Modern or British?

“It may be clever and modern and progressive.  But it certainly isn’t English.”

That’s the incomparable Patrick Wright quoting from a ‘heritage journal’ called This England.  He’s talking about landscape and memory, but it struck a chord with me.

Because ever since I wrote about Paul Rennie’s Modern British Posters, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between modernism and British design.  It’s a very important undercurrent in the book, but one that he only spells out at the end.

Our collecting began, back in about 1982, with an interest in modern design. We discovered that, where the market existed, it was conceptualised around an idea of modernism as an international phenomenon of people, ideas and products that connected Moscow, Berlin, Paris and New York. In 1982, the words British and Modernism seemed like a contradiction in terms… Our interest in graphic design quickly began to define itself as an attempt to gather together irrefutable material evidence of British Modernism.

McKnight Kauffer BP Ethyl poster 1933

So in essence, the whole book – and of course the Rennies’ whole collection of posters around which it is based – is didactic.  His argument is for the existence of a specifically British approach to modernism, from early McKnight Kauffer to late Eckersley.

Tom Eckersley Cutty Sark London Transport 1963

There can be no doubt that this home-grown kind of modernism existed; the evidence is there in the shape of posters like these (Powers, 1934 and anon, 1938) and many, many more.  Just take a look at the book.

Powers Aldershot Tattoo poster

Anonymous LT swimming poster

Rennie is in good company when he wants to place Britain within the modernist tradition, as it’s a path that many other writers have taken before him.  Pevsner’s Pioneers of Modern Design has exactly the same aim.  Here the argument is that Voysey, Owen Jones and even William Morris are the fore-runners of German architectural, steel and glass, functional modernism.

But Rennie and Pevsner have more in common than just that.  They position themselves as swimming against the tide, having to make an argument for a kind of modernism which isn’t seen as naturally British.  (In the case of posters, it isn’t very British anyway; emigree designers must outnumber the home-grown modernists by at least three to one, but that’s another story for another day).

Edward McKnight Kauffer GPO poster
Edward McKnight Kauffer, GPO, 1937

This isn’t a view that only applies to buildings or posters, either.  It’s been said that Utility furniture scheme during World War Two and after was a chance for modernism to be imposed on the unsuspecting British public, who weren’t showing much inclination to embrace it any other way.  It’s also possible to argue (as I have before) that much modernism in posters operates in the same way.  During the 1930s institutions such as the GPO,  London Transport and Shell commissioned modern design in a seemingly medicinal fashion, because it was Good For the general public.

Graham Sutherland Shell poster
Graham Sutherland

I’m intrigued most, though, by what’s implicit here.  If modernism is seen as improving, then what is it trying to make better?  If modern design is being imposed on mainstream taste, then what is this style that it’s fighting against?  Can we say  what exactly is this natural British design?

Strangely, the answers to these questions aren’t as easy to find out as you might imagine.  Design history tends, even now, to think in terms of the narrative of modernism alone.  It’s a clean-lined and minimalist version of the Whig view of history, in which everything leads towards the ultimate fulfillment of civilisation, which can only be some  monochrome combination of Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus and Helvetica Neue standing triumphant over the death of ornament.  All of which tends to create some oddities in the stories they tell.

One is a kind of tortured argument, as designs and designers are jemmied into place to fit the party line.  Tim Mowl (a man who knows; his book Stylistic Cold Wars: Betjeman Versus Pevsner is worth quite a lot of your time, if not the £69.99 that someone wants for it on Amazon) calls Pevsner’s attempts to turn William Morris into a proto-modernist “obvious nonsense”.  Harsh, but fair.

Modern British Posters isn’t having to strain so hard, as the designs were there.  But, in Britain, if you only write about the modernist experience, quite a few designers and posters don’t make the cut.  Like railway posters, for example.

Alnwick castle fred taylor railway poster 1933
Fred Taylor, 1933

Because this is the other problem with surveying the material world only through the lens of modernism, particularly in Britain.  The vast majority of objects don’t get seen.  If you wanted to find out what furniture people who didn’t care for the Bloomsbury Set and pale wood were buying just before the war, or how the average, non-Arts-and-Crafts Victorian papered their walls, you’d be hard pressed to find out.  The books won’t tell you and nor, in the main, will the museums either (The Geffrye Museum is a notable democratic exception here).

