Award-winning British author-illustrator John Burningham, known for the wit and humor in his storytelling and artwork, died in London on January 4, peacefully, surrounded by his wife and children. He was 82.
Burningham was born April 27, 1936 in Farnham, Surrey, England. Due to his father’s work as a salesman, which caused the family to frequently move around the country, Burningham spent his early years attending 10 different schools. He has said in interviews that books, and being read to, were touchstones that brought him joy during all the upheaval.
By age 12, Burningham was enrolled in A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School in Suffolk, which had become (and remains) famous for being “an influential model for progressive, democratic education.” It was there, in a less-structured school environment, that he began drawing and painting in earnest, encouraged to pursue what was important to him.
In 1956, following two years of alternative national service instead of military enlistment (he was a conscientious objector), Burningham began studies at London’s Central School of Art and Craft, and soon met fellow student and future wife Helen Oxenbury. Upon completion of art school in 1959, Burningham took on a variety of graphic arts freelance gigs, creating everything from posters for the London transport system to images for the Gallery Five greeting card company, which was founded by children’s book illustrator Jan Pieńkowski.
All the while, he was showing his portfolio to London book publishers hoping to make a connection. When no illustration contracts were initially in the offing, Burningham decided to write and illustrate his own story. A friend who worked at Jonathan Cape suggested that he show a rough dummy of his book idea to Cape editor Tom Maschler, who upon seeing it, wanted to buy it. The result was Borka: The Adventures of a Goose with No Feathers, which was published by Cape in 1963 (the book was published in the U.S. in 1964 by Random House). Burningham’s debut was awarded the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal for Illustration by the British Library Association that same year. Thus began his children’s book career, something he had not really planned on, Burningham said in a 1987 Publishers Weekly interview. “If I had written a novel and it had won some kind of award, undoubtedly, I’d still be writing novels,” he said.
In 1964, Burningham’s illustrations appeared in the children’s novel Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming. His original artwork—long stored in his studio—was later used to make all-new plates from which a 50th-anniversary edition of the book was published by Candlewick in 2014. At that time, Burningham spoke with PW about his unusual technique used in the original art for that project. “I did some innovative things,” he said. “I decided that the best way of approaching it was to make a model of the car and photograph it. The art is a combination of photography and illustration. That was quite adventurous in 1963.”
Once he had gotten started on the literary path, Burningham kept up a prolific picture book pace, publishing throughout the 1960s as his work became known on both sides of the Atlantic. Burningham was one of the first picture book artists to become an international star thanks to his publisher bringing him to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, which also launched in 1964. In 1970 and 1971, respectively, Cape in the U.K. and Henry Holt in the U.S. published Mr. Gumpy’s Outing, one of Burningham’s most enduring titles, for which he also won the Kate Greenaway Medal, as well as a New York Times Best Illustrated Book designation.
Apart from Burningham’s professional achievements, 1964 marked another milestone, as he married Oxenbury that year. The family would eventually grow to include three children, Lucy, Bill and Emily. And though Burningham and Oxenbury had been creating many picture books between them, it was not until 2010 that they actually collaborated—for the picture book, There’s Going to Be a Baby (Candlewick), in which a boy and his mother discuss the arrival of a new sibling as the months pass, the seasons change, and the mother’s tummy expands. Last February, Burningham and Oxenbury were each awarded a BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award, the first time BookTrust has given two of the awards in one year.
Burningham’s most recent children’s work includes Mouse House and the reissue of Borka, both released last fall. His final book, Mr. Gumpy’s Rhino, will be published in the U.K. by Jonathan Cape in August. Burningham told his publisher of the project “I’ve just finished a book recently which I probably wrote 40 years ago! It’s about a rhinoceros whose parents have been killed. How do you put that across to small children? It’s months of thought of how to do it. And it’s a Mr. Gumpy book, so I’ve resurrected Mr. Gumpy in Africa for this story.”
In addition to his children’s titles, Burningham also wrote and illustrated two adult picture books, John Burningham’s England (Cape, 1993) and John Burningham’s France (DK, 1998), as well as the illustrated memoir/tribute John Burningham (Candlewick, 2009). In 2015, he self-published John Burningham’s Champagne, which contains drawings, quotes, and photographs, all with a champagne theme.
Helen Oxenbury said in a statement: “John was a gargantuan character who played a huge part in my life and in the lives of our children and grandchildren, as he did in the lives of children all over the world, with his wonderful stories and his insight into a child’s mind. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t met John. He’s guided me, influenced me, and inspired me my entire life.”
Karen Lotz, president and publisher of Candlewick Press and managing director of the Walker Books Group, recalled one of the last times she was in Burningham’s company. “I feel very lucky that I got to see John briefly last December, at the beautiful memorial service for our [Walker Books Group] founding art director, Amelia Edwards,” she said. “John was not hugely well, but he came, I’m sure at personal cost. It was extraordinary to see him seated there on the couch as our staff members and all of the other illustrators and authors came up to him, one by one, to pay their tributes and check in. He was very tired but was willing to keep the champagne coming, which a kind and solicitous waitperson helped me do. The waiter even made sure, of his own accord, that John got a personal tray of hors d’oeuvres, and would caution other guests away from eating them! This is the effect John had upon people, five minutes into an acquaintance. You just knew you were in the presence of someone very extraordinary. I hoped that the bottle we had chosen would be something he liked, since he was one of the world’s great champagne aficionados. And I felt, watching him take in the others with few words but a pleased look, very much as though it was his moment, too. A fortuitous way for me to have gotten to say my silent goodbye, completely unaware it would be the last time. I will miss our dinners with Helen, the champagne, and the stories very, very much. And, of course, the books. When he bade us, ‘Let’s get small,’ we did. He had the ultimate line on the child in not just childhood, but in all of us.”
Candlewick executive editor Kate Fletcher offered these words of tribute: “In 2009, we published the U.S. edition of John Burningham, a gorgeous overview of his work with stunning images and fascinating anecdotes. In poring over the pages, one can’t help but admire how he never speaks down to his audience, yet captures the spirit of imagination and inquisitiveness in children so well. In his own words, describing his approach to book-making: ‘There is no demarcation in my work for children and for adults.’ ”
Looking at Burningham’s career and influence, “The word that comes to mind when I think of his art is ‘audacious,’ ” said children’s book historian and author Leonard S. Marcus, who has interviewed Burningham and Oxenbury over the years and whose biographical book Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration is due out from Candlewick in April. “He was one of the great people who emerged in the picture book world after the Second World War and in the ’60s,” Marcus noted. “It was coming out of the period of rationing and sort of a black-and-white world, and he brought color into it for children in a really big and exciting way. There’s something messy and exciting about his artwork. He and Helen are two of the four or five most significant picture book artists from England in the last half century, for sure.” And outside of his professional assessment, Marcus noted of Burningham, “He was a great Scrabble player. I saw him in action; he knew words that most people don’t realize exist.”