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A Life in Pictures

It is fifty years since publication of Borka: the adventures of a goose with no feathers, the book which began John Burningham’s career as one of our most distinguished and distinctive illustrators. As celebrations begin, Clive Barnes talks to John Burningham for Books for Keeps.


ach time I have had the privilege of talking to John Burningham about his work, I have had the feeling that it’s not something that comes easily to him. He is unfailingly courteous, even more so for this interview since he was still

suffering from a cough, which he assured me sounded worse than it was. He says he is not given to reflecting on his past work: ‘I wave goodbye to it and I am thinking about the next thing. Sometimes, I’ll think, oh God, I wish I’d spent more time on that drawing. But the next thing is the problem.’

The work, of course, speaks for itself, although there are now goodness knows how many words of appreciation from the best minds in children’s literary criticism to add to it. John is, after all, one of those who can be said to have made the picture book an art form, while never losing sight of its primary function as a story to share with children. Random House is marking the 50th anniversary of Borka with a new paperback edition and a hardback anniversary edition, both in the original format. There is now also a paperback edition of John Burningham: Behind the Scenes, first published in hardback in 2009, a sumptuously illustrated summary of his life and work to date, offering lovingly reproduced reminders of his more than forty published works for children and adults.

John, now in his seventy-seventh year, is still at work. He recently completed two children’s books, and he is working on two books meant for adults, one on French windows (as in windows in France) and another on Champagne (the drink). He says, ‘It is terrifying when you get people who come up to you and look at you and say, “And what did you used to do?” I am not in that bracket. It’s all leasehold, and one’s got to get on with what one’s capable of doing.’

He remembers sketching out the story of Borka in a small ring-bound notebook. ‘I had no idea what lay ahead, and I still don’t. It’s all a big adventure.’ He had his first break-through with a series of classic posters for London Transport. Then Borka was picked up by pioneering publisher Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape and subsequently carried off the Library Association’s Kate Greenaway Award for 1963, instantly establishing John as a children’s illustrator. He says he was lucky that this beginning coincided with a transformation in colour printing technology, which meant that original artwork could be reproduced on the page more easily, ‘There was Michael Foreman’s The General, the year before, and then there was Borka. They were the first big full colour picture books that were not hand separated. I couldn’t have worked if someone had said you’ve got to make the yellow plate and then the blue plate and that will make green and so on. I couldn’t have worked like that.’

Borka was followed by four more exuberant tales about eccentric animals and their equally eccentric human companions, all of which are still in print. Then, in 1970, came the ground-breaking Mr Gumpy’s Outing, which won John his second Greenaway, and has never been out of print since. It must be one of the best-loved picture books of all

12 Books for Keeps No.200 May 2013

time. It featured a new kind of picture-book narrative, that the critic Brian Alderson has called ‘elastic-sided storytelling’, in which the straightforward progression of a sequence of events with a beginning, middle and end, is replaced by a narrative that relies on interrelated patterns or rhythms that can be stretched this way or that, and whose form can accommodate the very different themes and purposes of books such as, for example, Would You Rather (1978), a jokey list of horrendous fates from which children and adults are invited to make a choice; The Shopping Basket (1980), in which weedy Stephen outwits a succession of bullying animals; Granpa (1984), a delicate meditation on the relationship of childhood and old age; and Oi! Get off our Train (1989), a fable that can encompass the conservation of endangered species and, as John has written, ‘the social hierarchy of young children and the need to ease themselves into a group.’ In such works, stories can be conjured from fragments of overheard conversation (Granpa) or two very different versions of the same experience (Come away from the water, Shirley, 1977 and Time to get out of the bath, Shirley, 1978). It is a way of storytelling that may have been suggested by his illustration of an African folk tale, The Extraordinary Tug of War in 1964 (republished this year with a new text by John as Tug of War).

John typically describes each book as a ‘problem’; with new challenges to be met. As an aside, he says ‘God knows what the rules are to all this.’ And it is probably true to say that he has never known what the rules are, and, in consequence, he is one of those few picturebook creators that, while exploring their craft, have revealed its possibilities. He says that typically he has several projects ‘rattling around’ in his head at one time, and not all of these will work up into published books, and those that do sometimes emerge only several years after they were first thought of. Text and illustration are worked out together: ‘I don’t write a story and then do the illustrations. I have to know what’s going to be on every page. I do endless little sketches which represent pictures and text.’ Although each book has an eventual integrity, John may vary the media and the techniques he uses within a single book: ‘You mustn’t be visually boring. It isn’t enough to say that you’ll fill it with lovely bright colours. Visual images don’t work like that. You’ve got to have a tension between the pages.’

Although John has been drawing since he was a child, he isn’t someone who always has a sketchbook with him or does a lot of drawing from life. He has said in the past that he is really more interested in applied arts than fine arts, something that is reflected in his long-standing passion for collecting and salvaging old furniture, fittings and building materials and reusing them in his own homes. He says, ‘It is very rare that I am turned on by a picture by itself.’ John’s beautiful lullaby picture-book Husherbye (2000) was intended to be accompanied by a music box, an ambition that has yet to be realised. His commission for work for Expo 90 in Osaka produced not only Oi! Get off our Train but also designs for a railway carriage and two station buildings, still in use in Japan.

The words that John works with are usually his own. He has not illustrated very many works by other authors, only Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1964) when it was first published, and The Wind in

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