Seven Stories was deeply saddened to learn of the death on 4 January of John Burningham, creator of some of the most enduring picturebooks ever made – Borka (1963), Mr Gumpy’s Outing (1970), Would You Rather (1978) and Granpa (1984), to name but a few.

John Burningham was born in 1936 in Farnham, Surrey. His parents had avant-garde ideas about education, and he went to nine different schools during his childhood. Sometimes his parents would rent out the family home to pay for school fees and the family would live in a caravan in various places around the English countryside. John loved this!

When he was thirteen John became a boarder at Summerhill, the radical school run by A S Neill.  He stayed there for four years before taking up Alternative Military Service in 1954, having registered as a Conscientious Objector.  He worked in Hampshire, Glasgow, Italy and Israel, on farming and building projects.

After completing his Alternative Military Service, John applied for a place at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, to study graphic design and illustration. He got in on the strength of the sketches he had made in Glasgow.  It was there that he met his wife Helen Oxenbury, illustrator of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, and many other titles.

After graduating, John began his career designing posters for London Transport, before having the idea for a picture book about a goose.  Borka, the Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers was published in 1963, and won the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration in the same year. In the wake of this success, the publisher asked John for more stories – and luckily the ideas just kept coming, for more than fifty years! He claimed that he never worked with a specific audience of children in mind, he just made picture books. However, in his stories it is always the kids who have the last laugh.

Recreating The Shopping Basket in the exhibition ‘Mr Gumpy and Other Outings’, at Seven Stories in 2010.


Despite his formal training at the Central School, John followed his own rules.  Throughout his career he experimented with different techniques and media.  He always tried not to avoid making his pictures too ‘finished looking’ as he believed this gives children freedom to imagine.  He never repeated the same formula and often struggled at the beginning of a new book, wondering if he could really do it all again.  But of course he always did!

With John Burningham’s death the world of picturebooks has lost a truly great genius, but his legacy will surely live on.

Unused artwork for one of John’s Little Books series, including layouts for The Friend and The Bath.
Seven Stories Collection, donated by John Burningham.


Visitors to Seven Stories can see artwork from John’s award-winning picture book  Come away from the water, Shirley (1977) in our current exhibition Time to Get Up! until Thursday 24 January 2019.

To view artwork in our Collection please contact