When in later life John Berry sat down to write his memoirs he gave it the working title ‘A Brush with Life’.  It was a good choice  to sum up the working life of an artist who created such sensitive, closely-observed images.

John Leslie Berry was born … well why not use his own words:

“The 9th of June 1920 my arrival was recorded;  3.a.m to be precise.  The place was No.1, Providence Cottages, Shortlands, Hammersmith.  My mother, Grace Katherine Berry, had given birth to her first child; the proud father, John James Berry, was employed as foreman on the underground railway.”

A few years later his only sibling was born – a girl named Winifred.  Brother and sister always had a strong and affectionate relationship – a bond perhaps reinforced by the greatest challenge of their childhood, when their father left the family.  One day when Berry was 5 years old, his mother put his little sister in a pram and together they walked to their grandmother’s house in Fulham where they stayed for the rest of his childhood.

John and sister Win

To begin with, father and son would often meet and whenever they did young John would ask his father when he was going to come home.  The answer was always the same: “One day next Tuesday”.  But that one day never came.

In 1927, 7 year-old Berry was admitted to Queen Mary’s Hopspital in Carshalton with suspected tuberculosis and curvature of the spine.  It was a harsh regime for those suspected of suffering from tuburculosis in the days before antibiotics.  For  months he stayed in hospital, sleeping outside under a veranda, even through the icy winter months.  Once, after a particularly heavy snow fall, the glass veranda roof collapsed under the weight of snow and the children had to be dug out.  But when the roof was patched up, the children had to stay on the veranda. 

The children received schooling at the hospital and one of the teachers there encouraged Berry to keep drawing.   His hospital-school report from this visit has survived to this day and tells us that the boy was deemed to be ‘fairly good’ at drawing.

Hospital report

After these long and challenging months (which must have been very much in Berry’s mind when he later illustrated the chilly-looking wards in the Ladybird book The Nurse) he was overjoyed to return to his mother, his sister and to school.

Hospital ward, painted by Berry in 1963 for ‘The Nurse’

He continued to enjoy drawing and, at the age of 14, decided to apply for a scholarship to an art school.  His Art teacher at this time was something of a bully and predicted that Berry was wasting his time, saying, “I don’t know why you are going to apply; you’re no good at it”.   But Berry was one of only two boys in London to win the scholarship and on 14th September 1934 he entered the doorway to Hammersmith School of Building, Arts and Crafts for the first time, proud and awestruck.

Throughout his life, Berry had strong, forthright opinions about the world in general, and about art in particular, and perhaps this characteristic contributed to occasional conflict with his masters.  However, he used both encouragement and criticism to spur him on.  It was a delight to him when, finally allowed to join the Life Class, he could focus on drawing the human form; having discovered the work of Rembrandt and Velasquez (artits he was to love throughout his life) he strove to emulate them.  By this time, most of his tutors knew he was displaying exceptional promise and Berry set his sights on earning a scholarship to the Royal Academy.  To earn the money to buy good quality art materials he worked two different jobs – one before and one after school, which meant working an 18-hour day.  However, the years of effort paid off and in 1939, at the age of 19 Berry won the long-desired scholarship to the Royal Academy.

But, of course, 1939 saw the outbreak of the Second World War and, to his life-long regret, Berry felt obliged to volunteer for service instead of taking up his place.  He was trained as a Radar Operator in the Royal Air Force and by 1941 was in Africa with the 8th Army.

A sketch by Berry made while he was in Africa

One day he was asked by the Padre to design a poster for a day of prayer and this humble commission delighted Berry.  “It was a thrill,” he said “after such a long abstinence to be able to paint again”.  As events unfolded, the posters he produced for the Padre were to alter the course of his war years.

“Some time later,” Berry later commented, “Air Marshall Tedder AOC paid a visit to the camp and saw the poster and the painting.  He must have liked what he saw because when I was getting on the truck to go to the Front Line in Tobruck, I was taken off, with a shout from the Sergeant.  I was told to collect my equipment and take a train to Cairo to be interviewed”.

Shortly afterwards, Berry found himself working for the Army Public Relations Unit in Sharia Nabata, to work with Randolph Churchill.  Here he designed publicity campaigns and information posters.

“One day at the time of Alamein, I thought it would be a good ida to paint the men in action, so I painted a 25-pounder gun in action, trying to portray some of the men who played such a great part in this battle”.

The resultant picture is one of several Berry works which today form part of the permanent collection of the Imperial War Museum.  It was also exhibited at the National Gallery and was used in Winston Churchill’s Memoirs.  Throughout his life Berry was proud of the fact that he was the only war artist drawn from the ranks.

