Friday Book Design Blog: We Go To The Gallery

Jonathan Gibbs

we go to the gallery things Friday Book Design Blog: We Go To The Gallery
You may have seen this marvellous book bobbing around on the internet – a spoof Ladybird book called We go to the gallery, that goes all out to recreate the look and feel of the classic Key Words Reading Scheme, inside and out – except that this one has Peter and Jane confronting some of the more unsettling aspects of contemporary art, whether that’s the existentialist abyss opened up by a blank canvas (“The canvas is blank. Jane is blank”) or the visceral shock of seeing a huge painting of a vagina hung on the wall (“’Big vaginas are feminist,’ says Mummy. Peter is scared.”)

The book was created by artist Miriam Elia, in collaboration with her brother, Ezra. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she found herself on the end of a cease-and-desist letter from Penguin (who own the copyright to the Ladybird brand),offering to give her a month to sell enough copies of her first print run to cover her costs, after which she should destroy the remaining copies. It does seem an incredibly harsh and autocratic response to what is a non-commercial, artistic act, a homage to the original books.

Elia, who describes the past weeks as “exhausting”, says that Penguin UK remain “strongly opposed to the book” – not just for the original copyright reasons; they are now expressing “a moral objection to the ‘adult’ content”. But, ironically, Penguin USA, who publish another book of Elia’s - Edward the Hamster - ”love the book… So I’m presuming there’s some internal discussions going on within Penguin’s corporate arms/flippers.”

It’s not the first time Penguin have come down hard on an artist playing with the publisher’s design legacy in book form. In 2009 Billy Childish’s Selected Poems, made to look like a secondhand mid-century paperback, down to the discoloured pages and coffee stained cover, came under the same corporate cosh. He sold what he could, and burned the rest.

childish lawrence Friday Book Design Blog: We Go To The Gallery

I’m glad to say I’ve got copies of both books – not because I enjoy the thrill of the illicit (or not just that) – but because I’m a genuine fan of this kind of dedicated design homage. My memories of Peter and Jane are as fond as those of any middle-class kid brought up in 1970s Britain, but I’m quite capable of walking past them in second hand stores without succumbing to the temptation to buy them up. But when I find someone who shares that fondness, and acts on it to create something new, then I’m the first to applaud.

The fact is, Elia’s recreation of the Ladybird book is uncannily brilliant – from the illustrations, which mix collage and original painting , to the binding – with that shallow trench running down the spine edge of the front and back boards – and the front and end matter. Elia has even got her style down to one particular Ladybird illustrator – Harry Wingfield, whose drawings are recognisably that bit softer than his colleague Martin Aitchison. Here is her description of the process behind their creation:

I created a maquette book by sketching the rough outline compositions on to paper, using the Peter and Jane characters as a reference, juxtaposed against the artwork I imagined. Then I transferred my sketches on to watercolour board with carbon tracing. After that, I spent many hours using a mixture of watercolour and gouache to give the composition colour and bring the images to life.

At this point, I noticed that the original Peter and Jane characters were basically water-coloured over photographs, and the level of detail needed was impossible without a camera. So I digitally scanned all the paintings of characters I had created and merged them with the original illustrations and photographs on Photoshop. I used this technique for the backdrops and galleries too, and it produced a splendid effect. I called them ‘collage illustrations,’ but a lot of painting and drawing was involved too.

The next process was that myself and my brother Ezra responded to the illustrations I had created with the writing. It was an interesting way of working for us – creating the visuals first, and the text in response.

She has posted a letter on her website from Mark Dolley, who is the son of Christopher Dolley, Penguin’s Chief Executive from 1969 to 1973, and who remembers ‘approving’ Ladybird proofs at the tender but expert age of five. Far from condemning Elia’s work, he thinks Penguin should have given her a job – and that the Allen Lane who capitalised on the scandal of Lady Chatterley’s Lover would have thoroughly approved.

It’s hard not to agree. Clearly, Elia knows that what she is doing is not value-free; she talks knowledgeably about ‘appropriation art’, and says that a change in the law may be coming in the UK next month that would render the argument moot – while her book would probably be legal as it stands in Australia, the US and most of Europe. There’s even a subtle joke on the book cover, where it is labelled as part of the “Harlequin Ladybird Reading Scheme” – named after the invasive species that is currently overtaking the country, driving out our gentler native species.

That’s the subtlest joke, but the humour evinced by the text of the book is a pin-sharp, laser-guided takedown of the frail homilies of conceptual art – and of the parents who try to instill their own oh-so-radical ideas in their unfortunate offspring. I know, because I’m one, and I’ve given it to my kids to read. They survived. If all it was were the jokes, though, I wouldn’t have shelled out for the book. It’s the labour of love on every page that makes love it – and it’s that that should persuade Penguin to back down.

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