Obituary: Hampstead children’s illustrator and author John Burningham who helped lead rebirth of ‘the art of children’s books’

Authors John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury promote their new book There's Going To Be a Baby with a

Authors John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury promote their new book There's Going To Be a Baby with a signing at Muswell Hill Children's Bookshop on 16.10.10. Pictured with fans Alice (6) and Freddie (2) Jenkins who had come to get their books signed. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

Renowned Hampstead children’s author and illustrator John Burningham has died of pneumonia aged 82.

From: ‘Borka the Adventures of a Goose with no Feathers’ by John Burningham, published by Tom Maschl

From: Borka the Adventures of a Goose with no Feathers by John Burningham, published by Tom Maschler(1963). - Credit: Archant

John, who had lived next to Hampstead Heath for more than 40 years with his wife Helen Oxenbury, was well known to children and parents alike through his vivid drawings and stories told through the generations.

He was born in Farnham, Surrey, in 1936. After a childhood where he moved schools several times, he eventually settled at “alternative” boarding school Summerhill, also in Surrey.

Years later, a chance encounter with a former classmate on Waterloo Bridge led him to joining the Central School of Art. There he met Helen, who was studying theatre design, in the school canteen.

After leaving art school, John won the Kate Greenaway medal for Borka: The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers in 1963, and again in 1970 for Mr Gumpy’s Outing. The medal is named after the former Victorian illustrator who lived in Frognal.

He followed up his success with further books and illustrated Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in 1964 and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows in 1983.

Helen herself became an acclaimed illustrator, winning the Kate Greenaway medal in 1969.

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In recognition of their work they were awarded the BookTrust’s lifetime achievement award last year.

Speaking to the Ham&High, his wife Helen paid tribute to him.

“He was a kind, generous man with a great sense of humour. He was very wise and spiritual. The friends he had were good friends, and this was partly down to his amazing sense of humour and way of looking at the world.

“He was a great father and grandfather, and he was always there for his kids when they were small. He introduced them to beautiful things, because he loved great craftsmanship and great architecture – and that’s something they’ve retained.

“He was one of the first to bring back the art of children’s books in the 1960s and 1970s along with Raymond Briggs and Shirley Hughes. His work was exceptional, and he had a great feeling for children and little children and what their fears and their likes and dislikes are. He was able to touch both them and the adults who were reading to them.”

Funeral details have yet to be finalised.

John is survived by his wife Helen, children Lucy, Emily and Bill, and seven grandchildren.