Over the course of the war, Berry was increasingly asked to paint portraits – always his favourite medium. 

Berry, John; A Pathfinder; IWM (Imperial War Museums); http://www.artuk.org/artworks/a-pathfinder-7125

Berry, John; Major W. J. Riddell, Chief Instructor of the Mountaineer Wing of the Mountain Warfare School

One of these portraits was of Major James Riddell who was an Olympic skiing champion.  As the sitting progressed, a friendship began to form between the two men and, when Riddell said his post-war plans involved writing children’s books, Berry agreed to illustrate them.  One week before Berry was due to be sent to Japan, VJ Day was declared and Berry was free to return to civilian life.

Riddell was as good as his word and, in addition to working on their children’s books together, he opened up his extensive address book and introduced Berry as a portrait painter to society figures of his acquaintance.  Commisions began to come in, although Berry’s impatience with rude or critical sitters did not always improve his employment prospects. 

Examples of the short-lived Riddle book collaboration

When financial problems caused Riddell to put an end to the  publishing venture, he introduced Berry to the owner of a commercial art firm.  Although Berry had never previously considered a career in commercial art he found it a very good experience.  It was while researching a project that Berry went to Hammersmith library and there spoke to a helpful and attractive girl at the desk.  Her name was June. This was the beginning of what Berry described as “a wonderful relationship”.  Two years later June and John were married.  “We were very happy”, said Berry.

While working as a commercial artist, Berry was asked by the director if he could paint a tiger.  Esso Petroleum had asked for ideas for a new advertising campain and the director told Berry,

“For some reason I have a tiger in mind but why, I can’t think”.  Berry’s immediate response was, “How about the slogan ‘Put a tiger in your tank’?”.

The idea won general approval and for the next few years Berry produced tiger illustrations for the Esso campaign which was successful both nationally and internationally.  After 10 years of the campaign a strange thing happened: 30 of Berry’s drawing for a new campign disappeared.

“I later discovered that they all went to Walt Disney Studio and they returned as cartoon tigers.”

In later years two different people in America claimed that they had invented the Esso tiger.  Berry had no means by which to counter this claim.

This was something of a golden age of commercial illustration and Berry, with his enthusiasm for detail and photo-realism, was rarely short of work for companies such as Brooke Bond, John Bull magazine, and Dunlop.  By now, John and June had a baby son and they wanted to buy their own house.  But work deadlines were always tight and, as soon as they were across the threshhold of their new home in Shepperton, Berry had to put up his drawing board and all the business of moving-in just had to wait.

The family home of June and John

It was at the end of the 1950s that John Berry was introduced to Douglas Keen, then Art Director for Ladybird books.  Berry thought Keen was “a clever chap” and approved very much of his wish for Ladybird to publish more factual books in order to help children “appreciate what goes on in the world today”.  The first book that Berry illustrated for Ladybird was ‘London’.  This is a beautiful book and gave full scope to Berry’s meticulous detail and faithful reproduction. Shortly after this Berry became the sole illustrator of the extensive ‘People at Work’ series.  The books sold well and title followed title, from 1962 to 1973.  Today these books are a fascinating slice of social history, documenting as they do the transition of Britain from the mid to later 20th century – from village policemen, district nurses and fishermen to the potteries, car makers and shipbuilders and flourishing of the service sector.  Three more books in a similar series  ‘The Public Services” explain the state-owned Gas, Electricity and Water systems to children.  There were also Three books in his series – Come to France, Come Holland and Come to Denmark.

As with many freelance artists, Berry’s working life was always plagued with worries over erratic or late payment of bills.   The fact that Ladybird always paid him on time was another reason why he enjoyed such a good, long-lasting working relationship with Keen and with the company.  He had no such luck when he illustrated ‘Military Uniforms’ for the publisher Hamlyn, who  insisted on a 98- day wait between delivery of the artwork and payment.

It was good that the work kept on coming because the Berry household was expanding.  Their first daughter and third child, Lesley, was born in 1960 with extensive health problems.  Although the underlying cause of her condition was eventually corrected, her development was permanently affected.   With the many challenges of Lesley’s health on top of the erratic demands of freelance work and a small house filled with young children, there were times when the couple were almost overwhelmed by pressure.  It was love that held the family together.  When their fourth child, Caroline was born, Berry remembered holding her in the hospital at night, seeing the moonlight shining on her . Everything was going to be all right.  Her arrival, he later commented, seemed to bring them to their senses.  “She just looked at us and the world seemed to steady itself for us”.

