The following is the text of a brochure created to accompany an exhibition of Harry Wingfield’s Ladybird illustrations, held at the New Art Gallery, Walsall, which opened on Feb 1st 2002 – shortly before Wingfield died. One day I would like to write a proper biography of this artist, whose work is so central to Ladybird’s success. But for now, the text of this brochure provides a very good introduction to Wingfield’s background and his approach to illustation.
“Harry Wingfield’s beautifully detailed illustrations capture a suburban life of a generation. Their style is instantly recognisable to the many millions of people who learnt to read with these books or listened to their children or grandchildren read aloud from them. Since the late fifties, Harry’s work has appeared in Ladybird books, starting with his illustrations for Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Through the 1960s and 70s, Harry illustrated many of the Key Words Reading Scheme books, featuring Peter and Jane. His work also features in the Junior Science Books and the Talkabout series. Collaboration with his wife Ethel, an expert on pre-school education, produced not only the designs but also the content and text of the Learning With Mother series and the many other pre–school work books which resulted from this partnership.
Harry Wingfield has lived all his working life as an illustrator and designer, ‘a happy slave to the drawing board from sixteen to seventy-two’. He was born in 1910 in Derby, the only child of a blast furnace worker. He spent his first twelve years in Manchester and was naturally good at drawing. His early aspirations as an engineering draughtsman for Rolls Royce were curtailed by an acute stammer despite exceedingly high first class matriculation marks. Eventually at 16 he found employment as a studio junior for an advertising agency and started a career as a commercial artist.
Harry never studied art full time but attended evening classes at the Derby Art School and then later at Birmingham Art School, where he met his future wife Ethel. His skills in drawing the human figure, honed by the training at Derby and Birmingham, gained him a reputation in the world of commercial art for figurative work. It was these skills and a meeting in Birmingham with an old friend, Doug Keen, who worked for Ladybird Books in the 1950s which led to Harry being asked to work on the early illustrations for Ladybird. This was his first work as an illustrator of children’s books.
At the time, Harry was working as a freelance commercial artist, following six years as advertising artist for Crabtrees, an electrical fittings manufacturer in Walsall.
In 1964, Ladybird published the first of their Key Words Reading Scheme, featuring Peter and Jane. The first books were brought out very quickly, in competition with the American ‘Janet and John’ books. Harry Wingfield and ex-Eagle artists Martin Aitchison and Frank Hampson were employed to illustrate the text written by experienced educators William Murray and John McNally. [The Key Words reading scheme was based on the research of Murray and McNally, but the books were written by Murray alone, I believe.] Harry went on to illustrate over a third of the reading scheme.
Harry’s working methods were those of a commercial artist of the period. He kept a ‘reference library’ of photographs and cuttings, built up over the years, suitably subdivided by subject. He also referred to a domestic mail order catalogue for speed, ‘though used with discretion’.
The finished paintings were then designed with reference to these sources in combination with observational drawing. Harry attributes his abilities to “a long commercial graphics experience, a humble study of nature, constant drawing and accumulation of details, a good pictorial memory and a long-term pictorial scrapbook ‘research library’.”
A slideshow of some of Harry’s Ladybird artwork through the years:
Now 91 years old, [this was written early in 1992 – Harry died just a month later in March] Harry looks back on his creations with pride and satisfaction. Despite the criticism these books attracted for sexism and racism in the 1970s, they hit at the heart of an almost universal desire for a happy family life and achieved enormous public success. They were aimed at the (predominantly white) families who were moving from the back-to-back terrace housing of their childhood to the newly built, green-field council and private estates of the 60s and 70s. Peter and Jane and their family supplied aspirational role models, intended to represent happiness and family unity, as well as teaching children how to read. Thus fulfilling both educational and social aspirations in one package and helping to explain something of the phenomenal success of the Ladybird Reading Schemes, which are still in print and have currently sold over 90 million copies.”