Saturday, 12 December 2015

You can't make an omlette ...

The thing about Ladybird Books ... well, one of the things ... there are a lot of things ... but one of my favourite things about Ladybird Books is the way they capture domestic scenes in snapshot.  Details of 20th century daily life, insignificant at the time, can pack a particular zeitgeist punch because they  slip under our guard.

I recently posted a picture online of a tea table laid for a tea party.
It evoked lots of comments as people focused on the details on the table: the tea-cosy, the proportion of cakes to sandwiches, the home-made jam tarts (always either red or yellow and of indeterminate sweet taste) and the cellophane frill around the cake.

(In the era of The Great British Bake Off and Choccywoccydoodah many of us had forgotten that humble yet gaudy, fringed cellophane cake frill the jazzed up your party cake. It seems my family was not alone in using the same cake frill for years, carefully removing it as the cake was eaten and putting it in a kitchen drawer where it would shed small pieces of hard icing through the year until  next called on for  active cake service).
 Eggs are another example of the spirit of the times lurking quietly in domestic detail.  I eat eggs today; I ate eggs when I was little (in the late 60s).  But looking through Ladybird Books of the late 50s to early 70s it's clear that eggs today aren't what once they were. Eggs loomed larger in our lives.  Eggs weren't about mayonnaise or quiche or souffle or even omlettes.  They were about poached, boiled, fried or scrambled.  Particularly, if Ladybird artwork and my memory are correct, about boiled.

 Egg cups - every body had egg cups in their cupboard.  Most people had their own egg cup which was fiercely defended. (Perhaps it once came 'free' with your Easter egg?)  Timing eggs was important.  You knew the difference in consistency of a 4 minute egg or a 6 minute egg. Egg timers were mainly used for timing eggs - not for playing board games.  You knew, or thought you knew,  or knew ... whichever! ... that it was (or wasn't) healthy to go to work or school on an egg. 
Boiled eggs might be the centrepiece of a salad.

Then how did you keep your egg warm until its time had come?  You were invited to knit egg cosies, or to give egg cosies as presents.

And when you'd finished eating your eggs, egg boxes were the staple of Ladybird craft activity.

The egg is still with us - but the Ladybird artwork evidence suggests that its importance has waned.  Once the egg was something - majestic in its simplicity.  Now it's more likely to be an ingredient, among other ingredients, on a long list in a complex recipe.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

What's so special about ... John Berry. Part 1

For me, John Berry is right up there with the very best illustrators.

Although I've always enjoyed his artwork, he is another of the Ladybird artists that I've grown into more as I've got older.  One reason is perhaps because his books are among the first Ladybirds I ever encountered - even before I started school.  I think we had a copy of The Fireman and The Policeman around the house - probably given to my older brother.

So those memorable illustrations of the Dixon-of-Dock-Green-esque bobby and the splendid crimson of the fire engines are such a fundamental a part of my early childhood that I never really gave them much of a thought.

The next John Berry books I met were probably those he illustrated for the first version of the Peter and Jane series.  Although the differences between the Ladybird artists who contributed to this series are glaringly obvious to me now, at the time I was unaware of the different hands at work. Now I'll get this bit out of the way early (because it pains me to say it) but Berry wasn't at his best painting children at play.

This is a bit of a basic problem when illustrating a children's reading scheme and is probably the reason why he only produced the artwork for 3 of the 36 books in the series.  Although for me now the charm of his illustrations for this series is in their very stiffness and formality, it probably didn't quite meet the exacting requirments of Editorial Director Douglas Keen, who preferred Wingfield and Aitchison's ability to blend realism with movement and imagination.

I'm speculating here, of course - but anyway there was no lack of Ladybird illustration work for Berry at this time.  Much more up his street was the People at Work series that he alone illustrated, between 1961 and 1972.

In terms of social history this series may be unique in its documentation of the world of work in the second half of the 20th century, and contemporary attitudes towards it. Not only have some key professions been captured in the stunning photorealism of Berry's artwork but so much can be inferred by the emphasis of the books, what was selected, what was omited and what was updated.

For me, in terms of tone and outlook, the series breaks into two parts: the books produced before 1965 and those produced between 1965 and the end of the series in 1972 and I aim to look at these separately.

