Unpeopled

We’re going a bit off-piste today, heading for a change towards those heady days of modernity before the Second World War.

That we’re doing this is all the fault of regular correspondent medieval modernist who pointed me at this particular set of posters a while back.

A R Thomson Improve each shining hour LNER poster

And every since then I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them.   But then it’s rare that you get such a set of posters so determined to be object lessons in modernity.  In each one of them, the fusty, over-detailed, over-crowded Victorian era is ttransformed, thanks to the potent magic of LNER, into a chic, clean-lined, highly futuristic scene.

A fine advertising message, you might say, and you’d be right.  But there’s a lot more going on here than just the steam railway  being dragged into an art deco world, so much so that it’s hard to know where to begin.

LNER Harwich crossings poster a r thomson

Let’s start with the artist, A. R. Thomson.  Now I’ve only started researching him today, so I’m afraid that this post won’t contain the benefit of the information in his biography, Tommy: A Biography of the Distinguished Deaf Royal Painter A.R.Thomson, which I am about to order for the grand sum of one new pence.  There is a clue there in the title, but he does seem to have been a quite extraordinary character.

6ft 5ins tall; He was deaf, and also did not speak, his wife helping as business manager. He spoke through his brush. Conducted conversations by making lightning sketches.Studied under painter illustrator and poster designer John Hassall [died 1948] and historical scenes/portraitist Sir William Quiller Orchardson [died 1910].

Since we’ve been talking about murals recently, here is one that he produced for the Science Museum. It’s fourteen feet long.

A R THomson combine mural for science museum

Two other things stand out for me though.

Vintage London Transport poster Street Markets Thomson 1949

One is that he designed this Street Markets poster for London Transport in 1949 (which means that there is a short bio of him on their site as well).  It’s one that I’ve always loved, and occasionally regret not buying at Morphets.

The other is that, at the 1948 London Olympic Games, he was the last-ever winner of the Gold Medal for Painting, which is such a mind-boggling idea that I am unable to process it properly.

He seems to have done quite a lot of poster work during the war, I imagine that he wasn’t called up because of his disability.

A R THomson Fighting fit world war two propaganda poster

 

post office savings bank tank poster a r thomson

All of which is a massive, but fascinating detour from the point at which westarted, so let’s return to his very peculiar set of posters for the LNER.

A r thomson then and now lner poster flying scotsman

Because despite the modern tour de force that is the Flying Scotsman, there is a deep anxiety underlying these posters.  The trips to the seaside, the carriages, the outdoors games  - even the very railway itself – are all old ideas.  The job that he pictures want to do is to persuade us that  these institutions have all changed with the times.  There is an interesting incongruity here.  Perhaps the most committed users of modernity are those who feel that they have something to prove, that their product might, in fact, date from the past.  Whereas if you are producing a car or a washing machine, it can look exactly how it wants, because it is modern in its very existence.

What’s also absolutely fascinating for me, though, is how this modernity is represented.  The smooth streamlining of this period of modernism/modern design is a vlsual cliche now, we all know what it looks like and it has been revived and reused so many times that it is no longer exciting or surprising.  But here, butted up against the visual clutter that it wants to replace, we can start to see it as it would have been felt back then – stark, surprising, and, for me at least, quite chilly.

LNER poster Then and Now golf ar thomson

When we were discussing these posters in the comments before, medieval modernist suggested that

there seems to be new higher order in the alternative vision, where simplicity and order are prized over chaos

This is true.  And I think that there is a big clue in the word chaos there, because one thing that these posters make me feel very strongly is the effect of the First World War on these designs.  Modernity was an attempt to impose a very rigid kind of order on the world, one that was felt to be very necessary after the chaos, horrer and ultimate disorder that was the trenches.

Now this isn’t something that can ever be proven, just as we will never be able to say for certain that the slightly simple cheerfulness of much 1950s design was a reaction to the next war.

But the big clue for me is in the people.  The Victorian scenes are teeming with humanity, but in contrast modernity requires very few people indeed.  And absence was perhaps the biggest legacy left by World War One.

Sea bathing LNER then and now ppster a r thomson

I don’t think this is just because time has made us forget, although this has to be a big part of it.  I suspect too that it was something that many people who lived in the 1920s and 1930s could bear to articulate fully either.    The reason I think of this is that there is a spine-tingling passage in one of HV Morton’s tours of England, which I can’t lay my hands on right now in which he describes the raw new stone and lettering of the war memorials that are in every village and town that he passes through, and the pain and memories caused every time they are seen.

So the lack of people in these posters – in the posters of this period in general – isn’t just because people clutter up the place and machines are just so much more modern to look at.  That is part of it, but the absences are also more profound.  People are missing in this modern world, killed by the machines of modern warfare, and by their absences they can be still counted amongst us, without us having to speak of them.

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7 Comments

  1. Nickolas Lambrianou
    Posted March 18, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Interesting piece, as always – you ‘unpeopled’ point reminds me that, before the reality hit, avant-gardists welcomed WW1 as the ‘great hygene’. Interesting also how the figures in the modernist halves are angular and sculptural – near-automatons perhaps.

  2. crownfolio
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Thank you – and yes absolutely, there was a sense of admiration for the machine of war, wasn’t there, from both the Futurists and I think in Blast too. Until they saw what this actually entailed.

    I agree with what you say about the automatons, but it’s hard to unpick causes I think at this level; so much of it is about creating people who are appropriate for the new machine age. But then you have to ask why you would want to be like that anyway, and the trauma of war is at least part of the answer.

  3. Sarah
    Posted March 20, 2013 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    I can see your point about the rather sterile and cold nature of the modernist halves of these posters, and how they may reflect an unspoken loss due to war, but it also seems apparent that Mr Thomson relished composing the cluttered and hectic ‘old-fashioned’ sections just as much, indeed perhaps much more, than the supposedly preferable modernist views. They’re just so much more fun! (And I speak as a fan of the most austere modernist works).

    Looking at his subsequent work, which you show here, I wonder where precisely his heart lay. I suspect, especially given that wonderful street markets poster, he was not altogether persuaded by clinical modernist efficiency, although he could clearly do it as well as anyone. Perhaps these posters were subliminally conveying his own preferences in defiance of the brief he was set by his client? Was he subtly pursuing his own agenda here?

  4. crownfolio
    Posted March 21, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    That’s a good point – I had him down as someone who was able to turn his hand to all kinds of styles but you might be more on the mark there.

    Still, I will be able to say a lot more soon, as his biography has just arrived in the post. I will report back!

  5. Posted March 22, 2013 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    Does this post mean I am the winner of the ‘Over modern – over here’ competition?

    I enjoyed the post. It is quite something that he could turn is hand to such disparate styles so convincingly.

  6. mm
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    There is a sixth poster in the Then and Now series…

    http://www.nrm.org.uk/OurCollection/Posters/CollectionItem.aspx?objid=1977-5587&pageNo=766

    …but you probably knew that.

  7. crownfolio
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t, funnily enough. I can’t work out the mystery that is the NRM search function, and it didn’t show up on the NMSI catalogue. So thank you. It’s a good one, too.

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