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Drawn to the written word

Gerald Isaaman talks to illustrator Helen Oxenbury ahead of an exhibition at Chris Beetles’ gallery that includes some of her work

02 January, 2018 — By Gerald Isaaman

One of Helen Oxenbury’s illustrations on show at the Chris Beetles Gallery

THERE is nothing quite like the look of a child, the more so at Christmas when the snow abounds. And for award-winning illustrator Helen Oxenbury, herself the mother of three, children have provided the inspiration for so much in her books.

“I love the look of little babies,” Helen, now 79, explains. “I sort of marvel at them. I can’t believe they’re so lovely. I think babies are wasted on young people… because my last child [quite late]… there’s 10 years between my first children and my last one.

“I so appreciated the last one, and I wasn’t sort of thinking ‘I wish she’d hurry up and speak. I wish she’d hurry up and talk, walk’. I just savoured every moment of her.”

And you can see some of that magic that spurred Helen’s success at the latest Chris Beetles exhibition entitled The Illustrators Today, which runs until January 6 at his St James’s gallery. It includes illustrations by Helen’s husband, John Burningham.

Indeed, it was due to their marriage in 1964 – and setting up home overlooking the Heath in Hampstead – that Helen, previously a theatre and film set designer (she was responsible for Judy Garland’s final film) – that she became fascinated watching him at work.

“Books didn’t play a large part in my life growing up,” she admits. “I say that, but we didn’t own books as a family because I was brought up during the war and books were very thin on the ground.

“My father used to go to a library and bring me home books, and it was so exciting the days he would bring home books. Absolutely wonderful. And I can still remember them.

“They weren’t good books, I have to say. Probably today they would be considered complete rubbish but I loved them. They were the only books I had.”

However, Helen, the daughter of an architect, discovered a passion for drawing in her early days, partly because she was asthmatic and was often away from school in the seaside town of Felixstowe.

Her art teacher recommended her for art school training in Ipswich, where she found a passion for designing and painting the scenery for productions by the local professional and amateur theatre companies.

They led her to Habima Theatre in Tel Aviv before she returned to the London stage designing the theatre sets for plays such as Billy Liar and The Long, The Short and the Tall, as well as working at Shepperton Studios.

“My husband’s been influential in the fact that I really knew nothing about how to go about making a children’s book until we were married and I watched the whole process,” she says. “And, you know, the part the publishers play and all that.”

So it was when her children were born that, apart from playing the role of mother, she found time to start producing her own illustrated books.

“I remember when reading stories to my children, I used to hide some because I couldn’t bear to read them once again,” she adds. “But if parents are enjoying it, the children see that the parents are enjoying it, and it gives them the sort of love of the book, too.

“And, of course, it’s just so important the time that parents spend with their children just reading a book. Magic.”

The rest, as they say, is well documented history with Helen and John Burningham both winning international recognition, as well as the top Kate Greenaway medal.

Her work on show – and for sale at prices ranging from £650 to £2,750 – is a new achievement.

“It is a bit of a breakthrough,” says Chris Beetles. “It is the first time she has allowed a whole book of artworks to be sold.”

And indeed there is plenty of potential New Year presents choices at his gallery, the exhibition also including the illustrations of Michael Foreman, Nick Butterworth, Paul Cox, Fulvio Testa, and the political cartoonists Matt and Peter Brookes.

The Chris Beetles Gallery is at 8 and 10 Ryder Street, SW1. Details on 020 7839 7551 or at


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