MARCH 26, 2024

Review: The Wonderful World of the Ladybird Book Artists at the Victoria Art Gallery, Bath.

My heart sank when I showed the cover of the Ladybird book Julius Caesar and Roman Britain to my brother who remarked ‘Empire propaganda.’ He had missed the point. Yes, the illustrations and books of the Ladybird company reflected the era of 1945 to 1972 with its conventions and assumptions of post war Britain rooted in earlier decades of Empire. As someone brought up on Janet and John books the style with its preponderance of white middle-class families in the everyday scenes depicted, were familiar, if dated. That aside it’s the quality of the illustrations, the typography and book design that still delights – and this brilliant exhibition is a triumph.

I don’t go much for the so-called spoof versions which attempt to send up the style with titles like The Hipster and The Hangover – far removed from the innocence and beauty of the original style first formulated in 1940 when the small hardbacks were first published. In an exhibition of at Bath’s Victoria Art Gallery entitled The Wonderful World of the Ladybird Book Artists, Helen Day has curated a visual and written history of the books, their publishers, commissioners, writers and artists in a joyous celebration. It’s more about the artists rather than the books as all the illustrators had careers creating posters, wall charts, comics, magazines, commercial work and the books that predated the Ladybird books for their publishers Wills & Hepworth. Before the advent of colour photography used in most publications full colour illustrations dominated and they had the advantage of illustrating scenes from nursery rhymes, history and everyday life – including the future.

I chatted to several people – and dare I say it (like me) they were of a certain age – essentially they were in primary school in those decades after World War Two. “It brings it all back,” was one phrase repeated several times while others told me they still had their Ladybird books and were going to dig them out when they got home and have a read. Sadly, I had got rid of most of my childhood books although I still have a copy of The Ladybird Book of British Wild Animals with its ‘Empire era’ hedgehogs, red deer and foxes of course – beautifully illustrated by Roland Green in 1958. More of his work was on display – and what was so good were the texts by the illustrations on show giving a vivid depiction of the life and work of so many artists.

Helen Day explained a little about the artists in the exhibition. She wrote: “The exhibition sets these artists in context and highlights other work that they produced. John Kenney, for example, who illustrated most of the History books for Ladybird, also illustrated Thomas the Tank Engine. Ronald Lampitt, who lived most of his life in Kent and loved the local scenery, painted many beautiful and evocative scenes of country and suburban life for publications such as Illustrated, John Bull, Look and Learn and Readers Digest.

“Harry Wingfield and Martin Atichison are today perhaps best known for illustrating the Peter and Jane books that taught so many of us to read. But Aitchison’s wartime service saw him working with Barnes Wallis, producing artist’s impressions to help sell the idea of the Dambusters bouncing bomb – which was tested at Reculver. John Berry had a great gift for portraiture and this can be seen in his powerful portraits of People at Work for Ladybird Books. It can also be seen at the Imperial War Museum, where his wartime work as a war artist and portrait painter is still on display today. Frank Hampson created the character of Dan Dare and was at the forefront of The Eagle magazine for many years.”

The overall effect of the exhibition was to create broad smiles and conversations filled with nostalgia – when summers were filled with sunshine, school holidays went on forever and heavy snow fell in the winters – or so we like to recall. It’s enjoyable to look back and this exhibition certainly aids the process and judging by the large numbers of people there on a chilly midweek day, Ladybird books have a place in a good many of the generation of baby boomers’ hearts. And fiddlesticks to the revisionist historians who can only see evidence of ‘Empire propaganda’ rather than the skills of the artists.

Harry Mottram


The Victoria Gallery says this in its information: “Tracing the interconnected work of these artists, the company’s story is recounted over Ladybird’s ‘golden years’ – 1940 to 1975. Visually rich and varied, the exhibition will evoke many memories of childhood.  Hundreds of Ladybird books are available for visitors to browse through and share in our themed retro reading areas. There’s lots for children to enjoy, with a free exhibition ‘I Spy’ trail and a quirky ‘Coco the Caravan’ reading den. Find out more on our Thursday lunchtime tours, 1.30 – 2.00pm every week, free with an exhibition ticket.”

The exhibition runs until Sunday 14th April, 2024. Open 10.30am to 4pm.

For more on the books and the publisher of Ladybird Books visit Helen Day’s website at

For details of the Victoria Art Gallery and its other exhibitions visit

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