Children’s book illustration’s equivalent of the Three Tenors has long been the trio of Blake, Briggs and Burningham, three illustrators whose creative genius has been central in transforming picture books for children into works of art that communicate with young readers in a way that is both multi-layered and accessible.
John Burningham’s eponymous, handsomely produced new book is both retrospective and autobiography. Burningham can be tantalisingly gnomic at times about the thinking or genesis of some of his work but his output, generously reproduced in this volume, speaks with clarity for itself. As Brian Alderson points out in his scholarly introduction, new developments in colour printing in the 1960s enabled greater illustrative freedom at a time when the market for picture books was growing thanks to generous library spending (those were the days!) and co-editions which enabled longer print runs. The explosion of creativity and innovation that was Burningham’s Borka, the Adventures of a Goose with no Feathers (1963) was in turn nurtured by recognition from the Youth Libraries Kate Greenaway Award which John won for the second time in 1971 for Mr Gumpy’s Outing.
Burningham’s father, awarded the Military Medal in WW1, registered as a Conscientious Objector when war broke out again. His parents had avant-garde ideas about education and John attended ten different schools, usually of the Steiner variety before ending up at A S Neill’s Summerhill. Always encouraged to draw by his mother, John spent ‘huge’ amounts of time in the school’s art room and drew all the time. Registering as a Conscientious Objector in homage to his father, John did Alternative Military Service before going to the Central School of Arts and Crafts where he met Helen Oxenbury who was to become his wife. A wonderful black and white photograph of the stylishly good looking young couple, John glaring suspiciously at the camera, is featured on the title page.
That Burningham’s picture books should see the world from the child’s point of view is perhaps no surprise given such a childhood. Many of them (Come away from the water, Shirley, Edwardo, the Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World) are about the need for empathic understanding. Some (Oi! Get off our Train, Whadayamean) are messages about the world children live in. Others (Cloudland, The Magic Bed, Husherbye) have a dreamlike quality which expresses fundamental needs for comfort, security and safe holding.
In his Foreword, written as a letter to John, Maurice Sendak writes: ‘I venture a guess that, much like me, you hadn’t a clue what a proper children’s book was or should have been.’ That Burningham went on to invent his own highly original conception of books for children is something that this volume rightly celebrates.