John Kenney illustrated some of the best loved Ladybird Books of the 1950s, 60s and 70s
John T E Kenney produced a great many of the wonderful Ladybird Book images at the start of what might be called the ‘golden years’ of Ladybird Books including most of the Hisory classics such as “Nelson”, “Captain Scott”, “Queen Elizabeth”, “Oliver Cromwell” and “Stone Age Man in Britain”. He also illustrated one of the best loved fiction books, “Tootles the Taxi” and the early Robin Hood series: “The Ambush” and “The Silver Arrow”. In the lively touch of “The Circus Comes to Town” you can clearly see they style the led The Reverend Awdry to invite Kenney to illustrate the classic Thomas the Tank Engine Books, which he did between 1957 and 1962, before chronic ill health complelled him to hand over the task to Peter Edwards.
Serving in the army, he landed in Normandy on D-Day, and, unofficially, recorded the scenes he witnessed in impromptu black and white sketches. After the war he worked as a commercial artist, a role he gave up in 1952 to concentrate on his painting, principally of sporting scenes.
It is a a sporting artist that Kenney principally made a living and a reputation,recreating vivid, energetic hunting scenes set in the lovely landscape of his home county of Leicestershire. As a mature artist he preferred to sketch directly at the hunt and then transpose these sketches to oils on canvas. His preferred canvas size was 2 foot by 3 foot – yet he adapted well to the small scale and constraints of book illustration posed by Ladybird and Thomas the Tank Engine.
Kenney’s life had its trials and challenges. Ill-health dogged him for much of his life, limiting his travels and his output. His eye sight began to fail and in 1968 he lost the sight of one eye. Yet a family friend remembers John Kenney with great affection:
“As well as being very talented, John was a lovely man who sadly died [in 1972] at the age of just 61”.