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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Sad sack

This post is very simply two good things which have arrived on my desk recently.  The first is this Central Office of Information poster from 1950, photographed as well as I can manage under the rather folded circumstances.

CEntral Office of INformation Production poster 3

I know it’s from 1950 because that is when, apparently, the Anglo-American Council on Productivity produced their report on Materials Handling.  Now I have researched this quite a bit more in the hope of finding an interesting backstory, but have to report that there is no such thing; the truth is entirely dull and intermittently depressing.

Post-war American aid to Europe, including Britain, didn’t just consist of dollars, it also came in the form of technical assistance, of which the Angl0-American Productivity Committee was just one part.   At this point, American companies were two to three times more efficient than British ones, so you would have thought that paying attention might have been worthwhile.  But British companies didn’t want to hear: they thought they knew best, that you bullied and cajoled your workers not co-operated with them, that specialists were inferior. And so nothing happened.

Which is sad, because it means that this rather endearing little poster is actually a portent, the first sign of what would in the end happen to British industry in the 80s and beyond, as companies never put their raw materials on rollers but carried on heaving the sacks instead.

Meanwhile, on the further subject of inefficiency, how to run a railway.

Royston Cooper Railway leaflet want to run a railway?

The truthful answer to the question posed by this little booklet is no I don’t, thank you.  But it has gained houseroom because it is by Royston Cooper, who designed the insides too.

Royston Cooper railway leaflet fault spread

The whole thing is excellent, and dates from 1962, as this final page tells us.

Royston Cooper railway leaflet end design

The content, funnily enough, despite my almost total lack of interest, isn’t bad either.  The point of it is to prove that it’s actually harder than you think to run a railway, lots of things can go wrong and so please can you be very nice to Southern Railway when they do.

Royston Cooper Railway leaflet spread

We could probably do with a reprint now.

Royston Cooper but

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Bear necessities

Earlier this week, I made it down to London to take a look at the British Murals and Decorative Painting exhibition, as mentioned a few weeks ago.

I still love this.

Barbara Jones Out in the Hall 1960

Although I have faced up to the fact that we have neither the funds nor a wall space large enough.  Mind you, it was tempting; it was starting to look cheap, at least next to the Edward Bawden which, it turns out, was for sale.

Edward Bawden SS Oronsay Mural 1951

For £165,000.

But as ever, exhibitions never appear quite as you expect.  Two things really grabbed my attention, and they’re the biggest thing on display and one of the smallest.

The biggest is the John Piper mural from the Festival of Britain.  It’s unimaginably huge.  Even on Bond Street they could only find a space that would fit two thirds of its panels.

John PIper Festival of Britain homes and gardens pavilion mural

Its size is also its undoing, because a reproduction condenses it so much that you simply can’t see how good it is.  Take this detail, a cupola which is in part from Castle Howard with a bit of the Sheldonian thrown in.

John Piper detail of Festival mural

Or even these houses behind Owlpen Manor, which just disappear in a reproduction.

John Piper Owlpen detail from Festival mural

Really it’s brilliant – a contender for one of the best things Piper ever did, and I could have looked at it for hours.  And it really, really ought to be in a museum so that everyone gets the chance to do that.

The other object that caught my attention is tiny.

Kenneth Rowntree design for mural british restaurant in acton

This is a sketch by Kenneth Rowntree for a mural design for the British Restaurant in Acton in 1942.  I like it as a piece of design, but I love it even more for what it represents.

The British Restaurants were set up by the Ministry of Food during the Second World War as places where people could get a reasonable meal (well, within the confines of rationing) at a fair price.  They were set up in schools, in village halls, and, as Rowntree’s design shows, in churches too.  But what absolutely astounds me, and fills me with joy, is that the Ministry of Food decided that it was important that the restaurants were decorated, and not just by anybody, but by some of the leading mural artists of the time.

British Restaurant inspection visit

Here, thanks to the Imperial War Museum, are some bureaucrats, examining a British Restaurant with a view to getting it decorated.

A flick through the book which accompanies the murals exhibition reveals that it wasn’t only Rowntree, a conscientious objector, who worked on the British Restaurants, many other of his contemporaries did too.

There is so much that is good about this scheme, but what I love most is the vision, the sense that even in a world where food and supplies are rationed, where every man and woman is being directed to where they can best support the war effort, art is important.  But this isn’t an elitest intention, far from it; this art is designed for the most democratic of public places, it is genuinely art for all.

It’s a spirit that makes me thing that there was a country that I would have liked to live in.  I know there were disadvantages, and I probably wouldn’t have liked the bombing and the deprivation, the constant fear of death.  But even so, in its pride and its sense of what mattered in life, it’s a far better place than where I find myself living now.

