Wednesday 25 May 2016

Attack of the Killer Penguins

Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris are the two writers behind the wildly successful series of pastiche Ladybird books which bear (they claim) only a coincidental relationship to the conceptual artist Miriam Elia's We Go to the Gallery. This is clearly not the case. While they make chortling gags about Mums and Dads (in volumes designed to exploit Mothers' and Fathers' Day without so much as a whiff of cynicism) and use recycled existing Ladybird artwork, Elia was working at a different level entirely.
© Miriam Elia / Dung Beetle Books

With a scrupulous eye for detail she faithfully reproduced the long-defunct Ladybird early reader format within which she incorporated her own images to subvert orthodoxies in the contemporary art world. This modest crowd-funded project prompted a bullying response from Penguin Books, holders of the Ladybird copyright. As The Times Literary Supplement reported (TLS 12 March 2014), Penguin lawyers gave the artist "one month to cover her costs for producing the book after which remaining copies [were] to be destroyed'". This heavy-handed move was criticised by Mark Dolley, the son of the former Penguin chief executive Christopher Dolley, who wrote in an open letter:

Both Lane [Alan Lane, the Penguin founder] and my father must be rolling over in their graves at Penguin today both for missing a commercial opportunity and also making a crass attempt to stifle art. Far from trying to ban her work, both would have offered Ms Elia a commission . . . . [She] is to be commended for her contribution to the spirit and memory of a great British publishing tradition.

© Miriam Elia / Dung Beetle Books

Penguin belatedly recognised the commercial opportunity but did not see fit to commission further books from the artist. The company has since made a fortune from their spoof Ladybird series, recycling old illustrations to accompany Hazeley and Morris's humdrum gags about Hipsters and Husbands, Garden Sheds and Hangovers. For the two authors to deny a direct lineage is disingenuous, although their relentlessly chortling approach has nothing in common with the satirical wit and subversive originality of We Go to the Gallery. 

In The Sacred Wood T. S. Eliot wrote:' Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal', and that appears to be the case here. Miriam Elia has a great talent and has a fine website where you can learn more about this silly episode and see examples of her work.

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