Monday, 26 January 2015

The Opening of the 'Ladybird By Design' exhibition, Bexhill-on-Sea

After much publicity, the Ladybird By Design exhibition opened yesterday at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea.
Me - arriving, and cold!

Having provided the books for the exhibition, I'd been invited to the lunch beforehand.  There were loads of people there - some I'd met before, others I'd wanted to meet - including the son of Key Word Reading Scheme creator William Murray, the children of wonderful artist John Berry - and lots of people I didn't know, mainly connected with the De La Warr or the local area. 
View from the dining-room
But, as always with Ladybird-related activity, everyone was likeable, warm and approachable - and the food was very good.

It was a superb day for it; the January sun shone  in a cloudless sky and the light bounced playfully off the sea and around the rooms of the big, white building.

After speeches, the hoards flocked in to see the exhibition.  I think everyone was surprised by the interest that had been generated.  With so many people entering the rooms at the same time it was crowded but, because there were several generously-spaced sections with plenty of exhibits on view,  it was still possible to get close to the artwork and really savour it.  The exhibition had been thoughtfully divided up into themed sections, a point I'm sure was entirely lost on 99% of the the visitors who were drawn from piece to piece by the vibrant colours of the artwork and the pull of deep-rooted childhood memories.

There were very few 'artifacts' from Ladybird history - with the notable exception of Douglas Keen's 'prototype books for 'British Birds'; the exhibition was never intended as a history of Ladybird.  Of course the star of the show was the original book artwork.  I have seen a great amount of such artwork over the years (and have a considerable amount in my own home) but I've never seen such a large and wide-ranging collection of Ladybird artwork effectively displayed.  Exhibits included the complete artwork from 'Shopping with Mother', lots from 'Tootles the Taxi', a few History and the pink dress (yes, the pink) from 'Cinderella'.  Pictures from the Travel Adventure series, 'Danger Men', People at Work, 'Achievements', a few Key Word Readers ... many more.

Then around the corner, all along a long 'corridor' behind the artwork were the cases filled neatly with with my books.  They were displayed with impressive precision and in chronological order - all  beautifully spaced.  It made an impression on me to see these books, so familiar and often-handled, displayed in this meticulous way.  The impact was surprising and just as many people were poring over these cases of everyday books as over the unique and beautiful artwork.  I listening to people reminiscing, pointing to covers they remembered, asking questions, swapping memories.  Wonderful.
The memory board

My favourite message

Outside again there was a 'memories board' and visitors, old and young, were encouraged to submit anecdotes to the 'Talkabout Ladybird' board or contribute via a video-clip.  Some more of my books (along with lots of new or re-issued Penguin-Ladybird publications) were available for handling and, of course, lots of parents and grandparents were sharing well-remember books with another generation.
Sharing the stories

Of course, there was no shortage of nostalgia-merchandising - with the shop doing a lively trade in limited edition prints, posters, key-rings, re-issued books, cards, wrapping paper etc.
Some of the re-issued titles now on sale

Posters for sale

Now, I've been asked to do an exhibition 'tour' on 14th February, so 
if you can possibly come along on that day, please do! 

If you can't, the exhibition is on until May - with free entry.  I hope you enjoy it

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Frock Wars. And the winner is ...

In these degenerate times, a matter of great debate for many of us is not Global Warming, the Middle East, or Britain's relationship with the EU but which of Cinderella's 3 ball-dressses is the prettiest.

Although it always struck me that the 'blue-satin' camp were most vociferous, it was only consistent with Ladybird equity that the matter should be investigated more impartially.  I therefore put up the link to my 'Vote' page on Twitter.

A surprising number of people voted, and sure enough, Blue Satin appears to have won the day.  The dark-horse of the contest was Rapunzel's medieval little number, which garnered many more votes than my own pick (pink silk).

Now let it never be said that I'm a poor loser.  I concede that the Blue Satin camp have won the day.  But let me also mention that the poll is still open ...  Who knows if, with time, people will come to the rosy-tinged, silk-textured light ...

Sunday, 11 January 2015

100 years ... of what?

It's finally here. Let the party begin. A centenary of Ladybird Books. It says so here, and here ...and here ...
Radio programmes and newspaper articles and exhibitions and celebratory re-publishing ... Some starting now, lots in the pipeline. Expect much more of the same. 

But wait.  What exactly is being celebrated here?  I've heard a few people say "I didn't realise Ladybird Books have been around that long".  And, let's be honest, that's because ... well the fact is ... they haven't.

