JOHN BURNINGHAM on painting a childhood

PUBLISHED: 11:48 15 May 2009 | UPDATED: 16:11 07 September 2010

JOHN Burningham and his wife Helen Oxenbury have helped create some of the nation s best-loved children s books. Not that they do it together. Oxenbury, whose work includes the evocative images to Michael Rosen s We re Going On A Bear Hunt and Martin Wad

JOHN Burningham and his wife Helen Oxenbury have helped create some of the nation's best-loved children's books.

Not that they do it together.

Oxenbury, whose work includes the evocative images to Michael Rosen's We're Going On A Bear Hunt and Martin Waddell's Farmer Duck, leaves their Heathside house every morning to work at a studio near Primrose Hill.

When she returns, Burningham, who wrote and illustrated Mr Gumpy's Outing and dreamed up the original illustrations for Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, says they talk about anything other than work.

"There is none of this, 'How did you get on today?'", says the 73-year-old.

"We only talk about what we are working on when there is a point of utter crisis.

"You can destroy someone's little world really quickly if you ask an opinion and they say, 'You can't have the arm like that.' Days of work can be ruined."

Both have won the top accolade for children's book illustration - the Kate Greenaway medal - named after the Victorian writer and illustrator who lived in Frognal, Hampstead.

Each thinks the other is better at the job. "It would be very difficult if one didn't think she was good or she didn't think I was good," says Burningham pensively.

He fell into the job when his first book Borka: The Adventures Of A Goose With No Feathers, won the Kate Greenaway medal in 1963.

"If it had been a disaster, perhaps I would have ended up as something else. But it was a case of publishers asking can we have another one?"

Oxenbury, who met Burningham at art school, was originally a theatre designer but started to illustrate children's books when the couple's three children, Lucy, Emily and Bill, came along.

"When she had babies, it was something she could do at home," says Burningham, adding: "She probably looked at my work and thought, 'I could do better than that.'"

He reveals himself to be quite a perfectionist. The job doesn't come easily and he wrestles constantly with getting underway, then 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.

"It's irritating when people find out what you do and remark, 'What fun, isn't that nice.' They have no concept of what battles you have with the graphic problems."

Burningham compares drawing to making a meal. You can assemble the right ingredients and slave for hours, but it doesn't turn out right.

Like a pianist, he says he has to practise to keep his skills. But, unlike a craftsman, he can't reproduce them to order.

"It's one thing to have a lot of ideas, another thing to resolve them," he says rather gloomily.

"There's no guarantee I will produce anything good ever again."

When he is creating a book, he doesn't think about what children might like. He just sees the problems that have to be resolved.

"The golden mean is to structure it well. To make it interesting, you have to anticipate what's going to happen. There has to be build up.

"Adults read something and feel they have done that. Children know exactly what's going to happen on the coming page - the boat's going to turn over and everyone's going to fall in the water - but they love it and want to hear it again and again."

He says the secret is to constantly observe things around you. "You might have a thousand different images but the artist is able to pinpoint and simplify the essence of all those things you have seen to tell a story. You are a visual raconteur."

Burningham is currently organising a major exhibition of his life's work to run in Edinburgh this summer. This month, however, he publishes a fascinating book which is part illustrated autobiography, part career retrospective.

It traces his work from designing tube posters to re-enacting Jules Verne's Around The World In 80 Days for an illustrated book marking the classic's centenary.

"I have done a lot of stuff which people aren't aware of and it's interesting to bring it together," he says.

Anyone raised in the late 1960s and 70s is likely to have absorbed his images with their mother's milk. Whether your nursery was decorated with one of his friezes or you learned to read and write with his illustrated ABC, Burningham's work now holds nostalgic memories for three generations of children.

He had an extraordinary peripatetic childhood attending a series of liberal progressive schools as his mother and conscientious objector father toured wartime Britain in a caravan - often pitching camp in remote locations.

At 13, he wound up at A.S Neill's Summerhill, where children chose whether and what lessons to attend. Unsurprisingly, Burningham lingered longest in the art room.

"The biggest slaughter of the 20th century was going on but not where I was. It was absolutely idyllic.

"Being constantly moved and dumped into different schools obviously wasn't ideal. But it means I can get dunked into any situation and adapt to the local scenario," he says.

"The progressive schools meant I was completely unbrainwashed by education. I am an uncluttered mind which may have helped in my work."

With few formal exams, Burningham relied on his extensive sketchbook to get him into art school.

Now looking back at his long career, he says: "There is a certain naive quality about my early works which I quite like. They have stood the test of time."

He mulls over why the same books are loved equally in culturally diverse countries.

"They must be tapping into a kind of universal child language. It is mysterious - although great fun when you get it right."

Nowadays, many people assume he has retired and ask him, "What did you used to do?"

"I am busier than I have been in my life and I will only give up if I start to repeat myself or I lose the facility to do it. It takes you a lifetime to understand what it is you are trying to do."

o John Burningham is published by Jonathan Cape, priced £25.


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