Above: Shopping with Mother, Harry Wingfield, © Ladybird Books Ltd, 1958
In the way that many cultures and religions track the passage of time via rituals at specific times, so I tracked my childhood life, and continue to do so today, from what I learned about the passage of time from Ladybird books. In particular, books like Telling the Time, helped me to feel cosy about day to day rituals at certain hours, like feeding the pets at 5 o’clock and Daddy coming home at 7. Though in our present household the pets demand their meal at 3 and it is me (Mummy) who comes home at 6. And our postman does not come at a specific time, which always aggravates me!
Even more ingrained in me is the great clock of the seasons, so beautifully described and illustrated in the series What to Look for in Spring (Summer, Autumn and Winter). How I would spend hours gazing at them and how I still love those books! Autumn was my favourite of the series and it eased me gently from the warmth and plenty of summer into the dull, cold winter. To this day when I see a glint of a white bird against the steely sky of November or a V of migration, rain filled tractor ruts or a misty silhouette of house and trees emerging from the fog I feel a chill closely followed by a little sense of normality – the Ladybird depiction of how the seasons ought to be and how right and proper it was for one to process after the after made it all alright.
What a thrill I had the first time I saw that tawny owl high up in a tree “astonished” by the bonfire night glow below it. There I was, and there I am every time I see this image, up in the tree with the owl – so far removed from the earth-bound creature I really am in a little moment of fantastic nature observing humans. Seeing this image I began to notice composition and how it can be part of a narrative. To see the world of people from the owl’s point of view, or rather to share it, was such a magnificent privilege. I didn’t know then that the illustrator of this series was Charles Tunnicliffe. I just knew that I could get inside his pictures and be there in that September of berry eating birds or feel the squelch of mud on the farmer’s boots. I also knew that the dwelling that he illustrated in The Farm, complete with kittens, of course, was the place I would live as an adult. (It is not!)
Not only was I mesmerised by the day to day time or the seasons, but a greater swathe of time was visualised for me in The Story of Clothes and Costume and The Story of Houses and Homes. These, along with a couple of other history books we had at home, generated an enduring love of the past, especially in the trivia of who was wearing what and where they were sitting or sipping drinks. What fabrics and colours went together, what accessories did the Victorian lady need to look cool? I lost count of how many home-made dressing up dolls in Elizabethan or Stuart costume I made and even now when I see a Georgian house part of my mind is seeing the Ladybird illustration.
Above: The Story of Furniture, Robert Ayton, © Ladybird Books Ltd, 1971
(and PS: I still use these teak units!!)
So entering the De La Warr Pavillion’s exhibition of these book illustrations, Ladybird by Design, is like entering a shrine full of nostalgia and sacred memories – the memories that have become me. Maybe I sound pompous or ridiculous, but I truly believe that the illustrations a child pours over become part of their personality. I have seen this before when visiting exhibitions of past illustration and have felt the memory of a time, a place, a feeling, rise up at the recognition of an old favourite. Ladybird books were one of the foundations of what I know. I do realise that they are accused of being twee and too white middle class. They represent the advertising ideal of the family. Looking back they are ideologically flawed, perhaps. But they were a product of the times. They are cosy and clean, but they are also informative and – most importantly – whether they are about fairy stories or science, they are inspiring and engaging. They had detail and they taught you how to notice. They taught you how to begin to be interested and that the world out there was full of facts and experiences. They taught you that the working person was the backbone of a country and that “boring” topics were fascinating. They taught you to pay attention. They taught you that big history or everyday life was an adventure to grasp with both hands. They were real, tangible and these books also, incidentally, made great roads and bridges for toy cars too…..I wonder how many times “Mother” had to clear ours up!