In Memoriam: “Luck of the Legion” and Ladybird Books artist Martin Aitchison

The picture shows Martin Aitchison, an honoured guest of the Eagle Society at Sparsholt, in 1996. Photo: Eagle Times
The picture shows Martin Aitchison, an honoured guest of the Eagle Society at Sparsholt, in 1996. Photo: Eagle Times
We’re sorry to report the passing of Martin Aitchison, artist on Eagle‘s  “Luck of the Legion“, “Danger Unlimited“, “The Lost World” and “Hornblower“, who died peacefully on 22nd October 2016, aged 96.

Martin also illustrated a large number of Ladybird Books from 1963 onwards until 1987. His final work was the cartoon strip “Justin Tyme Ye Hapless Highwayman“, written by Geoffrey Bond, and later his son Jim, for the Eagle Society magazine Eagle Times, from 1998 until 2004.

Born in Birmingham, Martin, who was deaf as a result of measles at an early age, was educated at Ellesmere College in Shropshire, leaving aged 15 to attend the Birmingham School of Art and then Slade School of Art, exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1939.

“At about the age of 13 I discovered I could get some cheap popularity with my ability to caracature the school masters etc.,” he recalled in an  interview. “I left school (Ellesmere College) at the age of 15 and there hadn’t been any real discussion about my future career. But they did give me all the drawing prizes – some very handsome books – and I think my family were delighted that I could do something well, despite my deafness.”

Excluded from active service during the Second World War because of his disability, after Dunkirk he felt he could no longer remain an art student and began to work for Vickers Aircraft as a technical illustrator, producing drawings for the bouncing bomb designed by Barnes Wallis for the DamBusters air raid. He married fellow Slade art student Dorothy Self in 1943.

A panel from the Eagle strip "Luck of the Legion" by Geoffrey Bond and Martin Aitchison
A panel from the Eagle strip “Luck of the Legion” by Geoffrey Bond and Martin Aitchison
He became a freelance commercial artist after the war, working for the women’s magazine Vogue, and then on Lilliput magazine for Hulton Press, episodes of “Kitty Hawke and her All-Girl Air Crew” for Girl and illustrating “Flick and the Vanishing New Girl” in the first Girl annual.

He began to work for the Eagle in 1952, becoming one of the weekly comic’s major non “Dare” artists, drawing the French Foreign Legion strip “Luck of the Legion”, written by Geoffrey Bond, for nearly ten years (16 stories in all, comprising 482 weekly episodes), including appearances in Eagle annual spin-off strips in ABC Film Review in 1952. The strip was a big success, and it was soon running second to “Dan Dare” in a Hulton readers’ poll.

Art from "Danger Unlimited" by Martin Aitchison
Art from “Danger Unlimited” by Martin Aitchison
Martin also drew spy series “Danger Unlimited” and adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World” and C. S. Forrester’s “Horatio Hornblower” stories for the Eagle, and “Arty and Crafty”, also written by Geoffrey Bond, for Eagle‘s junior companion paper Swift.

He joined Ladybird Books in 1963, and with Harry Wingfield illustrated, many titles in its new Key Words Reading Scheme books, also known as Peter and Jane, which were used to teach so many British children to read, his work proving so popular with the publisher for its consistency, naturalistic style and attention to detail that he would work on some one hundred titles over a period of a quarter of a century.

“I don’t think I ever had any pictures rejected,” he recalled. “There was a real family feel when Douglas Keen was in charge. Work meetings were at his home in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Later, Vernon Mills, who was Douglas’s successor, arranged meetings in his Beeches Road office in Loughborough. My own experience was that he went through my 24-plus illustrations in those meetings.

Martin Aitchison's first work for Ladybird Books, Joan of Arc in The First Book of Saints, published in 1955
Martin Aitchison’s first work for Ladybird Books, Joan of Arc in The First Book of Saints, published in 1955
“There weren’t any ‘roughs’ or drafts until the 1980s when I was doing Puddle Lane. If it was a Peter and Jane book, Bill Murray [the creator of the Key Word Reading scheme] would be there too. Then we would all go off to the pub for a drink and some eats with the sub-editors (who were female) and the Studio Manager. Both Keen and Mills were great editors and very appreciative.”

Martin stopped working for Ladybird Books in 1987 and after working for a number of other clients, including the Oxford University Press, he retired, to return to his early love of painting and drawing. For many years he remained very active, keeping fit with walks in the countryside around Oxford and Henley on Thames.

“A talented man, a great artist, a kind grandfather and caring man, Martin will be fondly remembered by all who knew him,” notes his daughter-in-law Gill.

“He worked hard and succeeded in his career despite his deafness and has left behind a legacy of artistic creativity, particularly through his paintings and the Ladybird books which he illustrated.”

The family has requested that donation in his memory be made to Action for Hearing Loss.

Martin Aitchison, born 1919, died 22nd October 2016, survived by his and son Nick, grandchildren of Helen and Paul and great-grandchildren of Edward. Widower of Dorothy (née Self).

• Martin Aitchison’s official web site is at martinaitchison.co.uk

John Cooper was a lovely tribute to Martin here on his Britain is no country for old men blog

My thanks to the the Eagle Society for permission to feature their photograph of Martin. Membership of the Eagle Society is via Annual Subscription to Eagle Times magazine, which is published four times annually. There are details of current subscription rates here

 

John Freeman

The founder of downthetubes, John describes himself as is a “freelance comics operative”, currently working as a freelance editor for TITAN COMICS, as Creative Consultant on the new DAN DARE audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the LAKES INTERNATIONAL COMIC ART FESTIVAL and LANCASTER COMICS DAY.

John has worked in British comics publishing for over 30 years, starting out at Marvel UK, where he edited a number of the Genesis 1992 books with Paul Neary. His numerous credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine at Marvel and Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine at Titan Magazines, where he was Managing Editor.

He also edited STRIP Magazine and worked as an editor on several audio comics for ROK Comics, including TEAM M.O.B.I.L.E. and THE BEATLES STORY.

Most recently he is writing CRUCIBLE as a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and DEATH DUTY and SKOW DOGS with Dave Hailwood for the digital comic 100% Biodegradable.

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