Ladybird by Design is a new book and accompanying exhibition which celebrate the centenary of the children’s publisher. Both reveal how book design and illustration developed in mid-twentieth-century Britain – but also how Ladybird‘s affordable titles reflected the social ideals of the country’s burgeoning middle class…
Ladybird books enabled generations of young readers to explore a host of different subjects via its small-format editions – from science and nature, history and fairytales, through to industrial design and employment.
First launched by printer-publishers Wills & Hepworth in 1915, the company’s early books ventured into the children’s market, but it wasn’t until the Second World War that the familiar Ladybird format began to come into its own.
As Ladybird by Design author, Lawrence Zeegen (professor of illustration and dean of the school of design at the London College of Communication), explains in an interview for the De La Warr Pavilion, where the exhibition is being held, this was partly due to the background of paper rationing which was still in place at the time.
The publisher’s innovation was to generate an entire 56-page book from one single sheet of paper on the press.
The first book to adopt this format was Bunnikin’s Picnic Party in 1940. Interestingly, the company had planned to cease publishing children’s books after the war, but were convinced by its rising star, Douglas Keen, who was integral in taking the company towards more educational titles and who became its editorial director.
According to his daughter, Jenny Pearce, also interviewed in the De La Warr film, many of Keen’s personal beliefs concerning access to education were reflected in the books produced from the 1940s onwards. Keen believed that affordable children’s books had a vital role to play in the distribution of knowledge and learning.
Over time it also became evident that Ladybird books weren’t solely being used by children.
According to Pearce, IBM would apparently reach for a copy of The Computer (from the How it Works series) to explain to staff how its machines functioned; while The Motor Car was referred to by Thames Valley Police when training its officers as they switched modes of transport from bicycles to cars.
Despite Keen’s admirable intentions, looking back at many of the titles published from the late 1950s onwards, it becomes clear that the Ladybird world view was rather utopian.
“For most people there’s this strong connection with Ladybird through their own childhood and through how Ladybird presented the world to them,” says Zeegen. “And it was very middle class, very non-PC if we’re honest about it; and it presented this idyllic life that not many of us really grew up in in the 1960s and 1970s.”
“If you think about the turbulent changes that were taking place in society through the 60s and the 70s, Ladybird presented a utopian view of the world that was very much post-war, about the family unit,” he continues in the film.
“It was about mummy washing dishes and doing the shopping, it was about daddy washing the car and gardening. The broader context was also the Ladybird view of the rest of the world through the eyes of the British middle class.”
Ladybird’s full-colour, full-page illustrations were often created by well-known illustrators, specifically commissioned for each publication, who enjoyed a close working relationship with Keen.
These includede Charles Tunnicliffe (What To Look For), Harry Wingfield (Shopping with Mother and Key Words), John Berry (People at Work) and Robert Ayton (Great Inventions and The Story of Oil). The De La Warr exhibition is showing over 200 original illustrations from the 1950s to the early 1970s.
Both Zeegen’s book and the accompanying show recognise the unique lens through which Ladybird enabled children to view the world, but at its heart was an honest exploration of a variety of subjects and an ambitious drive to impart knowledge that still resonates with readers today.
Ladybird by Design by Lawrence Zeegen is out today, published by Ladybird Books (Penguin Random House); £20. Zeegen will also be talking about the new book at the St Bride Foundation in London on Tuesday March 24, 7pm (Bridewell Hall, £15, concessions available). More details at sbf.org.uk.
The exhibition at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex features artwork from the People At Work, Shopping With Mother and Science and Nature series as well as the Well Loved Tales and Key Words editions. It runs until May 10. More details at dlwp.com. All images of the De La Warr exhibition are by Nigel Green.
The interview with Lawrence Zeegen and Jenny Pearce is below: