The Illustrations of Chris Burke

Sometimes Lady Luck smiles upon you, and she was positively beaming on the day that I noticed a small sign on a lamppost pointing towards Newton Road. The small cardboard sign was advertising the South East Open Studios fortnight. I thought to myself "hang on, there are no art studios down there." What was going on?

Chris Burke Artist Illustrator

Steve Jobs, painted for The National.

I pulled out my phone and searched the website. It turned out that illustrator Chris Burke was borrowing a space here for the duration of the event. When I delved further to see some examples of his work I was flabbergasted at the beautiful colourful caricatures in front of me. Then I noticed the dates of the exhibition. Oh dear. The flip side of such a serendipitous discovery was the realisation that the South East Open Studios event had finished the day before and Chris had packed up and gone home. Blast!

All was not lost, though. Without hesitating I dropped him an email almost begging to have a chat about his work. Within a few hours Chris replied and invited me round for a cup of tea.

Chris Burke Artist Illustrator

Chris Burke at work in his studio.

I was greeted at the door by Chris with his dog Fred, and the most glorious smell of baking bread. Fred led us into the kitchen where the table had been laid with two plates and a spread of ham, cheese and salad. We sat in the sunshine in the garden and enjoyed a delicious lunch with a giant pot of tea. It was glorious!

With full bellies we got down to business of talking art.

Chris Burke Artist Illustrator

Chris Burke illustration for the Financial Times How to Spent It Magazine.

Chris's previous client list is frankly mind-boggling in its breadth and reach. He has worked for - take a long intake of breath - The Radio Times, Punch, The Sunday Telegraph, The Evening Standard, The Sunday Times, The Times T2, The Economist, The Guardian, London Review of Books, Time magazine, GQ (UK & USA), Tatler, Vogue, The Financial Times’s How To Spend It Magazine, pretty much every major British publication actually, the BBC, Penguin, Pan, Puffin, Pentagram Sony, BT, M&S, Tesco, Virgin, Yehudi Menuhin School, Save the Children, World Wildlife Fund, CLIC Sargent, Comic Relief, the Irish Tourist Board, children’s books for Lenny Henry, posters for London Transport, the Metropolitan Police, murals for Green Park Tube Station, the Welsh National Opera and various theatres, postage stamps for Barbados and Malaysia and he also created over eighty murals for Ottakar’s Bookshops as well as their catalogues and point of sale. WOW!

Chris Burke Artist Illustrator

Chris Burke illustration for the Financial Times How to Spent It Magazine.

I would imagine, dear reader, that you have therefore happened upon Chris's work at least once before now, and he's a Tunbridge Wellian! How fantastic is that? Definitely something to point out to a friend next time you see his work in print.

His work is also in many private collections and the permanent collections of The London Transport Museum and the V&A. He has been Cartoonist of the Year and won the Creative Circle Gold Medal for Illustration and is included in: The Dictionary of 20th Century British Cartoonists & Caricaturists, The Dictionary of British Cartoonists 1730-1980, and Who’s Who in Art. More WOW!

One thing I really have loved about writing my Meet the Artist series is being able to see into the private spaces where the artists work. Chris gestured towards the stairs and invited me up to see his studio, Fred wasn't far behind.

Chris Burke Artist Illustrator

Chris Burke in his studio.

I am always stunned at how beautiful the studios of artists are, their chaotic workspaces are themselves works of art, and here was no different. Beautifully thick rich oak floorboards are flecked with tiny splatters of paint. A shiny silver iMac sits on an old wooden desk perfectly portraying in a nutshell just how the modern artist works. Under the big curtain-less window a large drafting table is flooded with light, upon it sit neat rows of paint pots, brushes, pencils and pens. A sheet of paper sits patiently in the centre of the table, the wonderfully distinctive soft swoops and sharp angles of Chris's pencil marking the first stages of his next masterpiece. One entire wall of the room was devoted to a bookshelf piled high with inspirational books, around the other walls stood chests of small drawers filled with small items, large-drawered chests of large things, and even larger drawers of presumably larger things.

We sat down and Chris reached over to the desk and pulled open one of its deep drawers. It was full to the brim of neatly stacked pieces of thick paper, each one a beautifully painted portrait. We started to flick through the pile. Chris took great pride in recalling the famous names and pointing out the character traits in each one that he had exaggerated to tell their story. If this collection of pictures does not get made into a book then something is wrong. Publishers I pray that you are reading this.

Chris Burke Artist Illustrator

Chris Burke illustration of Tony Blair with his head in the sand.

Chris explained that sometimes his caricatures go a bit too far and he has to amend the images. One case in point was the rather lovely image of Michael O'Leary (below) that he painted for Abu Dhabi's The National Newspaper. Now I'm sure we all know who Michael O'Leary is. Chris originally drew him holding the planes like he was holding up two fingers in a typical O'Leary gesture, much more appropriate I think, but the magazine editors didn't think so and he had to redraw it.

Chris Burke Artist Illustrator

Michael O'Leary peers out from a drawer.

With the paper stacked safely back in the drawer, Chris began to show me some photos of oil paintings of corks that he had created for the Antique Wine Company. He started to explain how they had inadvertently kickstarted a fresh new artistic style when he excitedly said "hang on, I have the art next door, let me show you what I mean." We jumped to our feet, stepped gently over a sleeping Fred and walked into the next room.

There in pride of place sitting on an easel was a portrait of a smiling Lenny Henry. Lenny and Chris are good friends, they'd just finished working together on some illustrated children's books. This portrait is a present for Lenny's birthday, shhhh! that's just between you and me. Lenny if you are reading this then please ignore that last paragraph.

