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The Wonderful World of the Ladybird Book Artists with Helen Day

We spoke to the curator of The Wonderful World of the Ladybird Book Artists, Helen Day, to find out more about the history of the Ladybird books and the artists behind them.

1. What first sparked your interest in Ladybird books?

I grew up with Ladybird books – as many of us did. But my mother was a primary school teacher so there were always lots of them hanging around the house, so perhaps the damage was done when I was young. When my own son was a baby, his attention was seized by the illustrations in a battered old Ladybird book that I picked out of a pile that a friend was taking to a jumble sale. My baby son seemed to respond to the colourful, naturalistic pictures in the book in a more attentive way than I’d ever seen before. That started me off. I decided to find a few more of the books that I remembered from childhood and looked out for them in car boot sales and charity shops – and once I had started …

2. How did the Ladybird books first originate?

Well it depends where you want to count from. During the early years of WW1 the Loughborough printing company behind Ladybird started to print cheap books called ‘Ladybird Series’ books. But they didn’t look like the books we now associate with Ladybird. The ‘mini’ books that we think of (text on the left hand side, picture on the right) started during WW2. The small size was the result of war-time paper shortages.

3. Who were the Ladybird book artists and how important was their work to the success of the Ladybird books?

Almost all Ladybird artists were freelance, working in the very competitive field of post-war commercial illustration. The demands on the artists were high – each book required at least 24 full-page illustrations, usually crammed with detail and colour – and all produced to very tight deadlines. Many artists were trialled, but few could make the standard required. Those that did often found relatively stable and relatively well-paying employment for many years.

By the 1960s Ladybird books began to cover a huge range of topics for different age-groups and so it was a question of ‘horses for courses’ – matching the best illustration style to each commission. John Berry’s mesmeric photorealism was perfect for the People at Work series. Harry Wingfield’s evocative, soft-hued watercolours were just the thing to portray young children at play. John Kenney and Robert Ayton were storytellers in paint and their illustrations were ideal for lively books about history. Who else but C.F. Tunnicliffe could have conceived and composed the four seasons nature books?.

4. What would you say are the essential components for a classic Ladybird book?

Although the books covered a wide range of topics, time-periods and age-groups, I would say that they have in common well-written text that simplifies but does not talk down to the reader and illustrations which play at least an equal part in carrying the narrative of the books.

5. How have the Ladybird books remained current over time? What would you say is the secret to their success?

Over the 20th century society changed so much that of course the books had to keep moving to reflect the evolving world they inhabited. Especially in the 1960s, the books embraced and celebrated the technological revolution and approached the future with enthusiasm and excitement. However, the books were well-made and appealing and withstood a great deal of heavy handling, even in schools and libraries. This meant that they didn’t get thrown out after a year or two of use but stayed on the shelf year in and year out – long enough to look outmoded. Even though the publisher worked hard to reflect the hair styles, clothes, society and expectations of their period, they often seemed to be a few steps behind the times. Today, however, that’s part of their charm. As time passes, it’s ever easier to see them as little capsules of social history and to enjoy them in this context.

6. If you had to pick a favourite Ladybird book or series which would it be and why?

Very, very hard. Too hard. Ask me tomorrow and my answer will be different.

7. How did you approach curating the exhibition and what is included in the exhibition?

I wanted the exhibition to focus on the artists who helped paint the backdrop to my childhood and to put them into a bit of context – which Ladybird books did each artist illustrate? What other work did they do beyond Ladybird? Then I wanted to display Ladybird and non-Ladybird side by side. So in the exhibition, you can see, for example, the history books of John Kenney next to his illustrations for Thomas the Tank Engine. You can see the vintage railway posters of Ronald Lampitt and Septimus Scott with the Ladybird books that they illustrated. You can see some of the artists who worked both for Look and Learn and Eagle magazines and how their style changed when they worked for Ladybird. But in telling the story of some of the main Ladybird artists, the story of Ladybird the company is also told.

8. Are there particular rare Ladybird artefacts that you are looking to collect?

What I am always looking to find are the artefacts that help tell the story of the company, the writers and the artists. For example, I love to find correspondence between artist and writer or vintage publicity material or retail ephemera – anything that helps add depth and context to the Ladybird story.

9. If you could sum up Ladybird books in three words what would they be?

Engaging, colourful, earnest

The Wonderful World of The Ladybird Book Artists runs from Friday 20 September until Sunday 15 December. Find out more