John Burningham’s status as one of the world’s most popular and respected author-illustrators for children seems safe as houses – except that his own house, part of a tall Victorian terrace near Hampstead Heath, looks distinctly unsafe at present: its frontage is obscured by a forest of scaffolding. An apt image of its owner? It’s a tempting connection to make since for all his two dozen titles in print, three million copies sold and two Kate Greenaway Medals won, John Burningham still refuses to take his Establishment as a fact. ‘I’m one of those ungrateful people who having done something feels that’s just history and asks what comes next or whether it can be done again… I suppose it’s the neurosis of any author or artist that they can’t remain inactive for very long because they feel insecure unless they’re working.’
His own history includes a dazzling debut (Borka: The Adventures of a Goose with No Feathers brought medal number one) along with much praised illustrations for The Wind in the Willows as well as an assortment of successes such as the Mr Gumpy books, the classic Come Away from the Water, Shirley and the unforgettable Would You Rather…, all of them essential occupants of any bookshelf worthy of a child’s second glance.
Yet John Burningham himself maintains he doesn’t much like the process of book illustration and tries to ‘avoid it in any way I can’. Also he feels ‘to some degree the prisoner of my own success’ and declares ‘I’m not really very interested in children’s books’.
Is all this just scaffolding – a sort of elevated platform designed to keep his occupation at a comfortable working distance? It’s hard to believe otherwise considering he is, quite literally, married to the job. For John’s basement studio isn’t the only one in the house. Upstairs in the attic is another, set up for his wife Helen Oxenbury, an illustrator hardly less distinguished than he is. And even while insisting that ‘there’s nothing worse than a great sheet of white paper’ and that starting on a new project is ‘a bit like taking up exercises again – a sort of stumbling about with drawings’ he can’t seem to resist the activity. The conversation in which he advanced these claims was punctuated by the compulsive scratch-scratch-scratch of crayon on paper.
So what would he rather be doing? Almost anything, he suggests, providing it’s sufficiently physical. ‘It’s not just seeing things but doing things as well that makes you understand.’ High on his list of preferred pastimes comes work on his house which, already riveting enough in all its upward and outward rambling, is becoming more fascinating still as a result of his additions to it. He’s a confirmed snapper-up of other people’s unconsidered trifles – sometimes, admittedly, pretty hefty trifles. His sitting-room is dominated by a floor-length tapestry and a wall-size Victorian copy of Rubens’ Romulus and Remus while his garden offers an authentic Victorian greenhouse and a spectacular bell-tower salvaged from a church on the Finchley Road. Other features include an oak floor retrieved from storage in a Dorset cowshed, parquet from an old people’s home and a legendary bathroom with fittings from Roehampton, Virginia Water, Egham and the old Temple Fortune Odeon. John’s instinct for what he wants is exercised as much on the demolition site as in the auction room.
As a preparation for his career, his early life suggests the same combination of the apparently haphazard tempered by a shrewd eye for what would matter in the long run. ‘For ages I dreaded people asking me what I wanted to do because I had no idea of where I was going to go. I suppose I was always allowed to draw and my parents were always good about providing the bits and pieces… but it was school mostly. I went to lots of schools all over the place, about ten altogether, but the school where I eventually ended up was A S Neill’s Summerhill where lessons were not, of course, compulsory. I did spend a lot more time in the artroom than many people would have been doing. I’m not even sure, looking back, that I did it particularly well – I was just fooling around with colour. So I left school at the age of seventeen with no notion about the future. What I had to do was military service. Since I’d already declared myself a conscientious objector I was given a series of alternative occupations such as forestry, agriculture, hospital work, social work, etc. so I spent two-and-a-half years doing these different things which involved quite a bit of travelling. While I was working on a farm I started going to evening classes at a neighbouring art school.’ This, he’s convinced, was much more valuable than proceeding direct to full-time study. ‘It’s the difference between a tourist looking out of a plate-glass window at a view and somebody who’s staying with a local family.’
Later, on the suggestion of a friend about to embark on a course at the Central School involving book illustration and graphic design, John got together a portfolio of work and was accepted for the same course. He completed the course by winning a scholarship that was conditional on his remaining freelance for at least a year – a life which took him to Israel, to London and to New York working on a variety of projects involving set designs, model-making, puppets for a film company, posters for London Transport, cartoons for magazines, television trailers and Christmas cards. Just about everything, in fact,except children’s books. Once again it was the intervention of a friend which brought a change of direction. Why not offer the story and rough drawings of Borka to Jonathan Cape? He did. They said yes. And a partnership so far lasting twenty-one years was initiated with an instant success.
