Cressida Connolly: Comfortable, optimistic, safe ÿ oh, for the lost Britain of the Ladybird book

Share
Related Topics

Ladybird books, once grubbied by tiny hands, are now falling into the grasp of collectors. They are mostly thirty- or fortysomethings who, having become parents, are filled with a yearning for the things of their childhood, the days of Shopping With Mother, and What To Look For In Spring, as well as all those Peter and Jane books that helped them learn to read. Collecting them satisfies a half-realised longing for the safe, suburban, Start-Rite world depicted in many of the books.

Ladybirds are also pocket social history. In them you can chart how middle-class Britain changed in the second half of the 20th century. They're fodder, too, for students of gender: from girls in frocks helping Mummy at home to girls in dungarees on Chopper bikes.

There is little of the picaresque in these works, no extraordinary feats, wizards or magic. The strength of Ladybirds is not to depict an imaginary world, but to reinforce a child's sense of the known. This makes their illustrations different from those of many other favourites: think of Arthur Rackham's fairies, E H Shepard of Winnie-the-Pooh, or modern favourites such as Raymond Briggs. These illustrators are idiosyncratic; the whole point of Ladybirds is that they are not.

It takes a practised eye to tell one Ladybird illustrator from another. Chief artist Harry Wingfield and Martin Aitchison contributed most of the pictures for the Key Words Reading Scheme series, which are the best-selling (85 million, to date) where Peter and Jane are featured. Wingfield is masterly at detail: the angle of a child's head, the tips of fingers poking through a home-made glove puppet, the light catching a milk bottle. Aitchison – a former fine artist who exhibited at the Royal Academy – is strong on composition, movement and atmosphere. Their pictures are classic Ladybird.

The appetite for Ladybirds is being fed regularly. Radio Four recently broadcast a programme about Ladybird. Earlier this year the New Art Gallery in Walsall had an extremely successful exhibition of Harry Wingfield's work. Wingfield died before the show closed and his studio has now been bought, wholesale, by Walsall. There's to be a Ladybird conference. There are websites. There are swapfests. And I'm co-curating an exhibition of some 60 original illustrations by three of the main Ladybird artists opened in Cheltenham last week, and will tour Britain over the next year.

The exhibition will reveal another side of the Ladybird coin. As well as Peter and Jane, the firm produced books about topics such as nature and animals, trains and cars and how things worked. A series entitled People at Work described various occupations such as fireman, postman and railway porter. Others in the series – entirely illustrated by John Berry, who had been an official war artist – depict a world of work that barely exists any more. Conceived in a spirit of post-war optimism and expansion, these titles form an almost complete record of British industry at the time. There is coal-mining, pottery-making, shipbuilding. This is a world in which people made things with their bare hands: men in brown coats designed new cars by shaping lumps of clay. Vast swaths of countryside were paved, without apology, into new trunk routes. There is no eco-awareness – or computers or asylum-seekers – here; it is a world in which the most taxing thing a customs official had to do was shine a torch into a woman's handbag. There is a dash of heroism about these jobs. They show the things that children used to say they'd like to be when they grew up: a nurse, an engine driver. Today's equivalents – the call-centre operative, the internet salesman – seem lustreless by comparison.

These books and most of their ilk are out of print today. The firm gets quite testy when pressed about its backlist, insisting that it's not interested in becoming a nostalgia publisher. With radio programmes, exhibitions and collectors clamouring, what I wonder is: why on earth not?

"The Art of Ladybird Books", 15 June - 25 August, Cheltenham Art Gallery, Clarence Street, Cheltenham GL50 3JT.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Reconciliation Analyst

£200 - £250 per day: Orgtel: Reconciliation Analyst Gloucestershire

Soutions Architect TOGAF - Reading

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Excellent Corporate Benefits: Progressive Recruitm...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
David Cameron and Theresa Mayspeak to Immigration Enforcement officers at a property where six immigrants were arrested on July 29, 2014 in Slough, England.  

Does David Cameron actually believe his tough new immigration stance?

Matthew Norman
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on