The Biccard Collection is the collective works of John Biccard, a renowned artist from Cape Town, South Africa. After searching the internet for information about John and his career, I found that the internet did not have much to offer. It was because of this discovery that I decided to write a blog post to honour the work of a great South African artist and visionary who appears to be relatively unknown. It seems one of the main reasons why it is so difficult to get any information on John is because he was a very private person. Through my continuous pursuit for information, I was able to uncover the following about the life and work of Mr. John Biccard.
John Biccard was born John Henry Burnwood on the 6th of February, 1941. He was raised in the farm and wineland regions of the Cape peninsula, near the major sea port of Cape Town. John was educated in Cape Town and travelled extensively throughout Europe, spending some time studying at Cambridge in London, England, hence the Euro-centricity of his works. He returned to his native land to carry on with his first love, sculpturing. John was a very private person who liked to be known as “a person who is indigenous of this fair and wonderful part of South Africa,” a true Capetonian (Source: PJ Designs). According to an old acquaintance; John created his art under his mother’s maiden name (Biccard), as his father did not approve of his profession and wanted him to have a more formal occupation.
John worked in the medium of crushed marble, creating his collection of whimsical sculptures (known as the “Biccard Marbles”) from drawings he had done of subjects that caught his interest and imagination. He started with a pencil sketch of his subject and then formed the finished caricature. John produced a set of 22 “cards” depicting his characters (some of which did not make it into a sculpture). According to Peter Lane, a long time Biccard collector from the UK, the Biccard website does show some of these images, however not all are displayed. Furthermore, Peter told me that he purchased the set of cards from Classique in Bedfordview Shopping Mall, Johannesburg.
Photo Credit: Peter Lane
One can tell that John had a great sense of humor that went into his creations. Most of the sculptures are caricatures of animals depicting “important” people or events, such as Cholmondeley “Chumley” the Caterpillar who is smugly awaiting the coming of Spring so that he can turn into a beautiful butterfly, or Phileas Frogg who can be seen sitting by the roadside fishing for compliments (Source: PJ Designs).
Chumley the caterpillar
Photo credit: Seektiques
In the early 70s John had a studio in Church Street in Cape Town. Through enquiry with multiple collectors/sellers I managed to identify that John sold his Marbles in the shop on Table Mountain, in a gift shop at Sun City and in a Décor shop in Johannesburg. John’s charming sculptures are all hand finished in exquisite detail and were produced during the late 1970’s to early 1980’s. In the 1980’s these magnificent sculptures were sold exclusively from Excalibur Art Ltd and came in a brown box denoted with the Biccard Collection insignia on the front. Included in the box was an information leaflet containing a description/story of the specific character and the following standard text; “These pieces are hand created in Mr John Biccard’s studio in modest quantities and are already collector’s pieces. They are intended to be handled, viewed from all angles and to make you smile, thus giving pleasure. Each piece carries Mr Biccard’s monogram. (Direct sunlight may cause colour tone change).” Each sculpture had a label on the bottom that read “Hand made in South Africa.” Unlike normal antiques/collectables that can be authenticated by a makers mark or stamp underneath the base, John’s sculptures are exclusively marked with a trademark design of his initials – “JB” that adds to the beauty and authenticity of the sculpture.
John Biccard’s initials that can be found on every sculpture
These sculptures are becoming increasingly scarce and are highly prized and sought after. For the avid collector out there, John’s marble sculptures will last a lifetime and more, with only the minimal amount of care. These rare creations of beautiful intricacy would make a wonderful addition to any collection. Owning a Biccard sculpture is a statement in itself. He captures the similarity between man and animal with a sense of humor, yet an air of realism. Only a True Collector could understand and appreciate these unique handmade works of art with a whimsical touch. Due to the limited availability of these sculptures, they are deemed to have significant value and will only continue to rise in value.
Examples of John Biccard’s marble sculptures:
Introducing “Sufi (The Magus’s Camel)” from the Biccard Collection
Sufi weighs approximately 800g and stands 11x18cm. This camel has amazing muscular detail to his face, shiny black eyes, a heart-shaped nose (which John seemed to love to do since you see this on a few of the figurines) and a look of pure serenity and satisfaction in his smile. Sufi is wearing a fringed and tassel blanket. He is richly decorated with palm tree’s and etched flowers as the background designs. On one side you see the dolphin and pyramid, the sun and the moon, water and land and sail boat. The opposite side shows the camel walking through the eye of the needle. He is truly Blessed. John Biccard’s initials can be found above both main designs on either side of the camel. The headdress is simple which compliments the ornate blanket. This funky camel is John’s version of the eye of the needle. Read more about Sufi’s features here: http://www.pjdesigns.com/pj/biccard1.htm
Photo credit: Seektiques
Introducing “D’Artagnan” from the Biccard Collection
D’Artagnan is either a Persian or Angora cat with his long fur and is clearly an alias for Puss in Boots. He is wearing a wide brimmed plumed, cavalier hat. Dressed in frilly cravat, waistcoat and boots. If you look carefully at the back, peeking out of his long fur and sash is a sword. D’Artagnan has an eye patch as well. His whiskers are curled into a mustache. John Biccards initials adorn the hat.
