I feel a bit of guilt about Frank Humphris.
My website and the exhibition focus on the golden-age artists who worked for Ladybird in the early days of its success up until the sale of the company in the 1970s. Humphris fits the bill. Although probably better known today for his work for Eagle magazine and Look and Learn, he first worked for Ladybird in the 1960s.
He illustrated numerous Ladybird books which I remember from childhood and which were always to be found on the school bookshelves of the 1960s and 70s. Titles such as Pirates, The Indians of the Western Plains, Danger Men and Henry VIII. He contributed illustrations to some of the most popular series, including Well-Loved Tales, Children’s Classics, the Key Words reading scheme and the History series.
And yet I tend to forget about him – and I’m trying to work out why. Here are some reasons – none of them good enough.
- He isn’t Frank Hampson.
I’m not meaning to be rude. Frank Hampson, as founding member of Eagle magazine, is quite well-known outside Ladybird Land. With fairly similar names, it doesn’t help that the working lives of the two artists crossed over quite a bit. Both men worked first at Eagle and then, disillusioned, went to work for Ladybird. While Hampson is most associated with Dan Dare, Humphris is best known for his work on the Riders of the Range strip; Humphris gets a bit overshadowed.
2) Ladybird books made a point of never branding books as ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ but I grew up wanting to read about princesses – real or fictional – rather than about fighting and the Wild West, which was Humphris’ specialist subject.
He loved it all! The guns and the teepees and the buffalo skins.
Not only did he illustrate the ‘fighting stuff’ books but he wrote most of them too – making him one of just a small handful of people to be listed as both artist and illustrator on the title page of a Ladybird book. That said, the book ‘Pirates’ is a bit special. Has anyone ever brought more drama to their subject that Humprhis has to his pirates? A joyous riot of bloodshed and duplicity – in the brightest colour and with the added bonus for many young readers of generously low-cut bodices.
3) The books that Humphris illustrated were often late additions to a series.
As a child, I was particularly fond of the History series and he illustrated Henry VIII, Drake and Hannibal. The illustrations have all the colour and gusto you would associate with a classic Ladybird history book. But for some reason they never felt like old friends to me – I expect it was because my eye was tuned-in to the style of artist John Kenney who had illustrated almost all the previous history books. After the company was sold in the 1970s, a number of the original history titles were completely re-written and re-illustrated and Humphris produced a couple of these. But to a child who has grown up with one version, a new edition feels like an outrage.
It wasn’t just about the artwork; I was also conditioned to appreciate the more rigid Ladybird format of the earlier books: text on the left, full-page picture on the right. After the sale of the company, in the mid-70s, the new owners started to play around with this format. In trying to cut production costs, they also experimented a lot with new series. Humprhis illustrated a number of books from the Children’s Classics series, begun in 1976, such as The Last of the Mohicans and King Soloman’s Mines – but I don’t recall reading them as a child. I do remember that at the time many people (teachers, parents etc) disapproved of the simplification of these children’s classics. It was the ‘dumbing down’ debate of its day – but that’s not Frank’s fault.
4) I don’t own any original Ladybird artwork by Frank Humphris.
The exhibition is based on my own collection of artwork and artefacts – and the only Humphris artwork I own is this visual recount of Mutiny on the Bounty from a 1970s edition of Look and Learn magazine. I put it on display when the exhibition opened in Canterbury but since then I have had to cut down the number of artists included and, without the original Ladybird artwork, he didn’t make the cut.
And that’s the best I can do.
However, I can safely say that I positively love his artwork in one little group of books which I haven’t mentioned till now: the Do You Know books. These 3 titles were part of the group of books to support the Key Word reading scheme books, a set which also included Danger Men, Record Breakers and Some Great Men and Women.
But to my mind, the three Do You Know books are chock-full of magnificent illustrations – pictures that have lingered in my mind for decades.
In all the best Ladybird illustrations, the pictures work harder than the words in telling the story. They grab and hold the attention of a young reader, inviting them to find out more by reading the text on the facing page and then helping to clarify the contents further. The Do You Know books do this and more – they fully capture the wonder and magic of the facts in the books. They are as subtle and punchy as the situation requires. Many of them would stand alone as just wonderful pictures. Just look (slideshow below) at the breath-taking depiction of the Honey Bee or the subtle mistiness of the hovercraft picture.
So today I’ve now righted one wrong by starting work on a short Frank Humphris biography for my Ladybird Artists page. Coming soon.
Sorry it’s late, Frank.