Popular, again

We’ve been beaten to it!  For a while now, me and Serge and Tweed have been thinking that what the world needs is a complete re-staging of Barbara Jones‘ Black Eyes and Lemonade Exhibition, which was held at the Whitechapel Gallery as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations in 1951.

Black Eyes and Lemonade Catalogue cover curated by Barbara Jones whitechapel art gallery

I’ve written about the exhibition before on here, as well as posting some details of the catalogue (from which we learn that a good third of the exhibition at least came from Barbara Jones herself).

But it’s still worth reprising what I’ve said before, which is that Black Eyes and Lemonade was a very important exhibition whose importance  – seen from the perspective of today – rivals the spindly-legged modernism on display at the South Bank itself.

Festival of Britain artists impression from FoB catalogue

I say this for two reasons really.  One is that the displays at the Festival of Britain itself were brilliant but at the same time also quite obvious.  The modern world of technology and leisure was the big promise that had been made at the end of the war; this dream was one of the things that people had been fighting for.  So while the displays of modern architecture and labour saving devices at the Festival were amazing and exciting, all brought together for the first time, one thing they were not was unexpected.  But Black Eyes and Lemonade was.

Black Eyes and Lemonade Whitechapel Art Gallery Barbara Jones pub display

It takes a particular kind of contrary genius to look the other way when everyone else is pointing towards a radiant future, but that’s exactly what Barbara Jones did.  She collected up pub lettering, popular advertising and naive art – in short, all the things that she felt were not only neglected now but were also in danger of disappearing under a wave of television, good modern design and indifference.  (As one of the main artists on the Recording Britain project, Barbara Jones had form in thinking about what might be neglected and in danger of disappearing).

But Black Eyes and Lemonade was also revolutionary in that it was the first time popular industrial art had been allowed into the hallowed halls of a gallery or museum.  People at the time were genuinely outraged that the Idris Talking Lemon was being displayed as though it were a piece of art.

Black Eyes and Lemonade Whitechapel Art Gallery Idris Talking Lemon Barbara Jones

Of course poular art had been celebrated before.  Here’s just one example, Noel Carrington’s King Penguin on English Popular Art, from 1945.

Noel Carrington English Popular Art 1945 King Penguin

But you won’t find any talking lemons in here; instead it’s all horse brasses,  smocks and twelfth century hinges from cathedral doors.  The closest it gets to modernity is the sign painting on barges and an appreciation, shared with Black Eyes, of Victorian pub interiors.  It certainly wouldn’t have featured anything like this.

Black Eyes and Lemonade Airedale Fireplace

Black Eyes and Lemonade was the first time that the popular products of the industrial age had been celebrated in this way.  It began a process which leads, in the end, to Grayson Perry and Jeremy Dellar, which makes it in my book a very good thing.

The good news is that these kind of opinions are no longer a minority view, which is why the Whitechapel Gallery, along with the Museum of British Folklore, are now revisiting Black Eyes and Lemonade for an exhibiton which has just opened.   Now it’s an ‘archive exhibition’, whatever that means, and I can’t tell you any more than that as I haven’t been to see it yet.  Although it is on until 1 September, so there is some time.

But I will, not least because the Whitechapel have sent over, by way of tantalising preview, these photographs of the exhibition in situ.

Black eyes and lemonade interior view with banner whitechapel art gallery

 

Look at that National Union of Railwaymen banner hanging from the ceiling, it’s a real index of how far we have all absorbed Barbara Jones’ ideas about what is worth celebrating in popular art.

Jeremy Dellar Manchester procession banner

It doesn’t only link us to Jeremy Dellar and his modern banners produced for the Manchester Festival a few years ago, the idea has now become even more mainstream than that.  For Michael Wood’s most recent series about the history of Britain, a recurring motif was the banner, commissioned for the programme, which depicted the different stages of history featured in the series.

Michael Wood Great British Story Banner

Here it is again from a different angle, along with a quite splendid selection of other stuff.

Whitechapel art gallery black eyes and lemonade exhibition 1951

 

From the pictures they sent me I also learned that the Airedale fireplaec has not only survived, but is now preserved in the Design Museum collections.

airedale-fireplace

There is a whole story in that, just waiting to be told, but whatever it might be I think Barbara Jones would be rather pleased about the result.

Anyway, I will obviously be going as soon as I can possibly manage, if any of you get there before me, please do report back.

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7 Comments

  1. Woodrow Phoenix
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    I work four blocks away from the Whitechapel, so let me know when you’re going and we could have a cake in the cafe afterwards!

  2. Murgatroyd
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Who will get there first – you or I? Currently juggling dates to see how soon I can get there.
    What’s not to like about a talking lemon? (Love a spot of Clarke Hutton too…)

  3. crownfolio
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    I might be going in a couple of weeks – but this rather depends on the tolerance levels of six year olds to extended museum going. What indeed is not to like about a talking lemon?

    And yes, I will let you know when I do get there!

  4. Nick Morgan
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for alerting us to this. It’s our silver wedding this year so we will be making one of our rare forays to London and this will be an essential addition to the itinerary! I see they have reproduced the original poster for sale as well

  5. crownfolio
    Posted March 29, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Have they now? Given that the original is as rare as a very rare thing, that might be an essential purchase.

  6. Woodrow Phoenix
    Posted April 24, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    I had a look at this last week and it’s in the small room next to the reading room upstairs. It is mostly what fits nicely onto walls: framed posters, photos and drawings. There aren’t too many physical items – no lemon! – but the fireplace is there, at least. Some glass cases have some nice bits of ephemera laid out in them.
    They do have all Barbara Jones’ roughs for the poster, which are worth the trip by themselves – but it’s a modest display really.
    No phototaking allowed inside of course, but here’s a nice thing outside the room, by the lift http://www.flickr.com/photos/superadaptoid/8678390628/

  7. crownfolio
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Thank you for the first hand report, it’s much appreciated! I had suspected that it wouldn’t be huge, but at least it is there at all. And it still leaves space for the giant recreation of the whole exhibition which I am still planning, one day…

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