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Industrial

You arrive here today to find me eating my own words.  To be specific, these words – and these as well – about the lack of posters depicting the industrial North.

The cause of this is the catalogue for the new Talisman railwayana auction, which has just arrived in the post,

Talisman March 2012 auction cover

By far the best thing in the auction is the poster which is part shown on the cover, lot 321.

LNER quad royal pictorial Poster “East Coast Industries served by the LNER”. A dramatic image by Frank H. Mason of a blast furnace in full production. Folds, minor edge tape stains and nicks and two very small corner losses. A superb poster otherwise.

Such a superb poster that I wanted to find a proper illustration of it to post on here.  I couldn’t, so this, from the catalogue, is the best I can offer.

Frank Mason East Coast industries smelting poster

On my travels, however, I found  another one from the series in the National Railway Museum collections via the NMSI.

‘East Coast Industries’, LNER poster, 1938.

While this depiction of a blast furnace has been sold at various times by both Onslows and Christies.

Frank Mason East coast industries blast furnace poster

They all date from 1938, so we have ourselves a series here.

There is a fourth one in the NRM collections, although it’s less overtly modern and mechanised than the rest.

'East Coast Industries’, LNER poster, c 1938.

There’s also one further poster, a kind of post-script to the series, which is this World War Two effort.  It’s also by Mason and was produced just a couple of years later with a very different message, although a somewhat similar aesthetic.

The Lines behind the Lines’, BR poster, 1939-1945.

From all of which, two conclusions.

The first is that there is more to Frank Mason’s work than I’ve previously given him credit for.  I’ve always known he was good. but somehow never found him interesting.  Those top three posters, however, really are triumphs of modernism in the most pernickety sense of the word.  Mason isn’t just using a modern sttyle, he is also trying to make these industrial processes heroic and glamorous.  And I think he succeeds.  (Note also the almost complete absence of people in these posters, the industries are so modern that they practically run themselves.  I’ll be coming back to this idea in another post one of these days.)

The second conclusion is that I was wrong about the absence of Northern industry in the visual language of railway posters.  Clearly, these places and industries are represented, at least in the period between the late 1920s and World War Two.  What instead has happened (as in the very similar case of World War Two posters) is that people later on have chosen not to reproduce, or buy, or sell these posters in any great number.  They have in the main not been written into the later narrative.  So perhaps it’s not the 1920s and 1930s I should be complaining about at all.  It’s us that have chosen to forget the steelworks and the collieries and the Midland s and the North.  The attitude is almost understandable now, when they’ve been eviscerated.  But perhaps the forgetting was where the problem started to begin?  Either that, or it’s the way in which we were persuaded that what happened to these places in the 1980s was OK.

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Is Your Letterbox Efficient?

I was just thinking that it had all gone very quiet on the auction front, when what should come along but a whole auction full of posters at Bloomsbury.

It’s an interesting hotch-potch with almost every form of poster you can think of represented in the mix.  So there’s foreign posters and railway posters.

PIPER, Raymond NORFOLK BROADS railway poster
Raymond Piper, est. £200-400

Alongside ski posters and London Transport posters.

FITTON, James (1899-1982) CIRCUS, London Underground lithograph in colours, 1937 London Transport poster
James Fitton, 1937, est. £200-300

UNGER, Hans (1915 - 1975) PIMLICO, London Underground offset lithograph in colours, 1972 poster
Hans Unger, 1972, est. £200-300

I’ve never seen that Unger before, although it’s not, in my book, one of his best.  The pricing is a bit, well, interesting as I can’t see that the Unger and the Fitton are in any way comparable in quality, but according to the estimates, they are.

In addtion, there are plenty of poster types that have been mentioned on here before, such as David Klein posters and aeroplane posters with lots of blue skies in them.

Note the increasing prices for David Klein; had I had the foresight and money to buy some a few years ago, I would be thoroughly quids in.  But I didn’t, and anyway, I would only have wanted to keep them.

KLEIN David (1918-2005) SAN FRANCISCO, Fly TWA offset lithograph in colours, c.1958, poster
David Klein, 1958, est. £1,400-1,800

LEWITT-HIM LEWITT (1907-1991)HIM (1900 - ) AOA USA lithograph in colours, 1948 poster
Lewitt-Hi, 1948, est. £150-250.

Another poster that I keep mentioning on here is this McKnight Kauffer from 1938.

KAUFFER, Edward McKnight ARP lithograph in colours, 1938,
McKnight Kauffer, 1938, est. £140-180

As ever, it turns up with the matching Pat Keely.

