My interest in vintage Ladybird books goes back some years, and one of our most memorable days out was a trip down to the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill on Sea to see the travelling exhibition of classic Ladybird book art, so when we heard there was a Ladybird-related exhibition on our doorstep in the Museum of Gloucester, we didn’t expect to see anything we’d not seen before, especially since it would be squeezed in alongside the permanent collections in a city centre venue. How wrong we were! Our appetite was whetted when we learned that it was being curated by long time Ladybird enthusiast Helen Day, which reassured us that it would be coming at the topic from a perspective we could relate to as she’s a regular contributor to the Facebook vintage Ladybird book enthusiasts’ page (yes, of course there’s one) and maintains an excellent website on the topic Ladybird Books: Collecting, History and the artists | Ladybird Fly Away Home. Everything came together when we had friends visiting for the weekend and our planned visit to Giffords Circus fell victim to COVID cases amongst the company, so a trip into Gloucester on a Sunday afternoon fitted the bill nicely.
And we were so glad we did. Helen’s exhibition lived up to its title, ‘The Wonderful World of Ladybird Artists’ in every respect but, most importantly for us, didn’t focus exclusively on pages from the books themselves. The whole exhibition was interlaced with artefacts that brought the story of the books themselves to life and added depth to the familiar content. Things began well with a display of the kind of work Wills and Hepworth were doing in pre-Ladybird times, including advertising for the motor industry (just one of the many crossovers with other aspects of our mid-century interests), and an explanation of how the books were designed to make use of a single sheet of paper during times of rationing of raw materials – something we knew about but this was the first time we’d had the chance to see one of the original uncut sheets to work out how they did it. Helen’s collection naturally includes an exhaustive array of examples of the original books, including those one wouldn’t immediately recognize as Ladybird as they preceded the format that came to epitomize the name. There were interesting diversions, too, such as the explanation that, while the Ladybird children’s clothing range was an entirely different enterprise, the fact that they shared commercial artists accounts for their similar style.
Of course, the exhibition rightly concentrates on the artists themselves, providing well-crafted potted biographies and examples of their work beyond the pages of the Ladybird books. Maybe it’s a nostalgia thing, and an affection for the days before photographic and digital artwork, but I love commercial artwork of the kind that was intended to be ephemeral, yet sacrificed nothing in terms of integrity or quality. Be it educational children’s publications, plastic kit box top art or war comics, the vibrancy of the illustrations leapt off their often constrained and poor quality surfaces and imprinted themselves on our consciousness in a way that paintings hung on wall struggled to do. That comes through strongly in the Ladybird story, as children of multiple generations find they can describe individual pages from the books that had a particular effect on them – be it from the fairy tales, learning to read or more factual series. One exhibit captured that beautifully for me – a page from the Eagle comic with a strip illustrated by a Ladybird stalwart (probably Frank Hampson) beneath one of their classic cutaways drawn by Roy Cross, one of Airfix’s most prolific box top artists.
They were all there: John Berry’s People at Work, Charles Tunnicliffe’s nature scenes, John Kenney’s historical depictions (set alongside his other work for the Railway stories where he created the definitive look for Thomas the Tank Engine and co). Perhaps most evocative for children of the 1960s, though, were Harry Wingfield and Martin Aitchison’s illustrations for the learning to read series, where the adventures of Peter, Jane and their contemporaries reflect a world of parades of independent shops, school uniforms worn as everyday clothes, DIY-ing dads and mums carrying out all kinds of pre-technology domestic chores. All very stereotypical and monocultural of course, but as much of a time capsule as any photo album. It was fascinating to see the accompanying photos from the artists’ archives, featuring their children and other family members pressed into service as models for familiar pages from the books, along with examples of original artwork, not massively bigger than the printed pages but revealing every line of detail and brush work.
The story of the company itself isn’t neglected, either, with some lovely archive items illustrating the development of the series under the drive of Douglas Keen, including one of the original company typewriters. We spotted exactly the same model at the Malvern Flea Fair the following day and, resisting the temptation to add yet another hefty typewriter to my collection, I suggested to the seller that she might want to capitalize on the connection! Helen’s collection had also yielded a lovely selection of other Ladybird-related items, including games, cards and promotional material, along with a wall of the books themselves inviting a session of ‘got, got, want, got’ as we worked our way along. It was nice, too, to find at the end of it all a big bookcase of tatty reading copies, reminding us that, for all the story and interest of the artwork, Ladybird books were first and foremost about getting children reading, not fuelling the collecting instinct of middle-aged bloggers!
The exhibition in Gloucester is closing soon, but goes on to Great Yarmouth and will hopefully be popping up elsewhere in the country. Details will appear on Helen’s website – highly recommended for a visit.