OB Noel Carrington (03-13) proved a fascinating figure for boys and staff alike when Head of English, Nicholas Hopton, told his tale in a recent assembly.  

‘N. L. Carrington at two inherits the family failing. He rushes his slide to the back stop before he is half through his swing and is badly down over his stretcher at times. He wants to grow.’

The Ousel

This report from The Ousel on Bedford’s Second Rowing Eight is not kind to Noel Carrington, a boy here between 1903 and 1913. But Carrington, who was a Pro-Monitor and achieved an Open History Scholarship to Christ Church College, Oxford, did grow.

And what he grew into is quite remarkable, for he became one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century where the commissioning, designing, editing and publishing of children’s books was concerned. A creator and enabler of creativity, he deserves our attention and respect. Furthermore, we might learn a thing or two from him about art, business, ingenuity and character.

Glance across the street from the building which now houses our three new English classrooms and the Old Bedfordians Club offices and you may catch sight of a blue plaque on the façade of 40 De Parys Avenue. It commemorates Dora Carrington, Noel’s sister, who was a renowned artist associated with the Bloomsbury Group. 

Noel, Dora and their three siblings grew up in a household which appreciated art and design so it is perhaps unsurprising that Dora left Bedford to train at The Slade School of Fine Art.

When Noel left school, however, there was service in the First World War to be done. A Second Lieutenant in the 3rd Wiltshire Regiment, he was wounded by a sniper’s bullet at the Somme in June 1915 and became a Staff Captain at GHQ. Mentioned in Despatches by Sir Douglas Haig, he was awarded an OBE in 1919.

So many men and women embroiled in World War One sacrificed, or were robbed of, the chance to grow or even live, but Noel was lucky. He developed a career in design and publishing. First, he established and managed Indian branches of the Oxford University Press before heading back to England and a job at Country Life magazine.  Making use of lithography and working hard to live up to his mantra that “nothing need be ugly,” Carrington helped make Country Life and its associated publishing house an aesthetic and commercial success.

For Carrington, a latter-day Pre-Raphaelite in the age of heavy industry and rationing, great design could – and should – be economically prudent. But everything, from manufacturing mechanisms to everyday domestic items, was all the better if it was elegant or beautiful. The books Noel Carrington wrote espouse this creed. They are mainly about design but also explore, among other things, English villages and artists.

In 1938, Carrington met Penguin Books founder Allan Lane and told him of an idea to create beautifully-designed but affordable books for children.

Each title in the series would help a child understand aspects of the world around them. Explanatory text would be clear and age-appropriate; illustrations would be attractive and informative.

Both Lane and Carrington regarded the production of children’s books as of particular importance in 1939 because, as the Penguin founder put it, “the worst has happened… evacuated children are going to need books more than ever.”

The early Puffins democratised and tailored childhood reading like never before. Low-cost and efficient printing methods might have jeopardised their attractiveness but Carrington saw to it that a relatively new technique called autholigraphy was used to provide brightly coloured images on every other page.

The fact that these books were so dissimilar to anything available in the United Kingdom at the time, but were inspired by non-fiction for children published in the Soviet Union, suggests Carrington’s forward-thinking and outward-looking nature.

Early books explained aspects of the war and opened up rural worlds to children displaced from the metropolis to the countryside. As the range of titles grew, schools began to make use of them. If you wanted to teach children about armour, the history of the USA, tree identification or the story of tea, Puffin books, at sixpence each, were affordable resources.   

Fiction titles were soon added and we may never have seen such works as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Charlotte’s Web, Mary Poppins, Goodnight Mister Tom, The Very Hungry Caterpillar or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory rise to prominence if it had not been for the impetus Noel Carrington gave publishing with children in mind.

Hundreds of youth-defining and lifelong-loved stories have been created and shared because of Puffin’s commitment to fire every child’s imagination. And that fire was, to a great extent, kindled by an Old Bedfordian.

So, as many of us take up our pens, brushes, sculpting tools or Sibelius software to explore Growth as part of this year’s Detweiler Competition, we owe Noel Carrington a debt of gratitude. 

For the spine of many a childhood has a monochrome puffin imprinted upon it… and our empathic, progressive backbone of knowledge and imagination is the stronger for it.

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