Photo credit: Seektiques
Introducing “Pie Face” from the Biccard Collection
Pie Face is one cool chimp! Dressed like he is right out of the 1970’s. He wears a Gatsby or newsboy cap, wide collar shirt with butterfly motifs, diamond cut pattern tie with John Biccard’s initials as the accent. His face is very expressive as you can see. A thoughtful and wise look as though he knows something that we don’t. He has piercing shiny black eyes, a slight smile and heart shaped nose, sideburns like Elvis and long fur over the back of his collar.
Photo credit: Seektiques
Introducing “Prof.” from the Biccard Collection
Prof. is dressed like a scholar and perched on a podium. An exquisite quill pen is the center design. The distinguished P.H.D. hood on Prof’s back shows a spread winged owl with a book. Great detailing has been done to all the feathers. The eyes are grooved out for added depth. The talons are very detailed. John Biccard’s Initials can be found on the left side of Prof’s checkerboard-patterned vest.
Photo credit: Seektiques
Introducing “Red Baron 1” from the Biccard Collection
Red Baron weighs approximately 200g and stands 8cm high. Red Baron has a wide muzzle and heavy lidded eyes. He is dressed in full flying attire with his flying cap with ear flaps and flying goggles which bear John Biccard’s initials. Two detailed old fighter planes which show a dog resembling Snoopy sitting inside have been carved on either side of Red Baron’s jacket. Carved out in the center on the back of his jacket is “The Red Baron.”
Photo credit: Seektiques
Introducing “Sherlock Holmes” from the Biccard Collection
Sherlock is a super sleuth! With his keen sense of smell, intelligent eyes, this hound is great. A reverse of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Another one of John Biccards whimsical antics to his figurines. Sherlock is dressed in his deerstalker hat and overcoat both done in a checkered pattern. The detail on this bloodhound is just amazing. The hound has deep folds in his face, deep set eyes and long ears that protrude from under his cap. John Biccard’s initials can be found on the back of Sherlock’s coat.
Photo credit: Seektiques
Introducing “Napoleon (War) and the Saint (Peace)” from the Biccard Collection
These miniature pieces were sold together as a package and symbolize war and peace.
Napoleon is John Biccard’s artistic take on Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French. Napoleon stands 8.5cm high and 4.2cm widest at the base. The piece is named “War.” He is dressed in his finest uniform; the jacket has fringed epaulets and six buttons down the front, he has high military boots and a large bicorn hat with a ribbon. His Jacket is cut away exposing a very round belly. If you look closely, you will notice he is pigeon toed. Napoleon’s face has the look of determination. This is a fabulous depiction of the man himself with all the details picked out and brilliantly executed from a few wisps of curls under his hat to the arms folded behind his back. John Biccard’s initials can be found carved into each pocket.
The Saint is named “Peace” and is depicted to be the opposite of Napoleon (War). As you can see, Saint has the look of tranquillity. Dressed in a checker board cape with varied patterns. Saint’s robe shows earths bounty with grapes, bananas, pineapple and apples. In addition to these, there are also flowers and a butterfly. The inside brim of the hat shows bunches of grapes. Four doves adorn the outside of his hat; two dove’s holding an olive branch – a symbol of peace and harmony, the other two doves I assume symbolize love. This man is holding his belly. Which could very well be representational of mother earth or he is full with nature’s gifts. Whichever way you look at him, he is blessed. John Biccard’s initials can be found inside the apple on Saint’s robe.
Since each sculpture was hand made by John, they were issued as Limited Editions only. No two are exactly alike. Colours may vary from sculpture to sculpture; some sculptures have a brown shading, some have black detailing drawn or painted on and others seem to be plain white. The colouring can easily be mistaken for ivory or bone at first glance, but once you lift the sculpture up, they are relatively heavy considering their size and cold to the touch. The colour variations can be seen below in the two examples of John’s orangutan sculpture named “Dolby.” Orangutans are intelligent and for the most part, peaceful animals. This is how John portrays Dolby, his orangutan. This ape appears to be meditating in a Yoga position, complete with a headset. Dolby’s facial expression is serene and it is evident that he must be listening to some very relaxing music. The attention to detail is superb. With his arms folded across his belly, Dolby resembles an ape-like Buddha.
There are also variations in the types of marble sculptures John created. The majority are full bodied characters, however he also created busts, animal heads fixed on a stand, bookends and what appears to be a rhino horn dubbed “Queen (Her Royal Rhiness).” Below is John Biccard’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” an example of one of the animal head on a stand sculptures John made. It is 23 cms in height and comes with a copy of Lawrence’s “CV” (Source: Skyscraper Cape Town). These witty little stories were originally sold with each sculpture.
