Anglo-American relations

In the cold dark days of winter, it’s always good to see an auction coming along to cheer me up.   But with January being the season of abstinence and all that, it’s probably good that it’s an American auction, at Swann Galleries, so without too much that absolutely has to be bought.

IR INDIA / FLY YOUR FREIGHT.  40x25 inches, 101 1/2x63 1/2 cm. Bombay Fine Art, Bombay vintage poster
Anonymous, est. $400-600

That doesn’t mean there aren’t things I like, though.  The first two of these have an Indian slant.  It’s obvious in the one above, but the only clue in the one below is that it’s printed in Madras.

vintage commercial poster IT'S KODAK FILM TIME.  29 3/4x20 inches, 75 1/2x51 cm. Prasad Process LTD., Madras.
Anonymous, est. $400-600

Elsewhere,  I am amused at the logical end to the idea of the house as a machine for living in, which is that the housewife must, of course, become a robot.

FRANCIS BERNARD (1900-1979) VIII SALON DES ARTS MÉNAGERS. 1931.  38x24inches, 97x61cm. Editions Paul-Martial, vintage poster
Francis Bernard, 1931, est. $600-900

This poster, meanwhile,  is not just worth noticing because it’s advertising Burger Beer, although that’s quite funny enough.

BURGER BEER / HAVE FUN IN SOUTH CAROLINA. Circa 1955. vintage poster
Anonymous, c. 1955, est. $400-600

It’s also possibly the only piece of genuine 1950s graphics that I’ve ever come across which actually looks like the current pastiches of the period – that style so beloved of giftshops and eBay for fridge magnets and signs for your kitchen.

frdge magnet

I never thought that existed in real life, but it seems it did, so there you go.

In amongst these diversions, there are also a handful of British posters too.  Well I say British posters, but these two I suspect were designed for the American tourist market.

vintage poster WELCOME TO BRITAIN.  39 1/2x25 inches, 100x63 1/2 cm. British Travel Associatio
Anonymous, est. $500-750

I’ve recently been reading about Britain’s attempts to reinvent itself as a modern country in the 1950s but, in this instance at least, the project hasn’t been working.  The design may be modern, but the images are all as traditional as can be: pageantry and pewter posts, policemen and, if we’re being honest here, peasants.

And don’t forget our quaint buses either.

AARON FINE (DATES UNKNOWN) TO LONDON BY JET CLIPPER / PAN AM. Circa 1960.  41 1/2x28 inches, 105 1/2x71 cm.vintage poser
Aaron Fine, est. $600-900

That is a rather wonderful poster though.

Finally, one entirely British poster.  Well, apart from the fact it’s designed by an American.

EDWARD MCKNIGHT KAUFFER (1890-1954) NEAR WALTHAM CROSS / BY TRAM. 1924.  30 1/4x20 inches, 77x51 cm. Baynard Press, London.  vintage poster
McKnight Kauffer, 1924, est. $600-900.

But I think we’ll allow that one as landscapes don’t get much more British than that.

Next week: Harry Stevens and posters on display.  If things go to plan, that is.

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On Display

Having already written in praise of the ephemeral last week, it’s time to explore some more things that can never be recreated.

I ordered this book ages ago, but it arrived just before Christmas after a slow sea crossing of the Atlantic.

Beverley Pick, cover image of display presentation book

The wait was worthwhile, because it is full of wonderful things, even if, sadly, the cover is the only bit of colour there is.

The book covers the full range of display and design, ranging from grand stands at trade shows, like this one for English Electric at the Radio Show at Olympia,

Beverley Pick exhibition Stand for English Electric at Radio Show at Olympia

to small portable displays and shop windows.

Beverley Pick BOAC small counter display object

Beverley Pick BOAC five continents window display

In addition, there’s plenty of practical advice too, with examples of Pick’s own models for his designs – this one intended for shop windows.  He’ll even tell you what glue he used to keep a particularly difficult model together.

Beverley Pick design for Alexon shop display board

But it’s the exhibition stands I love the best.  This is another one from the Radio Show, for a manufacturer of wireless components.

Beverley Pick Ediswann stand Radio Show

This love isn’t just about a wallowing in ephemeral nostalgia on my part, I also think that the exhibition stands are architecturally important, and too often forgotten.