As simple as that? ‘Pretty well… all my books are in print, though some, of course, sell better than others. One is extremely fortunate.’ In John Burningham’s case the good fortune has come about by way of editions in Afrikaans, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Japanese, Norwegian, Spanish, Swedish and Zulu. Not that the pictures need any such translation. The appeal of the Burningham style is international in the contrast it presents between a deliberately naive and childlike draughtsmanship and a supremely sophisticated range of materials: crayons, charcoal and pastels, printers’ ink, indian ink, cellulose and gouache. It’s a style which emerged as fully-formed almost from the start though he’d claim that ‘I’m more controlled now… there are fewer happy accidents. One must change. If you’re trying to get movement in a child or animal which has been my concern recently with a lot of things I’ve been doing then there’s no point in trying to get that and put in as many colours as one can in the background. It’s about isolating what it is one’s trying to do at the time. So much depends on the subject matter.’ Is this why he prefers to provide his own text? ‘I have no set rule about this – I’m just not usually given something I want to do.’ An obvious exception here was The Wind in the Willows. Amazingly, he’d never read the book before nor did he know the famous E H Shepard illustrations which he made sure were blanked out of the edition he was given. ‘Otherwise I’d have been far too conscious of his conception of Ratty and Mole. Very difficult characters, both of them – I was fiddling around for months trying to get them right when ideally I should have been finishing the book. I had to know them before I started drawing. I used to do very elaborate landscapes and then put very simple, crude people in them but now I tend to drop the background and concentrate on the characters.’
It’s typical of him that he refuses to exploit his own success. Mr Gumpy’s Outing, for example, a tale of a punting expedition written and drawn with superb deadpan humour, won him his second Kate Greenaway Medal and was followed by the equally popular Mr Gumpy’s Motor Car. A whole series might have resulted but for his intense dislike of repeating himself. So we’re still waiting for the third Mr Gumpy book. In the intervening decade or so we’ve been treated instead to the hilarious mismatch between fantasy and reality of his two Shirley books, another series that might-have-been. Only with his short books for beginning readers has he committed himself to a continuing format – The Baby, The Blanket, The Dog, etc. Here, too, though, he was swift to vary his approach. Soon words themselves became his subject matter and then numbers in two series for a new publisher, Walker Books. The latter books, Number Play, are especially ingenious and were especially challenging to undertake. ‘I worked for three months on multiplication before I decided it was impossible.’
His latest book Granpa takes a new kind of risk. ‘It’s sad only because it introduces death. The relationship, which I think is very intriguing, between grandparents and grandchildren reflects the fact that we no longer live in an environment which gives us time with our own children. When he’s saying “we used to do this, that and the other” she’s switched off but it doesn’t matter because they’re both muttering away – she’s also going on about her own concerns. The book’s based partly on observation and partly on my memories of my own grandfather.’ Eventually, in a harrowing double-spread which depicts the child facing Granpa’s empty chair, the relationship is broken – though the book closes with a wordless affirmation that life can’t help perking up. ‘I’m quite pleased with it as a book,’ he says, ‘but I’ve no idea how it’s going to be received and what children are going to make of it. There’s a hair’s breadth difference between success and failure with this sort of thing.’ Given the Burningham track record, the odds must be heavily on the former.
What, then, does the future hold for this reluctant chronicler of childhood whose ambition as an art student was to design covers for the Saturday Evening Post? Surrounded as he is by a family – Lucy, Bill and Emily – who have already provided both their parents with an abundance of home-grown data, can John Burningham possibly break away from more than two decades-worth of working pattern? He insists that he can. ‘I want to try something else for a bit. Nothing to do with children’s books.’ And it’s easy to believe him until he shows you out through the tangle of scaffolding.
The Books – a selection
From Jonathan Cape
ABC, 0 224 60833 9, £5.95
Avocado Baby, 0 224 02004 8, £3.95
Borka, 0 224 60077 X, £4.95
Cannonball Simp, 0 224 61123 2, £4.95; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.299 8, £1.00
Humbert, 0 224 60726 X, £4.95
Mr Gumpy’s Motor Car, 0 224 00828 5, £4.95; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.300 5, £1.25
Mr Gumpy’s Outing, 0 224 61909 8, £4.95; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.254 8, £1.25
The Shopping Basket, 0 224 01864 7, £4.95; Picture Lions, 0 00 662148 1, £1.25
Trubloff, 0 224 60834 7, £4.95
Would You Rather…, 0 224 01635 0, £4.95; Picture Lions, 0 00 662394 8, £1.25
Come Away from the Water, Shirley, 0 224 01373 4, £4.50; Picture Lions, 0 00 662147 8, £1.25
Time to Get Out of the Bath, Shirley, 0 224 01372 6, £4.50
The Baby, 0 224 01032 8, £1.50
The Blanket, 0 224 01137 5, £ 1.50
Granpa, 0 224 02279 2, £4.95
From Walker Books
First Words Series – all at £1.95
Cluck Baa, 0 7445 0169 5
Sniff Shout, 0 7445 0167 9
and four other titles
Number Play Series – all at £2.50
Count up, 0 7445 0046 X
Ride off, 0 7445 0045 1
and four other titles