John Burningham: exhibition honours children's author who 'brought joy' to generations

Thought to be a pull-out poster created for John Burningham's 1969 book Seasons

An illustration of spring thought to have been a pull-out poster for John Burningham's 1969 book Seasons - Credit: Courtesy of the estate of John Burningham

Burgh House is hosting a retrospective of much-loved author and illustrator John Burningham.

He lived in Hampstead with fellow children's book icon Helen Oxenbury, who has loaned many of the exhibits for John Burningham: An Illustrated Life.

Speaking on behalf of the John Burningham estate, independent curator Selina Skipwith said: "This is the first display of artwork since John’s death and given his long association with Hampstead it seemed appropriate for it to be in his local gallery. We hope the exhibition gives a small taster of the range of his creative output and includes work from his childhood, art school days, through to London transport posters, and of course the artwork from his much loved books for children and adults."

Original artwork for Mr Gumpy's Outing, Avocado Baby and Borka sit alongside puppets and models – including a green racing car which helped Burningham capture the flight of Ian Fleming's Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang. Four years after illustrating the 1964 book, it was turned into a film.

John Burningham illustrated Ian Fleming's 1964 children's book Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang

John Burningham illustrated Ian Fleming's 1964 children's book Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang - Credit: Courtesy of John Burningham's estate

Curator Sophie Richards says: "He made the model to take photographs so he could get the movement properly. In his memoir he describes sitting at the kitchen table using whisks as propellers. He was nervous about presenting his drawings to Fleming, who was notoriously exacting."

Skipwith adds: John always said that the only alteration that Fleming, a heavy smoker, made to his artwork was to insist he added a tabac sign, which he duly did."

The original illustration – with Chitty flying over a French vista – is on display, alongside Burningham's paint palette and childhood toy Claw Claw who bears a resemblance to the featherless Borka.

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Born in 1936, Burningham trained at the Central School of Art, and after working on posters for London Transport, wrote and illustrated his first book in 1963. Borka: The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers won the Kate Greenaway medal and he later became the first person to win it twice for 1970's Mr Gumpy's Outing, the story of a patient man whose boat is overturned by his animal passengers.

John Burningham In his Studio Hampstead April 06
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John Burningham In his Studio Hampstead April 2006 - Credit: Nobby Clark

His books continued to delight children for five decades. There are original illustrations for Would You Rather? which asked readers to choose between surreal and unpleasant scenarios, Avocado Baby the story of a super strong baby – based on daughter Emily's love of avocados – and Humbert who pulls a scrap iron dealer's cart, and was possibly inspired by the Rag'n'Bone man who let his horse graze on the Heath.

An illustration from John Burningham's 1963 book Borka: The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers

An illustration from John Burningham's 1963 book Borka: The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers - Credit: Courtesy of the estate of John Burningham

The Shopping Basket, about a boy sent out for groceries who spends his return journey outwitting a host of hungry creatures, often topped the list of the Burningham's books most borrowed from libraries. Meanwhile work such as Seasons and environmental fable What Do You Mean? carry a strong eco message.

"John had a multi-faceted career and there's a nice selection representing his work from different eras," adds Richards. "It feels really poignant working on something with so many family and friends who remember and loved him."

John Burningham with his dog Miles who is the subject of his latest book 'Motor Miles'

Burningham with his dog Miles who inspired two of his books - Credit: Nigel Sutton

An illustration from Burningham's final collaboration Air Miles – a follow up to Motor Miles – is "especially touching". It is based on the difficult family dog, who liked to ride around in Burningham's car and sit in Hampstead cafes. Sadly Miles died shortly before his owner.

Air Miles combines both Oxenbury and Burningham's illustrations with words by family friend Bill Salaman, based on storyboards completed before Burningham's his death in January 2019.

"John had planned out the story before he became too ill, and asked Helen to finish it. She didn't feel she could so their friend wrote it and Helen's work is mixed with John's. It's such a moving tribute."

Skipwith adds: "John’s work was so creative and varied and his books have brought so much joy to so many. I hope that visitors young and old go away and re-discover his books."

John Burningham: An Illustrated Life runs at Burgh House until September 4.