Rus vs Urbe

I have three ideas bobbing around in my head today, along with a suspicion that they are in some way connected, even if I can’t quite identify how yet.  The only way to find out is to write them down, so apologies in advance if it turns out that they aren’t.

Let’s start with the most tangential, the North Sea Radio Orchestra.  Who are brilliant, but so far off the topic of this blog that I won’t say much more than that, except that they are very English, historically rooted and pastoral (and thus also connected to yesterday’s post) but also modern.  Trying to find out a bit more about them, thougb, I was struck by – that’s struck in the sense of really quite irritated by –  a review of one of their concerts.

“it’s frequently a fine and lovely thing. But in some ways it can’t help feeling like a retreat… Certainly there are moments of beauty, but ultimately it’s like stepping back into an alternate, pre-war England where rock’n’roll – not to mention mass industrialisation and immigration – never happened. Which is fine for a night, but I wouldn’t want to stay.

Vintage London Transport Poster Autumn Woods Keith Cunningham 1950
Out and About: Autumn Woods, Keith Cunningham, 1950

The implication here is that the modern world of cities and tarmac has wiped out the rural and romantic aspects of Englishness for good.  Even at face value this is a fairly contentious statement: I live in a small town, the countryside is not very far from my front door and I can say with some certainty that, despite the factories, Tesco and a global economy, the fields and hedges are still there.  But more to the point – at least for this blog – this sets out very clearly one point of view in a problem that I keep coming back to on Quad Royal, that of Englishness and modernism.

Out and about: country houses S John Woods vintage London Transport poster 1950
Out and About: Country Houses, S John Woods, 1950

For the reviewer (one Ben Graham, you can read his whole review here if you want), the modern tarmacadam world  has made the ‘old’ version of Englishness, rooted in the pastoral and the historic, in the tracks over the fold of the hills, irrelevant.  The real world is only now contained in the fluid city, in machines and cars and – for him at least – loud electric guitars.  And while I’ve made the argument sound a bit daft here, this is in the end the central narrative of modernism.  Only things which represent the streamlined bustling city can be modern, the rest is pointless, even reactionary.  By which standards the English regularly and repeatedly fail at being modern in any way.

Tattoo, by unknown artist, 1950 vintage London transport poster
Tattoo, Anonymous, 1950

Another story is, though, starting to gain some currency (in this book this book for starters), which is that the British/English were producing modern design, and thinking about it very hard; it’s just that what they produced was a different modern which maintained a connection to older traditions as well.  We live in a country which has both landscape and cities; modernism’s inability to reflect this was the failure, not us. So modern British design doesn’t always look like you expect.  (And modern British music might not always have an electric guitar in it either).

All of which brings me back to Graphis 31, the survey of British Graphic design in 1950.  Now, if ever there was a moment in which Britain wanted to be modern, this has to have been it.  A whole new post-war world was being built in which everything was going to be different, preferably with bright colours and all mod cons (this is, I know an over-simplification and I’ve put the opposite point of view on here before now, but I think it’s nonetheless true that if ever there was an urge for total modernity in this country, the early 1950s was that time).

See London by London Transport coach, by Abram Games, 1950
See London, Abram Games, 1950

But when you look at the Graphis, the work just isn’t as ‘modern’ as you’d expect. Where I was struck by this most was in the case of the London Transport posters.  Six are illustrated, and yes, some of them have the clean lines and modern styling that might be thought to signify this new world.

Pat Keely vintage London Transport poster internal Communications 1945
Sudden Braking, Pat Keely, 1945

Tom Eckersley vintage London Transport poster 1948 Central Line Extension
Central Line Extensions, Tom Eckersley, 1948.

But quite a few of them don’t.

Lewin Bassingthwaite, The Circus, Vintage London Transport poster 1949
Lewin Bassingthwaighte, The Circus, 1949

Betty Swanwick, enjoy your London the River, London Transport poster 1949
Betty Swanwick, The River, 1949

While this one just hovers somewhere in between the two.

Epping; Central line extension, by K G Chapman, 1949 vintage London Transport poster
Epping, C K Chapman, 1949

All of which brings me, by accident, to an idea that I’ve mentioned before, which is to take a slice through 1949 or 1950 and see just what the design really did look like then.  I’ve always had London Transport posters in mind for this project, because it’s quite a comprehensive archive and one with, if anything, a bias away from conservatism (compared, say to product advertising), so it would be a tough proving of the theory.

