diamond geezer

 Friday, January 30, 2015

It is the dream of every gallery curator to come up with an exhibition that everyone will want to visit.

"So, how about Ladybird books, then?"

And that's the majority of Britons over 40 hooked. We grew up on Ladybird books, either reading them or reading them to our children, and they represent something safe and cosy from our past. So the De la Warr Pavilion in Bexhill is onto a winner, aspirationally at least, between now and the middle of May.

If you've never visited the De la Warr before, it's gorgeous, a sleek Art Deco swoosh on the East Sussex coast. As well as an auditorium (coming soon, Alan Davies and Rick Wakeman) there are three galleries, with the largest on the ground floor current devoted to the humble Ladybird. I mean, what's not to love? [8 photos of the DLWP]

The introductory section of Ladybird by Design is brief, but includes the hand-drawn mock-up for the very first ornithological tome and an example of the single printed sheet that was chopped and folded to make each 56-page book. There's also a video, not the same as the recent BBC4 documentary, plus a terribly nice exhibition guide, fully illustrated. At £1 it's eight times more expensive than a Ladybird book used to be, but a delightful keepsake of your visit.

Along the main corridor are approximately 500 Ladybird books, cover by cover, from the curators' personal collection. This is a proper step back in time, with titles of books I once owned jumping out with a smile. Understanding Maps, Play with us, The Night Sky, Flight Four India, 'How It Works' Television, oh yes oh yes oh yes.

The main part of the exhibition, however, features over 200 original illustrations used across the series. These are the illustrators' final works, in enlarged size, with scribbled notes around the edges in the guillotine zone. And each is very much its own work of art. The wildlife scenes in What to Look for in Spring/Summer/Autumn/Winter are intricate, the characterisation in Well-Loved Tales: Cinderella accomplished, and blimey did they really use Letraset to label the diagrams in The Public Services: Electricity? As a representation of mid-to-late 20th century Britain, and middle class sensibilities, the Ladybird images are unparalleled social documents.

Three books have been selected for the full treatment, with each of their 24 illustrations presented sequentially. First up is Shopping with Mother, its sequential panels detailing a trip along Every-High-Street circa 1958. This is a retro treat, with a Julie Andrews-esque mother cajoling her perfect offspring from one generic shop to the next until they return home heavily laden to share their treasures with Dog and Cat. Wonderfully evocative of an era of drapers, grocers and ironmongers, it's hard not to imagine how tedious a hypermarket edition fifty years later would be.

From the early seventies we get every page of People at Work: In a Big Store. This visual trawl through a very different consumer experience features shopfloors and canteens, cashiers and storemen. Although only the pictures are present it's all too easy to imagine the words that would have accompanied them, so well drilled are we in Ladybird style. And the third volume to be so honoured is Tricks and Magic, from 1969, which was one of my very favourite books at the time. Many of these images are imprinted deep on my memory - how to switch two matchsticks, how to trace a magic square, and how to shake a wand to create a highly unconvincing wobble.

It being midweek, most of yesterday's audience was well past retirement age. The gallery was also relatively empty, which I doubt will be the case at weekends when nudging through to view the full sweep of images may be more difficult. The shop at the pavilion is very good, currently with a wide range of Ladybird-related stock, and the curator's £20 tome already out of print before the first week of the exhibition is up. If a trip to the De la Warr is always a pleasure, for the next few months upgrade that to a delight.

And OK, so Bexhill is a long way from London, if that's where you are - almost two hours by train. A ticket's not cheap either, more than £30 even for an off-peak return, perhaps putting this free exhibition out of reach. But I got there for only £17.90 by buying a Southern Offpeak DaySave. This can only be used after 10am (or any time at weekends), and has to be booked online at least three days in advance. But the ticket then allows you to wander anywhere on Southern's network, which is how I visited Bexhill and Eastbourne and Brighton yesterday before heading home. Plan ahead and the south coast is nearer, and cheaper, than you think.

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