I have a vast and overwhelming list of books that are owed a blog post, everything from copyright to Empire and GPO posters. I know I ought to be tackling the backlog, but ought is such a dreary word, especially when I could tell you all about my Christmas presents instead. Because I had the pleasure of receiving a stack of Barbara Jones-related books and I’m very happy about it.
There’s the 1950 King Penguin of the Isle of Wight, for starters.
I could quite easily fall into collecting King Penguins, but I think the Shell Guides might get the hump.
As you might expect from Barbara Jones, it’s hardly a conventional tourist itnerary, more of a wander round the quirky and unseen. My favourite illustration is this topiary boat.
That could stand its own against Ravilious or Bawden if you ask me.
A slightly more obscure acquisition is this.
Great cover, concealing a collection of humourous ecclesiastical poetry that the writer claims to have mostly made up while in the bath.
Don’t buy it for the words, that’s all I’m saying, but the Barbara Jones line drawings are delightful.
Our pair of cats look much like that.
But the real treasure doesn’t have a flash cover to show off at all. It’s volume II of Recording Britain, and every home should own a copy. I owe it all to Murgatroyd over at Serge and Tweed, who posted about the books late last year (I also got one of her birds for Christmas too, so I am very grateful to her altogether). I have to confess I knew nothing about them until then, so I was both sorry and educated.
And I have no idea how I missed them, because they are wonderful. The Recording Britain project began at the start of the Second World War, and was in many ways an close relative of the War Artists Scheme. But instead of documenting the war effort, Kenneth Clark instructed his artists to go and record in watercolours the Britain that would be lost if the Nazis invaded. They seem to have been given a pretty free brief, as each artist tends to gravitate to their favourite subjects. It’s no surprise to find Barbara Jones painting popular art in Norfolk.
This is Savage’s Yard in Kings Lynn, once the centre of the merry-go-round trade.
While elsewhere in the book, John Piper is recording St Denis’s Church, Faxton in Northamptonshire.
“…the building as a whole is remarkable as one of the very few unrestored churches in his part of the country – an example of Early English altered in the Decorated period and not again.”
Of course the Nazis never did invade. But Britain still did need recording. Savage’s Yard disappeared in 1973, while Faxton Church was demolished in 1950.
These images, and the project which commissioned them, are enormously compelling. Dozens of artists recording places that felt eternal, but also under threat, recording a Britain which might disappear at any moment.
They weren’t the only ones either. Just a few years later, James Lees Milne was wandering from great house to medieval manor, examining a whole aristocratic way of life which felt doomed to extinction. While the boy who would become the architectural critic John Harris was vaulting over gates and scrambling through barbed wire fences to see the Jacobean trophy houses and Palladian mansions which were already falling into ruins.
It’s a pivotal moment in British culture, but one which hasn’t really been recognised yet. The country was on the cusp, about to turn, and a few people recognised this, even if they had no idea what it was to become. We need these images and these writings, otherwise we would have no idea what we have lost. They’re important.
A few footnotes and comments if you want to find out more. The V&A have a very good factual page about Recording Britain, and all of the watercolours are available to see in the Prints and Drawings Room should the urge strike you. It also gets a deserved mention in Romantic Moderns too (I love this book so much that I am going to keep going on about it until you’ve all bought it and sent me a chit to say you have). And if you really want to know a lot more, there is also a rather expensively out-of-print book about the project too: Recording Britain: A Pictorial Doomesday of Pre-war Britain. But it has Patrick Wright in, who I revere, so I have just invested in the paperback. More news on that when it arrives (and another one to add to the list).
The books themselves go for less than I’d expect, given the calibre of the artists involved – if you don’t mind not having a dust-jacket that is, and there are plenty on Abebooks for the picking. But be warned, most of the images are printed in black and white, I have just cherry-picked the colour ones here.
As for the fellow-travellers, if you want to know more about James Lees-Milne’s travels, this is a good (and cheap) place to start. And I owe considerable thanks to The Country Seat for recommending me John Harris’s book, No Voice from the Hall which is both enlightening and hilarious in its recollection of a more shambolic and eccentric, and perhaps more interesting, version of Britain.
And finally, I think this would make a great series for BBC4 or Radio 4 or something, so if there are any commissioning editors reading, drop me a line, and I’ll knock up a proposal as quick as you like.