News

News about the exhibition ‘What to Look For? Ladybird, Tunnicliffe, and the hunt for meaning’ and about the related blog

In an earlier post I wrote about some of the strange coincidences that have emerged in the course of developing this exhibition. Another bizarre coincidence has now come to light. It is concerned not so much with a history relating to the written word or to visual culture but one that is nevertheless firmly centred on paper.

My colleague Helen Westhrop works as a Library Assistant in Special Collections and Cataloguing here at the University of Reading. In her spare time she is a keen blogger (her blog, Living Libraries and [Dead] Languages, is definitely worth following). Having been aware for some time that this exhibition was in progress and being interested in the Ladybird archive herself, Helen was trying to think of interesting ways of connecting her own writing with this collection. What she happened upon was a link between her own life story and the history of Ladybird books, possibly even connecting her with the physical manufacture of the Autumn volume at some stage in its later history.

Indeed, in the course of pondering ways to justify introducing discussion of the Ladybird collections  she realised something rather amazing. At an earlier point in her career, Helen worked as a clerk in the Buying Office of John Dickinson Paper and Board, then based at Croxley Mills in Watford. One of this company’s most prominent customers was the publishing house Wills and Hepworth, producers of Ladybird books.

As Helen notes on her blog, she therefore at one time had a hand in the very production of these books, albeit from the source context of working for the company that produced the paper on which they were printed. Nevertheless, this surprising ‘paper trail’ and revealing ‘paper tale’ together provide yet more evidence of the fascinating stories that underpin this seemingly simple series of children’s books.

Far too often we take the material things in our lives for granted and give little thought to the highly complex processes involved in their production and distribution; the people and places, and the companies and cultures that lie behind the existence of artefacts like Ladybird books. Thanks are due to Helen for sharing her piece of this rich, detailed, and endlessly fascinating puzzle. Perhaps others might be persuaded to share their own part, however small, in the processes that brought subsequent editions of the huntsman image and the What to Look For books to the book shops and to our modern-day book shelves and bibliographic collections.

 

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My earlier blog post today revealed yet another example of the Autumn volume from the well-known Ladybird What to Look For series. This post comes on a day when the publishing industry has itself been in the news. Penguin Group—itself the current owner of Ladybird Books Ltd—are reported to be in ongoing discussions concerning a possible merger with The Random House Group. This story is indicative of the major changes that are underway in the modern publishing industry and highlight how the book world is a dynamic context, whcih is constantly undergoing change and development.

Those interested in the contemporary face of publishing may also be interested to learn of some of the past changes to these companies. Readers of this blog will no doubt already be aware that the University of Reading is home to the archives of Ladybird Books but they may not know that these are held alongside historic materials relating to various companies encompassed by Random House.

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Book design was of paramount importance in developing the format of Ladybird books as we now know them. Indeed, as the exhibition reveals, the format and size of these volumes was determined by a desire to be economical and to get the most out of cutting a single sheet of paper without wastage. We have on display an uncut printer’s sheet from a Ladybird book that helps to illustrate this point, as well as detailed discussion of the design of Ladybird books, which has been provided by our colleague Professor Sue Walker of the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication.

Ladybird books and the complexities of their design history notwithstanding, we have had our own design challenges in the course of planning and developing the exhibition itself. Our collaborator and consultant in this venture has been Mark Meredith of Waysgoose Design, whose vibrant and lively artwork has invigorated our ideas and helped render them presentable and visually appealing, as can be seen by his design for the exhibition poster (click to download here).

What to Look For exhibition poster

The ‘What to Look For’ exhibition poster, as designed by Mark Meredith of Waysgoose Design.

Mark is himself a graduate of the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication and was at one time taught by Sue Walker. He also worked for her for a number of years after graduating. It is nice to see them both working on this project. Mark also managed to find time to get married whilst (seemingly simultaneously) finishing off amendments to the designs he had produced for this display, which just goes to show what talent and ability he has.

Congratulations and thanks are therefore due to both Mark Meredith and to Sue Walker for their contributions towards and commitment to this exhibition. Like the classic and well-loved look of the Ladybird book, this exhibtion wouldn’t be what it has become without the design and the authorship that lies behind it!

Banner designed fro the exhibition by Mark Meredith.

This banner on the theme of Book Design was designed for the exhibition by Mark Meredith and is based on the specialist knowledge and input of Professor Sue Walker.

