Autumn thoughts

One of the pleasures of the last Morphets sale was a few of John Burningham’s delightful London Transport posters.  We bought this one.

John Burningham Prunifer Autumnus London Transport poster Morphets

It’s even better in person, as everyone on the poster, the people, the dogs and especially the birds, are all real characters.

Perhaps that’s not so surprising.  Because, if you have anything much to do with small children, he’s much better known as a writer and illustrator of children’s books (and a few for adults).  That’s what he spent most of his life doing.

But when he was just setting up as an illustrator in the early sixties, he was commissioned to produce a series of posters for London Transport, each of them very different.

John Burningham Zoo Poster London Transport

This one is probably my favourite, as much for the eccentric text as the picture itself.

JOhn Burningham Country Walks poster London Transport

This is a farmer.  He has forgotten his bucket.  The cow’s name is Buttercup.  The wheel came off the cart on the last load of hay.  Green Rover, the god, is helping the hens find the egg they laid yesterday.  The goose won’t lay any golden eggs as he is a gander.

First steps in farming are best made with London Transport’s Country Walks Books.

All of these images come from his autobiography, John Burningham,which came out last year, which also means I could scan in this fantastic detail from his Winter poster from 1965.

John Burningham detail of Winter London Transport poster 1965

Here’s the whole thing.

John Burningham London Underground winter poster whole

The day [my first] poster was to appear at London Underground stations and bus shelters, I got up early and went on a local tour.  I thought people would be discussing my poster, but their reaction seemed to be to ignore or lean against it.  This was disconcerting, but happily I continued to do more posters for London Transport.

I can’t recommend the book too highly, even if you have no interest at all in children’s illustration.   Burningham had an idiosyncratic childhood, raised by Conscientious Objector parents and a succession of off-beat and progressive schools, including, finally, Summerhill.    He writes very well, but, even better, the book is very much written with a designer’s eye, telling the story through images as much as words.  There aren’t as many books like this as there ought to be.

John Burningham rush hour poster London Transport

If you don’t want to buy it, although I can’t think why that might be, there are a couple of interesting articles out there fom the book’s publication, including an interview and this thoughtful review.

John Burningham Downs poster London Transport

So there’s no excuse not to discover, not only his work, but also what a fascinating and thoughtful designer he is.

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Friday Miscellany

Odds and ends from the internet today.  Mostly because I wanted to post this.

Tom Eckersley aluminium elephant

Normally it lives on the shelf in Richard Hogg‘s studio.  Lucky him.

You can buy some later Eckersley on eBay at the moment too.

Tom Eckersley London Transport poster 1974 on eBya

We’ve got a copy of that already.  But I can say with some certainty that it didn’t cost £100, which is its starting price.

There on the other hand, people seem to have come back to eBay after the summer holiday lull with high expectations of what their posters are worth.

Both this Unger

Hans Unger 1966 London Transport poster from eBay

and this William Fenton reproduction (previously mentioned in despatches here)

William Fenton London Transport poster from eBay

are up with a starting price of £44.99.

But perhaps the seller isn’t deluded.  Because this delightful John Burningham – also a reproduction – has just sold for £56.01.

John Burningham London Transport Country Walks poster

The John Burningham book has arrived, by the way, and is an utter delight.  So more on him next week.  For now,  a look at the proper version of the poster above to cheer you up on a dull Friday morning.

John Burningham Country Walks London Transport poster

Perhaps I might even go on a country walk myself this weekend.

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Havinden it all

She made me do it.  (Points to Shelf Appeal at the next desk).  She posted about Ashley Havinden and asked a question.  So then of course I googled.  And found this.

Ashley Havinden Stick To Beer poster

Which meant I had to post it.  I can’t tell you much about it though, other than that it comes from the Penrose Annual 1939 and really should be reproduced right now.  Who needs ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’?