Pick’s book was published in 1957, at a time when British architecture was only just getting on its feet again after the war.  Although a great deal of buildings were being built, houses and flats in particular, the pressures of wartime reconstruction meant that they were mass-produced and kept simple as a result.  Almost everything being built was commissioned by governments and local authorities, with private building licences almost impossible to procure, so the scope for architectural innovation was very limited indeed.

Schools were almost the only buildings which allowed for any kind of experimentation, and even this was constrained by the limited materials available, along with the pressure for  quick and low-cost rebuilding of war damage.  This is Great Barr School in Birmingham, finished in 1958.

Great Barr School, Birmingham, designed by architect A.G. Sheppard Fidler, 1958

All of which meant that the architecture of the first half of the decade (what tends to be called ‘The Festival Style’) never really got built. By the time that less urgent, more extravagant buildings were being commissioned, the architectural fashion had changed, and Brutalism was coming to the fore.  It’s been said that Coventry Cathedral (commissioned n 1951 but only finished in 1962) is one of the few buildings outside the South Bank to be a full expression of the style.  Certainly it was seen as old-fashioned even before it was completed.

BAsil Spence vintage British Railways poster

Although, I personally do have to nominate the Toast Rack building in Manchester as another classic in the style, even if Pevsner calls it the first Pop building ever.

Manchester Hollings Building toast rack

This used to house the Domestic Science College, and thus also had the fried egg building next door.

toast rack and fried egg building

Arguments about the precise number aside, the fact that there are so few of these huildings is why the exhibition stands are worth looking at.  Because for the first five years of the 1950s, perhaps even longer, exhibition design was the main expression of cutting-edge architectural taste in Britain.

Beverley Pick BOAC stand British Industries Fair

These stands are not buildings, they never will be, and often they were designed by different people, exhibition designers rather than architects.  But they are still among the best expressions of the style of the early and mid 1950s that were ever built, and perhaps all the more exuberant because that architectural imagination simply couldn’t be channelled anywhere else.

More beverley pick exhibition stand models

Beverley Pick, in his book, is mostly concerned with the design process and mechanics of display rather than the theory, but even he acknowledges that architecture and exhibition design were very intermingled at this point.

In the years after the war, many architects, forced by building restrictions to devote much of their time to exhibition work, by necessity, acquired valuable training in display and presentation.  Conversely, display designers, entrusted by their clients with the responsibility of producing their exhibition stands, became well versed in architectural and structural matters.

This is also a reminder that Pick was just one of many designers working in the field.  His book only illustrates his own work, but there are plenty more to be found (and goodness only knows I have spent enough time poring over them) in the Designers in Britain series.  I particularly love this Farmers’ Weekly stand by Misha Black and Alexander Gibson from about 1950.

Farmers Weekly exhibition stand c1950 Mischa Black

This Robin Day design for ECKO dates from about the same year too.

Robin Day ecko stand Radio exhibition

Day also did this ICI pavilion for the Royal Agricultural Show in 1955 or 1956; here the spindly festival style is developing into something sleeker and a bit closer to International Modernism.

Robin Day exhibition stand for ICI Royal Agricultural Show

I would like to live in this as my house please, with a giant Quad Royal logo towering over the roof.

More seriously, I am really surprised that more attention hasn’t been paid to these exhibition designs, however ephemeral they were.  The start of the 1950s – and indeed what is seen as the birth of serious design at this time – is always constructed in terms of exhibitions: Britain Can Make It in 1946 (below), and then of course the Festival of Britain itself in 1951.

Shop Window Street at Britain Can Make It 1946

Both of these exhibitions are very thoroughly documented, which does help.  But all sorts of exhibitions on every scale continued throughout the decade and, mostly, their design has been completely  ignored.

This amnesia goes back in time, because a lot of pent-up architectural design was being channelled into exhibition design during the war as well.  Here are a couple of rather striking Army exhibitions.

Ministry of Information Army Exhibition in Cardiff 1944

The one above is in Cardiff in 1944, that below on the site of the bombed-out John Lewis department store on Oxford Street a year earlier.