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I am sure many readers will remember this classic Ladybird book, which captures perfectly the nostalgic appeal of these volumes. Indeed, we use an image of the cover on an exhibition panel in the exhibition itself to underline the point that these books have gone from being cheap mass-produced items on sale at the affrodable cost of 2/6 to being highly sought after collectibles, often with an altogether different price tag.

The cover image from 'Shopping With Mother'.

The cover image from ‘Shopping With Mother’ by M. E. Gagg and first published in 1958. Image copyright Ladybird Books Ltd.

With thoughts of shopping in mind, it might be worth mentioning that the MERL shop has begun to stock up on a few Ladybird-inspired items and exhibition-themed goods. I am relaibly informed by our Visitor Services Assistant Judith Moon that she has stocked up on Ladybird-themed notebooks, address books, birthday books, mugs, craft kits, keyrings, postcards, magnets, sticky plasters, travel bags (Judith describes these as ‘small cosmetic type zip things!’), and mounted prints of images from ladybird books.

In the shop

A handful of Ladybird items on display in the MERL shop.

So, if you are keen on Ladybird or are looking for some nice nostalgic stocking fillers then do pop by and see what the Museum has in store. Once you are there, why pop next door and take a look at the exhibition too (it opens on 6 October but much of it is already in place). Indeed, you could even bring your mum. Exhibition-Going With Mother somehow doesn’t have quite the same ring to it but you can easily combine the two activities with just a single visit to MERL!

Ladybird merchandise

Judith’s glamorous hands hold some of the special merchandise about to be made available to MERL shoppers.

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Ladybird books were designed to be easily and cheaply printed. Indeed, one of the principal aims of the publisher was to make books that were both accessible and affordable. As a result, the books were made to a standard size and format, enabling them to be quickly and cheaply produced with little or no material wasted in the process. They were, in effect, a kind of twentieth century equivalent to that mainstay of nineteenth century popular publishing, the chap book. One knock-on effect of this economical approach to book production is that the resultant volumes themselves aren’t very big.

All this means that it would be hard to place an actual (680 mm x 440 mm) printed copy of the page on which this exhibition centres at the heart of the display and expect it to have much of a ‘wow factor’ to exhibition-goers. There will, of course, be original copies of the What to Look for in Autumn book on display but to achieve more of a visual impact we decided to scale the books up and make large versions of the key volume, based directly on the very first edition held in the Ladybird Collection itself.

Our own Morryce Maddams (Gallery Assistant) carefully measured the original book, before we had it digitally copied, scaled-up in image-editing software, and large paper surrogates were produced to order by the University’s dedicated in-house Design and Print Studio, which is closely interwoven with the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication. We deliberately based these images on the printed volume and not on the original artwork as we wanted the largescale versions to echo the dot-printed finish of the actual books.

Gallery Assistant Morryce Maddams working on a scaled-up book

This image shows MERL Gallery Assistant Morryce Maddams working on one of two scaled-up copies of the ‘What to Look For in Autumn’ book. One of these will be shown to display the cover and the other to show the double-page spread of the huntsman image and text on which the exhibition centres.

With the exception of one small deletion, the digital images used in these largescale versions were not altered in any way, so the massive dustjacket of the scaled-up book model designed to display the cover retains the abrasions and crayon marks of the copy on which it is based. The small piece of editing work was undertaken to digitally remove the name and address of a previous owner of this copy of the book. I’ll write a ‘Book Biographies’ blog post about this volume and its history in due course…

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As discussed above, the exhibition on Ladybird and Tunnicliffe at MERL will feature work by a number of academics from the University of Reading discussing what they look for in a single image from What to Look For in Autumn. The approaches range from Art History to Biology, Typography to Critical Theory. Each response is displayed on a banner or panel, that works through some key ideas. Many of these have now been printed.

1) Looking at the Artist introduces some biographical information about the artist Tunnicliffe, placing the image from What to Look for in Autumn in the context of his life and work.

2) Looking at Art and Style relates the image to the work of artists that influenced Tunnicliffe.

3) Looking at How to Look asks a range of questions about the framing of the image.

4) Looking at Artefacts explores the various objects depicted in the images, and from this discusses the representation the natural and the human

5) Looking at Childhood places the image in the context of changing C20th attitudes to childhood.

