The unique world of Hampstead's visual raconteur

PUBLISHED: 15:00 30 December 2016

John Burningham

John Burningham

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Storybook writer John Burningham marks his 80th year with an exhibition spanning his 50 year career

John BurninghamJohn Burningham

Perhaps you learned your letters with the help of John Burningham’s A-Z, or had one of his colourful friezes running around your nursery wall.

Or maybe you read his classics Mr Gumpy’s Outing, Granpa or Avocado Baby to a child or grandchild.

The chances are the writer and illustrator’s unique often anarchic vision has somehow permeated your childhood.

Burningham celebrated his 80th birthday in 2016 and an exhibition marking his 50-year career; John Burningham, An Illustrator of All Ages runs at the Chris Beetles Gallery with more than 200 works by a man acknowledged as one of the most significant illustrators of his era.

John BurninghamJohn Burningham

Contemporary Raymond Briggs called his work: “completely original,” and Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak described it as: “Stunning, luscious, sexy, hilarious, mysterious and frequently just plain nuts.”

The exhibition includes tube posters, card designs and illustrations from some of his 60 books which have sold more than 5 million copies including Cannonball Simp, Harquin, The Seasons, Mr Gumpy’s Motor Car, Come Away From The Water, Shirley, Oi! get off our train, Edwardo, Courtney, Aldo, Cloudland, and It’s a Secret.

Burningham had a peripatetic childhood as his mother and conscientious objector father toured wartime Britain in a caravan. He attended a series of liberal progressive schools including Summerhill where lessons weren’t compulsory and he spent hours in the art room. He met his wife Helen Oxenbury while studying at Central School of Arts and Crafts in the late 50s. She was a theatre designer who later turned to illustrating the likes of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. They married and moved to Hampstead in 1964, the year after his debut Borka The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers won the Kate Greenaway medal, and the same year he did the original illustrations for Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

The father-of-three won the Greenaway Medal a second time for Mr Gumpy’s Outing (1970) and once re-enacted Jules Verne’s Around The World in 80 Days in person for an illustrated book.

John BurninghamJohn Burningham

Although his work often features animal protagonists, they are never sentimentalised. He told one interviewer that successful writers must connect with a certain age group and “I am stuck at a mental age of five.”

Speaking to the Ham&High in 2010 he revealed himself as someone who often wrestled with creating the perfect alchemy of words and images.

“I say ‘right, I am going to start today’ I will sit at my drawing board then I find myself five miles away doing something else. I can’t think of anything worse than trying to work if it isn’t coming off. People find out what you do and remark ‘what fun’. The have no concept of what battles you have.”

He added that the secret was to constantly observe things around you simplifying the essence to tell a story thus becoming a “visual raconteur”. Of the longevity of his stories “they must be tapping into a kind of universal child language. It is mysterious, although great fun when you get it right.”

At The Chris Beetles Gallery in Ryder Street St James’s until January 7, chrisbeetles.com.

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