Ministry of Information Army Exhibition Oxford Street 1943

Ministry of Information Army Exhibition Oxford Street 1943

It’s clear that the Festival of Britain style was already in the making during the war, rather than springing out of nowhere on the South Bank.

As well as the big budget extravaganzas, there were smaller ones too, many of which were held at Charing Cross Station (did they tour in the provinces after, or was the newspaper coverage enough I wonder?)

Ministry of Information Coupons Exhibition at Charing Cross Station

Ministry of Information Bread is a munition of war exhibition Charing Cross Station

Again, the wartime exhibitions are also a subject which has not been much covered as far as I can tell (and if I’ve missed something please do let me know).  All I’ve found so far is this article, and the fact that it was produced as part of a Henry Moore Institute Study Day about Sculpture in the Home shows just how much the subject has slipped between the cracks of different disciplines.  It’s a shame for what seems to me to be a really important piece of the design history of Britain.  There’s a lost architectural story to be told out there for the telling, if only we can be bothered to look in different places to find it.

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Thinking in numbers

For anyone who thought the infographic is a modern phenomenon, the London Transport Museum is here to set you right.

They’ve just created a new display of graphics about numbers, which I am mainly drawing your attention to because this Schleger is both fantastic and not often seen.

Hans Schleger vintage London Transport poster 1938.

Interestingly, it’s from 1938.  These kind of explanatory posters with factual graphics are sometimes ascribed to the war, with its accompanying need to explain to the people, but clearly the trend had begun before the conflict started. This design by Theyre Lee Elliot is even earlier, from 1936.

Theyre Lee Elliott 1936

(I’m guessing from the press release that this is in the exhibition from the description, apologies if you go there and it isn’t…)

In fact a fair chunk of the exhibition seems to be dedicated to proving that the infographic goes back quite a long way further than we might think.

Irene Fawkes 1924 vintage London Transport infographic poster

The design above, by Irene Fawkes, dates from 1924 and there are plenty more of that ilk in the exhibition, although they are mostly in a pre-war style that I can’t get too excited about.

Charles Shephard 1923 Vintage London Transport poster

But what this makes me think, perhaps even more than how far these kind of explanation goes back, is that what seems to be missing are their modern equivalents.  I know there are exceptions to this – a few years ago London Transport produced a set of posters explaining why escalators needed to be replaced, which were placed on the hoardings around the work which weren’t graphically exceptional but were interesting and informative.  In the main, though, it doesn’t feel as though public bodies feel the need to explain to us what they are doing any more. Or am I missing something?

Heinz Zinram vintage London Transport poster 1960s

The above is by Heinz Zinram (at least he took the photographs) and dates from 1965.  Just as true today though.

And thanks to Macca, who pointed me at this exhibition in the first place, for which I am very grateful.

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Architecture subsidiary art to confectionary, obviously

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!’

Thorleys feed advertising sign as at Black Eyes and Lemonade

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.

Black Eyes and Lemonade pub mirrors

They are a pair of pub mirrors which were also part of the exhibition, and which came up for sale last year.

Black Eyes and Lemonade Pub mirror detail

Here they are on display in 1951, in a whole room of pub exuberance.

Black Eyes and Lemonade Whitechapel Art Gallery Barbara Jones pub display

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.

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

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.

Black Eyes and Lemonade Airedale Fireplace

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.

British popular art 1951 exhibition poster Barbara Jones

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.

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Why Miss Jones

Another rave from the grave for the last of the holiday season.  This is revived mainly because it is not possible to have too much Barbara Jones on this blog, but also because I have been reading about her work for the Festival of Britain and will be posting about it in due course (due course being when I get my act together after the holidays, something which doesn’t seem to have happened yet).  

This was the first post I ever wrote about Barbara Jones; since then I have posted several more posts about her, but this is worth having for the bull alone.

I promised you Barbara Jones, and Barbara Jones you shall have.  I’ve always liked her work, which began when we picked up this book in a second-hand shop quite a few years ago now.

Barbara Jones cover of English Fairs and Markets

Not only is it a very fetching cow, but it also reminds me of County Shows, which are some of my favourite things in the world.  I’m off to the Bath and West later this week, and will be looking out for bemused-looking animals with rosettes in her honour.  Here is the sheep from the back cover.

