Refined Lard

Today something alarming but also brilliant, the Sainsbury’s Own Label book by Jonny Trunk.

Sainsburys Own Label cover

It’s alarming because I’m now old enough for people to be digging up forgotten bits of my past and selling it as retro.  In this case, supermarket packaging.

Sainsburys Lemon pie mix


We always shopped at Sainsbury’s when I was small, so these designs do have a Proustian whiff of being six years old for me.

Lard Packaging sainsburys own label book

As for brilliance, the design speaks for itself, even if I wouldn’t fancy eating too many of the contents.  But in a way, that’s a further compliment to the vision of the design.  Who would feel today that a lard wrapper was worth spending good design time on?  Not many people I suspect.  (If you want to follow this thought further, there’s an interesting Creative Review article which compares the designs in the book to what’s on offer today, even if it does wimp out of the conclusion that most design now isn’t half as good.)

dried peas

Sainsburys dog food label

The book is also an interesting portal into a moment in design which doesn’t get spoken about as much as it ought to, particularly in terms of graphic design.

I’ve always thought of the period between about 1962 and 1967 as the brief moment when ‘proper’ modernism was finally taken on board by British designers, even if it was only an interlude between Scandewegian light wood and psychedelic curliques.  This book is a reminder that while it might not have lasted for long, the takeover was total.  What’s more, it wasn’t just high end manufacturers and poncey magazines embracing the style; instead it was part of the design of everyday life, just as good modernism should be.

cod packaging sainsburys

Imagine a whole supermarket full of design of this force and ambition.  It’s something I will probably never see again, and never properly appreciated when it was in front of me either.

Pale Ale

The Sainsbury’s designs in the book start in 1962 but go all the way through to 1977, although I imagine that the most striking designs here date from the earlier period of the studio’s work (somewhere I have an early 1970s Party Dip package which is definitely more psychedelic than anything on show here). But I haven’t read the book yet, so will doubtless have more to say when it does arrive.  Here’s a preview of just a few of the delights inside.

book spread


I thought I’d mention it in advance though because it is a limited edition print run.  A few copies are available from the designers, Fuel, or you can wait until Amazon get their copies in.  But once they’re gone, they’re gone.

While you wait for your copy to arrive, it’s also worth reading Jonny Trunk’s account of how the book came to be.  I tend to believe that the most interesting ideas come out of people following their own eccentric enthusiasms rather than making a calculated decision about what other people are interested in, and this is a classic example of that happening.  Well done that man.

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Plain Sailing for Women

Three things you might want to know about Tisbury in Wiltshire.  Firstly, it has a very nice rural station, drowsy in the Adelstrop kind of way on a summer’s afternoon.  Second, Mr Crownfolio’s forefathers made the clock in the village church.  Last and probably most interestingly of all for most readers of this blog, it has a second-hand bookshop which is at this moment selling some posters on its website.

Woman's Realm vintage newsagents poster

They’re not the best examples of graphic design you are ever going to find (the one above is probably my favourite of the bunch).  But they are rather interesting, because they’re a kind of poster which doesn’t normally survive.  This particular batch came from the attic of a newsagents.  They would have been changed in the shop almost every week, and the old ones were just obsolete and so thrown away, apart from this one newsagent who clearly stuffed them into the attic for whatever reason and forgot about them.

Christmas disc newsagents poster

So regardless of what you think of their style, they’re probably very rare.  And as such they’re a useful reminder that we just don’t get to see most of the graphic design produced between 1930 and 1960, only a tiny proportion actually survives.

The other important thing to remember is that it does tend to be the good stuff which survives too.  Not only are average posters like these less likely to be kept in the first place, but most of the reference materials available today (I’m thinking about Graphis and the Modern Publicity annuals here) are also only selecting the best.  The mediocre just disappear from the record.  So a cache like this is design history gold dust, regardless of whether you’d like to have them on your wall or not.

Knitting booklet newsagent poster

But there’s more to these posters than just being a sample of the forgotten graphic design of the 1950s.  They also give us a view into the highly gendered world of the decade where men need action and adventure – note also that men are identified with John Bull, i.e. Britain itself.

John Bull poster

While women, separate to the body politic, need only to think about holidays and clothes.

Woman magazine newsagents poster

Woman magazine newsagents poster

Oh, and romance too.

Now the above may seem like a statement of the blindingly obvious, but it’s a point worth making because, strangely enough, this kind of gender-defined vision doesn’t actually happen much in posters of the same period, and this is something that I’ve been meaning to comment on for a while now.  In fact the posters of the 1950s are probably aimed more at a neutral audience than even a newspaper is today.

I will expand on all of this in a longer post one of these days*, but just to give you an example, the Guardian illustrated a story about the Ivy on its business pages yesterday with an image of Keira Knightly, who has apparently eaten there now and again.  The presumption is clear, that any reader of these pages, is a man, and so would rather look at Keira Knightly than a picture of some food, a male chef or the front of the Ivy.  So why don’t 1950s advertising posters usually do that?  I genuinely don’t know.

