I was going to write at length about Barbara Jones this week, but I have a sore throat and no childcare, so it will have to wait.
Instead, either as compensation or to whet your appetite, have this.
The Shell Shilling Guide to Berkshire, cover design by Barbara Jones.
It’s easy to think of the various Shell County artworks as having been produced entirely for the purposes of posters (particularly should you happen to write a blog about posters). But the illustrations and text were also advertisements and, of course, these rather lovely glove-box sized guides. Here’s the whole thing across the front and back (although the artworks are cropped top and bottom to fit them onto the guides).
I am particularly liking the pig.
According to the guides themselves, the advertisements came first. But in some ways these little guides, sold in petrol stations and designed to be used rather than just collected on a bookshelf, are the most satisfying. Each Shilling Guide manages to cram in a short essay, a map, a list of stately homes and other sites open to the public, a gazetteer of some of the county’s chief places and a bibliography into just twenty pages, along with some evocative photographs.
I’ve never thought of Berkshire as bleak before, but I may have to change my view.
And that’s what I love most about these guides. They’re not written by a committee; they’re not interested in received opinion. Instead they point out modern factories, rare flowers, folklore and literary references with equal abandon, not just describing places but making them seem more interesting. They don’t insult your intelligence (imagine gettting a Further Reading list today), and they are fascinated by local distinctiveness, whether that’s in geology, buildings, traditions, or just the kind of people who live in a county.
Of course, they do owe a lot to the larger Shell Guides, but I think their eccentricity is even more radical for being available for just a shilling over the counter in villages and towns all over Britain.
Here are a few more, by Keith Grant, John Nash and David Gentleman respectively. Imagine if modern guidebooks came with covers as good as this.
If you want to know more, there is a short overview of the Shilling Guides here and an interesting essay on the motivations behind Shell Guides generally here.
But perhaps the best news of all is that these are really affordable collectables, going for between £1-4 on eBay, a bit more at a second-hand bookshop. Why on earth don’t I have all 48?