The main two museums in Reading are the Museum of English Rural Life and the Reading Museum and Art Gallery. If you are interested in Ladybird books, you may be aware that there is a small but permanent exhibition of Ladybird books on show at the MERL, just outside the centre of Reading, which I’ve talked about in previous posts. However, the space is limited and an awkward shape and the University of Reading Special Collections team who manage the gallery have access to very much more original Ladybird artwork than can easily be displayed there.
So it was decided a couple of years ago to hire some gallery space in the main Reading museum, or more specifically in the Sir John Madejski Art Gallery, this spring and summer to put on a bigger display. I didn’t know this when I was asked to curate a completely diffent exhibition, The Wonderful World of the Ladybird Book Artists, back in 2016 but that is why there are two Ladybird-themed exhibitions on this summer. This means that geography is less of a factor if the mildly interested wish to get their Ladybird fix this year. For those who are more than mildly interested, you have two events for your diary this year and that’s how it is, so no complaining.
The Reading exhibition opened to the public this weekend, Saturday 30th April, and I saw it at an evening event a couple of days before. Here’s what I found.
First of all, access. Reading Museum is right in the middle of Reading and a 4-minute work from the train station so it is extremely accessible. A wonderfully impressive gothic facade, full of civic pride and victorian aspirations draws your attention as soon as you turn the corner into Blagrave Street.
I can’t comment on the rest of the museum and gallery because it was only partially open on the evening I went, but there were very tempting looking galleries all around me. That said, I did catch a sneaky peak at the lovely Huntley & Palmers biscuit tin gallery. I’ve always had a soft spot for a vintage tin.
‘How it Works: Ladybird Books’ is situated in a fairly large, rectangular gallery upstairs. First impressions: it is laid out with all the neatness and precision of Snow White and Rose Red’s cottage. Everything is consistently framed and beautifully spaced out. At one end there is an activity area which includes some browsing books .
The title of the exhibition leads you to think that perhaps the focus will be on the technical process or at least on the history of the company. Actually the focus is very broad indeed. There’s a little bit of everything about Ladybird – history, evolution, process, artwork, languages, modern books etc. There’s a wide range of artwork on display, although one thing there isn’t much on is the artists (and this is a good job as it helps distinguish the purpose of this exhibition from the ‘Wonderful World of the Ladybird Book Artists‘ and leaves me a different story to tell).
My favourite exhibit was the uncut sheet of a Ladybird book. As many of you will know, the small size of Ladybird books is due to the fact that each book was made from just one piece of paper – carefully laid out, folded and cut. What was particularly attractive about this uncut sheet is that it is of a Ladybird ABC book and therefore the layout of the pages is that much clearer than would be the case with another book. Another nice idea was to adapt this sheet into a simplified version so visitors can have a go at this process for themselves.
All in all I would say that the exhibition offers a sampling-table of all things Ladybird – a small taste of everything. Because the scope of the exhibition is so broad, covering books from 1914 to 2019 it can only skate over the surface of each aspect but that would probably suit most visitors. I would call it an exhibition for grown-ups – although there is a low colouring table and a picture trail to entertain children too. There are some vintage Ladybird books on sale outside the gallery and, apparently there will be some Ladybird merchandise to buy in the gift shop (although it was not there are the time of my visit).
As a matter of personal taste, I would have preferred something of a ‘busier’ look to the gallery, with more artwork on display and perhaps some more visual clues to the narrative of the exhibition. But I certainly enjoyed my visit and as an introduction to the history and scope of Ladybird books, I’m sure How it Works: Ladybird books will be very well received by visitors this spring and summer. If you visit, do let me know below what you think.
‘Ladybird Books: How it Works‘ Reading Musum, 30 Mar 2019 – 10:00am to 17 Aug 2019
‘The Wonderful World of the Ladybird Book Artists’ The New Walk Museum, Leicester, 12th July to 1st September 2019