For now though, let me me sum up why I now find John Berry's artwork breathtaking. Yes, his technical ability was extraordinary.  Yes, he could paint factories, machinery and architecture with photographic precision but that alone wouldn't make an artist great.  Now I'm no art critic or art historian and, if you know about this stuff, you're going to have to be tolerant of me when I mangle concepts and use the wrong terms.  But for me Berry could compose and interpret a scene with small choices and small touches that set the final piece on a different plane, while making the process seem effortless. In addition to this, there's his versatility that I find baffling.

While I'm sure there are other artists who share a similar ability to paint a turbine or the manufacture of a ship's hull and make it look interesting - beautiful even - there must be far fewer who could then turn around and paint a soft, nostalgic landscape or produce empathetic, keenly observed portraits of the workers.  And all within the time and financial restraints of a busy editorial schedule and the requirements to produce twenty-four full pictures for every book.

In my next post I'll look in more detail at the first books in this series: The Policeman, Nurse, Fireman, Builder, Farmer and Fisherman.  after that I'll look at the later 'Work' books and other series he illustrated for Ladybird.

But in the meantime, here's a brief biography in the form of Cressida Connoly's excellent piece written shortly after Berry died in 2009

John Berry

Thursday, 17 September 2015

I am Sparticus

Something I find fascinating is when photographs come to light that were used by Ladybird artists as studies for their artwork.

Here's one that appeared on Twitter (via @russellsdesk) a couple of months ago - along with the image from the John Berry-illustrated Peter and Jane book that it appeared in:

What's the fascination?  Well I suppose it's a combination of things.  On the one hand it's the juxtaposition of fact and fiction and on the other it lays bare the great skill of the artists so that you can appreciate the choices made: what was retained, what was left out and what was adapted.  Of course, it also helps you 'go back stage' - to imagine the situation when the photograph was taken.  Who are the children in the picture? How did they feel? Was the boy fed up to be immortalised petting what appears to be a toy rabbit?  Did they realise at the time how iconic some of these images would turn out to be for so many of us?  Actually I can answer that last question: certainly not.

I know a bit about this because over the years quite of few of these early picture 'models' have contacted me.  Also, as the good folk at Penguin always say, if they ever organise some sort of Ladybird event they are sure to find that there are, apparently, half a dozen 'Peters' or 'Janes' in the room.

Why are there so many people around who believe that they are "the original Peter" or "the original Jane"?
Christophe Edward modelled for the book 'Helping at Home'
Well first of all, those two names are so synonymous with Ladybird that, although they only appear in  the 36 books of the Key Word Reading Scheme, the names tend to get bandied around to describe any pre-pubescent child in any Ladybird Book.

Artist Robert Ayton's nephew poses for the tin can telephone

Secondly about 5 different artists were involved in the illustration of just the reading scheme alone and their production covered roughly a 15 year period so many different children were asked to pose for preparatory sketches or photos as a part of this process.

Adrian Heath - one of the 1970s 'Peters'

But in these surviving preparatory photos we have the flash-bulb moment - the moment when normal children, whoever they are and how many of them there are, become Ladybird characters.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

A few updates

Just before I went off on my holidays I led an evening session at the  House of Illustration, the establishment in Kings Cross, London currently hosting the latest incarnation of the Ladybird Exhibition.  My talk was on the reasons why I personally find Ladybird Books (and in particular the illustrations) so fascinating.

It was a very enjoyable evening; after my talk and a glass of wine, attendees responded by talking over their own connection with these books or this publisher.  I think you'll get a taste of the evening in this picture:
In the foreground you can see a lady (and I'm ashamed to say I've forgotten her name!) showing us a 1960s Peter and Jane book that she had 'modelled' for.  One day, when she was a school-girl, Martin Aitchison come to her art class (which was taught by his wife) and got a number of the students to pose for the artwork.  She (I wish I could remember her name!) explained to us how the pictures had been amended before finishing up in the book.

In the background you can also see Justin Lumley, the son of Well Loved Tales artist Robert, sharing his memories of his father's work for Ladybird with Caroline Alexander, herself the daughter of Editorial Director Douglas Keen

Justin brought in some photographs that his father had used to depict a picture from the Well Loved Tales series (I failed miserably to guess which one).  He also talked about real locations that were chosen to illustrate, for example, the street down which the Gingerbread Boy ran or the Little Red Hen's very quaint-looking village.

The exhibition is going on until 27th September.  There are a few other 'talks' to come including one on Ladybird Modernism by John Grindrod which I'd like to try to get to myself.

