Monday, May 04, 2015

Ladybird By Design at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea

I woke up yesterday to rain and a possible day of grazing through Facebook, watching a black-and-white 1950s war film on TV or marking more than a hundred essays. None of those options appealed and on a whim I bought a ticket to Bexhill-on-Sea, on the principle that I'd feel terrible if I didn't see this exhibition.
It being a Sunday, the journey had it's gruelling aspects; the train was late out from Victoria, and to pass time I sampled a sandwich that was so disgusting (a cold sliced wool blanket) that I tweeted about it and got a reply from M&S that offered me a refund too late.
Bexhill was windy, white-skied and delivered a gusty, hefty sock in the jaw. It also appeared to be deserted until you actually got inside the De La Warr, where it was thronging with people of all shapes and sizes.
'Bloody hell, we had that book!' roared a middle-aged chap. He was articulating what we were all thinking.
As soon as you get in, you're presented with the sight of an unfolded book layout and a video which I couldn't look at because the room was so busy. I passed through into the next room where the whole of Shopping With Mother's original artwork lined the walls. It was amazing to see the delicate brushwork and the flicks of paint and little notes off-image, 'buttons on girls coat belt', neatly written in pencil. I had this book as a child, yes, and was fascinated by this parallel family who also had a Golden Retriever.
The pictures provoked memories of being brought up on buns, bacon and jam; yet Mother glided through its pages in a trim, neat brown tailored suit, and was remarkably slender and shapely. The paintings are oversized and give you the opportunity to investigate the painter's technique: so much care has gone into the colours of the shadows and indeed the colours in general, which are bright, optimistic and a nod in the direction of technicolour, surely influenced by American films of the 1950s. They are utterly beautiful, and slightly Pollyanna-ish; the little boy looks unusually excited by the daffodils in the flower-shop, for instance, and there are no mis-spellings in the greengrocer's shop.
In the next room, Ladybird became a bit more ruffty-tuffty. Here is what dad did, all those years ago: there is artwork from books on Miners and Roadmakers with an appropriately darker palette of colours, but just as much detail, from the People at Work series. A picture of chefs in kitchen is a masterpiece of miniature photo-realism, as is the painting of seamstresses sitting round a table doing instant alterations. There is a political story being told through this history, in all its detail and colour that you don't find in black and white photos from the era. Although they are idealised snapshots, the whole narrative is really carefully told and full of talking points. I've used some of the science series in lectures to illustrate girls note-taking while boys actively experiment, but actually you can see just how occupied and busy everyone was. Consumerism is there, but so is the industry that feeds the consumers. Nature is present too, in detail and for posterity, record-keeping carefully blended with aesthetics and educational value.
As the narrative drifts towards the seventies, we see cultural variety; there are young black children on the bus, and the ubiquity of quilted anoraks strikes a chord of uncool nostalgia. Some of the later artwork has lost its vitality, possibly as the publishers lost direction. There is one particularly dynamic picture, though, in which a grey-haired man appears to be falling backwards in a cardboard cannon factory, that made me want to write an alternative story, not quite so subversive as Miriam Elias, perhaps, more along the lines of The Magic Roundabout.
I thought there was too much- but of course, that's not right. There is something for everybody here. It's a fantastic exhibition of British culture. More of that in a minute.
I went to the cafe. Where were the pink buns with a cherry on top, the iced fingers and the sausage rolls? They had missed a trick (wouldn't it have bene wonderful if they'd thought it through and we could choose from some of those colourful selections at the 1960s bakers?) and I decided to give it a miss and went to the fish and chip shop instead, scoffing the food on a bench on the seafront in the cold wind and being stalked by a very persistent seagull.
One final thought: Britain of the 1960s and 1970s was never the country that UKIP is trying to steer us back towards. You can see where the idea comes from but the Ladybird reality, in spite of its primary colours and never-was nostalgia, was exceptionally nuanced and had built into it the concept of change, dynamics, and an appreciation for every different aspect of society, from industrialisation to ruralism. I found this to be uplifting and in spite of the round trip taking seven hours door-to-door, it was a grand day out (see what I did just there?).
Go: next Sunday is the last day... and all this is free!

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