January 20, 2015
The Guardian‘s Kathryn Hughes visits Ladybird By Design, an exhibition of over 200 original illustrations from the golden age of Ladybird Books:
To enter Ladybird’s world again is to relearn a universe that is both strange yet uncannily familiar. Inevitably the books express the values of their times. In the Peter and Jane series (aka Key Words Reading Scheme), Peter tends to hang out with Daddy in the garage, while Jane helps Mummy get the tea. Fair-haired and blue-eyed, every one in the children’s world looks exactly like them, apart from Pat the dog.
Still, if Ladybird books were conservative on gender and race, they were positively brisk on class. The world of Peter and Jane – and all the other children who appear in the Ladybird universe doing magic tricks, going to the shops, taking batteries apart or learning to swim – is both modern and modest. As illustrated by Berry, Wingfield and Martin Aitchison, the children appear to live in one of the postwar new towns. Their home is probably privately owned but it could conceivably be a newly built council house. Their adventures involve going on a train or to the beach with Mummy and Daddy. There are no prep-school japes here, no solving of improbable mysteries or clifftop rescues.
Perhaps this achievable utopia was a compensatory fantasy for the illustrators who, born around 1920, had mostly known childhoods far harder than this. Busy providing a safe, stable environment for their own little Peters and Janes, men such as Berry and Wingfield showed a world where things were, on the whole, getting better. Modernity increasingly presses into the frame: Jane and Peter eat off a table that looks like knock-off Habitat, Mummy wears slacks and Daddy even starts to help with the washing-up. More disruptive changes, though, are kept at a safe distance. Carnaby Street, with all its troubling freedoms, has no place in the Ladybird world, nor does the cold war or Vietnam.
For those of you who didn’t grow up in the UK, Ladybird Books were slim illustrated hardcover books for children. They were educational, or at least ‘improving’, and so creepy that I think they’ve actually scarred the national psyche. If you are of certain age, the books trigger a shiver of queasy nostalgia — without Ladybird Books the horrifying weird of The League of Gentleman or Scarfolk is just inconceivable — and yet I still think of them fondly. Sort of.
The exhibition, which opens later this week, takes its title from a forthcoming Penguin book called Ladybird by Design. Written by Lawrence Zeegen, Professor of Illustration and Dean of the School of Design at the London College of Communication, the book celebrates 100 years of Ladybird, and examines the social and design history of the publisher. It is sure to be smashing.