There's also some talk of a closing event on 25th September to which I believe I'll be invited.  I'll let you know if I hear more.

In other news:

Loughborough (home of Ladybird) has finally got its act together and established a permanent Ladybird exhibition at the local museum The Charnwood.  In addition, Angel Yard, where Wills & Hepworth first became established has been awarded a Green Plaque (why green and not blue?).  The plaque was unveiled by said Caroline Alexander:

In the picture above you can see Caroline and myself together with Roy Smith, who worked over a long period time and in a range of roles for W&H.  He is someone I've been meaning to ask for an interview for some time and this gave me the opportunity to make provisional plans.

There was also time for a flying visit to the excellent and massively understated 100 Years of Ladybird exhibition on at The Charnwood.  There's a wide range of top quality artwork on display at the exhibition including pieces from old favourites such as Tootles the Taxi, Cinderella and other Well Loved Tales as well as non-fiction pieces including some from John Berry's 'People at Work' series.  In addition there are some pretty rare early artifacts, including examples of the very earliest 'Ladybird Series' books.  The exhibition sells itself very short - it has top quality artifacts, well-displayed and entrance is free; all it lacks is self-confidence and publicity!

I think the Charnwood exhibition is on until the end of October but there's also a permanent exhibition now (which includes an audio history narrated by little old me).  If you go with children, (or even if you don't!) make sure you sit in the story chair, under the giant Ladybird which used to grace the Beeches Road Ladybird Book print works, and let the chair read you a story.

And finally ...

I couldn't find a light-hearted piece about a water-skiing Ladybird for a suitable 'And finally ...' story but how about a daft name?  "An exciting new annual event for families who love books and illustrated literature" called 'Loogabarooga' will hold its first festival in September - again in Loughborough - (hence the odd name).  I've had an invitation to do a talk there too (hooray! - somewhere north of Watford!) so will keep you posted but in the meantime you can find out more here.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

What's on in Ladybird Land

There are a lot of exhibitions taking place connected with Ladybird's so-called 'Centenary' year.

It's quite hard to keep track of what has happened, what has been planned and what's on.
I thought a round-up might be helpful.

1) The 'Ladybird by Design' exhibition took place in Bexhill at the De La Warr Pavilion between January and May this year.  So that's now finished ... but ...

2) ...  The House of Illustration is currently hosting the same exhibition - or most of it - near Kings Cross in London.  The rooms are smaller and so far the beautiful parade of book (my books!) haven't been exhibited yet for lack of space, but I understand that they will be displayed any day now, as another exhibition comes to an end and the space is freed up.

This incarnation of the LbD exhibition is on until the end of September but if you can come on the evening of Thursday 30th of July please do!  That's when I'm meant to be heading up an 'informal evening' talking about the impact of Ladybird.  Here's how it's advertised:

I wasn't sure how the Bexhill exhibition would translate to a much smaller venue - but actually I liked the arrangement.  The smaller rooms encourage you to get up closer to the artwork and - since the pieces were designed to be viewed in detail close up - this works very well.

3) The Charnwood Museum in Loughborough is having its own exhibition.  Loughborough is the home of Ladybird and from the pictures I've seen so far it looks very good:

I hope to visit later this week so I'll review then.

4)  On the subject of Loughborough, Angel Yard, the birth place of Ladybird, has been awarded a 'Green Plaque'. The unveiling ceremony is on Wednesday 29th of June and I hope to be there.

5) Finally, there is another exhibition: 100 Years of Ladybird, which opened last week and the British Schools Museum.  This is in my county of Hertfordshire, in Hitchin.  If you live locally, do drop by.  The only building is interesting and the staff are friendly.

The exhibition, though small, has been put together with an eye for detail and tender loving care.  When I was there I didn't get a chance to see the original school rooms there - but I imagine they're interesting too.

If you know of anything else Ladybird related that's on now or is being planned, do let me know

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Ladybird artists: What's so special about ... John Kenney?

Not long ago, I wrote about what it was that had led me to enjoy and appreciate the Ladybird artwork of C F Tunnicliffe.  So, in a similar vein, here's a very personal introduction to John Kenney. (This isn't a biography - you'll find one of those here).

So - what (for me) is so special about John Kenney?