Graphis has in some ways already run that test for me. The majority of the posters they reproduce are from 1949 (a year when, at least judging by the LT Museum archives, not that many posters were printed in that year  anyway).  I’ve supplemented this throughout the post with posters from 1950.  And in terms of numbers at least, the victory is on the side of what we might as well call romanticism (i.e. the style of Graham Sutherland or John Piper) rather than the clean lines of International Modernism.  What’s more, much of the modern design comes from the pen of just two designers, Tom Eckersley and Abram Games.

Please stand on the right, by Tom Eckersley, 1949  London Transport poster
Please Stand On the Right, Tom Eckersley, 1949

See London by London Transport coach, by Abram Games, 1950 vintage poster
See London by London Transport Coach, Abram Games, 1950

Although an honourable mention must also be made for this Bruce Angrave, just because it is great.

Christmas greetings to London, by Bruce Angrave, 1949 vintage LT poster
Christmas Greetings to London, Bruce Angrave, 1949

It’s also notable just how many designs use rural imagery too.  Now this may be a function more of London Transport than the mood of designers at the time; after all, one of the purposes of the posters was to get people to use the Underground more, taking leisure trips out to the far flung – and still unspoilt – fringes of the network.

Out and about; the streams, by Peter Roberson, 1950 vintage London Transport poster
Out and About: the streams, Peter Roberson, 1950

But even the images of urban life, of art galleries and street markets, are done in a similar style.

Enjoy Your London; no.3 art galleries, by R Scanlan, 1949 London Transport poster
Enjoy your London: Art Galleries, R Scanlon, 1949

Enjoy your London; no.2 street markets, by A R Thomson, 1949 London Transport poster
Enjoy Your London: Street Markets, A R Thomson, 1949

So does this mean that all those designs weren’t modern?  Far from it.  Because remember what I said up there about Sutherland and Piper?  These were modern artists in the Britain of the 1950s, working in a new style.  I’d be quite happy to bet that if you were a commuter standing on a Tube platform in 1949 or 1950, these posters would have seemed fresh and exciting, as modern as can be.  Even though they don’t always represent the mechanised city in action, in the appropriate style.

Which leads me to two thoughts.  One is that modern can perhaps only be judged at the time – if it seemed new, different, exciting to the eye of a bystander when it was produced (worthy of inclusion in Graphis, say) then it was modern.  From a distance it’s all to easy to exclude things that don’t fit our historical preconceptions of a time, so perhaps we’re not necessarily best placed to judge.

The other is that British or English modernism is perhaps more subtle and balanced than its European counterpart.  To paraphrase Patrick Wright, we are always aware that we are living in an old country, and so we have to include this past into our depictions of the modern world, otherwise we are not telling the truth.  The fields and their earthworks are always still there, however many industrial units we build.

Out and about; the farms, by James Arnold, 1950 London Transport
Out and About: the farms, James Arnold, 1950

Which means that modern design doesn’t have to have clean lines and sharp edges all the time.  And our music doesn’t have to be rock and roll either.  In which case I’d very much like to recommend I A Moon by the North Sea Radio Orchestra.  It’s very modern, you see.

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In another place

I keep trying to contemplate posters, but my brain isn’t complying and wants to think about archaeology instead.  So, for one day only, the stone circles of Wiltshire as represented in graphic design.  Only on Quad Royal.

Although our first offering isn’t all that.

mcKnight Kauffer Stonehenge vintage Shell poster 1932

Despite the fact that it’s in the collections of both the V&A and MoMA and therefore has to be a Modern Classic, I don’t really like it.  There’s too much artistic licence in the hilliness and the surrounding stones for my taste, although I will give it points for being a very interesting collision between high modernism and an almost 18thC romantic view of wild landscape at night

But I have another grievance against the poster which is that I don’t really like Stonehenge either; it’s a freak and an abberation rather than a proper stone circle.  That is a serious point, not just prejudice.  The shaped and stacked lintels of Stonehenge may have become our default idea of what a stone circle looks like (I would say ‘icon’ except that I’d hate myself afterwards; a shame because the word used to represent a useful concept before it became debased).  But no other stone circle in the country looks anything like this.  And you only have to go twenty five miles along the road  – still staying in Wiltshire – to find the real thing.

Shell Shilling Guide to Wiltshire Keith Grant

…it does as much exceed in greatness the so renowned Stonehenge as a Cathedral doeth a parish church.

That’s what John Aubrey said about Avebury in the seventeenth century, and it’s still true today.  Which is why Keith Grant was wise to choose its stones for the cover of the Shell Shilling Guide to Wiltshire.