Chris Burke Artist Illustrator

Corks painted for The Antique Wine Company.

But what's a Lenny Henry portrait got to do with corks? Well, there is an interesting little technique at play here. Notice if you will the background texture of both pictures, Lenny above, and the corks to the right. Chris said that he enjoyed painting the corks so much that he wanted to apply the texture to something else, that and he had lots of the paint and long thin canvases left over, so has begun to wash it over portraits. Effective isn't it.

Whilst we were in this room, Chris reached over to some portfolios that were tucked away in the corner and invited me to take a knee.

We sat on the floor and scattered pictures all around us. A range of his early and recent work was spread before us, you could see the evolution from soft lithography to hard pen and ink (vital for scanning these days). Quite a few of the images were completely new territory for the artist. He has been asked recently to start painting animals, as they apparently sell well here in Tunbridge Wells, and he was in the midst of grappling with a pig, which I think had the look of a politician about it.

Chris Burke Artist Illustrator

He says that although this pig isn't finished he loves the way it looks and is just going to keep him like this and start another one to complete the work.

You may be as intrigued as I was about some of the other techniques that Chris uses in his works. I was immediately taken when I first saw his work by the ink splatters. It's a really effective and striking style. It turns out Chris uses the same method that is taught to children in primary school and that's to flick paint on by drawing your thumb across a toothbrush. Try it at home kids!

Chris Burke Artist Illustrator

There is another interesting technique at work here too. To give the impression of movement in some of his works Chris scrapes through the paint and the paper. He explained to me that he happened upon this method by accident one day when he accidentally spilled some water onto one of his drawings. He blotted as much of the liquid as he could but some blemishes remained so he picked up a scalpel that was to hand and tried to scrape off the worst of it. Chris found the resultant damage quite appealing and the effect has appeared in most of his work ever since.

Chris Burke Artist Illustrator

Chris Burke illustration for the Financial Times How to Spent It Magazine.

Chris describes himself as an "inky fingered dinosaur" and says the demand for traditional cartoonists is dwindling, which is a real shame. Unlike the old days of having a week or two to illustrate a story and get the pictures in the post, thanks to instant communications, today's editors demand much tighter deadlines. Chris has just a couple of days to create and scan across his illustrations. Having to scan and email the pictures does mean that the original is his to keep though which is quite nice, especially when the person he paints wants to buy them.

Work may be slower these days but he still illustrates regularly for publications all over the world and finds time to paint commission works. He has found also found time recently to arrange an exhibition that will take place at the Spa Galleries on The Pantiles this August. He is exhibiting with another favourite local artist of mine, Ian Kesterton after a fortuitous meeting at the local swimming baths.

Chris Burke Artist Illustrator

Chris Burke illustration for the Financial Times How to Spent It Magazine.

So how did Chris get started in all this art lark? After leaving Canterbury College with a degree in Graphic Design and Art History he started working as an advertising art director. It wasn't long before he became frustrated at the quality of work coming across his desk from illustrators and thought to himself "I could do better than that." So he did. He quit work and picked up a pencil. An opportune meeting at the Radio Times proved to be his lucky break after they wanted him to create a St. Patrick's Day illustration for the magazine, he stayed there for five years and he hasn't stopped drawing since.

Chris Burke Artist Illustrator

Chris Burke illustration for the Financial Times How to Spent It Magazine.

Before we both realised it was almost four o'clock, we'd been chatting and drinking tea for three hours.

Finally, I asked Chris if he'd ever painted Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells before and it turned out that he hadn't. We both agreed that our town should cherish and celebrate Disgusted so Chris thought it would be fun to reimagine him for the 21st Century and created this great piece of art (below) especially.

Chris Burke Artist Illustrator

Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells as imagined by Chris Burke.

Thanks Chris, it was an utterly wonderfully pleasurable afternoon.


The competition is now closed, the winner is Stephen Elsden! Well done, Stephen. You're prize, the Disgusted illustration above, is on its way.

19 Comments so far. Why not leave yours?

Wow, what an amazing illustrator. Love the horse riders on the bottles.

I think Disgusted is looking at the Courier headlining TWBC axes funding for town cultural programme. (I guess the slight similarity to Gerald Scarfe's work has rubbed off on me).

Such rare and unique talent Chris. Love what you do!

Marvellous drawings Chris. Keep up the good work.

Cracking stuff Chris... brilliant little piece too!

Wow! I love this man's work. I've often thought of taking up watercolors and, if I did, I'd want to study his style. I especially love your photo of the toothbrushes!

His work is so inventive! I love the Financial Times ones!

What a fabulous job.. Lucky Chris!

True talent.

Top notch work - and a lovely studio indeed!

Some wonderful pieces on show - loving the Steve Jobs one in particular :-)

Another interesting interview Anke - I enjoy the mix of talent and comment.

If I turn up at Random on 30 July, despite not having a Facebook account, can I be in with a chance of winning? I did love his work.

Amazing pieces - love the Michael O'Leary one :)

I wondered who the illustrator was and now I know. So good to havel the local link and fabulous sketches.

Fabulous – what a find! I have been a massive fan of talented illustrators ever since working on Radio Times back in the great art days. Wonder if I ever drank with Chris in the Old Rising Sun? ;-)

Such a unique talent. I'd pull off my arm to be able to paint like him. Hope the commuter isn't me!!

The other passenger has his feet on the seat!!! Just like the twat sat opposite me yesterday!!!

Fabulous! Picture of Fred??

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  • I am a spritely 30-something living with my beautiful wife in the most fabulous town in the entire world, Royal Tunbridge Wells.

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