Barbara Jones English Fairs and Markets reverse

And one of the more delicate line drawings from the inside – this is Leadenhall Market decorated for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Leadenhall decorated for coronation Barbara Jones illustration

But the more that I find out about her, the more I am discovering that the (very many) book covers and illustrations are just one part of what she did.  Every biography I have found of her (on Wikipedia, or this rather good illustrated catalogue by Ash Rare Books) makes the point that the vast majority of her work was ephemeral and has disappeared.  She studied mural design at the Royal College of Art, and her work appeared on liners – here is a sketch for a very ‘popular arts’ trompe l’oeil mural for the Tavern Bar of the S.S. Orsova.

Barbara Jones sketch for mural for tavern bar of SS Orsova

as well as working for the 1947 Britain Can Make It exhibition.

Barbara Jones muriel for Britain Can Make it Children's Section

A striking tableaux in the toys section illustrating the famous Birthday Nursery Rhyme, from monday’s child ‘fair of face’ sitting before a dressing-table, through the days of the week to Sunday’s child ‘blithe and bonny and good and gay’ rightly put in a glass case out of reach of an every-day little boy who resents such perfection. Murals by Barbara Jones, figures by Hugh Skillen.

She also designed murals for the Festival of Britain.  None survive, but here are her illustrations of the Festival being built in 1950.

Flair magazine barbara jones festival of britain 1950

And, apparently, she also designed sets for The Woodentops.  How much more influential can you be?

But even despite that, I think perhaps her most important legacy was in ways of seeing.  The Festival of Britain poster which I posted a couple of weeks ago, was for an exhibition that she curated as well as designed.

Festival of Britain Black Eyes and Lemonade poster Barbara Jones 1951

And after I’d posted it, Mr Crownfolio came and plonked this on my desk (which had apparently been on the shelves all this time, unbeknownst to me).

Barbara Jones cover for Design for Death

She collected, wrote and illustrated the book in a rather wonderfully understated Gothic fashion.

Barbara Jones Illustration from design for death

While the book itself wanders over everything from Aboriginal mourning rituals to modern graves for pets, passing through poetry, floral tribute, anthropology and etiquette on the way.  The result is a very modern kind of book, where the pictures are working alongside the words rather than just illustrating them – I can’t recommend it too highly.

Barbara Jones illustration from design for death

But in terms of what she achieved with her work, the fly-leaf gives as good a description as any.

Before it was generally fashionable to enjoy the decorative and amusing objects produced by popular art, Barbara Jones was already studying them and collecting them, and she did much for them when she put on the exhibition called ‘Black Eyes and Lemonade’ during the Festival of Britain.  Miss Jones’ house in Hampstead, full of curious and delightful things, is a vivid illustration of her impatience with the chastity of conventional ‘good taste’ and her feeling for invention, fantasy and vitality wherever it may be found.

I wonder what became of her house?  They should have preserved it for the nation.

Barbara Jones picture

Do you think that’s it behind her?

Should you feel the need to campaign for something to be preserved though, the last remaining one of her murals has just been put forward for a listing order.  It’s a mural of Adam and Eve done for a (Basil Spence -designed) secondary school in Sheffield.  The school is being demolished, but the Twentieth Century Society are campaigning for the mural to be reused in the new school.  I hope they succeed – more details here.

And if you want to know even more, there’s a book – A Snapper Up of Unconsidered Trifles: A Tribute to Barbara Jones which I haven’t read., but if it has more than three pictures in it will definitely be worth the price of admission.

Barbara Jones BBC Schools leaflet

 I have since bought the book and it is fabulous.  Her archive is apparently in Brighton, I might have to go and visit it one of these days.

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Return of the Volkswagen

Christmas is the season for repeats, and not only on the television.  Here on Quad Royal, this means revisiting a few posts which are worth a second glance.  In this case – the Empire Marketing Board posters from Manchester City Art Gallery – the subject is also newly topical.  The gallery will be staging an exhibition of some of their collection which opens in late February (more details here).  Which means I may have to return to my old stomping grounds and report back to you.  In the meantime, some thoughts on the poster collection as a whole.

For some time I’ve been meaning to post a link to the Empire Marketing Board Archive at Manchester Art Gallery.