It’s not even as though these things are criticised, or even described.  They are invisible, utterly absent from the story.

Yet such objects did exist, in their hundreds and thousands, these wing-back chairs and flock wallpapers, these Crown Derby dinner sets and aspidistra stands.  Which takes us back to the question I asked earlier.  Exactly what is ordinary British taste if it isn’t modern?  And if we don’t know, how can we find out?

These questions aren’t here just to be difficult (although of course that is part of the fun).  I’m also raising them because, perhaps, posters can give us some clues.

After all, not all graphic design flew the modernist flag.  In the same year that McKnight Kauffer produced his machine age version of BP petrol above, 1933, there were other styles and other designers at work too.  I’ve raided the National Railway Museum’s collection to find a selection from the same year.

Some of them are modernism incarnate.

Midland Hotel Railway poster 1933

While others act like it had never happened at all.

Railway Poster Frank Mason 1933
Frank Mason

Meanwhile yet more are modern, but at the same time not modernist.

Snowdonia Charles H Baker railway poster 1933
Charles H Baker

This view is about as far from a celebration of steel, movement and urban frenzy as it is possible to get.  But at the same time it is still modern.  Go figure.

There are many many more too, from Fred Taylor to lesser known artists like Margaret Hordern below.

Fred Taylor, Jervaulx abbey railway poster

Margaret Hordern Railway poster 1933.

Now it’s not an accident that I’ve chosen railway posters as a comparison.  Because railway posters were popular.  They were popular then, when they were sold over the counter as art as well as being displayed in stations. (There’s a good description of how this worked in Yale’s Art for All book if you’re interested).

And they’re popular now.  Railway posters are probably the most collected and traded posters there are (and if you take eBay as any kind of sample, they’re certainly the most reproduced and pirated too).  Lots of people like railway posters, and I suspect they like them for all the reasons I’ve railed against them before.  They’re pretty, nice to hang on the wall, they look like a proper picture.  And by far the most popular of all are the pictures of the countryside.

Somerset Frank Newbould 1936
Frank Newbould, 1936

Which starts to give us some clues about the nature of mainstream British taste.  It’s not the first time that this has been said, but railway posters seem to suggest that it prefers the rural to the urban, likes representation and tradition.  In which case, by the by,  modernism, with its paens to the city and the machine, never was going to have much of a chance, was it?

Now I know that this is an immensely contentious generalisation, and I’m rather hoping that lots of people will pile in with examples to prove me wrong.

But for the moment I still think it holds water; I might even argue that mainstream British taste hasn’t changed a whole heap since 1933 or before.  It still prefers the rural to the city, it likes flowers, leaves and pictures of things it can recognise.  And it still gets mostly ignored by writers and designers, architects and museums.  But you can easily find it if you look.  Here for example.

Interior of National Trust shop

The inside of a National Trust shop.  Does it get any more British than that?

Holiday Haunts

Once again, I’m thinking about holidays.  I actually have got round to booking the Crownfolios’ annual fortnight, but two things have brought my mind round to the subject again.  Or to be precise, to Holiday Haunts. This was the railways’ annual guide to hotels, B&Bs, and other such places to stay in Britain, the idea being, of course, that you got there by train.

In the first place, the ever-attentive Mike Ashworth sent this over, pointing out that it was by Bruce Angrave.

Bruce Angrave Holiday Haunts brochure cover

Considering the date and the Art Deco style, it must have been one of the earliest things he did.  Which is interesting enough on its own.

But it also, and unsurprisingly, got me thinking about Morphets, where a whole slew of Holiday Haunts material is for sale.  Anyone fancy 20 volumes from the 50s and 60s for your shelves?

20 volumes of Holiday Haunts at Morphets

It’s lot 584 if you do.

Now, I know that we’re veering close to the dangerous territory of railway ephemera here, but bear with me.  Can you see that Eckersley peeking out at the bottom left of that picture above?  Well exactly.  Here it is in full.

Eckersley holiday haunts cover image 1961

Now Holiday Haunts was a blockbuster publication.  At the height of its success it sold over 200,000 copies a year, so covers like this, and indeed the Angrave above, would have meant modern design going into the homes of huge numbers of railway-travelling, seaside-holidaying people who perhaps wouldn’t have seen it otherwise.  I hope they, or at least their dissident teenage children, liked it.