That’s not the only time Shell got it right, either.  The Ridgeway is the prehistoric track which leads across the high downs to Avebury (now walkable as a tidy National Footpath all the way from Tring), and David Gentleman included it in his ‘Roads’ series of posters.

David Gentleman Ridgeway shell poster llustration

This is not the poster but the original artwork.  David Revill posted a comment on the blog the other day to say that he had bought this very picture at the auction of Shell’s original artworks in 2002.  I am envious.

My favourite picture of all though (and yes, I have said this before) is John Piper’s Archeological Wiltshire.

John Piper Archaeological Wiltshire - genius

I would quite happily mortgage the cats for a copy of that, and probably throw in a few posters too, but it seems there is only one and it lives in a museum in Scotland.  But if anyone knows differently, please do say.

I think that’s actually better than the picture below, even though Nash’s re-imagining of Avebury is far more known.

Paul Nash equivalents for the megaliths

Nash’s colours are just a bit too weedy for me to really love this – and the hill fort in the background is about to topple forwards any minute now.  But seen from the present day, it is a remarkably prescient painting.  The hills all over the Wiltshire downs are now covered in geometric bales, cubes and cylinders, which turn his surrealist imaginings into reality every year.

With a bit of luck I have now got that out of my system and a normal service, in which we talk about posters, will resume tomorrow.

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Chaps like you

A bit of a miscellany today, of which the most notable items are these.

They’re a pair of 1940s government information posters, but what makes them different is that they’re not wartime posters but date, I am reasonably sure, from just after the war.

old government public information posters from eBay

The message is certainly right for the times.  World War Two itself may have been over, but the sense of emergency hadn’t gone away because the end of American Lend-Lease finance meant that the bill now had to be paid.  What was needed now was more National Savings and even more production for export earnings.  So, just as during the war, sheaves of posters were produced exhorting the nation to greater effort.  The government’s publicity budget in 1946 was nearly £3m, almost as much as it had been during the war; by contrast, in 1938, they had spent just £257,000.

It wasn’t just the quantity of posters which carried on, plenty of the wartime messages didn’t change either, and in many cases the austerity slogans are almost indistinguishable from those produced while the war was on.

Bones vintage 1946 public information poster propaganda

The ‘still’ is one clue in the poster above (which is ours and so not for sale on eBay right now),  but it is definitely post-war, because it was designed by Dorrit Dekk, who only joined the Central Office of Information in 1946.  But without that attribution it would be almost impossible to give a definite date to it.

But what’s really interesting about all of these posters, and what makes the pair for sale on eBay so unusual, is that in comparison with the wartime posters, very few of them survive.  And I think there’s probably a very good reason for this.  During the war, it was clear to everyone that this was a moment of great historical importance and so at least a few people saved the posters as souvenirs or documents or whatever you care to call them.  After the war, though, the austerity and effort had been a noble cause was now just a relentless grind in a grey, bombed-out, rather cheerless country.  It wasn’t a time that many people wanted a memento of.

There’s another reason, too.  People were sick of posters telling them what to do.  Six years of almost constant exhortation and instruction had left their mark, and no one wanted to listen any more.  All of which make these eBay survivals both rare and unusual.  Although whether they are £140 worth of rare is another question altogether.

Mind you, they’re not along as there seems to be quite a lot of expensive on eBay at the moment.  At first this London Underground poster doesn’t look unreasonable at £140, because it is lovely.

Vintage 1939 London Transport poster from Kiki Werth on eBay

But then it is only 10″ x 12″, so that’s quite a lot of money for a small bit of paper.  Mind you, if I start thinking like that, I’ll never buy anything again.

Elsewhere, this 1960s London Transport poster for the Imperial War Museum is definitely overpriced with a starting price of £125.

Andrew Hall 1965 Imperial War Museum poster London Transport

While this pair of school prints are at least starting at a reasonable £40 and £30 respectively, although I suspect they may go higher.

Michael Rothenstein school print


Leonard Tisdall School print

The first is by Michael Rothenstein, the second by Leonard Tisdall, both rather good.  I’ve written about the school prints before, but it’s probably worth pointing out that it’s yet another example of artists in the 1940s and 50s taking work for children seriously.  Good art was a very important part of the new world they were building; I wonder where that impulse has gone now.