1) The variety of styles that he was master of

Probably Kenney saw himself primarily as an artist specialising in equestrian scenes in his native Leicestershire.  
But it's as the illustrator of Ladybird's  Robin Hood, The Circus Comes to Town, The History series books (most of them) and Tootles the Taxi that he is likely to be best remembered.

He adopted such different styles in these different series.  You could never say he was formulaic - and each painting style reflected the different intended reader and tenor of the text.

2) The magical partnership that made the History series (s.561) so successful

Kenney teamed up with L du Garde Peach in 1956 to produce the first History book: 'Alfred the Great'.
Together they worked on a further 28 books (the last being 'The Pilgrim Fathers' in 1972) before the ill-health of both artist and author broke up the alliance.  Peach approached the recounting of history with vigour and verve - matched perfectly by the energy of Kenney's artwork.  
From letters I have seen, the two men genuinely liked each other and bounced ideas back and forth between themselves in the course of developing a book - each man keen to do the other justice in what the produced.

3) The mood and atmosphere of the 'History' books.

It's hard to choose, but I think it's the sombre pictures that most capture my imagination.  The isolation and desolation of the defeated King John, the grim starkness of the battlefield where Warwick the Kingmaker met his end, the moody melancholy of the muddy road to Yorkshire ...

4) The joy of story-telling through pictures - especially through the facial expressions of characters. 

At times it's this body-language which often carries 'the plot' more confidently than the text itself.

5) The use of colour 

It's always worth trying to get the oldest copies you can of the earliest books - when the colour-reproduction was most true to Kenney's artwork.  The soft blue hues of Alfred the Great, for example, give a far-away quality to the tale - and make me think of early films in colour.

6) Tootles the Taxi 

Who remembers Tootles as a Taxi as a child and doesn't love this book?  Kenney makes it look easy - but the blend of cute anthropomorphism and realistic street scene isn't easy to achieve.  Kenney, having honed this style on Tootles, went on to illustrate a number of the classic 'Railway Series books' ('Thomas the Tank Engine' books) for the Reverend W Awdry.

Tootles the Taxi is among the all-time best-loved of all books produced by Wills & Hepworth.  For this reason, it was the book chosen to be re-issued in facsimile as a farewell memento for staff in 1999, when the Loughborough works were finally closed down.

7) Nostalgia

Some of the images from the History series books are among my earliest and most vivid memories from childhood.  I looked at the pictures for a long time. Of course I did.  The pictures were crammed with detail, they were colourful and engaging.  They demanded that I 'read' them as I read the text - and in this way they etched themselves on my memory.  It was the pictures that hooked me in to the story.  First the pictures, then the story,  leading imperceptibly to an interest in history itself.

Judging from the number of people who have, over the years, told me that their love of history, choice of degree subject or even career was influenced by these books, I was far from alone.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

A slice of humble pie

As I said in my last post, I don't believe a Ladybird Book ever existed where, in teaching the alphabet, 'A' stood for Armoured Train. Daft notion.

Although a rumour of its existence has circulated for years, I've seen how such anecdotes can be started from  a stray comment and quickly pass into lore.  Of course it was nonsense.  No one repeating the story could ever provide any evidence.  How come no one actually seemed to own this book? Even if the book is rare, why no pictures anywhere?

That's what I thought until last night.  And then, only days after sticking my neck out and mentioning this story for the first time on this blog, I came across the book itself.  Yes, it exists.  And do you know what? It was on my own bookshelf all the time!

Pre-1940s Ladybird Series books are hard to find.  They were issued in the days when Wills & Hepworth didn't consider themselves to be a publisher - but printed a few children's books from time to time among a wide range of other materials that made up their 'core' business.  Brian Alderson, co-author of 'The Ladybird Story', has researched these early books and found that it is very rare to find more than one copy of the same title.  I've picked up very few of them over the years of my collecting - no more than half-a-dozen in total - and I too have only rarely seen the same copy twice, even online.

So what are the chances that I would happen to find that I myself own the mystery book? And why didn't I realise before?

The Alphabet section is squeezed into a few pages of a book called "Pixie Tales", a chunky annual-sized volume crudely printed on coarse paper. Although of course I've looked several times through the random collection of tales and poems that it contains, until last night I'd missed the Alphabet part. And actually I found the whole thing fascinating. 

Putting a date to it has proved to be a bit of an enigma though.  I won't say now why I think it's an enigma - but below you'll find a number of pictures from the book.  What do you think? When would you say it dates from?