The BLE Blog

Discovering vintage treasures

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Recently discovered original, and iconic, children’s book cover illustrations from the 1960s and 70s by the illustrator Mary Gernat-How are now up for licence at BLE. These original vibrant and colourful illustrations have never been seen in public before and now Mary’s son Roger is keen to explore licensing. 

Mary illustrated book covers for Armada paperbacks for such well-known titles as Billy Bunter, Biggles, Mallory Towers, St Clares, the Pony books and Just William.  She worked for authors such as Enid Blyton, Monica Edwards, Frank Richards, Captain W E Johns and the Pullein-Thompson sisters.

Roger alongside one of Mary’s illustrations

‘My mum’s lively illustrations are drenched in nostalgia’, said Roger. ‘They speak of a gentler time and represent the British national character and the nature of family life back in the days of long hot summers and dirty knees.’

Sandra Cain, Marketing Director of Mary Gernat-How tells us how she rediscovered these vintage treasures….

I stumbled upon this treasure trove when I went to visit local picture framer, Roger How.  As a lover of anything remotely ‘Blytonesque’, I was intrigued as to what this lot was doing on the floor … if there’s one thing that appeals to the jaded palette of us baby boomers, it’s a peek back to the past; those happy, carefree days of childhood adventures and the big outdoors.

“Mary Gernat was my mum,” said Roger. “She lived and worked in Lymington and illustrated over one hundred and twenty book covers for authors such as Enid Blyton, Monica Edwards, Richmal Crompton, Captain W. E. Johns, Frank Richards and the Pullein-Thompson sisters. My family are now the fortunate owners of the copyright of all the illustrations.”

Roger started to get the books out of the box, my mouth went dry and my palms began to sweat. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on them.

Mary at work
Mary at work

“You do know what you’ve got here, don’t you, Roger?”  I said . .. “a veritable cache of social history.”

“Yes, I know. I have hundreds of mum’s original illustrations in a huge cupboard at home. All the characters we know from our childhoods; Billy Bunter, Biggles, Just William, all the pony books, the girls from Mallory Towers and St Clares … tons of stuff.”

I remark on the lively drawings of the characters, mostly children and animals and the bright, intense colours of the illustrations. Roger chuckles, “A lot of those images of the boys were based on me and my brother, Francis.  Even our dog, Patch, got in on the act.  Mum would pay us in halfpennies and pennies to pose for her. ‘Roger,’ she’d say, ‘look like you’re casting a line to fish’, or, ‘Roger, look like you’re washing the dog in the bath’. It was a great way to earn a bit of pocket money.  Mum would do a quick three or four minute sketch and then turn it into something rather magical. She even got my dad, Michael, to pose for the character of the Blue Pirate in the Dragon Pirate stories by Sheila McCullagh.

Those books were school learning aids so dad managed to get his ‘pirated’ image into nearly every primary school in the 1960s. After mum died, I found a large piece of paper with doodles of dad sword fighting drawn on it.”

Mary Gernat was obviously prolific. “Her life changed when she got  a contract with Armada Paperbacks back in the 1960s.
Those books sold in all the commonwealth countries, South Africa, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, so a lot of people have seen her illustrations, although unfortunately, Armada never cracked the American market,” said Roger.

I remark on the wonderful legacy that Mary Gernat left to her son and ask Roger what he plans to do with all that wonderful original iconic artwork from Armada Paperbacks.

“I really don’t want mum’s work to be forgotten,” he said. “It smacks of nostalgia and speaks to us of golden times when it was safe to play outside, to invent games, to get our clothes grubby, have adventures and drink lashings of ginger beer.  Those characters are instantly recognisable, their vibrancy is compelling but most of all they are great fun. I now have a website of some of mum’s work where people can purchase high glycee prints.  But I really want to exhibit some of the more famous original illustrations.  After all, we all have an inner Bunter and I know my friend was desperate to go to boarding school because she was convinced it would be just like Mallory Towers  –  all midnight feasts and lacrosse. A revival of mum’s work would be great.”

“I’d like to licence some of the images for homeware. They are a brand in their own right. It would be great fun for kids to snuggle down in bed with a Bunter themed duvet cover or a Just William themed pillow case, or wear a Mallory Towers themed bathrobe. The opportunities are endless – but we’ll see,’ said Roger.  ‘My head is spinning with exciting possibilities, but the most important thing for me is just to keep interest alive. The original illustrations for the book covers have never been exhibited in public before and I think there would be real interest in them as a piece of social history. They tell us a bit about the British national character back in the 60s and 70s and the nature of family life. They are images of happiness, adventure and exploration.  These things are important. My next task is to garner interest in an exhibition, St. Barbe Museum in Lymington would be great, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London would be greater still,” he laughs.

Roger and his colleagues will be on stand J57.

Original article appeared in Hampshire Life Magazine, September 2015.

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