New Baby, from ‘The Nurse’

Their fifth and last child was born in 1967 and life must have been very crowded in their little Shepperton bungalow.  Unlike many commercial artists, Berry loved to be in the midst of his family and was very reluctant to shut himself away in a distant room.  He took over the dining room table in order to be able to work and still feel a part of family life . His daughter remembers loving Christmas not so much for the festivities as for the fact that this was the only time in the year that her father would pack away his painting equipment and surrender the table back to the family.  One winter, Berry was hospitalised with an ulcer for 6 weeks.  In addition to the other challenges this presented June with, she could not drive and so each day she had to row the children across the Thames in the icy weather in order to get them to school.

June Berry, as ‘Mother’ depicted in a’ Hannibal the Hamster’ book

In the early 1970s both Douglas Keen and the other main company director James Clegg wished to retire and so, in order to secure the employment of the workforce in Loughborough, the decision was made to sell Ladybird to a large conglomerate now called Penguin Random House.   A new broom swept through the company and many changes were made in terms of the traditional book format and layout of illustration.  There was more use of photography in the books and a more sketchy, less expensive style of illustration was favoured.  But there was still work for Berry in the occasional book such as Black Beauty and in the lovely Hannibal the Hampster series, exclusively illustrated by Berry.  I’ve always felt this is a very underrated series – warm, beautiful and engaging, although Berry’s delightful illustration and meticulous approach to detail seem rather at odds with the more ‘cartoony’ illustrations of other books produced by the company at this time.

Hannibal the Hamster books and Black Beauty

Although Berry was working less for Ladybird, he had in the meantime found the means to return to his first love: portrait painting.  Having received a commission to paint the Queen and Prince Philip for the Royal Artillery Regiment, he was just reflecting on the pleasure that the process of portraiture gave him when he noticed a gallery in Jermyn Street London which supplied oil portraits from photographs.  An enquiry at the gallery was all it took to secure his first test commission and he was very soon receiving a steady stream of work.  Harrods also got to know of Berry’s work and to supply him with commissions. Berry was in his element;  he had been trained as a portrait painter, he loved the medium and, for the first time, he was being paid for portraits without  direct contact with the sitter.  “I didn’t much care for the people I met when painting some of them from life,” he said, “but from photographs I could please myself how long it took and could experiment with different techniques”.  In the very precarious financial world he inhabited, he also very much appreciated the luxury of being paid on delivery.

The years past, the children grew up and moved out of the Shepperton bungalow but then in the mid-80s Berry’s beloved wife June died.  With painful memories pressing on him from all sides, Berry  relocated two years later to a village near Burton on Trent.  It was there that he evenually met and married Jessie,  with whom he again found happiness and companionship.

John Berry never retired. He used to say that he loved painting more than ever as the years went by – it utterly defined him and, whenever he was at home, he would paint or at least draw, day in, day out.

Detail from a painting Berry was working on shortly before his death

In his later years, he concentrated on painting native Indian portraits for a gallery in the USA which he thoroughly enjoyed, as well as occasional restoration work for a long-standing contact in the art world.
When he wasn’t painting, he would love to drive for miles as that was how he relaxed and also helped him to keep in close touch with his beloved family.

Berry wearing his trademark bow tie

Berry’s children remember him as a wonderful dad and an even more devoted grandfather- a role he called ‘the most wonderful thing’. Perhaps these relationships were all the more remarkable in that he himself never had a proper father figure as a child. Yet he was never happier than when sitting with a young grandchild and a sketchbook on his lap, passing on tips and techniques.

One of my favourite John Berry pictures is this portrait of his granddaughter

In 2007 my Aunt, who lived in the same Staffordshire village as John Berry, found his telephone number in the phone directory and, knowing my love of his artwork, suggested I get in touch. So one day I took the number and picked up the receiver. Just as I started to dial, I paused to think and the more I thought, the more my courage ebbed away. What would I say? What would he think? Why should I intrude? I put the receiver down and didn’t make the call.

In old age, with a loving family, with his painting and with companionship, Berry was contented with his lot. Although the upset of his father leaving had always stayed with him, Berry felt that his life had been a happy one – particularly once he had met June. In December 2009, John Berry died, after a short illness. He was 89 years old.

People who knew him have since said to me that he would have been more than happy to have met up me and to have talked about his painting, about Ladybird and about his life.

I wish I’d made that call.


There’s lots of John Berry Ladybird artwork on view at the exhibitionThe Wonderful World of the Ladybird Book Artists‘, next on in Basingstoke, this Spring. You can also see more of his portraits at ArtUK.org

© Helen Day 2019