Finally, a rare feature which is things liked by Quad Royal turning up on television.  Doesn’t happen often, so twice in one night is nothing short of a miracle.  Firstly, a set of Fougasse Careless Talk Costs Lives posters turned up on the Antiques Roadshow, where Mark Hill valued them at £1,000-1,500.  Mr Crownfolio, on our sofa, said £750.  Any thoughts as to who might be right there?  Then, straight after this on BBC Four, The Secret Life of the Airport featured Margaret Calvert talking about designing signs and typefaces for Gatwick.  That bit’s about 10 min from the end, but the rest of it is worth your attention for some cracking archive footage too.

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Everday good design

There are a few ideas that I want to pursue on the blog at the moment – I haven’t forgotten, for example, that there is more to be said about Graphis in 1950.  That will get said soon, but for today I’m going back to my thoughts about how children shouldn’t be fobbed off with second-rate design, because it made Mr Crownfolio remind me about these (and I shouldn’t have needed reminding as Shelf Appeal mentioned them in dispatches recently too).

Puffin Picture Book The Clothes We Wear cover

These are Puffin picture books, produced between 1940 and 1965, and they are things of beauty.

Puffin Picture Book Printing harold Curwen

I’m not going to give you a full history of how and why they were produced, partly because it’s Friday, but mainly because there has been a book produced about exactly that, called Drawn Directly to the Plate and available here. (And do get it there, because they’re charging just £20, while the only copy on Amazon is priced at £85.  Nice work if you can get it).  It’s a bit of an odd book, because it veers between serious history and collectors’ handbook, sometimes within the same paragraph, but it’s still a useful introduction to a slightly different side of British graphic design.

Puffin Picture Book Village And Town badmin cover

This difference is one of the interesting things about these books, because the illustrators are, in the main, a very different set of people to those who designed posters, even Shell posters.  Although S R Badmin did produce several wonderful books for them over the years.

Puffin Picture Book SR Badmin Trees cover


Puffin Picture Book Badmin trees oak inside

Anna Zinkeisen who designed posters for London Transport before the war also illustrated one – a book which contains all the scenery and characters you need to stage Priestley’s play.


Puffin Picture Book High Toby Zinkeisen

As did one other celebrated artist.

Edward Bawden The Arabs Puffin Picture Book

But that’s about it.

Now this may be a result of one of the other interesting things about these books, which is they are produced by autolithography, i.e. the illustrators drew straight onto the lithographic plate.  This was partly a way of keeping the costs down, but it did also give the books a distinct and appealing style.  You get most of a sense of it with the covers, which are the most complex parts of the whole books.  There are colour spreads inside, but they tend to have a more limited palette.

Puffin Picture Book Building a House

Most of the books do have a wonderful double page illustrated spread in the centre too, but unfortunately the format won’t fit in the scanner, so you’ll just have to take my word for that.  Here’s as much of a typical cloth manufacturing town as I could fit in.

Puffin Picture Book clothes cloth town

The format is pretty much the only thing which links the titles, which range from practical handbooks on woodwork through factual introductions to storybooks – including the wonderful Orlando The Marmalade Cat, who was clearly much loved even at the time.

Puffin Picture Book Orlando's Night Out Kathleen Hale

If they have anything in common though, it is the post-war faith in modernity.  So many of the factual books end with the idea that we are now building a better world, quite often in concrete, or at very least light wood and glass.  (This is the back cover of the Badmin book above, by the way).

Puffin Picture Book S R Badmin village and town reverse

Puffin Picture Book Gordon Russell Furniture inside spread

Despite this, there is also an enormous range of styles in the series, perhaps unsurprisingly given that they were produced over more than twenty years.  This book is one of the most idiosyncratic (although, as you will note, it is still very much in favour of the modern).

Puffin Picture Book The Building of London

Puffin Picture Book Building of London inside spread

But the most important thing about them is that once again, these are illustrators and designers taking children seriously.  And not with a £75 collectors edition, but in the form of cheap, everyday books.  A whole series of them.  But these days we have so little faith in social equality that we certainly can’t believe that everyone deserves good design, least of all children.  When they deserve it most of all.

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A Miserable Reflection

In trying to put together the history of the Post Office : Lines of Communication posters last week, I spent some time wandering within the BT archives.  Where I found this.

Clifford and Rosemary ellis vintage GPO poste 1935.

Which does, truly, justify the existence of the entire archive on its own.  It’s by Clifford and Rosemary Ellis, it’s from 1935, and it is bonkers.  I also have no idea what it means.  Answers on a postcard please, if you have any.