*One of the reasons I haven’t written the post yet is that I have lost one of my key exhibits.  It’s a railway poster depicting a man carrying a tray of tea (including a china teapot) across the beach to his family.  My idea of holiday heaven, but I can’t trace it, so if anyone knows the poster I mean, can you let me know what resort it’s for?

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Brave New World, again

I’ve just got round to watching Saturday night’s Festival of Britain programme, and wanted to draw your attention to it as it’s only  on iPlayer until this coming Saturday.  (Apologies, as ever, to those of you who are outside the UK and so can’t get hold of it.)

Festival of Britain at night promo for BBC2 documentary

There are quite a few things to enjoy about the programme, not least seeing Dorrit Dekk interviewed on the television, and what’s more also spotting an archive picture of her with this poster in the background.

Bones vintage 1946 public information poster propaganda

She wasn’t alone either, as they’d interviewed a whole host of original designers and visitors.  Even better than that though, the programme is stuffed full of  tons of contemporary colour footage of the festival, set to some great music.  Whichever researcher found the calypso Festival of Britain song, which included amongst many memorable lines a paen to the Charing Cross pedestrian bridge, deserves a medal.  And the editor too, for letting the whole  thing run without interruption, so just sit back, put your feet up and let the festival spool past.  (If you can’t be bothered to watch the programme, shame on you, but the song is by Lord Kitchener and you can find it here.)

Festival of Britain transport pavilion postcard

There were, of course, irritations too.  The same care in casting had not been applied to the modern day pundits, so representing the historians we had Dominic Sandbrook, who is it seems a compulsory part of any programme about this era, and Jonathan Glancey (ditto, any programme about the history of design and much else besides).  Which meant, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the conclusions were no great shakes either.  The Festival was very happy (this is probably true, but I’d still like another point of view one of these days).  The Festival was Very Influential on architecture and design (stated, but never proven, and almost impossible to deal with given the programme’s almost infinitely all-encompassing definition of modernism).  Council flats made people very happy in the 1950s (yes, but can we not try a little bit harder).

Architecture exhibition at Poplar

From all of this waffly unthinking, though, a couple of nuggets did manage to emerge.  Despite Dominic Sandbrook’s ubiquity, he may yet have a purpose.  He pointed out, and it’s true, that the Festival was a version of the future, not necessarily in the way it looked, but in its emphasis on technology and science, which prefigured the white heat of the 1960s.  Interesting idea, give that man a television programme.  Oh, hang on a minute, perhaps not.

The other thought came from one of the architects.  Talking about how grey and depressing Britain was in the run up to the Festival, he said that no wonder the the whole country looked run down, because almost every house hadn’t had a coat of paint outside for the last ten years.  It’s a small point, but one which makes that shabbiness as imaginable as can be.  No wonder the Festival’s bright colours were so different, so appealing.

Festival of Britain postcard

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New In

While I am often griping about how posters cost too much on eBay these days, there are, every now and then, exceptions.  Some of which I point out on here, some of which Mr Crownfolio and I throw a bid at.  A few such bargains have arrived here recently (well, via a trip to the sorting office; we have a ridiculously small letterbox now, which is an absurd thing if you collect posters), and a couple are quite interesting.

First up, an anonymous Keep Britain Tidy poster, about which I know nothing at all but would probably date as being around the same time as the first Reginald Mount designs for the campaign.

Anonymous Keep Britain Tidy vintage poster HMSO from eBay

It looks like the work of Harry Stevens, but could frankly be by anyone or no one.  If you’ve got more idea than that, please let me know.

Secondly is this 1960s poster for the Motor Show.  It’s worth a look because it’s quite good, and also because this kind of poster doesn’t crop up very often.

1960s Motor Show poster, off eBay

It’s by Roy Carnon, who did a fair bit of illustration in the 1950s and 60s but, much more important than that was ‘visual concept artist’ to Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey and is therefore Very Important.

But there are other reasons to like it too; for me it’s a visual embodiment of the great British dilemma of ‘just how modern are we?’.  The centre panel is a very good 1960s-modern poster.  But then, somewhere along the line, someone has had a crisis of confidence and thought that you just can’t put The Queen into that kind of design, it’s just not fitting.  And so we have a nice tasteful border with unthreatening serif type in which to put her.  It’s a brilliant metaphor for the whole muddle, and revealing in a way that a truly perfect bit of design wouldn’t be.

Finally, the third poster is simply rather nice.  It’s from 1967 and the painting is by Paul Millichip, who is still alive and working in the Chilterns.

Paul Millichip vintage 1957 London Transport poster country walks spring

Although I do think the typography is a bit unusual; I’d more expect to find it on a poster of the 1930s or 1960s.  But I am sure there are plenty of examples out there which prove me wrong.

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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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