In the world of Ladybird books, the sun is always shining, the sky the purest blue and everyone is smiling. Mum is usually in the kitchen or doing something particularly feminine like sewing or grocery shopping; dad is often making chicken coops or fixing the car, while their ideal children are being responsibly fun learning about nature, reading fairy tales or fashioning their own toys. Although a hundred years old and a core feature of everyone’s childhood (until fairly recently) the plethora of Ladybird books and all their sub-series espouse an idyllic post-war England of decency, thirst for knowledge and happiness with one’s place in the scheme of things. They reflect a world that almost no one ever lived in but we’re prepared to forgive them for the hours of joy and considerable learning they have provided for generations of children.
Most recognisable is their illustrative style, the hand-drawn pictures of domestic, scientific and working life produced by a variety of artists yet instantly recognisable as the Ladybird style. The latest exhibition at the House of Illustration celebrates the heyday of Ladybird images from the late 1940s to the 1970s and the way in which they offered an optimistic and consistent image of life at that time. You’ve almost certainly read one but what struck me most was the incredible variety of topics they covered from the purely entertaining to the entirely factual accounts of say public services or what to see in autumn. It is the diversity of this exhibition that really hammers home just how prolific Ladybird was and what an incredible resource they have been for the last 100 years.
The series I remember most clearly were the ‘Well Loved Tales’ which seemed to have the most elaborate eighteenth-century-style illustrations on the front. Sleeping Beauty in particularly remains most clearly in my mind (although sadly not featured here) with a dark haired girl in a yellow dress asleep on a four-posted bed while a hooded crone sleeps beside her. The name of the illustrator was never recorded on the front but it was Eric Winter whose work in the 1970s is featured in the exhibition with his cover art for Cinderella and Puss in Boots, both of which immediately jogged my memory. These were definitely my favourite Ladybird series and testament to their longevity given that I was reading them years after publication and in fact after Winter’s own death (1981). Clearly I’d not forgotten the magical quality of these images before even Disney replaced them with their own character versions.
A book I didn’t read was ‘Shopping with Mother’ which is shown in its entirety in the exhibition with each detailed illustration taking the well-dressed 1960s mother and her two adorable and well behaved children on a trip to the various shops. Armed only with a wicker basket, Harry Wingfield’s pictures are the very model of sedate family life as they support a variety of local shops, grocer, chemist, florist and butcher included. Without the accompanying text, you are of course free to interpret the story and I couldn’t help but find the children a little creepy – the girl had pigtail plaits and the boy an occasional demonic look – too many 70s horror films perhaps but at one stage the boy buys a hammer from the hardware shop which his mother clearly thinks is acceptable behaviour for an 8 year old. And later we see him carrying in it in the foreground as they go to the next shop – definitely a bit worrying!
Reinforcing the social structure was only one side of the argument, however and there are some interestingly unglamorous studies from the ‘People at Work’ series and The Story of Oil. John Berry is the artist here and we get to see miners, policeman and the entire collection of In a Big Store with ordinary looking people answering phones, helping in a fitting room or eating their lunch in a drab canteen. None of this shows people as special or heroic particularly, just honest and hard-working, getting on with their daily lives. It’s actually fascinating to see images like that, implying to children (perhaps quite rightly) that one day they will grow up and take on a normal job for which they will be happy. Perhaps a sweeping generalisation, but today it seems everyone thinks they’re going to be a famous singer or actor, but the vast majority will end up in a more everyday occupations. The interesting thing about Ladybird’s presentation of this fact is that it is alright and most people in the pictures seem fairly happy with their lot.
Some of the nature pictures are among the best in the exhibition and The Ladybird Book of The Seashore and Seashore Life again unlocked a long forgotten memory. Most fascinatingly this book was published in 1964, about 25 years before I would come to use it. Similarly the historical series celebrating great men and women of history, which would have modern historians shaking their fists in rage at idolising individuals, was part of my childhood too, particularly The Story of the First Queen Elizabeth originally published in 1958 but was still in use in the late 80s / early 90s. Perhaps nothing reinforces the central arguments of this exhibition better than that – as they claim, not only have Ladybird books been a vital resource for 100 years but that the 1940s-1970s were a golden age of publication which generations of children would learn from.
The exhibition ends with a useful video talking about Douglas Keen who had the initial idea for a series of educational books and became the Editorial Director. Interviewing his daughter and the author of the accompanying book, we learn more about the management of the business including Keen’s personal engagement with the illustrators which encouraged their regular collaboration but also gave them a firm steer on what was required. Equally interesting were the window displays which Keen personally oversaw at both tiny independent bookshops and large chains to boost sales. Videos can often be a bit bland or supplementary to an exhibition but this one helped to bring together a lot of things you see drawing links between that initial process of illustration and how it became a commercial business.
The only thing that is really lacking from this charming exhibition is a proper sense of all the illustrators who worked on the various Ladybird series and why their particular skills were chosen. There are a few information plates which indicate art degrees and careers working for magazines and comics but the process of forming the book from conception to print could have been better drawn out. It would also have been useful to get a sense from the various artists what it meant to them to be asked to draw for Ladybird – did it have the same cache it does now or was it a just chance to pay the bills?
That aside, The House of Illustration, having already set a high bar for itself with previous shows about Quentin Blake and Mac Conner, has delivered another excellent exhibition. While for many this will be a nostalgia trip, it’s also an opportunity to see the breadth of Ladybird’s output and reflect on how successfully it achieved its vision to enrich and to educate. It may be a semi-made-up land of eternal sunshine and established gender roles, but it is one that encouraged children to be curious about the world, and enjoy the acquisition of knowledge – a fine celebration of 100 years of Ladybird learning.
Ladybird by Design is at the House of Illustration until 27 September. Tickets are £7.70 for adults (£7 without giftaid) and several concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1