History artwork
John Kenney original artwork Robin Hood

Artwork from Robin Hood book The Silver Arrow. (Captain Scott is just for scale!)

Last week I spent an afternoon surrounded by the artwork of the Ladybird artist John Kenney.  I went to The MERL (Museum of English Rural Life) in Reading where the Special Collections are stored.  I’ve talked about MERL and the Ladybird room before on this blog but this time I went to see some of the original artwork of John Kenney which is not normally on display.

Original Eric Winter artwork

This artwork was on display in the Ladybird room. Not, of course, by John Kenney but by Eric Winter

Eric Winter original artwork

This artwork was on display in the Ladybird room. Not, of course, by John Kenney but by Eric Winter

Although the majority of the original Ladybird artwork housed in the Reading University special collection is relatively modern (from the 1980s onwards) there are some wonderful sets, or part-sets, of artwork by some of the best-loved artists stored there.  But space is very limited and so very little is on display at any one time.

Ladybird artist John Kenney died in 1972 so, of course, I never had a chance to meet him.   But I have been friends with his family ever since I appeared on the Antiques Roadshow  many moons ago.  They live in Leicestershire so we don’t often get a chance to meet.  But Clare, from the Univeristy of Reading Art Collections, invited the family to Reading to view the Kenney artwork stored there – and I was allowed to tag along.

Alfred the Great, John Kenney original

The cover artwork for Alfred The Great

John Kenney must have illustrated around 30 books for Ladybird and some or all of the artwork from around 17 of these books is kept at Reading.  I myself have the artwork for one further Kenney Ladybird book – but it’s a bit of a mystery what happened to the rest.

Queen Elizabeth John Kenney artwork

Cover artwork for Queen Elizabeth and the Tilbury Speech

Clare had been very busy before we arrived, spreading the boxes of artwork out on a large table so we could peruse it in comfort.  Now you may wonder why it is that someone as familiar with the Ladybird illustrations as I am should take so much pleasure in this.

John Kenney's artwork for Queen Elizabeth

Artwork from The First Queen Elizabeth. (Florence is there just for scale).

But the fact is that the original Ladybird artwork is always a treat to behold; the colours so much more vivid and the artistry so more more apparent.  In the case of the Kenney artwork, the scale of some of the pieces was a revelation.  Kenney mainly earned his crust as a painter of hunting scenes in the Leicestershire area and when he began his first commission for Ladybird (King Alfred the Great) he seems to have taken one of his pre-existing canvases, rotated it from landscape to portrait and made a start.

Alfred the Great - with another book for scale

The book David Livingstone shows the large scale of the artwork.

I don’t think original Ladybird artwork can ever have been produced on a larger scale.  This picture should give you an idea of the relative size to the completed book.

John Kenney's original cover art for Tootles the Taxi

Cover art for Tootles the Taxi

Tootles the Taxi is one of the best loved of all Ladybird books from the 1950s and 60s.  Again the artwork is by Kenney, who also illustrated some of the original ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ Railway series books for the Reverend Awdry.  The similarities to the Railway Series books is clear –  and the story goes that Kenney based his Tootles characters on Dinky toys.

The artist John Kenney’s family had previously shown me a charming couple of illustrations that he had Kenney produced as preparation for the Tootles commission.  What made my visit to Reading unique on this occasion was that I was able to see the early preparatory painting alongside the final original artwork.  Fear not: I took a photo so you can see them too.

Tootles the Taxi: the book, the artwork and the prototype

Tootles the Taxi: the book, the artwork and the prototype