Back in 2010, I received a magazine commission to illustrate an editorial on Government health guidelines. The art director levelled with me. “We’ve got a pretty clear idea of what we want to see here. We need a recognisable likeness of the journalist, but as a child. He’ll be in a lab, measuring out his Government approved alcohol allowance with a tiny pipette. We’re going to drop it into a facsimile of a Ladybird book spread. Style-wise, think Peter and Jane…” Years later, I can see this was a very perspicacious piece of art direction. The notion of our dear old Nanny State dispensing advice about a life lived in some ideal, goody two shoes la-la land of temperance and virtue resonates pretty well with the world shown in the Ladybird ‘Key Words’ books.
The original gouache artworks for ‘Shopping with Mother’, the first Peter and Jane book, open the display at ‘Ladybird by Design’, the current show at Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion – and they offer a delightful window into this world. The eponymous mother is white, slim, tall and film star glamorous. There is a dignified sense of neat restraint in her brown attire, her white hat and gloves. Her children are mild-mannered, immaculately dressed blue-eyed poppets who smile in every scene. Mother leads her faultless progeny down a spotless English high street, to the chemists, the toy shop, the grocers, the butchers. There are no queues in the shops. The staff are un-harassed and cheery faced as they converse warmly with Peter and Jane.
“Bloody hell! It wouldn’t be like that now”, laughs a lady standing next to me in the gallery, “they’d all be down Asda!” I nod and smile, presuming that many people staring at these images will feel a strange pang of – is it nostalgia? My name may be Peter, but I never lived in a Peter and Jane world. I spent my earliest years in the industrial heart of central Scotland watching the refineries of Grangemouth spewing out vile smoke and shopping with my mother in the perma-grey vortex of Cumbernauld New Town. Yet I can’t look at these images without some strange distant longing for a sunny bygone England where the neighbourhood butcher and baker are benevolent avuncular figures, not just minimum wage slaves in another out of town supermarket.
In the short film which introduces this exhibition, co-curator Lawrence Zeegen makes the point that the heyday of Ladybird books coincided with a period of great political and social change in the UK. By the time ‘Shopping with Mother’ came out in 1958, large scale immigration was well underway. Society – still reeling from the war, just out of rationing – was changing, and would continue to do so. Maybe the perfect family in these images just never existed. We’re gazing at a dream we all share, but which lies just out of the reach of real lived experience.
Walking through the gallery, I have to admire the completeness of Peter and Jane’s world though – all the more so for it’s somewhat cosmetic nature. If it makes us feel nostalgic, it is because the illustrator Harry Wingfield has conjured it so perfectly. To see the original gouaches under glass is a treat. They are painted on thick board. The colours are exceptionally bright and fresh – the red of Jane’s coat sings out. On many panels, we can see the pencil lines that delineate the edge of the print area, and see the brush strokes dashing into blobs outside in the margins, vying with handwritten notes. ‘Dog too red’, Wingfield has scribbled bluntly just off to the right of Peter and Jane’s sleek, obedient hound.
“God, these are like photos!” I hear another amazed gallery-goer beside me exclaim – but I would beg to differ on this point. Granted, they are executed in a photo-real idiom with great attention to detail – but they are painterly too. Wingfield doesn’t disguise his brushwork. He abbreviates plenty of the details, allowing our eye to fill in the gaps. This may have been due to the time and budget constraints – but it works. There is a keen sense of confident, summery panache to the brushwork, which fits well with the images.
Ladybird books have sold almost a hundred million copies to date, but their origins lie in humble postwar economic necessity. Douglas Keen, the editorial director, came up with their distinctive format as a way to print an entire 56 page book on one single standard 30” x 40” sheet. This allowed him to offer each book at two shillings and sixpence, a price which held until decimalization almost thirty years later.
Keen’s Guardian obituary tells us that regular Ladybird illustrators like Harry Wingfield, Martin Aitchison and John Berry “all became regulars at Keen’s home at Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, where business was conducted genially over ample lunches supplied by Margaret.” Aitchison himself describes Keen as “the best professional friend I ever had.”
Perhaps this warmth between illustrator and art director accounts for the feeling that the pictures on display at this Bexhill show are so much more than just a bunch of educational illustrations done in cold service of didactic aims. For me this is best demonstrated by my personal highlight of the show, the ‘People at Work’ series, painted by John Berry between 1961 and 1978. They are tighter and rather less painterly than Wingfield’s contributions. They represent a slightly less idealistic view of the world too – with muted colours and workers whose faces do not always radiate quite the same joie de vivre as Peter and Jane. To some images there is even a frosty kitchen sink melancholy. The glazed glum faces of the women in the sewing factory call to mind Degas’ Absinthe Drinker. As an illustrator myself, I can’t help getting lost in the technical dazzle of it all. I can almost taste Berry’s delight in showing off at how he can handle all those difficult textures – the smooth gradients on aluminum piping, so hard to achieve, or the stretched out sheets of clear plastic. I think of the time pressures I myself illustrate under and my mind boggles. How long did one of these images take him to complete?
The dramatic composition of these paintings show what a great instinct Berry had for emphasising the human element in these jobs, too. They show the pains he took to set up the reference photos he worked from. The policeman image, for example, with its slightly lower than standard angle. It heightens the drama a little, while letting us fully see his eyes under the brim of his hat. In the train guard image, the strong triangular shape of the inter-city train is bisected by the waving flag – pleasing to the eye but bringing us, too, right into the moment of departure.
The Ladybird illustrators could not have foreseen that their work would ever end up, framed, in a place like the De La Warr. They were paid a flat fee to deliver artwork and never received any royalties. It was a job, not art. Yet this body of work has endured. Why? Simply put, there is love in these pictures. None look like they were done just for the money. In the toy shop scene from Shopping with Mother, Harry Wingfield includes a mini version of his own book in the window, replicating it with a tiny brush. That’s dedication. Everything, even the simplest paintings of coloured toy blocks or diagrams of hands doing conjuring tricks, have been finessed like the artists lives depended on it. No clock-watching or bare minimums here- just joy and love. Douglas Keen’s clear editorial vision and friendship with the illustrators goes a long way to explaining this. He cared about the books and instilled a desire to go above basic and functional. The illustrators found a friend in him and they rose to his challenge. That is why Peter and Jane will outlive us all.
Ladybird by Design is at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill til May 10th 2015.
*Update – now at House of Illustration, N1C 4BH til Sep 27th 2015.