According to long time Biccard collectors Joan and Steven Pye, “when John first created his sculptures he valued his work on the size of each piece, the work involved and of course the amount of crushed marble required to product each piece. We believe his works on the stands were his latest creations and Lawrence of Arabia was one of his last. We also believe that Lawrence of Arabia is one of John’s finest sculptures.” John clearly valued his exquisite camel sculpture as he wrote a short poem about him:
“Sufi, the magus’s camel,
was a remarkable mammal,
as at home in a busy bazaar
as alone on a dune with a star.”
– John Biccard
Photo Credit: Peter Lane
Photo Credit: Barbara Spencer
One of the most intriguing sculptures John created was his marble chess set. Each chess piece is designed in John’s own unique style. John also wrote a book in 1972 entitled “Insulting the Pawn” which was around the time he was working on “prototype” designs for the chess set. The book was published by J. Burn Wood 1972 “Watergang”, Stellenbosch, Cape and apparently has a reference to The Grand Master Boris The Russian Bear which is presumed to refer to Soviet chess grandmaster Boris Spassky. It does not look like a conventional book; it has been described as 11 sheets of A4 sized pages “sandwiched” between 2 A4 sized cardboard covers in “Landscape” orientation. In John’s own words, it describes his thoughts during the process of carving his 6 prototype chess sets. It does give an insight into his personality with some amusing “expressions” and poetical statements.
Photo Credit: Wendy Nicol
The value of John’s marble sculptures is based on certain criteria:
- Condition (if the sculpture is chipped or has fading of the black detailing, shading or colour tone of the actual marble itself (yellow), then this will affect the value)
- Character (some characters are more rare or sought after, thus making them more valuable).
My personal collection consists of more than twenty John Biccard sculptures, one of which has not been included on the John Biccard website. This leads me to believe that there are additional John Biccard sculptures out there. The sculpture which is not on the website has been displayed below.
Introducing “Batman” from the Biccard Collection
John Biccard’s initials can be found on the back of his cricket bat.
Another unique sculpture John created is the rare Pablo sculpture seen below. According to Janice Cocks, in the early 70s her mother worked in the center of town and found John’s studio on one of her lunch time explorations. “She took a liking to him and used to pop in to his studio. She seemed to get to know him quite well. The Pablo sculpture is actually a self-portrait. Looking more closely at the photos of John, there is definitely a resemblance. John was obsessed with getting both halves exactly the same. He felt that no one would buy this item, so it is uncertain how many are in existence.” Through my time collecting I have only come across three of these sculptures.
Photo Credit: Chris Prinsloo
“Pablo is a shepherd boy and one of the earlier characters produced by Biccard Studio. I am told he has now become the main character ‘Pablo’ in Biccard’s ebook ‘Chessablanca'”
Production of the “Biccard Marbles” ceased in 1999. According to unaccredited internet sources, John passed away seven years later in 2006. However, there is no evidence to substantiate this claim on the John Bicccard website (which was created in 2012 and has recently been updated (2016) with additional photographs of John and his sculptures). Through my research I came across an issue of the National Gazette which stated that John Henry Burnwood (Born 6 February 1941) legally changed his name to John Biccard on the 5th of April, 2012 (Source: National Gazette No 35212, 05 April 2012, Vol 562 (Part 1, 2), Page 11). I also noticed that John Biccard has user accounts on Pinterest (member since May 2012) and Goodreads. However, it seems that John’s close friend Christopher Burton-Thomas (known as “Blue”) posts on these platforms on behalf of him.
Photo Credit: Denise
Photo of John and his close friend Chris (known as ‘Blue’).
John’s last known physical address was previously listed on the Biccard website as 17 Pastorie Street, Prince Albert, Western Cape, 6930. His user profile on Goodreads provides us with some insight into what he may be getting up to today:
Books, gardening, sailing, horse riding and classical music – Mozart, Beethoven, Corelli, Handel.
Physics, cosmology and the perennial philosophy.
Shakespeare, William Blake, Jane Austen, P.G. Wodehouse, Lewis Carroll.
Born in Cape Town. School – Diocesan College (Bishops). Graduated at University of Cape Town. Taught for 3 years at a private school. Then invited as a guest to sail around the Mediterranean on a yacht. Collected BMW motorcycle in Valencia and traveled extensively around Europe, the Greek islands and the Middle East including Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Returned to Cape Town and joined the editorial department of Oxford University Press in Cape Town for 3 years. He then went to live on the Greek island of Patmos to write poetry. On returning to Cape Town became an artist and went to live on a beautiful wine farm in Stellenbosch. Then returned to Cape Town to live in Clifton above the famous Clifton beaches. He now lives in the Great Karoo in the Western Cape with his two much loved horses, Chumly and Darcy and two resident Cape Eagle owls Owlbert and Victoria. He is currently writing more stories.”
John imprinted a small piece of himself in each one of his creations that have since made their way around the world. Today these marble sculptures are very collectible and highly valued by those who own and love them.
Visit the official John Biccard website to see a full display of John’s graphic designs, drawings, animal cartoons, plus The Biccard Collection of bonded marble figurines and chess pieces. The site also offers some of John Biccard’s downloadable eBooks, in particular: Chessablanca, a light-hearted romantic and courtly fantasy.