That alone would be enough.  But both Shelf Appeal and the search have reminded me that Mr Havinden was an interesting cove.  He was clearly a man of such prodigious talents.  As well as enlivening socks, it seems that he invented the idea of the brand as personality and was responsible for huge swathes of the Britain Can Make It Exhibition, including its poster.

Ashley Havinden Britain Can Make It Poster

But  he isn’t that well known these days.  Which is strange because I get the impression that just before and after World War Two, he was considered very influential indeed; the man who, along with McKnight Kauffer, brought modernism to Britain.

an illustration about printing Ashley Havinden

I think there are a couple of reasons for this.  One is that he spent most of his working life as an Art Director at the Crawfords Agency.  So not only did a lot of his work perhaps go out anonymously, but he was an art director as much as designer, a back room boy.  Which still made him very influential.  I’ve been flicking through Designers in Britain in search of him, and discovered that he commissioned Tom Eckersley, for instance, to produce this campaign for Eno’s Fruit Salts

Tom Eckersley Eno's Fruit salts advertisement 1947

(Eno’s went from McKnight Kauffer pre-war, to Eckersley in 1947; they always did have good taste in graphics).

But I think Havinden’s other problem is that he didn’t produce many posters.  Which is a daft reason for leaving someone out of the histories, but it is the lens through which graphics of the time are, mainly, viewed.

The few of his posters that I can find seem to have been produced for the war effort.

Ashley Havinden drink milk daily

Ashley Havinden First Aid parties poster

Perhaps there are more – in which case, I’d love to see them.

I’ve got a few more thoughts on why he is perhaps not as well-known as he might be, but they’re going to have to wait until I’ve read this book (for which I also have to thank Shelf Appeal) in case I am completely wrong.

But whatever the book says, I definitely don’t think his obscurity is deserved.  Take a look at these images that he produced in the early 50s (from the 1953 Penrose Annual, which was also on the shelves).  They’re illustrating an article he wrote on “Designing for Fluorescent Printing” (top tip: use a dark background).  He was an artist and a modern, and rather a good one too.

Ashley Havinden from Penrose Annual 1953

Ashley Havinden Penrose Annual 1953

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Look, there are fish on this page

So, family Crownfolio are back from France, and we have bought some fish.  Which is not unusual, but this is graphically handsome fish.  And charmingly retro to boot, too.

Mackerel tin

It comes from the Conserverie La Belle Iloise who have reissued, if that’s the right word, some of their packaging from 1960.  So we had to buy some.

We brought home some slightly earlier works too.

Even their more modern graphics are worth a look.

There’s plenty more on their website – there is only so much tinned fish that could be carried home in a small car – including the lobster soup and a particularly lovely box of 1960s-packaged goodies.  But the website’s a bit odd and won’t let me link to them, so you’ll just have to go on there and find them yourself.  Mind the seagulls when you do.

A normal service will be resumed later this week.  Did I miss anything while I was away?

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Wakes Week

It’s the Quad Royal annual holidays.

British Railways holidays in Brittany and Normandy poster

So the shutters will be up for the next two weeks.  See you when we get back.

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Modern or British?

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

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

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

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

McKnight Kauffer BP Ethyl poster 1933

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

Tom Eckersley Cutty Sark London Transport 1963

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

Powers Aldershot Tattoo poster

Anonymous LT swimming poster

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

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

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

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

Graham Sutherland Shell poster
Graham Sutherland

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

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

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

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

Alnwick castle fred taylor railway poster 1933
Fred Taylor, 1933

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

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

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

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

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

Some of them are modernism incarnate.

Midland Hotel Railway poster 1933

While others act like it had never happened at all.

Railway Poster Frank Mason 1933
Frank Mason

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

Snowdonia Charles H Baker railway poster 1933
Charles H Baker

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

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

Fred Taylor, Jervaulx abbey railway poster

Margaret Hordern Railway poster 1933.

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

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

Somerset Frank Newbould 1936
Frank Newbould, 1936

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

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

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

Interior of National Trust shop

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

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