Picture books for all: the journey of an exhibition

An image of a seahorse in red surrounded by the text: Picture Books for All, The Fine Printing of W.S. Cowell Ltd, The Press In The Butter Market

Nearly 3 years ago, when staring out of the window of a staff room at the University of Suffolk and watching Suffolk Archives’ new headquarters, The Hold, be built right next door to us, my colleague Rob Ramsden and I ruminated on what the archive of W.S. Cowell Ltd might have in it. That this archive would soon be our neighbour was a tantalising thought.

For the uninitiated, Cowell’s, as they are more often referred to, was an Ipswich based printers that helped to develop the market for picture books in Britain by printing the first UK edition of Babar the Elephant. They went on to be instrumental in launching Puffin Picture Books at the outbreak of the Second World War, with book designer and editor Noel Carrington and Penguin Books supremo Allen Lane. Into the 1950s and 1960s they worked with leading illustrators and artists of the day, including Kathleen Hale, Edward Ardizzone, Hilary Stebbing, Pablo Picasso, Eric Ravilious and David Gentleman, to name but a few.

A photograph of the front of 2 Babar the Elephant picture books. The left hand book features an illustration of Babar on a horse with a flag in its trunk, and the right hand image features Babar and wife Celeste in the basket of a hot air balloon.

Rob and I had both discussed Cowell’s many times before, having a shared love of Ruth Artmonsky’s book: Do You Want It Good Or Do You Want It Tuesday? The halcyon days of W.S. Cowell Ltd. Printers. This slim volume, published by Artmonsky Arts in 2012, is the only book we’ve come across that is solely dedicated to the W.S. Cowell story. They are mentioned in various other publications about the wider story of fine illustration printing, but this is usually alongside British printers contemporary to them, such as the prestigious east London based Curwen Press. They have also been spoken of in the pages of Eye magazine on several occasions, as well as mentioned in passing in such titles as Theo Inglis’ Mid-Century Modern Graphic Design, (Batsford, 2019).

A photograph of the front cover of Ruth Artmonsky's book: Do You Want It Good or Do You Want it Tuesday? The halcyon days of W.S. Cowell Ltd. Printers.

For Rob and I though, that Cowell’s were an Ipswich firm, and that their story has often been overshadowed by others, was something we felt the need to address. As we stared out of that window we hatched plans to put a proposal together to Suffolk Archive’s exhibition committee, knowing that the new building would have a dedicated gallery space. The chance to have a Cowell’s exhibition in the heart of Ipswich, less than a mile from where they were based in the town’s Butter Market, was too good an idea not to act on.

With very little experience in curation and only our imagination to go on as to what the Cowell’s archive consisted of, we hastily put together a proposal that, to our amazement, was accepted. And so the story of Picture Books for All began, as did Rob’s and my fascination with seahorses.

A photograph of a page from a book that explains the relevance of the Seahorse as the emblem used by W.S Cowell Ltd. At the top is an illustration of a seahorse, below that the words: The Seahorse, underneath which is the Latin name for seahorse and some text.

The launch date of the exhibition was duly set for October 2022, but with the archive off-limits during the building of The Hold, and then with pandemic restrictions in place, the first year and a half of planning fell to lots of background reading and building up our own collection of books that either mention Cowell’s, or were printed by them.

A photograph of a collection of books stacked one on top of the other, showing their spines.

We finally got into the archives just over a year ago, and despite the richness of some of what it held, we came away slightly deflated as they consisted mostly of internal records of the firm, such as letterheads and promotional items, alongside press clippings and photographs of book fairs. The printed output of the firm we were hoping to find, such as a treasure trove of Puffin Picture Books and sheets of their infamous Plasticowell, wasn’t there. Having worked in the print trade myself prior to my graphic design and academic careers, I knew many printers keep a copy of everything they print—either W.S. Cowell didn’t, or these items were not donated to Suffolk Archives.

A photograph of letterheaded paper used by W.S Cowell Ltd, alongside press adverts and other business paperwork.

Relying on our personal collections, and borrowing from other collectors has been the only option available to us as a result, but we are pleased to say that the narrative of the exhibition is taking shape, original artwork and printed books have been sourced, and we are well on our way to, what we hope, will be a visually rich exhibition of W.S. Cowell Ltd and their relationship with picture books.

The archive has revealed interesting things though, and these have led us in directions we hadn’t previously considered, such as a magazine printed by the firm that showcased British art schools of the 1960s called Chalk. That Cowell’s head of design, John Lewis, also taught at the Royal College of Art, (RCA), and their infamous journal Ark was printed by Cowell’s, means a section of the exhibition will be dedicated to the firms interest and support for creative education. There is a nice circular link in this that many of the people going through these art schools will in all likelihood have been influenced as children by the output of Cowell’s via Babar and Puffin titles. That, and the fact Rob and I are lecturers on the Graphic Design degree courses at the University of Suffolk, to which a direct linage can be traced back to Ipswich Art School, with whom Cowell’s also worked.

A photograph of 3 copies of Ark Journal laying overlapping each other.

We have also drafted in our colleague, fellow lecturer at University of Suffolk Vassiliki Tzomaka, to curate the final section of Picture Books for All that will explore the impact of Cowell’s on contemporary children’s picture books.

What is frustrating is that we cannot feature everything we think is important about W.S Cowell, given the limited space available in The Hold’s gallery. For example, their contribution to the development of typography in the UK, and in particular, John Lewis’s multiple books on the topic, will unfortunately only be afforded passing mention in sections on the history of the firm through the ages. This topic could be an exhibition in its own right, but we thought a more visually vibrant and inclusive exhibition, and one of more interest to communities in Ipswich, would be a dedicated theme of picture books.

A photograph of a book cover featuring different illustrated seahorses in white, red and yellow, overlaid with the text: A Book of Typefaces, with some illustrated examples of text and display settings. W.S Cowell Ltd.

Rob and I have developed different interests within the Cowell story as we have been researching and crafting the narrative we want to tell through Picture Books for All. For Rob, as an illustrator, it is one that is of importance to the quality of printed illustrations, how industry and artists work together, and how this influences how an illustrator’s vision is recorded and shared with the world. He also has a keen interest in contemporary illustrators who take influences from Cowell’s time period, despite not having the limitations that steered some of the visual choices of those working at that time. For me, alongside wanting to showcase the important history of Ipswich to the wider-world, (a town that is often overlooked in favour of its bigger and more affluent neighbouring towns and cities), I have grown more interested in where Cowell sit in the history of modernism in Britain, and their contribution to society through design. To me, this story sits as an equal to the likes of the Festival of Britain, Design Research Unit, (DRU), and the development of the British road signage system. In their dedication to quality picture book printing for the general populace, they espoused the ideals of Ken Garland’s First Things First manifesto many years before it was written.

With some months left to go until the launch of the exhibition, the next stage Rob and I are working on is the panel display text, work that will see us into the autumn before we have to start the final planning of objects in cabinets and a visual identity for the show, (of which the first image above is the start of that particular process). We also have future plans for a publication as an extension of the exhibition.

Picture Books for All opens on 20 October 2022, and runs until January 2023, at Suffolk Archive’s The Hold in Ipswich. More details will be posted here nearer the time.

A photograph of a printed book plate—a rectangle of paper with an illustrated W.S. Cowell emblem of a seahorse, and the text: The Seahorse, symbol of the best in Fine Book Printing, W.S.Cowell Ltd, Butter Market, Ipswich, 23 Percy Street, London, W1.

Published by Nigel Ball

Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design

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