I know the saccharine sweetness of the book cover above will be too much for some people, but this book should be a special one to Ladybird book collectors and is particularly significant to me. Let me explain why.
1） It is, I believe, the first Ladybird book to be illustrated by Harry Wingfield and Wingfield went on to be Ladybird’s most extensively employed artist of all.
But the amount of work he produced doesn’t really sum up Wingfield’s importance to Ladybird. I think it would be fair to say that for many, Harry Wingfield’s artwork epitomises Ladybird*. If you ask someone of a certain age to picture a Ladybird – Wingfield images such as these may first spring to mind:
What’s more, Wingfield’s hand can be spotted in a lot of other Ladybird illustrations that he isn’t credited for; from time to time Keen was probably dissatisfied with an aspect of an illustration provided by another artist and quietly-quietly that picture would find its way on to Harry’s easel to be given that Wingfield-Ladybird touch.
2) The publication and success of this particular book is something of a milestone in the Ladybird story because it clearly marks the growing influence of Douglas Keen at Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird).
Harry Wingfield was brought into the Ladybird fold by company rising-star Douglas Keen: his protégé. Keen and Wingfield had met some years previously when Keen was working for Wills & Hepworth as a commercial traveller and Wingfield was working as an illustrator of technical manuals. Although extremely different men in personality and outlook, a friendship was formed which was to last over half a century. Unlike all the other freelance artists employed over the years, once Wingfield – began working for Ladybird, I don’t believe he ever worked for anyone else.
As Douglas Keen increased his grip on the editorial content, Ladybird’s success grew and grew – and Wingfield workload increased. This book marks the start of that arc.
3) This book was the prototype of probably the best-loved Ladybird series ever.
Not everyone loves the Well-Loved Tales series of the 1960s and 1970s but, if you read them when you were a young child then the chances are that, even today, you have a very soft spot for them indeed. Douglas Keen (by this point Editorial Director) was himself much more enthusiastic about publishing non-fiction than fiction, but when the decision was made to produce an extensive series of fairy tales and folk tales from around the world, Keen’s thoughts must have gone straight back to this book – Harry’s first work for Ladybird.
Everything about the style and format of the Well-Loved Tales is reminiscent of the Wingfield/Lund** book – except for the fact that the earlier book contained two stories instead of one. However, in 1963, when the WLT series was in production, Harry’s time was completely taken up by the even bigger project of the Peter and Jane Key Word reading scheme. So Keen turned to Eric Winter and Robert Lumley to illustrate the stories – all of which were re-told by educationalist Vera Southgate. It turned out these were inspired choices and these two artists absolutely made this series their own. Who else could have created Puss in Boots or Rumpelstiltskin than Eric Winter? Who else could have given us the Magic Porridge Pot or the Elves and the Shoemaker but Robert Lumley? But the early inspiration is plain to see when you compare Harry’s book with the later Eric Winter version of the same tales.
I wonder how many people over the years have bought the wrong book and been a bit puzzled by the ways it differed from the memory?
Now, on to the next section – the personal significance of this book.
a) Red Riding Hood was the first Ladybird book I every received new as a child. ‘New’ as in ‘not secondhand’ – I was born the 1960s so it had been in print for some years (she explains, hastily). But on my 4th birthday, this book was a gift – it was mine and it was brand new, which was a treat because my parents were teachers and I grew up with a number of well-read old Ladybird books around the house. Maybe that is why it is the only Ladybird book in my extensive collection that has stayed with me since childhood. My name is written in shaky letters on the endpapers and my brother at some point defaced the cover. But it still has the time-travelling power of nostalgia when I hold it.
b) You would think that the large picture at the top of this post shows old book in excellent condition. But appearances here are deceptive. This copy is a facsimile edition – one of several such issued by Penguin Random House (the current brand owners) from around 2015. 2015 was the year that PRH chose – for somewhat dubious reasons — to celebrate the Ladybird brand’s centenary. As part of these celebrations, a collaboration with magazine-giant De Agustini began. The idea was to make a part-work magazine about vintage Ladybird – each edition including a facsimile Ladybird, lots of related articles and the inevitable free gifts. The hope was that this would tap into the nostalgia market and ride the wave of centenary publicity. As usual with such projects, just five editions of the magazine were actually produced and it was launched in only one trial area of the country to see how it fared. Not as well as had been hoped; uptake must have been disappointing because the project quietly folded.
So why do I mention this event in the personal section of this post? Because at the start of this project I was appointed consultant. My job was just to proof-read the publication, written by a more experienced hand than mine and to point out glaring inaccuracies. Although I had mixed feelings about the magazine, the work was right up my street and – let’s face it – work is a bit thin on the ground for a vintage-Ladybird-book consultant.
But out alack it was but one hour mine.
Last week I saw this particular once-was-magazine-book for sale on eBay and recognised it for what it was and bought it for old times’ sake. It got me thinking – and that’s why I sat down to write this blog post.
c) The final reason why this book is special to me is that the artwork for the cover was the first piece of original Ladybird artwork I ever acquired. At the time I thought I was spending far too much money on it – but I’ve never regretted it. The picture is big and bold and – yes saccharine-sweet but it has a story to tell about my childhood and about the history of Ladybird. And so I love it.
If you are able to come and visit my Ladybird Artists exhibition, which will be back travelling around the country again as soon as museums reopen, you will be able to see this picture on display and now will know a little more about it.
* Yes, if you read my last post about there being no real Ladybird style then I could certainly be accused of contradicting myself here.
**The 413 versions of the 2 stories were recounted by Gilda Lund. This was the only book she ever wrote for Ladybird).