Because this is ephemera, I won’t go into too much detail but Holiday Haunts was originally created by the GWR in 1906,

'Holiday haunts on the Great Western Railway' guidebook, 1906.

reached its height in the 1920s and 30s,and was then continued by British Railways after nationalisation in 1947.  And I am mostly telling you this because I have found this photo.  It’s the 1930 edition of Holiday Haunts being printed at the old Butler and Tanner print works in Somerset.

Printing Holiday haunts

These men were printing about 50 metres from where I am typing this now.  I’d be able to see the building from my window, if they hadn’t taken the top two floors off when they converted it into flats.  So, Holiday Haunts, printed right next door to Quad Royal.  How about that.

The Guide to Happy Holidays', GWR poster, 1939.

But, in case you think me entirely lost to ephemera and local history, there is more purpose to this.  Because designers like Eckersley and Games didn’t just design covers for Holiday Haunts, they also designed posters to advertise it.  I’ve mentioned this Morphets lot already – there’s an Unger in there too.

holiday haunts posters

Here’s a different version of the Eckersley poster, courtesy of VADS and the Eckersley archive.

Holiday Haunts eckersley poser

But there were also carriage-print scale posters too (top right, below, again from Morphets).

Holiday Haunts carriage prints

But there’s more of an attraction for me in Holiday Haunts than just the great posters and the cover designs.  It also evokes a nostalgia in me for a past I never had.

Holiday Haunts 1958 cover

The kind of British seaside holiday where the sun shone every day and you could get tea in proper cups on the beach (I know this is true, I’ve seen it on railway posters).  The kind of holiday where your family would stay in a camping coach.  And like it.

Riley 1957 vintage camping coaches poster

(Riley, 1957, also on sale at Morphets.  Isn’t everything.)

There are probably some clues in here about what posters – and particularly railway posters – mean today, and why they attract us so.  Ah the past, when the countryside was prettier, things were simpler  and people were happy anyway even if they did have to stay in a shed.  Possibly, but also possibly not; there were just fewer consumer goods and people thought that a railway coach for 8 for a week was a form of luxury.  Mind you, I’m off to stay in a mobile home on a French campsite.  So perhaps holidays – and people –  haven’t changed that much after all.

Different trains of thought

Another online archive of lovely posters for your education and enlightenment today.  But, nothing is straightforward in this world, so this is another archive with its own quirks and priorities.  Here, though, they’re more understandable, because this archive isn’t meant for the likes of you and me.  It’s the National Railway Museum poster collection, and it’s designed for railway buffs.

Andre Amstutz Whitley Bay vintage British Railways poster

Whitley Bay, Amstutz, 1954

Wondering what I am talking about?  Try here.  This is the main search page for the NRM’s poster collection, your gateway to more than ten thousand railway posters.  Now I might want to search these by date, or by the subject of the poster, or even by the designer.  Not a chance.  I can filter them by category (of which there is only one, All, which is philosophically quite interesting), or I can sort them by railway company.  So should I ever want to see every poster for the Axminster and Lyme Regis Light Railway, I am fine.  Should, however, my life not be organised in terms of various railway operators I am rather up the Swannee.

Morecambe vintage British Railways poster from NRM

Morecambe, Lance Cattermole, 1960

It’s such a radically different perpective on the world that it makes me laugh rather than drives me to fury.  Although this is mainly because there are  a couple of get-arounds by which I can find what I am looking for.  The first is the search box in the top right corner.  Although this searches the entire site, not just the poster collection, “Morecambe poster”  or “Amstutz poster” generally gets you a full list of results, even if in text form, usually including several repetitions, and with only about half a chance of an image when you click on the individual object.

Tom Purvis Lincolnshire LNER vintage poster

Lincolnshire, Tom Purvis, no date

But not even this isn’t as infuriating as it might be.  Because, elsewhere, there is a much better search engine.  The National Museum of Science and Industry runs not only the NRM, but also the Science Museum and the National Media Museum.  And it too has a search engine – although, wierdly, I can’t find any way of accessing it from their home page.  Perhaps it’s a secret and I’m not meant to be using it.  In which case, apologies.

From this, you get a much neater page of search results, with thumbnail images where they exist.  Plus, as an added bonus, your search can also turn up some additional Science Museum holdings, like this cheerful little Eckerlsey Lombers for the Ministry of Food.

