Back in June I mentioned having a couple of letters from L du Garde Peach, writer of the History series, written in the early 1970s to his illustrator, John Kenney.

By popular demand – both of you 🙂 – here are more details.

First the background.
A year or two ago, someone contacted me who was a close family friend of artist John Kenney (best known for illustrating some of the original Thomas the Tank Engine books, Tootles the Taxi and the History books of series 561) . This person asked my advice about some books that he owned. Having given this advice as best I could, I asked if he could provide more information about Kenney so that I could make a biography for my website. He agreed, we met up and the page was written. A year or two pass.

I understand Kenney’s wife died quite recently and when the house was being cleared, this friend saw the letters and wondered if they would be of interest to me. Very kindly he sent them to me.

I was not exaggerating when I said that L du G’s prose is complex and whimsical. Here’s a taster of an opening paragraph:

Dear John

It is exactly – or as that gentle voice (not the one which breathed o’er Eden) out of the vague unknown would say “at the third stroke it will be twenty-three days, six hours, and thirty seconds precisely” since I received your letter of June 15th from the hand of the most, if not the only reliable link in the postal chain, Clarry the Post: the weather being fine, the wind NW, the barometer steady and the temperature 53 F. The note in my diary – apart from the meteorrol – damn it! – meteroloical details above, states that I was working on the “Ladybird” book about that dull and distressingly pious old party Elizabeth Fry”.

L du G goes on to say that he had also just finished with “Henry II and that turbulent priest with whom you will no doubt deal from your angle in due course” and reminds him that Henry was reputed to be very tall. In fact, Kenney was to illustrate neither Henry II nor Elizabeth Fry – he died the following year, at the age of 61).

His thoughts ramble in similarly entertaining but tortuous prose for some paragraphs before coming to the apparent main reason for writing “to congratulate you on the much over-due upsurge in the American market for the works of the English painter, John Kenney”. This leads him to fret about the “commercial exploiters of the work of needy painters” and to marvel at what a bargain is to be had by those who can get such wonderful pieces of art for just 15p – then the cost of a Ladybird Book.

He then talks about The Pilgrim Fathers, which Kenney appears to have been in the process of illustrating:

“you are quite right about the “Thanksgiving” picture – though what anyone now living in the USA has to give thanks for, is one of those sixty-four thousand dollar questions to which – as far as I know – there is no convincing answer. And I applaud your reason – or was it a sub-reason – that the early pilgrims praying in the fields might have looked like “The Angelus”.”

He discusses a future meeting to discuss matters ‘over the table’- although I’m not sure which table this would be as I understand that he was not one of the group of writers/illustrators who would plan their work at the house of Douglas Keen). Towards the end of the letter he compares himself to Shakespeare’s Lear – and the end of the letter is a very dense stream on consciousness that takes him from Lear’s daughers to Cassandra and Clytaemnestra to the “dozens of young men” who were currently installing heaters in his house!

The second letter, written two months later, is shorter and deals with his concern at hearing that Kenney was ill. He again expresses his dislike of Elizabeth Fry – his chief grievance being, apparently that she was “not one of your more luscious glamour girls ever” and concern that “The Pilgrim Mothers” would be little better!