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Seven Stories celebrates John Burningham's artwork

IF at any time during the past 47 years you have been a child - or indeed a parent - there is a good chance you will have encountered the work of author and illustrator John Burningham.

john burningham

IF at any time during the past 47 years you have been a child - or indeed a parent - there is a good chance you will have encountered the work of author and illustrator John Burningham.

An exhibition celebrating 50 years of John’s work, taking in his time at art college and his funny posters for London Transport, has just opened at Seven Stories, the centre for children’s books.

It is the usual bright and jolly affair, rightly showcasing an artform - children’s book illustration - that was too often ignored before Seven Stories opened in 2005.

But a warning to those now grown-up fans of Borka: The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers or Mr Gumpy’s Outing - mind how you go. As with many Seven Stories shows, much of the action is at knee height.

But everyone is going to enjoy this exhibition because John Burningham’s illustrations are so full of colour and humour that you really wouldn’t mind having them on the wall at home.

The man himself reveals, once settled onto a sky blue sofa in the corner of the gallery, that much of what we see had been stored away until quite recently. Some of it was even gathering dust.

“The only thing we have at home is a big tapestry of Borka done by Edinburgh Weavers last year, but otherwise I wouldn’t display my own work in the house,” he tells me.

A John Burningham exhibition was mounted in Edinburgh last year which led to this one with more activity and interpretative material to enhance the display of pictures. A London exhibition is scheduled for next year.

Among other claims to fame, John Burningham was the man who created the familiar image of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang which we know from book, film and stage musical.

But his career began with his story of Borka, the featherless goose, which is, paradoxically, extremely heart-warming.

john burningham

Casting his mind back to his 20s, John, now 74, says: “I’d roughed out the story of Borka and was taking my work around all sorts of different publishers. But because I’d done posters for London Transport I kept getting told, ‘These are not book illustrations, these are posters’.”

He suspects he would have got the reverse reaction if the book had come first.

But a young friend in publishing suggested he produce his story and illustrations in book form. The friend presented this to an editor who loved it and a struggling young art school graduate suddenly found himself in demand.

With hardly any edits, Borka: The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers was published in 1963 and won that year’s prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal.

Subsequently John was asked to illustrate Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car, the only children’s story by James Bond creator Ian Fleming.

Fleming wrote it for his son Caspar and it was published in 1964 - the same year Fleming died on his son’s 12th birthday.

John recalls: “I only met Ian Fleming once, when I took all the artwork in. He wanted to make only one change and I can never remember whether I actually did it or not.”

He recalls that he used a picture of “some sort of sports car” as the basis for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

“Working out how to do the car, I decided to make a model of it which I hung up with fishing wire to take photographs.”

The now rather battered model is in the exhibition along with the early illustrations of the now famous flying car.

Equally eye-catching is the little goose which we must assume planted the idea for Borka in John’s mind, although he is not too clear on that point.

It’s a sad and colourless little thing now but this was a much-loved toy when John was a boy.

“Where Borka came from I don’t really know but this was World War II and we had very little to play with and I was very attached to that,” says John.

“I used to carry it around with me. It was called Claw Claw.”

The exhibition also details John’s unconventional upbringing.

Born in Farnham, Surrey, he attended radical schools, including Summerhill School in Suffolk which was founded by AS Neill and run on democratic lines. His parents would sometimes rent out the family home and travel the country by caravan in order to pay the fees.

Having registered as a conscientious objector in 1954, John did alternative military service instead of National Service, working on farming and building projects.

He has been married since 1964 to Helen Oxenbury, another well-known author and illustrator, and I wonder if they offer each other advice.

“We do in extreme situations,” says John carefully, “and only at the right moment.

“Then we will make suggestions. At the early stage of doing these things you are very vulnerable.”

However, the couple are currently collaborating on a book called There’s Going To Be a Baby.

“I’ve written it, she’s illustrating it,” says John. “It’s mostly her work.”

In the exhibition there are corners devoted to various titles: Mr Gumpy’s Outing, which won John his second Kate Greenaway Medal in 1970, and Avocado Baby, telling of the tot who becomes a super-strong bully-basher on a diet of avocado pears.

John says the latter story was inspired by his youngest daughter, Emily, who is now 31.

Then there are his animals such as Harquin, the fox who eludes the squire’s hounds, Trubloff, the mouse who wants to play the balalaika, Simp, the unwanted dog, and Humbert, the scrap dealer’s horse who longs to pull the Lord Mayor’s golden carriage.

“Humbert came from something I observed out of my window,” says John.

“The scrap dealer’s horse would stop to pick at some grass and I came up with the story.”

John explains that he works painstakingly on pictures and text simultaneously, drawing lots of sketches before each new hero takes shape.

As a result, he has given much pleasure to many people over many years.

Mr Gumpy and Other Outings is at Seven Stories until March, 2011. More details on www.sevenstories.org.uk

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