In 1915, during World War I, the printing company Wills & Hepworth began publishing “pure and healthy literature” for children marked with a ladybird logo, giving rise to the London-based publishing company now known as Ladybird Books. From fairytales to adventures to its Key Words Reading Scheme, Ladybird brought countless books to families in Britain and, starting in the 1960s, across the world. The texts helped children learn to read through imaginative stories, but each title also came colored with engaging, full-page illustrations. With many specially commissioned from well-known artists like naturalist painter Charles Tunnicliffe and comics illustrator Martin Aitchison, these accompanying pictures are works of art in their own right, and a selection is currently on view in Ladybird by Design at London’s House of Illustration to celebrate Ladybird’s centennial.
The exhibition features over 120 works from classic books drawn from Ladybird’s golden era, which spanned from the late 1950s through the early ’80s. It marked a period when the books had not only adopted a specific pocket-sized format familiar to their readers but also presented — especially through their illustrations — a stable and comforting view of family and working life.
“If you think about the kind of turbulent changes that were taking place in society through the ’60s and ’70s, Ladybird presented a utopian view of the world that very much was postwar,” co-curator Lawrence Zeegen said.
Imagery of the traditional family unit is pervasive, with everyone set in his or her traditional roles: fathers wash the car; mothers wash the dishes and go grocery shopping with the children, who are dressed impeccably and flash white teeth as they wait patiently rather than throw fits. Each scene is orderly and harmonious, from a verdant forest home to speckled deer and a variety of birds to an illustration of toy blocks, perfectly stacked to form a basic but balanced arc.
The working life, too, is shown as one of ease, with illustrations emphasizing the camaraderie between workers. From farmers to policemen to nurses, each character is shown as genuinely content in his or her role and with the task at hand.
“There’s fantastic illustrations in The Miner which are showing guys hard at work in really grueling circumstances, but there’s a kind of pride in the simplicity of the job,” Zeegen said. “Here, the working class aren’t portrayed as heroes but honest, hardworking folk that work for their communities, work for their families.”
The titles of the books encapsulate this simplicity of life as well: from Exploring Space to People at Work to Shopping with Mother, they were straightforward and short, leaving no room for surprise at their contents. However, the style of their covers and the illustrations within were far from rudimentary; although the books were designed to fit tiny hands, adults read them as well — a fact Ladybird was attune to and tied into its visual aesthetic. As Jenny Pearce, the daughter of former editorial director Douglas Keen explained, Keen was alert to the inequality of access to education, especially in the 1940s and ’50s, and he wanted to make reading not only available but also enjoyable to all.
“He was also aware that there were quite a lot of adults around who were aware that there were gaps in their knowledge, and he didn’t want them to sort of be ashamed of reading what would look like a children’s book,” Pearce said. “So the books, although they were ostensibly children’s books, were not something that adults would be worried about being seen with.”
That’s perhaps why Ladybird put commercial artists through rigorous tests, as Zeegen noted, before each could take on commissions for entire books, which held 24 illustrations and were, therefore, major commitments. Furthermore, even though it hired many established illustrators, Ladybird managed to keep its literature affordable, with no regular price increase implemented from the mid-40s to the ’70s. Printed from just one sheet of paper that yielded 56 pages, the books could be readily produced through a cost-effective process.
Today, Ladybird publishes stories in all formats — ebooks included — but its vintage classics offer a glimpse through their illustrations into an idyllic life cherished by previous generations. They are sweet and quaint, but they stand out especially now, when we are accustomed to manipulated imagery, spliced and collaged by digital tools.
Ladybird by Design continues at the House of Illustration (2 Granary Square, King’s Cross, Kings Cross, London) through September 27.