I’ve been reading quite a lot about the Festival of Britain recently (mainly because there is, still, precious little else written about design in the 1950s). But it has reminded me that I really do need to get around to inventing some form of time travel.
This is Barbara Jones sorting out exhibits for Black Eyes and Lemonade, the exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery which was her contribution to 1951.
One of the questions we used in choosing the old exhibits for Whitechapel was memory – when you think of the posters you can remember seeing as a child, what comes up first? …but then people would say Thorleys, I’ve never forgotten that. So I telephoned Thorleys who said ‘yes of course, but you’ll have to come and look for it – all our old advertising stuff is in a shed. Anything left over has been shoved in there for years – do come in old clothes!’
We needed boiler suits, rubber gloves and Wellington boots, but it was all there, crammed into a warehouse on the Regents Canal. The latest discards were near the door, clean and new, but beyond them far to the back were rolls and bundles thickly black with London grime. We peeled off the top layers to find more than a century’s advertising: posters, tin plates, glass plates, leaflets that unfolded to show chicks bursting from the egg, and portraits in oils of prize animals fed on Thorleys. The collection filled a whole room of the gallery.
In the course of my searches, I also came across these.
They are a pair of pub mirrors which were also part of the exhibition, and which came up for sale last year.
Here they are on display in 1951, in a whole room of pub exuberance.
The more i see of Black Eyes and Lemonade, the more I want to recreate it; at the very least on the internet, but preferably in real life.
The only good selection of images of the exhibits in situ I’ve ever come across is in A Snapper Up of Unconsidered Trifles (as mentioned in my last post), so a whole documentary set must exist somewhere but, frustratingly, there are no picture credits in the book so I don’t know where they are and I do have a few other things to do before I set off on that particular diversion.
The two pictures which get most reproduced when people are talking about it (which doesn’t happen often enough) are the Idris talking lemon above – apparently it said that lemonade is good for man, woman and child – and the 1930s fireplace in the shape of an Airedale dog.
I think that’s probably because they were the two exhibits which most challenged people’s ideas of what ought, and ought not to be in an art gallery. Popular art wasn’t a new idea in 1951, but that was as long as it kept itself to nice safe territory like fairground rides, barge boat painting and morris-dancers hobby horses. The products of commercialism and the near past were much more dangerous and definitely not art, as Barbara Jones’ own memories make clear.
…we had borrowed two waxworks from Madame Tussauds – Queen Anne for general appeal and the beloved late Chief Rabbi for Whitechapel. The first local visitors were delighted to see him, but later the Synagogue felt he was too near the talking lemon for dignity. So we swapped the waxworks round, though the visual balance was destroyed, and Queen Anne stood nearer the lemon.
There was plenty more too. I can’t scan the iced model of St Paul’s Cathedral made by Aircraftsman Brown of the RAF School of Cookery, although I really wish I could because it is a delight in royal icing. And its caption was the title of this piece, which makes me think that the whole thing must have been a very witty entertainment indeed. Perhaps I’ll use my time travelling to go back to the exhibition too, as well as doing a raid on some choice poster archives.
For now, while time travel isn’t possible, perhaps someone should think very hard about putting together some of this exhibition again. Because this collection, this way of looking at the world was a revolutionary piece of thinking back in 1951. This is a time when people want minimalism made from new materials, colours and styles, not old things, when even the government is putting its weight behind good design as a way of educating and improving society. Black Eyes and Lemonade is challenging all of this, and taking a view on taste, design and the visual arts which was post-modern before modernism had even properly got going in Britain.
Ruth Artmonsky’s book takes Barbara Jones at her own estimation as a ‘jobbing artist’. She was in fact much more than that, in many parts of her work she was a pioneer – Black Eyes and Lemonade could probably sit quite happily next to the Jeremy Deller retrospective when that opens later this year even though it’s sixty years old. But because it’s ephemeral, it’s forgotten. And she deserves better than that.
Incidentally, I had hoped that the catalogue would help me to find some more bits and pieces from the exhibition to illustrate, and the good folks at St. Judes have kindly put some of their copy online. But the text is, well, a bit dry, so sadly it doesn’t really help.