Sunday, February 8, 2015

Be Still My Beating Heart

When I received notice of Ladybird by Design, an exhibition at the Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion of illustrations from Ladybird books from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, I suffered a Proustian rush. Brought on by my ability to immediately conjure up in my head the covers of The Night Sky, Tricks and Magic and The Story of Cricket, I could almost feel the neatness of those compact, slender hardbacks and the soft sheen of their matt covers. Ladybird books loomed large in my early years, and not just because of my childhood hobbies: with the clear font and white space of the left-hand pages and the full-colour illustrations on the right, I learnt to read whilst immersing myself in the simple life of Peter and Jane, and their mum and dad, in the Key Words Reading Scheme series of books at school.

If I was suffering from nostalgia just thinking about Ladybird books, when I walked into the exhibition space at the De La Warr I thought I might either pass out or burst into tears from the sudden resurrection of long-buried memories. With over 200 original illustrations exhibited from the imprint’s heyday, and several walls full of original Ladybird books on display, I was staggered by how many images were familiar to me and how many of the books I must have read at home or at school.

I had two of my kids with me and they were slightly bemused by Harry Wingfield’s series of illustrations for Shopping With Mother, that depicted Peter and Jane in a succession of High Street shops with their mum. “Why didn’t they just go to the supermarket to get all that stuff?” the ten-year-old asked. But they were hugely impressed with the skill of John Berry’s hyper-realistic images for the People at Work books. With their photographic quality, they were convinced that some were not illustrations at all. And they enjoyed Ladybird’s embracing of technology, in the white heat of the 60s, with the technical imagery of the How it Works series.

Although the first Ladybird books were published in 1914, it was in the 1960s that a clear mission to educate and inform children about the world around them emerged. Where else would you find a series of books on the public services of gas, electricity and water? And the domestic world they depicted would have been familiar to most children. The illustrations on display from one of the readers, Things We Do, were reassuringly recognisable and would have been so forty-five years ago: paying the bus conductor, making a go-kart, going to bed.

This is a superb exhibition, not just for the nostalgia trip (I overheard more than one visitor exclaim, “I had that one!”), but for the high quality design, printing and illustrations. Charles Tunnicliffe’s seasonal What to Look For images are things of beauty and I think, looking back, the reason the Ladybird series made such an impression on children of the 60s and 70s was their remarkable vibrancy. At home, television, books and newspapers were monochrome; and outside in the streets things were no different. Watching the 1967 documentary film The London Nobody Knows recently, I realised that when I was a child – despite the Swinging Sixties - the buildings and people around me must have still been very much immersed in colourless post-war drabness.

At the end, the kids had scooted ahead of me and I found them in the foyer seated at a long table reading actual, physical Ladybird books. As I scoured the table for familiar titles, I spotted – be still my beating heart! – two of my three favourites: Tricks and Magic and The Story of Cricket. As I held the books in my hands, and the kids hopelessly bombarded me with requests for sweets and drinks, I found that to open them, and turn back the pages of time, would have been too overwhelmingly embarrassing in a public place.

Ladybird by Design is at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill until 10th May 2015.


  1. This is wonderful Andrew. I'm now even more beside myself about seeing this. Should we book ahead to avoid crushing disappointment?

  2. No need to panic - it's busy but there'll always be room. You can't book, anyway!