10 July 2015

Ladybird by Design exhibition at House of Illustration

I still have my many Ladybird books so I was always going to be interested in an exhibition about them. Even more so when it was on at the House of Illustration which is a very short walk away from my office in Kings Cross.

In fact I was so keen that I went a day early having failed to check the opening date. A day later I went again, this time with more luck.

This was an exhibition at the House of Illustration so it was about the pictures rather than the words, and that was fine with me. I like pictures.

The gallery is not that large with one main room about the size of my downstairs living space and a couple of little rooms off this. I think that the entrance fee is a tad high for time it takes to see everything, around twenty minutes, so I was pleased to see that they now had an Art Fund discount, which they had not on previous visits. This had annoyed me a little as the Art Fund were in the same building!

The first illustration that grabbed my attention was this one, the cover of the book In A Big Store. It was not the book that what was familiar, it was the store. This was the Bentalls store in Kingston upon Thames. It is now the Bentalls Centre, with the store having moved next door, but the wonderful frontage have been retained.

Most of the exhibition was illustrations like that which had been used in Ladybird books. The original drawings were all A4 sized (or something very close) and they were printed smaller for the books.

I was interested to learn that the size of Ladybird books had been set by the default size of print. It was just after the war and materials were scarce so the books were designed to use all of a standard print with all 56 pages arranged so that they used all of the paper and could be printed in one go. The exhibition had a sample book as it was printed and it was fun trying to work out how it was folded and cut to put the pages in order.

The largest part of the exhibition was illustrations from the book Shopping with Mother, not one that I ever had. The pictures were displayed in two rows on one of the long walls in the main room.

These had the double interest of being illustrations where I could appreciate the work of the artist and could also be reminded of how the world was when I was a small child. Ham Parade still looks a little like that with the fruiterers and hardware shop having impressive displays of goods outside of their shops.

That double joy continued throughout the exhibition as I looked at the illustrations and remembered the books that they came from. Books in the exhibition that I had read as a boy included Exploring Space and The Story of Flight.

They also had The Policeman and my memories of this were more recent, only twenty years old. My eldest son was in love with it for a while when quite small and I spent many a long evening reading it to him. It was very wordy too!

I thought that I had a lot of Ladybird books but there were whole series of them shown here that I did not even remember seeing in shops. The variety was enormous and I had not realised that subjects like wildlife and travel had been covered as widely as they had.

There was a sort of house-style to the books, all the illustrations looked real to life, but the different topics and different artists meant that there was some variance and part of the fun was trying to learn about and understand these differences. Just like it is fun to try and guess who drew a specific Dennis the Menace story.

In one of the small rooms, the last one if you go around anti-clockwise which I think you were meant to do, was a documentary about the books on a continuous loop and I found this interesting and informative, which is probably what it wanted to be.

Ladybird by Design was a jolly exhibition that revealed much about the illustrations, and their illustrators, that many of us took for granted when growing up. Now we can properly appreciate their quality.

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