Of all the ‘golden age’ Ladybird artists, it could be argued that Ronald Lampitt has the most distinctive style. He never received formal art training and it is interesting to speculate whether, had he attended art college, something of this individuality would have been lost.
Born in March 1906, Ronald was the oldest of the three boys born to Roland Edward Lampitt and Florence (nee Pope). The family were comfortably off but, when young Ronald was offered a place to study at The Slade, his father refused to let him go, advising him to “get a proper job”.
Ronald never got that ‘proper job’. Self-taught as an artist, he began to take on work as a commercial illustrator. Shortly before the war, in 1938, he married Mona Deverson, six years his junior.
|A study of Mona by Lampitt|
During the war he worked in Intelligence and although (perhaps inevitably) the nature of this work is unknown, it is possible that his wartime work helped develop his exceptional topographical accuracy and the ability to animate technical drawings into something visually rich and appealing.
|‘Illustrated’ magazine, April 1950|
After the war he regularly found work with the popular weekly magazine ‘John Bull’. In this he was very much assisted by his brother-in-law Harry Deverson, a successful Fleet Street journalist with a bulging book of contacts. The work for John Bull became a staple for Lampitt over the period when the magazine was published by Odhams – from the 1940s to its closure in the early 60s. The magazine was known to employ some of the best contemporary commercial artists and prided itself on its appealing, distinctive cover pictures so it is quite some achievment that Lampitt’s commissions so often included these covers.
Some John Bull covers
A weekly magazine, each John Bull cover illustration took several weeks to complete and provided a steady income stream at a time where commercial illustration was more perilous employment than most. However, Lampitt enjoyed other successful relationships with other companies, including for Medici cards, Readers Digest, Look and Learn magazine and the Whitbread calendar.
A book that many will remember from school, The Map that Came to Life was produced in 1948, with friend and brother-in-law Harry Deverson. This book, which introduces map reading to children via the story of two children going for a walk, was followed some years later by The Open Road – in which the same two children explore the countryside with Uncle George, in his Hillman Minx Convertible Coupe.
Presumably it was these books which drew Lampitt to the attention of Ladybird’s Editorial Director, Douglas Keen. Over a 7 year period, Lampitt produced the artwork for 9 Ladybird books – all of which were to prove something of a fixture on school bookshelves over the period and beyond. These titles were:
‘Animals and How They Live’ written by Frank Newing and Richard Bowood, 1965.
‘Plants and How They Grow’ by Frank Newing and Richard Bowood,1965.
‘Birds and How They Live’ by Frank Newing and Richard Bowood, 1966.
‘A Ladybird Book of Our Land in the Making: Book 1: Earliest Times to the Norman Conquest’ by Richard Bowood, 1966.
‘A Ladybird Book of Our Land in the Making: Book 2: Norman Conquest to Present Day’ by Richard Bowood, 1966.
‘Understanding Maps’ by Nancy Scott. Loughborough, 1967.
‘Learning About Insects and Small Animals’ by Romola Showell, 1972.
‘What to Look for Inside a Church’ by P. J. Hunt, 1972
‘What to Look for Outside a Church’ by P. J. Hunt, 1972
These last books were published at a time of great change for Ladybird. Douglas Keen was looking to retire and, together with his co-directors, the decision was made to sell the company to a large publishing conglomerate. Perhaps somewhere in this upheaval lies the reason why Lampitt illustrated nothing more for Ladybird.
Although born in the West Country, Lampitt lived most of his life in Sidcup and loved the Kent countryside. He was a good friend of Roland and Edith Hilder, who had previously illustrated ‘Wild Flowers’ for Ladybird, and together they formed a sketching club, going out for long walks in the countryside around Shoreham, armed with sketch pads.
|This Kentish scene is by artist and friend Roland Hilder|
|Farmyard at Dusk|
Lampitt was a private man: sociable when among a small group of friends and family (the Deversons in particular) but with little interest in seeking entertainment further afield. When engaged on a project he spent long hours in his ‘studio’ – a room at the top of the family home, coming down only for meals. He died in 1988, aged 82, after a long fight with Parkinson’s disease.
Growing up in the 1970s, I have long-standing memories of Lampitt’s artwork, mainly from using ‘Our Land in the Making’ and ‘Plants and How they Grow’ for school projects. I wasn’t interested in maps and associated his work with school and with the muted, muddy colours which are a characteristic of those books. It wasn’t until years later, when I came across other work that he produced, for Readers Digest, Look and Learn, the Whitbread Calendar and John Bull, that I fell in love with the wistful, nostalgic appeal of his landscapes, with expansive views dotted with the elm-trees, small lanes and oast house and tiny figures engaged in daily activity.
While generally favouring a muted palette range, the colour and vibrancy of this ‘Look and Learn’ cover, for example, show how comfortable he was with a colour range in marked contrast to the grey-green hues of most of his Ladybird artwork.
|A Look and Learn cover illustration|
I would love to own a Lampitt original and I feel that if I were lucky enough to have the painting ‘Skating by Moonlight’ on my own wall, I would have no excuse for ever feeling sad again.
|Skating by moonlight|
Having learnt more about his other work and then coming back to his work for Ladybird I found a renewed appreciate for his style and for his distinctive, off-beat charm even in the books with which I was most familiar. Now I am in awe of his breathtakingly detailed cityscapes and of his quirky, minutely observed crowd scenes. And one his railway posters, a view of Harlech castle, is one of my most treasured possessions.
|Harlech Castle – Railway poster|
There will be an exhibition featuring Ronald Lampitt’s work, along with other Ladybird book ‘golden-age’ artists, at New Walk Museum in Leicester, 13th July – 1st Sept 2019