Auction house Ewbank’s is hosting The Paul Birkbeck Collection next month, a sale featuring works by the renowned illustrator for BBC programmes such as Jackanory, Play School, Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple, and Glynis Barber’s Jane, a series based on the famous Daily Mirror newspaper strip.
All works in the auction are the creation of Paul Birkbeck (1939-2019), who illustrated storyboards for a wide range of shows, including Jackanory, Play School, Crystal Tipps and Alistair, Zig Zag, Magnus Magnusson’s epic TV series The Vikings, and more.
The lots also include backgrounds for shows such as the BBC’s Alice in Wonderland, broadcast in 1986.
Estimates range from £20 to £250 for individual works. His family have consigned nearly 350 individual illustrations for sale, with bids being accepted online already, up until 14th December 2021.
The character and detail displayed in Birkbeck’s work, along with his mastery of colour and composition, also made him in demand as a book illustrator. In 1990, these included Salman Rushdie’s children’s fairy tale, Haroun and the Sea of Stories.
Born in Woolwich, south-east London, Paul Birkbeck attended Brighton College and Epsom School of Art. After completing his National Service, he soon began designing sleeves for Decca Records.
In 1965, working with BBC children’s TV, he became a prolific illustrator for its programmes. He created 14 stories for Jackanory, including “A Dog So Small” (read by Judi Dench) and “Peter Pan” (read by Jan Francis), as well as the BBC Sunday afternoon Bible stories series In the Beginning.
Interviewed in a 2007 BBC documentary about Jackanory, Birkbeck said: “When we got the scripts we’d open them trepidatiously to see how many battles and wedding feasts there were and go oh no! There are two wedding feasts and a battle in this one!”
His work for Jackanory continued for many years as a commissioned artist. He created the memorable illustrations for The Vikings in 1980, presented by Magnus Magnusson, and the iconic Miss Marple series, starring Joan Hickson.
Birkbeck also drew the backgrounds for the ground-breaking BAFTA winning adaptation of Jane, which mixed cartoon backgrounds with live actors and was based on the Daily Mirror comic strip of the same name, that appeared in the Daily Mirror between 1932 and 1959.
Paul did some of the background illustrations for the live actor cast which included Glynis Barber as Jane, Max Wall, Frank Thornton and John Bird.
In 1991, as well as supplying illustrations, Birkbeck was in front of the camera playing himself each week in the BBCs six-part children’s TV history programme Now Then, an educational show that brought our ancestors to life.
He taught illustration at Leicester Polytechnic, Epsom College and the Royal College of Art, but continued to work in TV, including delivering the titles for The Stanley Baxter Show on Channel 4, and branched out into book illustration.
“I think his work on Haroun and the Sea of Stories for Salman Rushdie was a high point for him, as was his involvement in The Vikings,” says his daughter Polly Birkbeck.
Birkbeck spent the latter part of his life on personal commissions: highly detailed paintings with a strong figurative narrative inspired by life in suburbia. His work appeared at the Keith Chapman Gallery, London, in Royal Academy summer shows and Sunday Times watercolour exhibitions between 2003 and 2008, and in the Mall Galleries Discerning Eye exhibitions.
“Whether it was art for exhibitions or his illustration work for programmes like Jackanory, he was very meticulous and old school in his approach,” says Polly.
“He did a lot of research and created incredibly detailed pictures, which could take a long time, especially in the case of Jackanory, because the cameras would zoom in on them during the show.”
The artworks in this Ewbank’s sale were prepared in various mediums used by the artist and often in conjunction with one another, including pen and ink, crayon, watercolour, gouache, pastel, and oil and acrylic paints on card or on paper.
Many show the extraordinary detail that Birkbeck went into to capture the imagination of the viewer, making it almost impossible to understand how he could have completed so many to such a high level of accomplishment by the deadline for the TV shows.
• The Paul Birkbeck Collection Auction 14th December 2021, Ewbank’s, Burnt Common Auction Rooms, London Road, Send, Woking, Surrey, GU23 7LN | Tel: +44 (0)1483 223 101 | Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Viewing Times: Monday 13th December: 9.00am – 5.00pm | Tuesday 14th December: 9.00am – 2.00pm
With thanks to Norman Boyd