This week’s blog post is all about cataloguing the Pearl Binder Archive. For regulars to our blog, you might recognise this name, but for those of you who don’t (and I hate to admit that I hadn’t before starting to work at Seven Stories) prepare to be amazed, not only by a fabulous artist and author, but also by the Seven Stories cataloguing process.

Pearl Binder, PBi/08
Photograph © Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children's Books

Pearl Binder is one of those people who you find out about, and then mutter ‘how didn’t I know about her?!’ in a frustrated whisper to yourself many times a day. Born in 1904 in Salford, she was a prolific illustrator and author who designed dresses and had a keen interest in anthropology, politics (as a Communist-turned-Quaker), communities and slow-travel (choosing to travel by sea rather than air).

The Pearl Binder Archive is a significant addition to the Seven Stories Collection because it holds preliminary and final artwork for the ‘Ladder Street’ series of books (published by Dobson and shown below). Written by Jo Gladstone (Pearl’s elder daughter) and illustrated by Pearl, the books originated from an interest in the day-to-day lives of the residents of Ladder Street, an impoverished street in Hong Kong. Jo was teaching in Hong Kong in the early 1960s, and when Pearl went to stay, they began working on this series. Three books were published between 1964 and 1974 (with 'Chi Ming and the Writing Lesson' being published in the US as a renamed 'Chi Ming and the Lion Dance') and explore wider cultural traditions and customs of China, whilst un-pointedly studying the lives of disadvantaged families through the imagined activities of Chi Ming (a small boy) and his family. I can't think of many children's books from around this time that were discussing cultures and societies in such a way.

The Ladder Street series: (left to right) Chi Ming and the Tiger Kitten (London: Dobson, 1964), Chi Ming and the Lion Dance (London: Dobson Books Ltd., 1969), Chi Ming and the Jade Earring (London: Dobson Books Ltd., 1974)
Photograph © Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children's Books

Not only do these books have a powerful social, cultural and perhaps political significance, Pearl’s illustrations for the series are artistically stunning. She used a variety of materials and media to illustrate the books, from pastels, ink and wax resist, felt tips, watercolour, coloured pencils and collage. The images are vibrant and energetic, with rich and bright colours that evoke the vibrancy and life that I imagine Hong Kong to throb with.

For an in-depth look at Pearl’s dummy book for ‘Chi Ming and the Tiger Kitten’, you can read our previous post about Pearl here. But for now I want to take you through an account of discovery by cataloguing at Seven Stories.

The collection was donated by Jo Gladstone to Seven Stories earlier this year and spans Pearl’s entire career – from lithographs (Pearl was a keen lithographer who was fascinated by autolithography in Russia, and is said to have introduced the idea to Noel Carrington, then-Editor of Puffin Books, who used the method to create Puffin Picture Books! Her lithographs here date from 1933 to 1983), to books (written, illustrated and/or owned by Pearl and her children), to travel notebooks, costume designs for a stage production of Pocahontas in 1963, to large pen drawings, to collages and even a Wedgewood mug featuring Pearl’s designs of Pearly Kings and Queens produced in 1977. The image below is a small snapshot of this variation of material.

A selection of the material in the Pearl Binder Archive
From top left: preliminary sketches for title pages of Chi Ming and the Tiger Kitten and Chi Ming and the Jade Earring, travel notebook from Fiji, 1974, typed catalogue for Pearl Binder Retrospective at Vivian Lowenstein Gallery, 1985, three 1936 portrait lithographs, 'Palladium Dressing Room' lithograph dated 1933, travel notebook from Rabi, 1973, biro sketch of deers, pastel and paint sketch of 'deer dancers' for Pocahontas, Pearly Kings and Queens jubilee commemorative mug for Wedgewood, 1977, large sketch of Hong Kong harbour dated 1962, dummy book for Chi Ming and the Tiger Kitten.
© Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children's Books

My first task was to read through the box-list (created when an archive is collected from a donor or artist, or after it has arrived at Seven Stories) and have a look through the actual collection in detail, researching unknown elements, taking notes and getting a good overview of the material.

