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Look and say at De La Warr

Pamela Buxton

Relive your childhood at the De La Warr Pavilion’s exhibition from the Ladybird archives

Things to Make, 1963, G. Robinson.
Things to Make, 1963, G. Robinson. Credit: (c) Ladybird Books

For those of a certain age, Ladybird books conjure up a warm glow of childhood nostalgia. You may have learned to read with them, or found out about different occupations and countries through their pages. And you would probably have got to know the characters of Peter and Jane and their ever-so-nice, middle-class world, where mother was a housewife, dad went to work and washed the car on Sundays, little girls wore skirts or dresses rather than jeans, and little boys had short, tidy hair and were always pristine.

If you grew up in the 60s and 70s, the new Ladybird by Design exhibition at the De La Warr Pavilion might well strike a chord.  It is co-curated by Lawrence Zeegen, professor of illustration and dean of the School of Design at the London College of Communication, and the author of a forthcoming book to celebrate the 100 anniversary of Ladybird Books. For Zeegen, researching the book was a chance to rekindle his childhood passion for the books. With his original volumes long since passed on, he set about building a new collection and now has 500, still a few hundred short of the total produced during Ladybird’s golden age.

‘Ladybird books showed a very utopian, safe, simple world,’ says Zeegen, adding that while the books were never at the forefront of the Zeitgeist, they still reflected changes in contemporary society as the country finally left post-war austerity behind. In Ladybird books, policemen walked the beat and protected you, accidents didn’t seem to happen, and there was never any litter or graffiti. Naturally, the sun always shone.

  • The Story of Furniture, 1971, Robert Ayton.
    The Story of Furniture, 1971, Robert Ayton. Credit: Ladybird Books Ltd
  • Exploring Space, 1964, B. Knight.
    Exploring Space, 1964, B. Knight. Credit: Ladybird Books Ltd
  • Tricks and Magic, 1969, Robert Ayton.
    Tricks and Magic, 1969, Robert Ayton. Credit: Ladybird Books Ltd
  • Shopping with Mother, 1958, Harry Wingfield.
    Shopping with Mother, 1958, Harry Wingfield. Credit: Ladybird Books Ltd
  • The Policeman, 1962, John Berry.
    The Policeman, 1962, John Berry. Credit: Ladybird Books Ltd

The focus of the exhibition and book is the illustrations, which often show the mid-century modern vintage styles currently so popular.

‘Ladybird worked with the best people and commissioned some fantastic illustrators,’ he says. ‘The calibre and quality of work is breathtaking…the craftsmanship is staggering.’

Illustrators were generally commissioned to complete 25 images for each book, often to a tight deadline. They include John Berry, who drew the People at Work series, and Harry Wingfield, who drew for the Shopping with Mother and Key Words series. Some illustrators worked from photography, others used friends and family and drew from life. And while some subjects called for dramatic images such as battles, often the subjects were quiet, simple and everyday to the point of mundane, according to Zeegen, pointing in particular to the People at Work series. In the mining book, for example, one illustration concentrated on a particularly dull ventilation shaft. Such illustrations were, says Zeegen, ‘banal but beautiful’ and an integral part of the book’s charm and success.

The exhibition, co-curated with De La Warr Pavilion senior curator Jane Won, features 200 original illustrations from the Ladybird archives.

Ladybird by Design, 24 January-10 May, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea.

The book will be published in March 2015 by Penguin Random House.