Charles Burki is not well known in the English-speaking world, as a Dutch illustrator/designer whose work was primarily published in Europe in the 1920s-70s. Burki was actually born in 1909 in Indonesia when it was a Dutch colony (the Dutch East Indies), in Magelang, Mid-Java, where his father was an architect. He received his primary education there, and showed an early aptitude for drawing, and a love for motorcycles and cars, a passion he apparently inherited from his father.  By 1924 his drawings of motorcycles were being published in Holland in Sport in Beeld,  That year, at age 15, he purchased his first motorcycle, a BSA 500cc Sloper, which began a lifelong love for fast British motorcycles.

Charles Burki circa 1937 with his beloved Norton International M30 500cc, the top of the line of British sports motorcycles, with an enviable pedigree in the Isle of Man TT. A stylish and handsome man on a stylish and handsome motorcycle!  [Hockenhiem Museum Archive]
He moved to the Netherlands in 1929 to pursue a degree in architecture, in Delft, and was an enthusiastic supporter of motorcycle racing, especially the Dutch TT at Assen. At races he would sketch the riders and their machines, noting their various riding styles and of course the details of their mounts, in a golden age of 1930s racing.  In 1932 he moved to Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and remained there for three years, making connections at Moto Revue and regularly contributing illustrations for the magazine.  That includes these spectacular 1932 studies of fantastical streamlined racers, for an article discussing the need to split the air efficiently, as opposed to simply applying more power (puissance in French) to push against the atmosphere.

From the article ‘Streamline ou Puissance’ in the Jan-March 1933 edition of Moto Revue. Note the resemblance of the machine to the OEC-Temple-JAP record-breaker of 1930 (with Duplex steering system), while the bodywork looks much like the later Brough Superior bodywork of ‘Leaping Lena’. [Hockenhiem Museum Archive]
When Burki’s father died in 1935, he was forced to give up his Parisian life, and returned to the Hague to secure his reputation as an illustrator, and earn his own living.  He met and married Sophia in 1938, and the couple took a honeymoon in their Norton International M30 with a Steib sidecar, riding to Genoa in Italy in high style.  From Genoa, they took a boat with their sidecar to the Dutch East Indies, and decided to remain in there.   In 1942,  Japan declared war on the Netherlands, and occupied Indonesia: Charles and Sophia Burki were taken as prisoners of war, which began an extremely dark period of their lives.  Burki documents the nightmare of imprisonment in his 1979 book ‘Achter de Kawat’ (‘Behind the Barbed Wire’), which includes drawings he was able to make while imprisoned, on scraps of paper, while at a camp in Bandung for 14 months.

Burki in 1938 with a Steib sidecar attached to his Norton, and his lovely new bride Sophia in tow, likely en route to Genoa on their honeymoon. [Hockenhiem Museum Archive]
When he learned he would be transferred to Japan as part of their slave labor force (1944), Burki carefully rolled up his drawings in cotton sheets inside a sealed zinc tube, which was placed in a tarred wooden box and buried near the entrance of the prison camp. Burki was shipped to Nagasaki on the ill-fated cargo ship Tomahuku Maru, which was torpedoed by a US submarine the USS Tang (SS-306), and 560 of the 772 prisoners were killed, within Nagasaki harbor.  Burki survived, and was sent to the Fukuoka 14 labor camp.  On August 9, 1945, the Fat Man nuclear bomb exploded a mere 2 kilometers from the Fukuoka camp, yet miraculously, Burki survived unharmed, while 40,000 others perished directly from the bomb.  The Japanese surrendered after this second nuclear attack, and eventually Burki was able to return to Indonesia, where he located his wife Sophia, who had survived her own harrowing experiences as a prisoner.

An illustration from Burki’s account as a prisoner of war in Indonesia. [Christie’s]
In December 1945, Charles and Sophia Burki returned to the Netherlands, where he took up his illustration career once again, which was extremely successful.  A talented illustrator proved invaluable during the period of rapid economic growth in Europe in the 1940s and 50s, and Burki’s client list was impressive: besides numerous magazines, he became the visual voice for DAF, Shell, Philips, KLM, Goodyear, etc.   His futuristic ideas for cars and motorcycles were an inspiration to designers, and he also provided illustrations for hundreds of books of literature and poetry.  He lived in the Hague until 1994: sadly, the only books published about/by him are in Dutch, but we reviewed one of them here.

More speed! And clearly, more horsepower, in another notional speed machine from the Jan-March 1933 edition of Moto Revue. [Hockenhiem Museum Archive]
A smaller machine with extensive streamlining out back – in line with thinking of the 1920s, and barely advanced in the early 1930s when this was drawn. [Hockenhiem Museum Archive]
Burki’s book ‘Achter de Kawat’ is available, but only in Dutch. [Dutch National Library]
One of the drawings Burki made from memory while imprisoned, of a factory racing Norton at the Dutch TT in 1937. Buried in a zinc tube within a tarred wooden box at the entrance of his prison camp, Burki was able to enlist a friend after the war to retrieve the box. [Hockenhiem Museum Archive]
Talk about Puissance! A six-cylinder inline engine in a very beefy chassis, ready for a land speed record. [Hockenhiem Museum Archive]

Paul d’Orléans is the founder of He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.
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