An exhibition catalogue from a retrospective of Pearl’s work in 1985 at Primrose Hill was really valuable to the cataloguing process. It gives such a great insight into the chronology of her work and is littered with a few brilliant quotes from Pearl. For example, “I have been fascinated by collage ever since the 1920s and still am. I use it a lot for television programmes, satire and lately in stained glass”, and with regards to her frequent travels to the USSR in the 1930s (culminating in many books - Russian Families (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1942) being a fascinating example), “we were all curious to know what was happening in the USSR and what it looked like. The Russians were just as curious about the Western world as we were about them.”

After this, projects and pockets of her work became clearer. It was then a matter of listing these projects and grouping them. For me, the interesting thing about cataloguing is that the role isn’t to impose significance on a collection; the purpose of a catalogue is to highlight potential significance and open the material out into an accessible format. So, despite the fact that for us as The National Centre for Children’s Books, Pearl’s work on children’s books might be the most directly relevant items and therefore could be made more prominent, these aren’t necessarily of the same significance to researchers, and other projects may hold key developments, influences or links. With that in mind, the Pearl Binder Archive is catalogued into series of projects, which are ordered chronologically, as far as is possible. Any links that might be useful to researchers have been highlighted throughout the catalogue.

An example of significant links in the collection would be the numerous beautiful travel sketches and their relationship with the ‘Ladder Street’ books. I read in Pearl’s younger daughter, Lou Taylor’s, biographical notes about her mother, that she never once used a camera – but boy, did she sketch! Pastels and felt pens appear to be her primary media of choice when on the move and we have sketches and notebooks from Rabi Island, Hong Kong, Angola, Gilbert and Ellice Islands. The sketches burst with colour and energy, and give a real impression of place. In amongst the Hong Kong sketches are some beautiful studies from life of a small girl (the daughter of Jo Gladstone's Amah, named Man Kee, Ah Ho). Man Kee, Ah Ho reappeared in the ‘Ladder Street’ books as the character Little Sister (shown below). These are delicate and demonstrate a slightly more personal edge, yet keep the consistent sense of fascination and energy that her her other travel sketches have. Whilst these items aren't included in the Ladder Street series of the catalogue, we have noted the potential crossovers with her travel sketches.

Sketches of Man Kee, Ah Ho and final published illustration of Little Sister in Chi Ming and the Lion Dance (London: Dobson, 1968) PBi/02/01
Photograph © Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children's Books

Her travel notebooks also include interviews with locals and records of traditions and customs – even obituaries - as well as notes of colour descriptions, for example, 'palest green', 'emerald green', 'really royal' and 'sherry beak'. These colour descriptions are fascinating, because they demonstrate how Pearl could observe tiny details, and her evocative descriptions really give a sense of what she was observing. It’s a real insight into Pearl Binder’s unique processes and methods of working.

A selection of pages from Pearl Binder's travel notebooks (Portrait pages and left landscape page are from her 1974 notebook documenting travels to Rabi and the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, bottom landscape right is from her 1973 notebook documenting travels to Rabi and Nassau) PBi/02/03
Photograph © Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children's Books

There still remains a small amount of repackaging and numbering to do - after that the catalogue will be ready to go live and be searched publicly. Cataloguing the collection has been fascinating, and we can't wait to see what the public and researchers will discover in Pearl's Archive.

And a few Easter eggs before you go....

After cataloguing this archive and researching Pearl Binder, I wanted to share with you a few of my favourite things about her:
1. In her biographical papers about Pearl, Lou Taylor (her younger daughter) says that Pearl sewed hidden messages into the hems of her skirts to take back to England from her travels during wartime
2. She made family Christmas cards, which are so ahead of her time - 
Pearl adds attributes to her family members to demonstrate her achievements for the previous year. We have a great selection of designs, from 1946 onwards (we even have a facsimilie of a chuffed reply to her written on behalf of the Queen!)
3. She was the first pregnant woman to appear on TV
4. She mixed in some amazing circles, with friends from Albert Finney to Ewan McColl
5. She had an amazing signature fringe

- Josie Sommer, Collection and Exhibitions Assistant

Seven Stories was able to support the acquisition of the Pearl Binder Archive through support from a Heritage Lottery Fund ‘Collecting Cultures’ grant. This has been awarded to Seven Stories in recognition of the museum’s national role in telling a comprehensive story of modern British children’s literature. For more information on our HLF Collecting Cultures project see:

If you’d like to find out more about the Seven Stories Collections, you can browse our catalogue, explore our archives online, email us via or leave a comment below!