Now I’ve mentioned before that the BT online archive is quite a curious and obscure thing, which may perhaps be why this Abram Games has lurked there unnoticed for so long.

Abram Games vintage GPO poster greeting telegram 1937

On the other hand, its obscurity may have something to do with the fact that the archive’s search facility is, how shall we say this, a bit challenging.  A search for Abram Games doesn’t bring it up, while a search on Greetings telegram just produces a deluge of material; I only found this by putting in ‘Good wishes’.

But there is good news on this front, because BT do now have a  more accessible way of looking at some of these images, which is the interestingly named Telefocus Media Gallery, a title which for some reason just makes me visualise the Post Office Tower, but never mind.  It’s mainly aimed at picture researchers, but it does have a reasonably browsable gallery of images, including both of the ones above and plenty more besides.

A telephone for your guests vintage GPO poster 1937

Be warned though, there are still lots of pictures of Busby and trimphones in there, so take care.

I did also discover a bit more about the Lines of Communications posters while I was there.  Mainly that there is also an artwork by Abram Games for the series.  All I can tell you about it, because there is no illustration, is that it features ‘twelve coast radio stations working to ships’ and is, once again, artwork.  If anyone fancies a stroll down to Holborn in order to tell me whether it’s as good as the rest or not, feel free.

More strangely, I found this.

Beaumont, lines of communication, vintage GPO poster

It’s by Beaumont, and it is an actual poster which seems to have made it out into the world rather than just existing as artwork.  If possibly just once, because I’ve only found it in a single auction, which was Van Sabben’s last sale just a few months ago.  (They regularly get interesting GPO posters for each sale, and I would like to know where from).  But this one isn’t where it ought to be in the BT Catalogue – not even its artwork – so the mystery just deepens.  Any more thoughts anyone?

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East Wind (blustering)

A while ago, I wrote about John Griffith’s fantastic drawings of shop-fronts for Motif.  Which are so good that they can easily stand a bit of repetition.

Motif 3 art journal of brilliance front cover by John Griffiths

Even a bit more.

Motif 3 John Griffiths shopfront pictures Fratelli Camisa

They’re so wonderful that I not only wanted to find out more about him, but also wanted to see some more of his work, without much luck.  Mr Crownfolio got on the case, though, and we don’t yet have anything like a biography, he has turned up these three BBC Schools booklets.  This one dates from 1968, and is the most reminiscent of his Motif drawings.

John Griffiths 1968 BBC Schools Time and Tune booklet front cover

This theatre and orchestra could easily have come from Motif.  Here’s its other half.

John Griffiths 1968 BBC Schools Booklet Time and Tune back cover

Nothing inside is quite as good as that, although I do quite like this scratchy little set of musical drawings, which remind me a bit of Barbara Jones, not least in the seemingly random way they’ve been put onto the page.

John Griffiths 1968 BBC Schools Booklet Time and Tune

He was also commissioned to produce another the next year.

John Griffiths BBC Schools Booklet Time and Tune 1969 front cover

I particularly like this illustration inside, which is more than good enough to be framed and hung on a wall.

John Griffiths BBC Schools Booklet Time and Tune 1969 inside illustration

East Wind (blustering) is the title of the song, along with tempo instructions.

Now I’ve said it before but it’s a point worth repeating, the illustration in these BBC booklets is not only of a fantastically high standard, but also interesting, even edgy.  I can’t see children today being exposed to things of this quality as a matter of course.  Yes, there are some children’s books which are interesting, risky, eye-opening.  But in the general litter of ephemera which is aimed at them at school or at home, is there anything which has ambitions even one tenth as high as these booklets?  If there is, I can’t think of it (and I’m not going to post a picture of the CBeebies art magazine to prove my point but trust me, it makes my eyes ache).

Does this matter?  Yes I think it probably does.  Because this is the third BBC booklet by John Griffiths that we’ve managed to find, dating from 1973.

John Griffiths 1973 BBC Schools music booklet

I was completely taken aback when this fell out of the envelope because know that I sang from this booklet at school.  In particular, I remembered the spread below as though I’d only seen it yesterday.

John Griffiths 1973 BBC Schools Booklet inside

Now I’m not saying that it was John Griffiths’ illustrations that turned me into a design fiend (if I’m honest, I like this booklet the least of the three).  But the fact that I can remember these pictures so clearly despite the passing of well over thirty years suggests that I stared at them so hard and so long that they became part of the structure of my brain.  So if we are furnishing our children with things that might perhaps last a lifetime, hadn’t we better make sure that we’re giving them something good?

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