KEELY, Pat Cokayne (?-1970) ARP lithograph in colours, 1938 poster
Pat Keely, 1938, est. £140-180

My theory about this – and I have said this before but I think it’s worth repeating – is that these posters come up so often because they were deliberately saved.  They were, I believe,  the first propaganda posters issued by the government in advance of World War Two.  So they were a novelty, and also a harbinger of a great event that I am sure quite a lot of people could see coming.  So, if the chance arose, they saved them for posterity, or the grandchildren, or for all the other reasons that make people keep otherwise insignificant pieces of paper.

Move forward two years and the whole British population is drowning in slogans and propaganda, coming at them from newspapers, leaflets and the radio, as well as from posters.  So the last thing they want to do is keep one as a reminder.  In any case, there are so many, which one to choose?  So the latter posters survive in dribs and drabs, mostly saved by accident.  But these first ones, people knew they were important and they kept them.

Fortunately, not everything in the auction is something seen before.  This, for example, has to be one of the least obvious posters ever.

ANONYMOUS BETTER BROWN THAN LILY WHITE offsetlithograph in colours, c.1960ANONYMOUS BETTER BROWN THAN LILY WHITE offsetlithograph in colours, c.1960 poster
Anonymous, c. 1960, est. £200-400

Artist not known, but more than that I have no idea what it is on about either.  Nor, it appears, does Bloomsbury.  Any ideas anyone?

Most exciting, for me at least, are these.

ECKERSLEY, Tom (1914-1997) POST EARLY. GPO lithograph in colours,  poster
Tom Eckersley, est. £150-200

This is just one of five, yes count ‘em, five sets of GPO posters, each with ten posters in them.  Including, in this lot, a reminder of what a good designer Harry Stevens is at his best.

STEVENS, Harry (1919-2008) BY AIR MAIL. GPO lithograph in colours, 1951,  poster
Harry Stevens, 1951, est. £150-200

I would bid on them, but judging from our last experience with the Dorrit Dekk lots, these will go for a lot more than the estimates.

AITCHISON YOUR LETTERBOX…GPO lithograph in colours poster
Aitchison, est. £150-200 

And I’m not surprised.  This values them at £15-20 a poster; I reckon they’d go for more than that on eBay.  Although I don’t, to be fair, know what the other posters are, they may all be dogs of the first order.

BROMFIELD FOREIGN LETTER. GPO lithograph in colours, 1951 poster
Bromfield, 1951, est. £150-200

We’ve emailed Bloomsbury to ask what they are, and when we get an answer, I’ll let you know.

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The Seen

Today, a miscellany of stuff which has arrived here over the last few weeks and around which I may or may not be able to construct a narrative thread.  Watch and see.

To start with, lots of you responded to Paul Durham’s request for images of posters from Heals’ Mansard Gallery.

Heals Mansard Gallery potters posterHeals Mansard Gallery prints and glass

So thank you to Kiki Werth, Martin Steenson and Mike Ashworth, as well as other people who have offered other kinds of help.

Heals Mansard Gallery poster from McKnight Kauffer Art of the Poster

The image above is by William Roberts and is taken from McKnight Kauffer’s Art of the Poster Book.

Martin Steenson, who sent that one to me, also included this rather wonderful image with it too.

H S Williamson London Transport exhibition poster 1922

It’s by Harold Sandys Williamson and dates from 1926 (the London Transport Museum have it on their website).  Now quite apart from being a lovely poster, and an exhibition I’d rather like to have seen, it’s also further evidence of Underground Posters being exhibited quite heavily during this period, and in a more varied set of galleries than I had imagined.  Was it because Frank Pick had the contacts, or where gallery owners and curators (and furniture store owners) genuinely inspired by his vision of a popular form of modern art.  Perhaps someone will come along who knows more about this and tell me.

Of course there are still exhibitions now.  I haven’t bothered to mention the London Transport Museum’s current one. on 150 years of Underground design, simply because it has been in every newspaper in the country, and so I assumed you would have heard by now.  What you might not know, however, is that as a result you can now buy poster stamps.

London Transport posters on stamps

Which is a novelty.  And I’ve always liked the James Fitton on the right below.

More London Transport posters on stamps

If you want to know more, there is a full and factual BPMA blog here.

Finally – and this has no link to anything else at all apart from just being interesting – a leap back to a post from nearly two years ago, in which I rhapsodised about some wonderful drawings of shops by John Griffiths, from Motif magazine.

motif smith umbrella

Any excuse to show them again.

But the most mysterious and intriguing, despite being in black and white, was always this one, for an animal costume shop off St Martin’s Lane.

Theatre Zoo John Griffiths Motif 3

I got an email the other day, from someone who, as a big Beatles fan, was very pleased to see this.  It turns out, you see, that the costumes for Magical Mystery Tour were purchased here in 1967.  And what’s more, the receipt is floating around out there on the internet.

Theatre Zoo beatles receipt

One walrus mask, hood, feet and flippers.  I am the Walrus indeed.

 

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