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Monday, June 09, 2014

Robert Ayton

Robert Ayton was a popular illustrator and artist with the Eagle group, best-known for his work on the historical strip 'Jack o’Lantern'. He was also the artist for around 50 volumes for Ladybird Books, which will be our subject for this week on Bear Alley. But first, a little about Ayton.

Robert Ayton was born in Bowes Park, Wood Green, on 12 May 1915, the second son (of four) of William Norton Ayton (1871-1928) and his wife Mabel Minnie (née Jones, 1886-1964). The family moved to Dagmar Avenue, Wembley, when Robert was 4 and shortly before he began attending Park Lane Primary School. Rupert Ayton, Robert's grandson, describes his grandfather as "a free spirit. I think he got this from childhood... his mother was stone deaf and lacked coping mechanisms. The four boys ran wild and one can only guess that Robert was the wildest, The deep scar over his left eye was the result of a free-for-all among the boys over a fruit bowl. Evidently Rob had his face in it when it shattered under duress. He was also a very good school boy hurdler, which takes a certain devil-may-care attitude." In later life, Rupert says, he was "a bon vivant. Full of large getures. Very outgoing. Very charming. A little flirtatious. He was always very positive and gave everyone he met a boost."

William Ayton died suddenly in 1928 when Robert was nearly 13, and the boy was offered an apprenticeship with Adkin & Sons, part of Imperial Tobacco, who had employed his father and grandfather. Robert turned down the job, despite the reversal of the family's fortunes, and instead began attending Harrow School of Art in around 1930, with occasional additional spells at St. Martin's Central School and Hammersmith School of Art.

After completing his studies he worked for several advertising agencies before going freelance, his clients including Rolls Royce. His most significant client was probably Castrol for whom he produced numerous illustrations of cars, boats and aircraft. ("I think he may have worked for Dorland's initially and perhaps directly for Castrol later on," says Rupert Ayton. "Wakefield, who owned Castrol, seemed very magnanimous and I can see him contracting with Robert directly." His advertising appeared in numerous magazines, including Flight, The Aeroplane and Popular Flying.

During 1939, Ayton met his wife-to-be, Joan K Elmes, who lived locally and had seen her husband to be from her bedroom window as a teenager. They married three years later whilst Ayton was on leave from serving in the Army as a dispatch rider in France and Germany; later, he was part of the military police, processing prisoners of war in Germany.

After his demob, the couple moved to Earl's Court and later to Barnes. In the late 1950s they began renting a house in Montacute, a village near Yeovil in Somerset. In the early 1960s, they moved again, to Brockley Elm Farm, Backwell, south-west of nearby Bristol, where Joan worked worked as a personal secretary at Bristol Infirmary. "She really made him what he was," says Rupert Ayton. "Joan gave him that boost in confidence that was behind his personality. And Robert, being a free spirit, she kept the house together. They never had any money and I think the bailiff was no stranger to them. But that is part of what made Robert who he was."

Returning to freelance work after the War, Ayton was influenced by conversations with fellow artist Norman Williams to offer his services to comics; Williams was by then working for Eagle, and found the regular deadlines and steady pay advantageous. Ayton had, in 1946 or 1947, produced a strip 'Children of the New Forest' for The Joyride Comic, a slim, cheaply produced independent published by William Foster. Now, Ayton was offered a far more substantial strip, 'Jack o'Lantern', starring a young orphan in early nineteenth century London named Jack Yorke. Escaping the orphanage, he discovers that his father is alive, but now a highwayman trying to recover his good name after being cheated of his fortunes by his brother, Humphrey. Jack saves his father from the gallows. Jack's adventures also involved him with spies, escaped prisoners and took him to France and the Napoleonic wars.

Beginning in January 1955, Ayton produced almost 250 weekly episodes of 'Jack o'Lantern' in full colour from scripts by George Beardmore. Ayton would research the strips heavily to make sure that the clothing, uniforms and settings were all authentic. His wife later recalled tramping around and photographing the village of Bosham when Ayton needed location reference material for the Jack o'Lantern story 'The Moonshiners'.

Ayton continued to work on the Eagle until 1959, tired of deadlines and keen to face other challenges, but did not cut all ties, as he continued to turn out half-pagers for Girl amongst other comic work.After a two-year break, he took on a back-cover biography for Eagle, 'The Golden Man', the story of Sir Walter Raleigh, scripted by Marcus Morris and Guy Daniel, which replaced Frank Hampson's epic 'The Road to Courage' after Easter 1961.

Beginning in 1960 he was the first of many Eagle artists to contribute illustrations to Ladybird Books, producing at least 40 title for them, and illustrating many books for the Oxford University Press, and two books for a Welsh language publisher. He also became a part-time lecturer at the West of England College of Art and produced background work for BBC Bristol, including The Animal Game, The Countryman and Ramshackle Road. In 1980 he was elected an artist member of the Bristol Savages

In 1983, Ayton moved to a small glassworker's row house in Nailsea, near Clevedon. He died there following a heart attack in Spring 1985, aged 70. He was survived by Joan, who died in 1997.

