Wed, 02 Oct 2019
ASK Helen Day, a foreign language teacher by profession, when her love of the series of Ladybird books she grew up with turned from being an interest to something more substantial, she is momentarily floored, then she says: “I know exactly when. It was just after the BBC4 Timeshift about Ladybird came out. I was featured in it and there was so much chatter on Twitter about it that I started to tweet about Ladybird. And that really changed everything.”
Helen’s twitter account @LBFlyawayhome now has more than 20,000 followers.
To the uninitiated, Ladybird books were a staple part of children’s reading and learning, particularly in the 50s to the late 70s when they were in their heyday.
Many of a certain age will have started their reading experience with the Peter & Jane series and will have delighted in the many fairy stories, as well as history, nature and factual series that the publisher produced.
“It is that period which fascinates me. Ladybird was a British-owned brand, which churned out series after series of amazingly accessible and brilliantly-illustrated books – both fact and fiction.
“I have always loved the books. The Ladybird books were deeply entrenched in my childhood and when my son was born I wanted to share these books with him.
“But I also became interested in their provenance and most especially the artists who had created these wonderfully evocative series of books.”
With not much information easily to hand, Helen went about creating her own website.
“I literally went into WH Smiths one day and bought an idiots guide to teaching yourself HTML. I said ‘this is me, this is the information I have, is there anyone else out there?’.”
The response led Helen down a path she could never have imagined. But, she says, everything that has subsequently happened has just evolved from that initial interest.
“There have been so many instances of pure chance,” she says. “On one occasion, I was at a barbecue chatting to the lady next to me and it turned out that she was the daughter of one of the artists – what were the chances?”
The two became friends and from there Helen was able to find out more about many of the great artists involved in the making of these iconic books.
In another stroke of luck, someone contacted Helen saying he was one of the original models for the Peter & Jane series. That contact led to her meeting some of the artists, including one of the most prolific, Martin Aitchison, who became a personal friend.
“Interestingly one of the books Aitchison illustrated was The Story of Metal, which was written by his father and his son posed for the illustrations – a truly family affair.”
It is this rich seam of stories that add to the charm of the Ladybird series.
Those of us who grew up with the Ladybird books remember a favourite, whether it’s a fairytale of the history series or career books – a policeman, nurse etc.
“It was always the illustrations that fascinated me the most. They are so bold and memorable and each style is completely suited to the subject matter.”
The success of the books is, says Helen, down to one man – Douglas Keen.
It was Keen who spotted their potential – they started as a series of pre-school learning books, with simple ABC pages. He decided to widen the remit and encompass factual educational books for older children, as well as recreate much-loved fairy tales.
Keen had an impressive list of contacts and he instinctively knew which artist would work best for a particular subject matter, whether it was nature, people or the fictional stories.
“Martin Aitchison could turn his hand to any subject matter, but Keen would use John Kenney for the photorealist books, the people at work series, and history books.
“Incidentally Kenney was also the original illustrator of the Rev Awdry Thomas the Tank Engine books.
“Harry Wingfield created the Peter & Jane series, but could also turn his hand to anything, and Charles Tunnicliffe was particularly know for his nature illustrations.”
Visitors to The Wonderful World of the Ladybird Book Artists exhibition at The Base, Greenham, can expect to see some of the original artwork created by these prolific artists, as well as many of the Ladybird books that form a part of Helen’s extensive collection.
“It’s difficult to leave anything out, but you get a feel for what is popular and as curator of the exhibition I suppose I have the luxury of including the pieces I particularly like.”
Visitors will also see the typewriter used by Douglas Keen to send out his commissions. During the course of her research, Helen became friends with his daughter and she has loaned the typewriter for the exhibition.
“You could say he was the originator of working from home... he would have meetings around the formica table in his kitchen, working on ideas for the next series of books and send out letters commissioning writers and artists from there.”
Helen’s knowledge of the Ladybird artists is fascinating, but she says there is still much more she’d like to discover and is always on the lookout for original artwork.
I asked her if there was one book she felt was missing from the many series.
“Yes, I think a book on Suffragettes is an omission and would have worked really well.”
It doesn’t take much to imagine the ‘Ladybird-style’ cover with Emmeline Pankhurst in all her finery.
The Wonderful World of the Ladybird Book Artists at The Base, Greenham, runs from Friday, September 20 to December 15.
Thursday, November 21: Talk: That won’t do! Keeping Ladybird books up to date in the 1970s – Helen Day looks at the often amusing attempts to keep Ladybird books up to date over the decades.
To book www.thebasegreenham.co.uk/event/the-wonderful-world-of-the-ladybird-book-artists