It’s an exemplary online resource for a really interesting collection.  The Empire Marketing Board was what Stephen Tallents did before he came to the GPO, and in many ways is one of the first attempts at the kind of ‘soft’ advertising and propaganda that we now take for granted.

Empire Marketing Board poster Christmas produce bear
Austin Cooper, 1927

In his time at the Empire Marketing Board between 1926 and 1933, Tallents (working with Frank Pick and William Crawford of Crawfords advertising agency) commissioned some of the very best designers and artists working in Britain at the time.  These included those such as Austin Cooper, Frank Newbould and Fred Taylor who were best known for their work for the railway companies,

Good Shopper Empire Marketing Board Poster Frank Newbould
Frank Newbould

as well as fine artists like Paul Nash.

Paul Nash Empire Marketing Board poster

But I’ve been holding off writing about it for months.  Why?  Because these posters constitute an ideological problem of the first order, and it’s not one I have an easy answer to.

The issue at stake is, of course, Empire.  The Manchester Art Gallery website describes the collection as ‘challenging and fascinating’.

Created during the 1920s and ’30s to promote trade and understanding between empire countries, the posters present a view of the British Empire that, from today’s perspective, is often uncomfortable.  Although visually stunning, the posters contain images that would today be considered offensive. As a product of their time, they raise difficult questions about the legacy of empire.

I’m not proposing to get into a discussion about the legacy of Empire and the historic wrongs involved.  What I’m interested in is how much ideology can adhere to images, in particular to these posters.

There is no denying that there are some posters in the collection which can only be interpreted as racism of the highest degree.  This vision of the white man bringing civilisation is by Adrian Allinson.

Allinson Empire Marketing Board poster African Transport

It gets worse, too – the implicit comparison is with the companion poster.

Allinson Empire Marketing Board African transport

But these posters are by no means in the majority in the archive.  To start with, a good portion of the posters are images of either produce,

Bacon Factory Empire Marketing Board poster

or pictures of Britain that wouldn’t look out of place on a railway poster.

Home Agricultural Show Empire Marketing Board poser
Gregory Brown

Or quite possibly both.

Frank Newbould Empire Marketing Board poster
Frank Newbould

So my questi0n is, can a poster like this Fred Taylor of Market Day be interpreted as loaded, racist even?

Fred Taylor Market Day Empire Marketing Board Poster

I’ve had quite an interesting email conversation about this with Melanie Horton, the researcher who’s been working on the archive.  She would argue that it is, that all the posters have to be seen as whole and cannot be separated from the politics of how they came to be produced.

I’m not going to tackle her arguments now as she has a booklet about the collection coming out soon (Empire Marketing Board Posters: Manchester Art Gallery ) and it only seems fair to read them in detail first.  But I do have a few broader thoughts to raise before then.

Because what we are debating here isn’t in any way a new question.  T.S. Eliot was undoubtedly a small-minded anti-semite, but does that devalue The Four Quartets, in which there is nothing of the sort?  Or if you want a more modern version of the same problem, try yesterday’s Guardian, where Brett Easton Ellis is freely admitting to misogyny, sexism and generally being a rather unappealing bit of work.  But what does that do to our opinion of his novels?  As it happens, I love The Four Quartets but loathe American Psycho, so my answer is different in each case.

But this problem also came up when I studied Design History, in perhaps its most taxing presentation.  Here it was known as the Volkswagen problem.  And it is quite a problem.

The Volkswagen Beetle is a great piece of design which produced one of the most popular small cars of the twentieth century, and was also technologically very innovative.  However it was also, and there is no too ways about this, a product of Nazi ideology.  As if the name Volkswagen itself wasn’t enough of a clue, the Beetle was originally known as the KdFwagen – the Strength Through Joy car. Adolf Hitler commissioned it, approved it and set it into production.   And yet we are not only prepared to forgive the Beetle, but clasp it to our hearts as one of the best-loved cars there has ever been.

Channel Island Pea Harvest poster Empire Marketing Board
Keith Henderson

So where does that leave images like these?

Oat Harvest Empire Marketing Board Poster
George Houston

Can we separate them out from how and when they were produced, and only see the oats and the peas and the pears?

Empire Marketing Board Poster

Or is it only the Volkswagen that can ever achieve that kind of forgiveness?

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