PUBLICATIONS

Illustrated Books
The Story of Flight by Richard Bowood. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1960.
Great Inventions by Richard Bowood. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1961.
Railways by Richard Bowood. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1961.
Ships by Richard Bowood. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1961.
The Story of the Motor Car by David Carey. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1962.
The Ladybird Book of the Weather by F. E. Newing & Richard Bowood. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1962.
The Story of Houses and Homes by Richard Bowood. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1963.
The Story of Clothes and Costumes by Richard Bowood. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1964.
The Story of Churches and Cathedrals by Richard Bowood. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1964.
The Night Sky by Mary T. Bruck. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1965.
The First Ladybird Key Words Picture Dictionary by J. McNally. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1965.
The Story of Our Rocks and Minerals by Allen White. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1966.
The Ladybird Book of Toys and Games to Make by James Webster. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1966.
A Ladybird Book of Musical Instruments by Ann Rees. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1966.
A Ladybird Book of Your Body by David Scott-Daniell. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1967.
The Story of Oil by W. D. Siddle. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1968.
The Story of Lighthouses, Lightships and Lifeboats by Olwen Reed. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1968.
The Story of Radio by F. G. Goodall. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1968.
Tricks and Magic by James Webster. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1969.
The Story of Printing by David Carey. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1970.
The Story of Furniture by Edmund Hunter. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1971.
The Story of Arms and Armour by Edmund Hunter. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1971.
The Story of Nuclear Power by E. H. Childs. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1972.
The Story of Medicine by Edmund Hunter. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth (Ladybird), 1972.
Prehistoric Animals and Fossils by Michael Smith. Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1973.
The Stars and Their Legends by Roy Worvill. Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1973.
A First Book of Aesop's Fables retold by Marie Stuart. Loughhborough, Ladybird Books, 1974.
A Second Book of Aesop's Fables retold by Marie Stuart. Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1974.
Aesop's Fables retold by Marie Stuart (omnibus; contains: A First Book of Aesop's Fables and A Second Book of Aesop's Fables). Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1975; revised with text by Audrey Daly, Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1983.
Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp by Marie Stuart. Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1975.
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves retold by Marie Stuart. Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1975.
Famous Legends Book 1: Theseus and the Minotaur [and] Perseus and the Gorgon's Head by J. D. M. Preshous. Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1975.
Famous Legends Book 2: The Labours of Heracles [and] Jason and the Golden Fleece by J. D. M. Preshous. Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1975.
Aladdin [and] Ali Baba retold by Marie Stuart (omnibus; contains: Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves). Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1976.
Tales of King Arthur: The Deeds of the Nameless Knight by Demond Dunkerley. Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1977.
Tales of King Arthur: The Knights of the Golden Falcon by Demond Dunkerley. Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1977.
Tales of King Arthur: Sir Lancelot of the Lake by Demond Dunkerley. Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1977.
Tales of King Arthur: Mysteries of Merlin by Demond Dunkerley. Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1977.
Talkabout Holidays by Margaret West; illus. with Martin Aitchison. Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1977.
Great Civilisations: The Aztecs by Brenda Ralph Lewis. Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1978.
Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals by Graham Welfare (adapts earlier titles Dinosaurs by Colin Douglas and Prehistoric Animals and Fossils by Michael Smith); illus. with Bernard Robinson. Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1978.
The Ladybird Colouring Book of Soldiers and Castles, illus. with Frank Humphris. Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1978.
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, retold by Fran Hunia. Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1978.
Read It Yourself: William Tell retold by Fran Hunia. Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1979.
The Princess and the Pea by Hans Christian Anderson, retold by Vera Southgate. Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1979; revised text by Nicola Baxter. Ladybird Books, 1993.
The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids by the Brothers Grimm, retold by Vera Southgate. Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1979.
Beauty and the Beast retold by Vera Southgate. Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1980; revised text by Audrey Daly, Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1993.
Oxford Junior Readers series by Mike Samuda, illus. with others. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1980-81.
Junior Science: Air by John Paull. Loughborough, Ladybird Books, 1982.
Stories From History Book 1 by David Oakden. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1982.
Stories From History Book 2 by David Oakden. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1982. 

(* The bibliography was previously published here on 27 November 2009, a post I've retained as I spotted at least one person has linked to it. 'Jack o'Lantern' and 'The Great Sailor' © Dan Dare Corporation—Ayton completed the latter when his friend Norman Williams died in 1957; 'The Story of Ruth' © IPC Media; quotes from Rupert Ayton are derived from his article 'Robert Norton Ayton: The Ladybird Years' (⇒ PDF))

2 comments:

Joe Broe said...

I loved the Jack o Lantern stories when I was a kid in the 1950s. Would love to see them again. Have they ever been re-published in book format? If not are they available to view on line?
All good wishes
Joe Broe

Steve said...

I agree that they deserve to be seen again, but there hasn't been any reprints of the old Jack o'Lantern stories as far as I know. And as they're all still under copyright to the Dan Dare Corp., they're also not available online.