Kathie Layfield worked as an illustator for Ladybird Book for over a decade, from 1976 until 1988. In this period she was one of the most widely employed artists and collaborated on a wide range of series including Well Loved Tales from series 606d, Children’s Classics, Learnabout, and series 777 Read it Yourself. I began by asking about her life prior to her work for Ladybird:
“I was born in Bristol on 2nd April 1940, but moved to Burton on Trent in 1948. There I went to the Girls High School and then to Loughborough College of Art gaining the NDD in Printed Textiles and the college’s newly devised Diploma.
Following this I went to the then Leicester College of Art where I was awarded an Art Teachers Diploma and subsequently taught Art in several Leicestershire secondary schools and colleges. My interest in drama had already been an important part of my life as I was an active member of Leicester Drama Society where I acted, designed sets, costumes and publicity. I also became involved in the Leicestershire Youth Theatre movement where I ran workshops, produced plays and continued to design”.
How did your involvement with Ladybird Books first begin?
“Despite my having qualified as a textile designer, my interest had always been in painting, often of an illustrative nature. Though I taught full time I continued to pursue my own work with work exhibited in a number of shows – some solo, some mixed. some mixed – at a variety of venues. One such show was at the Little Theatre, Leicester. I had been asked to mount an exhibition of my costume designs and by lucky chance these were seen by the Art Director of Ladybird Books who asked me if I would be interested in illustration. He said they were finding it increasingly difficult to find artists who were able to paint figures! He asked me to bring some of my work for them to look at. My work was approved and I was given a trial commission which resulted in this work being published in Action Rhymes and Memory Rhymes. From those first books at Ladybird came a succession of further commissions.”
Had you had any previous experience of book illustration?
Until then my only professional experience of illustration was for a local Private Press to which I had contributed several line drawings to the owner, the late Toni Savage.
How did you go about each project?
Each book was given to me as a paste up i.e. the text was laid out in a mock-up of the book with gaps for the proposed illustrations. The first part of my work was to draw visuals – rough drawings – to fit this text. I was always given the option to move the text around if it would suit my ideas to do so, but I rarely did this. These visuals were submitted and any changes required were noted before I set about the finished paintings.
Did you find it difficult to come up with suitable ideas?
I had no trouble in visualising the images. I have always had a strong imagination. Also, my experience of acting helped so much in interpreting characters and expressions. I was able to employ my sense of humour in many of my illustrations and often included a running gag for children to discover hidden in the books.
How much control did Ladybird impose?
I was always given great freedom -I had no worries about style or format. I was nearly always allowed to choose my medium, though naturally the size and shape of the book was not up to me. I had to work on strippable board in order for the illustrations to be removed so that they could be rolled onto drums as part of the printing process. Afterwards the paintings were returned to the boards and stored. They were only returned to me a long time afterwards when the firm was closing down.
Who did you come into contact with during this process?
I liaised with two Art editors and occasionally the editorial staff.I only ever contacted one or two authors later on when we were negotiating Public Lending Rights.
Was it stressful, waiting for the editorial verdict on the pictures you had produced?
Although I always felt nervous when presenting the editors with my finished work , there were only a relatively small number of corrections each time. One exception was when I did The Goose Girl. For some reason I had real trouble with this book. I think it didn’t help that I disliked the story! I couldn’t imagine how such a macabre, cruel and miserable tale would appeal to children, but maybe that’s Hans Anderson for you!
How long did it take you to illustrate each book?
Strangely, it seemed that it always took me about two and a half months to complete a book. Because I was working full time as a teacher my illustration work was done in my spare time. Because I was aware of this I worked so fast I always met the deadline – apparently unlike the full time illustrators! I was seldom given a difficult schedule and I so loved the work I was happy to give it my undivided attention. Sometimes, though I forgot to eat!
What was the favourite Ladybird Book you worked on?
It’s so difficult to say which was my favourite book. I think it was The Railway Children. I always enjoyed researching costume and detail and this book gave me the opportunity for both, though I must admit I avoided too many references to trains. I knew that there were thousands of railway buffs out there who would pick up on any mistakes in livery, etc. Although I enjoyed almost all the work I had to do I was (and am) very self-critical. I would love the opportunity to do some of the books again. I actually asked on many an occasion if I could re-write the Learnabout Drawing and Painting books I had illustrated and co-written. On reflection, perhaps these were the books I most enjoyed doing. I was able to write about something I knew well and had the freedom therefore, to choose what illustrations I wanted to illustrate my own text. Sadly, I never got the chance to do them again. I would change a lot about them if I had the chance.
And your least favourite?
I’ve already said how The Goose Girl gave me a headache. The other book I least enjoyed was The Ladybird Book of Puzzles. Much of the drawing for this was factual, so I didn’t have much chance to use my imagination. I had to give up completely when I had to draw a bike – I simply couldn’t do it. It was given to someone in studio – maybe someone who had studied technical drawing?
What were your best memories of working with Ladybird?
All my memories of dealing with Ladybird are happy. The people I had to deal with were always helpful, reassuring and friendly. I was always treated well. I was often invited to attend Book Fairs in various towns where I would either demonstrate illustration or draw quick portraits of the many children who would visit the stand. I can honestly say my Ladybird years were the happiest and most fulfilling of my life.
And how were you paid?
I was paid per picture and paid promptly which, I believe is quite unusual for publishing companies! I was issued with a contract prior to accepting the commission. Ladybird paid an outright non-negotiable fee without royalties. In some ways I was sorry about this knowing the huge turnover they had!
Do you know how many Ladybird Books you illustrated in total?
I illustrated (or part-illustrated) some 30 books and three videos plus several promotional illustrations.
And how did your collaboration with Ladybird come to an end?
My work came to an end because of the demise of the Loughborough based company. The entire personnel began to change before this happened and, though I kept asking for new work, I was constantly being told that there wasn’t any. At the time I couldn’t understand why as I had always been in work, had never missed a deadline and the last few books I’d illustrated had been accepted for printing with no corrections. It seemed that there was no-one left on the staff that I knew. I arranged to see the new Art Director, but he treated me as if I was a stranger, asking me, half-heartedly, to do some trial pieces, despite the fact that I had shown him that I had already published 30 books for the firm in 10 years. It was a sad and almost humiliating end.
I really miss the work. But although I don’t have any new commissions I still get asked to do talks about my books. Luckily I still have quite a selection of my original pictures to take along to these talks. I have sold quite a lot of my original paintings, some to private collectors, some were auctioned at Bonhams, and Charnwood Museum bought a large body of it after my solo exhibition there in 2004.