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Re-Creating Ladybird Book Astronomy Artwork


Do you remember these Ladybird titles? If you’re a certain age you probably do. If not, this article may not make much sense!

I grew up with Ladybird books and I particularly loved the titles on space and astronomy. These little books had loads of astronomy experiments you could try – making simple telescopes and so on – along with brief articles about astronomy and space.

Here – purely for a bit of nostalgic fun - I try re-creating some of them and the associated artwork. There are loads to try, so I will probably update this with more in time.

Cover Image from ‘The Night Sky’

The thing that really hooked me on the Ladybird books was the gorgeous artwork, so typical of the 1950s and 60s somehow. I particularly loved the romanticised twilight shots, like the evocative cover of ‘The Night Sky’, with its brilliant stars and silhouetted houses.

The Ladybird artists liked these kind of scenes; below are that cover image along with two more from the same Ladybird title with a similar aesthetic. But are they just pre-streetlight, mid-century romanticism, or could you take a photo that includes those same elements – the lucent sky, bright stars, and cosy Moon?

The fourth image is my attempt at something similar. To get this kind of aesthetic you need at least a decent compact camera, preferably with a tripod and the ability to take manual control of the exposure. A fairly wide angle lens setting helps too. I played around with the exposure to get the effect I wanted.

Crescent Moon and Venus in a dusk sky. Fuji XM-1 with 23mm lens.1/15th at ISO 3200 and F5.6.

Making a Telescope from ‘Light, Mirrors and Lenses’

On page 32 of ‘Light, Mirrors and Lenses’ is a description of how to make the simplest form of refractor. The book suggests using two convex ‘spectacle’ lenses. I didn’t have two suitable lenses (most of the ones I could find would have made the scope too long to fit on a ruler), so I modified the recipe slightly to use a 50mm bi-convex objective lens as described, but with a plano-concave eye lens to create a Galilean refractor.

A simple refractor made with 30cm a ruler, two lenses and a lump of blu-tak.

The result worked quite well, just as the book describes! I was able to make out the largest Lunar craters with more detail than the naked eye and perhaps not far off Galileo’s first Lunar views from the early Seventeenth century.

Below is the original artwork and my attempt at re-creating it.

Fork Rest for a Spyglass from ‘The Night Sky’

Using a spy-glass for astronomy by resting it on a garden fork is an idea from page 4 of the ‘The Night Sky’. A typical brass-and-leather spy-glass like the one shown has a magnification of 15-20x – too much for hand holding, especially given its narrow field of view, so some type of rest is required. But would this work?

We tried the same trick using a garden fork and a century-old Parker Hale 50mm spy-glass with an achromatic lens and a magnification of 20x.

The Ladybird says (in a mid-century cut-glass British accent): ‘Keep the telescope steady, and start sighting the object across the top of the tube before you look through the eyepiece.’

We did just that and found it a surprisingly convenient way to look at a low setting Moon in the morning sky (actually facing the opposite direction which made a photo difficult). ‘Jolly good show, what?’

Held steady on the fork, that old spy-glass turned out to have pretty good optics and showed a lot of detail on the Moon (much better than most cheap porro-prism spotting scopes). Using the same arrangement at night on Jupiter high in the sky was much less practical, for obvious reasons!

Again, below are the Ladybird original and my re-creation (we had no schoolboy-in-Oxfords on hand to partner with binos, unfortunately).

Using a fork as a rest for a spy-glass.

Firework Rocket from ‘Exploring Space’

Another Ladybird painting I loved as a kid is on page 6 of Exploring Space’, entitled ‘Launching a rocket – November 5th’.

Yes, I know fireworks aren’t PC anymore. Anyway, here is the original and my attempt to re-create it with a photo (in practice getting that close just ain’t safe, so no people in my photo!)

I used a tripod, and a fast wide-angle lens with a slow shutter speed and moderate ISO.

Firework rocket and stars – around Nov 5th. Fuji XM-1 with 23mm lens: 8s at ISO 1000 and F2.