to the highest standards of the time and presenting the artist’s work at large scale to a wide audience.

This experience of designing bold, graphic, full-colour 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.

Borka: The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers, 1963.
Borka: The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers, 1963. Illustration: John Burningham

Lawrence and another illustrator, John Vernon Lord, the latter a beneficiary of the brief period that Burningham spent teaching at the Central, recall visiting him in his London flat at the time he was working on Borka. They both recall 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 to the artworks.

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.

• John Mackintosh Burningham, artist, author and illustrator, born 27 April 1936; died 4 January 2019

Contributor

Martin Salisbury

The GuardianTramp

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