6) Looking at Letterforms relates the word forms in What to Look For in Autumn to typographical innovations within the wider series of Ladybird publications.

7) Looking at Book Design describes the printing and design process, and the influence technical considerations had on the image and the book from which it is taken .

8) Looking at Names uses the mushrooms depicted in the image as a starting point for a discussion of the relationship between names and things.

9) Looking at Absence is interested in things outside of the image’s frame and how they contribute to the image within.

10) Looking at the Hunt relates the image to some of Tunnicliffe’s other depictions of hunting

11) Looking at Science engages with the work of Grant-Watson, the biologist and writer who supplied the text that accompanies the image.

12) Looking at Learning relates the image to contemporary ideas of education and literacy.

13) Looking at Rural History approaches the image through changing ideas of the rural and nature.

14) Looking at Images is a photographic response to the What to Look For books by Wig Sayell, a contemporary artist.

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Part of the forthcoming MERL Ladybird exhibition will be a series of banners featuring responses to Ladybird images by University of Reading academics. We asked these academics ‘what do you look for when you look at one of the “What to Look For  in Spring/Summer/Autumn/Winter” Ladybird books? We asked a visual artist the same question.

Wig Sayell has a longstanding interest in offering complex engagements with landscape and rural history. Her response to our commission was to produce four images, each reflecting one of the four ‘What To Look For…’ books.

Here is the image for ‘Autumn’.  In a future blog entry, we will be interviewing Wig, and asking her to talk through the ideas that inform this image, and the techniques she used to produce it.

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Oriel Ynys Môn

Neil Cocks from The University of Reading visited Oriel Ynys Môn last week in preparation for the opening of the Tunnicliffe/Ladybird exhibition he is co-curating at MERL. Oriel Ynys Môn has a world class collection of Tunnicliffe material, and a track record of utilising it within innovative exhibitions. Museum Officer Ian Jones showed Neil around the current exhibitions, as well as introducing him to a wealth of archive material. Hopefully, a number of significant loan items will appear in the MERL exhibition – we will keep you posted!

Neil says of his trip:

“The Tunnicliffe work at Oriel Ynys Môn is breathtaking, especially the notebooks. These are filled with such an array of styles. Tunnicliffe was clearly interested in constantly pushing his art. Ian Jones is an expert in the field, and his knowledge of Tunnicliffe’s work – from his use of field glasses, to his choices of location – really helped me develop my own understanding.

I should also mention the current Kyffin Williams exhibition at Oriel Ynys Môn. Recently, some Williams work was exhibited alongside paintings by Tunnicliffe, helping to bring to light connections between these two island artists. Williams’s canvases are all illuminated dusks, great spread-squares of grey, yellow, black and white. The paint is frequently applied in thick palate knife strokes, but has an odd, insubstantial quality for all that. Haunting and beautiful images…”

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From 6 October 2012 until 14 April 2013 an exhibition at the Museum of English Rural Life presents a range of different responses to a single illustration of rural life. It focuses on a small watercolour by the artist Charles F. Tunnicliffe.

The Huntsman

'The huntsman, on his dappled grey..' by Charles Tunnicliffe (Image © Ladybird Books Ltd)

This was one of many artworks created by him for Ladybird children’s books. The painting featured in What to Look For in Autumn, published in 1960. This was part of a four-book series printed between 1959 and 1961. It was written by the biologist Elliot Lovegood Grant Watson and charted seasonal change in the countryside.

The original Ladybird artwork is held alongside the collections of the Museum of English Rural Life at the University of Reading. This juxtaposition inspired us to invite specialists to examine a countryside image. Their responses form the core of the exhibition and together offer different answers to the question of What to Look For. They reveal the diverse stories that one illustration can tell.

Here we intend to ask how you might choose to look at this image and read the accompanying text? Are you interested in the artist, the illustration or other artistic responses? Perhaps the written word is more important. Maybe histories of science, of childhood or of hunting are more inspiring to you. What of the design of the book, its role in reading and learning, and how it teaches us to see and think about the world? As the exhibition progresses we hope that you will share your responses and join the conversation here.

What to Look For? Ladybird, Tunnicliffe, and the hunt for meaning

6 October 2012 until 14 April 2013

Dr Ollie Douglas (Museum of English Rural Life) and Dr Neil Cocks (Department of English Language and Literature)

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