‘Her work is always wonderfully imaginative as well as technically brilliant’ (Nicholas Tucker, Country Life, 1989, page 254)
From her very first publications in the late 1960s, the clarity of Helen Oxenbury’s draughtsmanship has made her an ideal illustrator for the very young. In particular, her three series of board books are considered as having revolutionised the form. Still one of the most popular and acclaimed contemporary illustrators, she has won many prizes, including the Kate Greenaway Award for both The Quangle-Wangle’s Hat in 1969 and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 2000. Helen Oxenbury was born in Ipswich, Suffolk, on 2 June 1938, one of two children of Thomas Oxenbury, an architect and planning officer, and Muriel (née Taylor). She developed a talent for drawing at an early age, and was encouraged in this by her father, who produced watercolours in his spare time. At the age of 17, she left Ipswich High School for Girls, and began two years of study at Ipswich School of Art.
During her holidays, she worked at a small theatre in Felixstowe and at Ipswich Repertory Theatre Workshop, mixing paints. She pursued this path by specialising in Theatre Design at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London, between 1957 and 1959. While there, she met her future husband, John Burningham, who was studying Graphics and Illustration. (They would marry in 1964, and have one son and two daughters.)
On leaving art school, Helen Oxenbury worked in various theatres in England and spent three years, from 1959 to 1962, in Tel Aviv as a set designer and painter at Israel’s national theatre, the Habima. On returning to London, she continued designing sets for film (Shepperton Film Studios) and television (ABC Television). Though highly successful in her chosen field, she abandoned work when she began to feel that theatrical and family life would not mix.
Jan Pienkowski, of the highly fashionable Gallery Five in London, convinced Helen Oxenbury to design images for greetings cards. Instantly recognising her flair, he was quick to point her towards children’s book illustration, and has remained a supportive friend and mentor. Though she had never concentrated on illustration at art school, she grew up with the work of such favourite illustrators as Edward Ardizzone and E H Shepard, and believes that ‘picture books are a child’s entrée into the world of books in general’. Her first book, Numbers of Things, was published in 1967, and immediately established her as a major picture book artist. In 1970, she was awarded the Kate Greenaway medal for her illustrations to Edward Lear’s The Quangle Wangle’s Hat and Margaret Mahy’s The Dragon of an Ordinary Family. Her illustrated children’s books of the 1970s included the first three of several collaborations with the cult poet, Ivor Cutler. In 1981, Oxenbury virtually invented the form of the board book for babies with the series comprising Friends, Playing, Dressing, Working and Family. This and subsequent series of her board books have sold several million copies and are regarded internationally as classics. Other successful series of the period include ‘Heads, Bodies and Legs’ (1981) and ‘First Picture Books’ (1983).
In 1986, Helen Oxenbury created the characters of a mischievous young boy and his stuffed monkey, initially for the French children’s magazine, Popi (as ‘Léo et Popi’), and then developing them in English language books (as ‘Tom and Pippo’). She has commented that the boy was very much like her own son who, in his younger years, would often blame his misdeeds on an accomplice (in his case, the family dog).
At the end of the decade, in 1989, Oxenbury won the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize with the writer, Michael Rosen, for one of her best loved books, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. Two years later, in 1991, she won again with Martin Waddell’s Farmer Duck, which also won Illustrated Children’s Book of the Year in the 1991 British Book Awards. Further prize-winning books of the 1990s included Trish Cooke’s So Much (1994) (the Kurt Maschler Award and the age group winner of the Smarties Book Prize) and Tickle, Tickle (1999) (the Booktrust Early Years Award).
In 1999, Oxenbury provided herself with one of her greatest challenges when she decided to produce a new interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Having grown up with John Tenniel’s version, she says that she found the experience ‘very daunting’, but rose to the challenge none the less, and possibly produced her greatest work to date. In her version, she reinvented and recreated the magic of the so familiar characters, injecting a welcome degree of modernity. For instance, the famously curious Alice is very much a little girl of today, with a blue smock dress and white sneakers. Certainly, the book was well received, and won the Kurt Maschler Award for 1999 and the Kate Greenaway award for 2000. It was also voted one of the top ten Kate Greenaway Medal winners at the medal’s 50th anniversary in 2005, the year in which Oxenbury published its sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass.
At the same time, in 2003, Oxenbury won the picture books category of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Big Momma Makes the World, with a text by Phillis Root. That her work is valued in the United States is further signalled by her receipt of a lifetime achievement award from the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 2015. She is the first British illustrator to be so honoured.
As is shown by the present illustrations to Amy Hest’s When Charley Met Grampa (2013), Helen Oxenbury remains as active and able as ever. Other recent successes include illustrations to a 70th anniversary edition of Ruth Krauss’s The Growing Story (2007), her own husband, John Burningham’s There’s Going to Be a Baby (2010), and Julia Donaldson’s The Giant Jumperee (2017). A delightful animated version of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, which first aired on Channel 4 on Christmas Eve 2016, has also helped to maintain the affection with which is she is held.
Further reading: Leonard S Marcus, Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration, London: Walker Books, 2018; ‘Helen Oxenbury’, in Douglas Martin, The Telling Line, London: Julia MacRae Books, 1989, pages 202-214