After years quite literally on the shelf, suddenly it seems that Ladybird Books are rightly being feted everywhere as an iconic part of post-war British culture. Although the Ladybird ‘brand’ has been around for a century, it’s the uniform, 56-page, hardbacked little books that our midcentury generation associates with the name, each with its standard layout of 56 pages with an illustration on every right hand page. That dates from 1953, and was the brainchild of Douglas Keen who created the first mock-up of ‘A Book of British Birds and Eggs’ and started a publishing phenomenon which, although it has evolved to meet changing tastes, has cemented a place in British homelife.
For the lover of midcentury culture, it’s the illustrations that give Ladybird Books their particular appeal. All those published in the 1950s and 60s have a certain ‘look’ to them that speaks to the period. No wonder, as the company sought out some of the cream of post-war British illustrators, finding specialists to major on particular series. I’m a big fan of John Kenney’s pictures that appear in almost every ‘Adventure from History’ book, particularly his skill at depicting famous battles in the constraints of the Ladybird format – and without any bloodshed. However, it’s those that deal specifically with the midcentury world that evoke the era so beautifully. The ‘Achievements’ and ‘How It Works’ series in particular are full of pictures showing the contemporary 50s and 60s world, full of optimism at the society that the White Heat of Technology would create for us. Some, like the Exploring Space volume, dealexclusively with the modern world, but even the more mundane topics, like the History of Clothes and Costume, or Houses and Homes, all conclude with pages dedicated to the Twentieth Century, colourfully illustrated by those living in it.
Ladybird were not afraid of depicting the everyday, either, as they pursued their aim of helping children to understand the world around them. The ‘People at Work’ series, illustrated by John Berry, presents a perfect microcosm of employment in early 1960s Britain, seen through the eyes both of the traditional vocations, such as nurses, police, and the Armed Forces, and of those less usually celebrated, like the miner, customs officer or pottery maker. The same is true of the three-volume ‘Public Services’ series – what other publisher would have taken the trouble to explain, and commission bespoke illustrations for, books on gas, electricity and the water supply.
More exotic are the Travel Adventures series from the late 1950s, which takes the reader jetting worldwide, and, nearer to home, the ‘Come to’ series from a decade later which present trips to France, Holland and Denmark. My surprise, though, came with the realisation that some of the most iconic Ladybird illustrations come from some of the earliest books aimed at the youngest readers. The Key Words Reading Scheme books from the late 1950s include beautiful depictions of a somewhat idealised Britain by Harry Wingfield. In particular, ‘Shopping With Mother’ shows a high street that raises pangs of nostalgia for the shopping trips of an early 1960s childhood (but with the boring bits, early closing, bus queues and long walks home in pre family car days airbrushed out).
Of course, anything written half a century ago, with an air of innocence and optimism, is a magnet for the worldly-wise critic, and those early books have come in for criticism of their reflection of a stereotyped culture, where non-white faces suggested strange foreign customs, where Mummies went shopping while Dads sawed things in the workshop, and where Britain and science were good for us and for the world. But that’s what you get when you look at the world through a contemporary lens, and one has to take the content and pictures as representative of their time as one would any other book written in the different country of the past. To Ladybird’s credit, there is no sense that they wished blindly to hang on to that image of the world and regularly updated many of their volumes to reflect the changing face of British society and the growing awareness that science wasn’t always the answer, as well as adding more environmentally aware subjects. In that respect, though, Ladybird were ahead of the game as, from their first publications, there was a strong theme of appreciation for the countryside.
Fortunately, the balance has been in Ladybird’s favour and, in the wake of a charming BBC4 documentary, an exhibition is doing the rounds, celebrating ‘Ladybird by Design’. We caught the very end of it at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, and having raved about it to our friends, have been hoping it would reappear within reach. Well it has, and has just opened at the House of Illustration in the newly-rejuvenated area behind London’s Kings Cross station. The exhibition features an extensive collection of original artwork drawn from Ladybird’s archives (and isn’t it nice to think they’ve kept everything for over half a century). To see such familiar images in their original form – much larger than the books themselves – is a real treat, and the captions are, in true Ladybird fashion, succinctly written and clearly presented.
You can find details of the exhibition, which runs to 27 September, at the House of Illustration website. There are also numerous websites celebrating Ladybird Books; one of the best is the Vintage Ladybird site, whilst the completists amongst you will find this exhaustive list a handy reference against which to tick off your favourites and spot the ones you didn’t know existed.
A February 2017 update: the Museum of English Rural Life has just opened a permanent gallery dedicated to Ladybird books, using the original archive. We’ve not been to see it yet, but it sounds fascinating and will save trying to chase the temporary exhibition around the country!