Tom Eckersley Eric Lombers vintage WW2 poster for the Ministry of Food

What’s odd about these two search pages though, is that they don’t turn up the same results.  (This next bit may end up being a bit geeky, so if you’re not interested, skip on a bit).  The NRM search will miss out lots of items.  Say you run a search like “studio seven”  (I would recommend it, incidentally, as you can see from the results below).  This 1958 Studio Seven poster appears when you search on the NMSI.

Studio Seven vintage poster Dover British Railways

But doesn’t when you search the NRM – only if you search for “Dover Studio Seven”.  And even then, there isn’t an illustration or a date.  The same happens with this poster.

'Please Remember my Ticket', BR poster, c 1950s. Studio Seven

From which we could perhaps conclude that the NMSI search engine is a superior thing and the NRM one a  bit random.  Which is probably true.  But what is more than passing strange is that even when each search engine comes up with the same thing, the pictures are different.  The NMSI has proper scans.

Studio Seven Minehead British Railways vintage poster 1962

Studio Seven, Minehead 1962

Whereas the NRM have flattened the poster with a bit of perspex, taken a picture and said, will this do?  (Much like we do, I admit, but then we’re not a national institution in charge of a major archive.)

same again but with reflections on

Now I’m not just doing this to poke fun at the NRM, there is a point.  The pictures show that these two search pages aren’t just different ways into the same database, they’re totally separate entities.  Which means that all of this information, on ten thousand posters and lord alone knows how many engines, sprockets and pictures of stations, has been catalogued twice.  At best it’s a waste of time, at worst it must have cost an awful lot of unnecessary money.  Or maybe there is a good reason for this, and I have missed it, in which case I’d like to know.

'Sunny Rhyl - The Family Resort', BR (LMR) poster, 1955.

Studio Seven, Rhyl, 1955

So, nerdy bit over, there is still a rather wonderful and under-used collection to be found at the NRM, whichever search engine you view it through.  And it’s another example of how the internet can do things for museums that a building can’t.  If you go to the NRM hoping to see posters (as Mr Crownfolio and I, sad cases that we are, did on our honeymoon) you will be disappointed, as only a tiny proportion of what they hold will be on show.  Surf the archives though, and you can look at whatever you like.  If you can find it.

'By Train to London', 1960. British Railways poster Studio Seven

Studio Seven, By Train to London, 1960

Railway posters vs design

It was a long day, watching the Morphets auction.  And as all of those posters went buy, one after another going for way more than the Crownfolio budget, I found myself getting more and more jaded.  Until, by the end of the auction, I was quite glad that we’d only bought one single lot.

It wasn’t just that I was gorged on posters – although the experience was a bit like trying to eat a whole box of chocolates at once.  Seeing so many ‘classic’ railway posters together made me realise that (heresy alert here) the majority of them are not actually great pieces of design.

Of course, your average railway poster does have a lot of things going for it.  Nice watercolours, pictures of pretty parts of the countryside or heritage; a nostalgic vision of a Britain long gone.  A lovely thing to hang on your wall.

But when you look at them as pieces of poster design, it’s hard to get enthusiastic, particularly about the post-war breed.  The typography is average at best, and not integrated into the poster, while the images themselves are hardly cutting-edge illustration.  Of course there are some wonderful posters, like the one below, but they’re the exception rather than the rule.

lander english lakes poster auction

In the end – faced with five hundred of them laid end to end at the Morphets auction – it’s hard not to see the vast majority of railways posters as not only safe, but even a bit reactionary.  A nicely drawn vision of a Britain of plough-horses and fields, ancient cathedrals and Georgian towns, and, of course, steam trains.  Easy on the eye, not modern, not threatening – and not much different to buying a Victorian sketch of trees and a few cows to go over the fireplace.

This may seem a bit harsh, but I think it’s fair.  Because the other distinguishing factor of the auction was that some of the more striking and modern posters were the ones that didn’t get the highest prices.  The Lander above (which I love) only went for £300.

And Crownfolio’s only purchase of the whole long day was this.

Bristol poster auction

Which is lovely – and was also one of the only posters not even to reach its estimate.   So perhaps it’s a good thing that railway poster collectors aren’t in it for the design, it may yet still leave a few bargains for those of us who are.