This Folio Life: Revisiting John Burningham’s classic illustrations

This time last year I was enormously fortunate to go to the house of Helen Oxenbury, one of my favourite children’s authors and illustrators, and the widow of John Burningham. I shan’t speak of the wonders of her house, or indeed of her personal charm and generosity, as there’s not sufficient room on our entire website for that. All I shall mention is that alongside Fergus Fleming (nephew of Ian) we spent many happy hours rummaging through original artwork folders for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I felt like Howard Carter in the tombs of Tutankhamun – such treasure! There are few things more joyful in the life of a bibliophile than to delve into the personal archive of one of the greats.

The resulting edition was published this Christmas and I hope we have done justice to both Fleming and Burningham’s extraordinary work of playful storytelling. Here Helen Oxenbury herself reflects of her late husband’s process whilst illustrating the work.

Tom Walker, Publishing Director

The opening title page for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Folio Society 2020

‘Everything but the kitchen sink’ is the only way I can describe the medium John used for his work. Sprays, glues, inks, pigments and I would sometimes be asked for some flour. He would work over old illustrations to give a very painterly background, then draw the figures on a separate piece of paper cut them out and stick them down in the foreground. Sometimes he turned paintings upside-down to work on them. In one of his illustrations a very faint bicycle can be seen in the sky!

Illustrations © John Burningham 1964
Illustrations © John Burningham 1964

All these methods I can discern in his brilliant artwork for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The black and white pen drawings of the streets of Paris are wonderfully observed and full of detail to be pored over.

I remember Ian Fleming’s only criticism was that John hadn’t included a ‘Tabac’ sign in a street scene. This was quickly and enthusiastically remedied by John who was, together with Ian, an avid smoker.

John Burningham holding aloft his handmade model of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang (c .1963)
John Burningham holding aloft his handmade model of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang (c .1963)

The model car wasn’t too much of a problem. He knew all about unusual cars – having owned an Austen 7, a 2CV, a Morgan and several Jeeps. He understood them. The original model still survives – a bit dilapidated, but still up for exhibiting.


This blog is by Helen Oxenbury

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Folio Society 2020

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