So what happened in 1915 that gives the excuse for a centenary this year?  Simply that the brand name 'Ladybird' was first registered by the company then known as Wills and Hepworth in that year.  But in no real sense could Wills & Hepworth be called a publisher of children's books back then.  The company was a thriving local printers who specialised in stationery, catalogues, maps, almanacs and any manner of commercial ephemera for local businesses.  Since they also provided book-binding services, when there was little other 'real' work around printing simple, cheap children's books became useful stop-gap activity; but this was far from being core business.
Some of the pre-1940s books - with a much later, classic sized book for scale

When most people talk about 'Ladybird Books' they mean the familiar small size books with a Ladybird logo - with dense, high-quality, colourful illustrations on the right and text on the left.  But actually nothing like that was printed until a quarter of a century later with the publication of the first 'Bunnikins' books.  The early 'stop-gap' books published between 1914 and the Second World War were published only sporadically and in small print runs. They were large in size, crudely printed on the cheapest of paper and with little thought to content or layout.
A pre-1940s book, with a post 1940s book for comparison
Often these books have no author or artist stated, no preliminary pages, little (if any) colour printing inside and are generally unappealing. The illustrations are so crude that often you'll find that children used them as colouring-in books!  There was little standardisation in size, font, binding or content, no Ladybird logo and if you came across one of theses early books in a secondhand bookshop today, you'd only be able to identify one by the words 'Ladybird Series' printed in small letters at the very bottom of the cover.
An early book - the crude paper and line-drawing illustrations

Nor was there any significant evolution and development over these years, either .  The first 'real', small-size Ladybird Books (Bunnikins Picnic Party, Ginger's Adventures and The First Day of the Holidays) seem to have emerged blinking into the world in 1940 like cuckoos from the Wills & Hepworth nest - with no visible antecedence.  And even then (and for over a decade later) the company saw itself as a commercial printing business with a minor sideline in publishing.
The first 'real' Ladybird Books, 1940
 But if we take 1940 as the 'birth' of Ladybird Books as a publisher, that means waiting another quarter of a century for the big party.  Too long!

Am I quibbling over details?  Not really.  The conclusion I've come to is the same conclusion that Ladybird themselves came to some years ago. Inconveniently, back in 1990 Ladybird decided to celebrate their half-century and 2000 was Ladybird's Diamond anniversary (60 years).  Now Maths may not be my strong suit, but if you celebrate your 60th in 2000 then you've got to be a bit creative to celebrate your centenary just 15 years later.

Reprinted in 2000 to celebrate 60 years of Ladybird
50th Birthday - in 1990

But what the heck!  I'm always happy to have extra reasons for messing around in Ladybird Land, so by all means let's have the big party now. (We can always have it again in 2040).

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Ladybird By Design - Exhibition

On the 24th of January a new exhibition will be opening, celebrating the design of Ladybird Books through 'the golden years' of the 50s, 60s and early 70s.

The exhibition will be held at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea and opens on the 24th January 2015.  It will run until 10th May.  The exhibition organisers have decided to divide the exhibits into 'themes' (rather than merely follow chronology) and there will be lots of original Ladybird artwork on display, illustrating these themes.  I know that Douglas Keen's daughters have generously contributed various artifacts, including the lovely 'prototype bird book' that you may have seen discussed on the BBC4 Timeshift documentary. 

The idea for the exhibition was prompted by the soon-to-be-published book (also called "Ladybird by Design") written by Lawrence Zeegen, who is Dean of the School Design at the London College of Communication.  This book will be published in early March.  I hadn't heard of Lawrence before this project and haven't met him yet - but fingers-crossed the book will provide useful middle-ground between the attractive flossiness of 'Boys and Girls' and the worthy wordiness of 'The Ladybird Story'

I've been involved in a minor (if time-consuming) way - providing a little info and a lot of pictures for the book (assuming they get used).  For the exhibition I'm loaning a stack of books - around 600.  I've picked out nice copies so, although I'm sure the DLWP team have effective processes for ensuring that loans are returned to their owner in the same condition as they went out, I'll be pleased when they're safe home again - something every collector will understand!

I'm hoping to get to the opening on the 24th January and I've been asked to give some sort of talk - I think on my interest in Ladybird Books - the following month: Saturday 14 February 2pm

Anyway, I'll keep you posted but try to get down there if you can - entrance is free and the DLWP is a great place to visit anyway.  If we've 'met' via this blog, website or Twitter it would be lovely to meet you in person .  People who have read this blog for a long time may recall that, by coincidence, the DLWP was where I was filmed presenting some Ladybird Books at a special 'Vintage' edition of the Antiques Roadshow about 10 years ago. (10 years??)

Perhaps one day there will be an exhibition on Ladybird Books put on north of the Watford Gap ... but that's another story.


Friday, 2 January 2015

Answers to the Christmas Quiz

Here are the full pictures.  Congratulations to this year's Wise Robin - Anthea! 

Peter and Jane: 5a

Coco the Caravan - from 'Tootles the Taxi'

Smoke and Fluff

Snow White and Rose Red

What to Look for in Summer

The 3 Little Pigs

The Magic Porridge Pot

Sleeping Beauty


The Elves and the Shoemaker

People at Work: On the Railways

Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs

The Princess and the Pea

Junior Science: Magnets, Bulbs and Batteries

The 3 Little Pigs (again!)

Happy New Year!