Artist's spoof Ladybird book provokes wrath of Penguin

Publisher tells Miriam Elia to stop selling satire in which Peter and Jane grapple with Tracey Emin-style conceptual art

An artist and comedian has been told by the publisher Penguin that her new satirical art book breaches its copyright, and if she continues to sell copies it could use the courts to seize the books and have them pulped.

Miriam Elia, who has her own comedy series, A Series Of Psychotic Episodes, on BBC Radio 4 and has had a number of short segments on Channel 4, had produced a spoof version of the Ladybird books from the 60s. Generations of British children fondly remember these works, which famously portrayed the daily lives of Mummy, Peter and Jane as an introduction to reading and writing for young children.

Elia's version sees them visiting an exhibition at a modern art gallery and grappling with existential questions about the nature of Tracey Emin-style conceptualist work, much of it peppered with distinctly adult imagery.

Elia, an accomplished artist who trained at the Royal College of Art and has shown in a number of prestigious galleries, produced all the pictures in the book, We Go to the Gallery, herself. Some she painted, while some were collages made from scenes cut from old Ladybird books.

She had a brief initial run of 1,000 books printed privately and has been selling them for £20 each. But Penguin, which owns the Ladybird imprint, contacted Elia, saying that her work breached its copyright. The company has told Elia that it will allow her one month to sell enough books to cover her costs, but any more have to be destroyed.

"I had the idea two years ago," said Elia. "I wanted to do a satirical version of those old I-Spy books from the 60s where you're supposed to tick off everything you see but they're really predictable. Then, because I collect Ladybird books, the two things came together, and the first image I composed was the 'God is dead' image."

The page depicts an empty room, in which Mummy introduces Peter and Jane to a severe form of Nietzschean nihilism.

Another page pokes fun at the giant inflatable animals that the artist and former Wall Street commodities broker Jeff Koons is famous – or infamous – for. Koons's Balloon Dog (Orange) became the most expensive artwork by a living person when it was sold at auction for $58.4m (£35m) last November.

Mummy, Peter and Jane all stare nonplussed at a huge red balloon dog that appears to have been created by a manic children's party clown. "I want to play with the balloon!" declares Peter. "Only venture capitalists can play with this balloon," replies Mummy.

"I got really into the books," said Elia. "I bought them all and started copying them. I learnt to paint the style and just got hooked."

Asked who would buy the books, she said: "Definitely not children. I never really think about the target audience. I just make things and hope people like them.

"Kids might like the books, though there are lots of rude things in them, but then there are rude things in so much of contemporary art. There's no swearing but there are paintings of a penis or vagina because most stuff in modern art galleries is explicit. Every day thousands of schoolchildren go to Tate Modern and they see that anyway."

Penguin contacted her last month to complain. "It was a bit of a shock. I never really thought about copyright," she said. "Artists just respond to the world in your little room and you're not thinking about much else. You just think: 'Oh, this will be great!'"

She stressed that Penguin has been sympathetic and has been open to negotiation, but ultimately would not back down on what it saw as infringement of its copyright.

"I've been talking to them a lot and suggesting ways around the problem. And they do understand. There's no malice, but it's harsh because they can destroy the work. I just want it to be appreciated. It was supposed to be an homage to Ladybird – and a bit of a satirical comment on the art world, I suppose."

A spokeswoman for Penguin said: "We are in discussions with the artist. While we respect her artistic rights, we take our copyright and our trademark rights very seriously – not least around our Ladybird brand which has been developed over many years to help very young children to read."


Gareth Rubin

The GuardianTramp

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