Wednesday, February 6, 2013
John Leslie Berry was born in Hammersmith, London, on 9 June 1920, his father the foreman on the railway at Hammersmith. His father "skipped" when his son was only 5, and Berry and his sister were raised by his mother on £1 a week. He was educated locally before attending Hammersmith College of Art in 1934. He earned a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy in 1939 but was bitterly disappointed to have his studies interrupted by the Second World War.
He volunteered for the R.A.F. in 1940 and served in the Western Desert and the Middle East. In a holding unit waiting to enter Tobruk, he offered to produce a poster advertising a national day of prayer. When the artwork came to the attention of Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, Berry was seconded to the 8th Army as a War Artist. Some of Berry's paintings were exhibited at the National Gallery and are now in the permanent collection of the Imperial War Museum.
Returning to the UK, Berry found work with a wartime acquaintance, Major James Riddell, who wrote children's and travel books. Berry drew a number of short books published by Riddell as Riddle Books, but his income was primarily from advertising.
Asked if he could draw a tiger for an ESSO oil company campaign by the secretary at McCann Erickson, Berry retorted, "Yes, put a tiger in your tank." He was paid £25 for the famous slogan, but spent ten years from 1951 drawing tigers for the campaign.
He was a prolific portrait painter, his subjects including the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh and Lady Astor. He also worked via Harrods, producing portraits of people who could drop off a photograph which he would turn into a oil painting.
In 1951 Berry married June East, a librarian, and the couple had three sons and two daughters. With a growing family to support, Berry produced book covers for Corgi, Four Square, Panther, Penguin and Readers' Digest. In the Sixties and Seventies, he considered the regular work provided by Ladybird Books to be his bread and butter.
At the same time he continued to produce portraits, his later subjects including the Princess of Wales and President George Bush Sr, and illustrations, including contributing to the 'Special Correspondent' series in Look and Learn in 1967.
In 2004, the Simon Finch Gallery hosted an exhibition of Ladybird work by Berry and Martin Aitchison. A show of Berry's work at the NEC in Birmingham followed in 2005.
Following June's death in 1986, Berry married a second time in 1989 to Jessie Showell. He died on 10 December 2009. A list of Berry's illustrated books can be found here.
Examples of John Berry's artwork can be found for sale at the Illustration Art Gallery.