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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Kill All Flies

It’s August, it’s the silly season.  In Quad Royal world this means that I have a house full of people, a holiday to plan for and no time to write anything.  Elsewhere, it manifests itself in the fact that news is so slack that posters have made an appearance on the BBC news website.

Health Education poster Cod Liver oil

Wierdly, these have taken the form of a slideshow, with music.  I know, it’s almost as though they’ve forgotten that television has been invented.  But there are a few lovely posters on it.  I’ve taken quite a shine the one above, mainly I suspect because it reminds me of a Macfisheries poster.  And they’ve also included this rather entertainingly blunt Abram Games poster, which I’ve had on my ‘to post’ list for ages.

Abram Games disease flies health education poster

The reason for all of this is, apparently, the publication of a book on the subject by the WHO.  It’s taken me some digging and delving to find anything about it, and then it turns out to have been published for a while now, so quite what is going on here I don’t know.  But it’s called Public Health Campaigns: Getting the Message Across and is available on Amazon should you be interested.

American swimming for health poster

While not many of the posters in the book would qualify as high design, the book does raise some interesting questions.  The main one of which is, do posters work?

French brush your teeth poster crocodile

In the slideshow, Dr Laragh Gollogly argues that marketing posters can at least quantify their effectiveness by seeing whether sales rise or not (although that does remind me of the famous quote – ‘half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, the trouble is I don’t know which half.’).  But for posters which seek to influence what people do, there is no test at all.

How do we know what really works?  There has been no systematic collection or evaluation of massive social marketing campaigns and indeed this book presents only a smattering of the total global output on the subject.  Posters vary hugely from country to country and over time.  By publishing this book WHO hopes to spur those involved or interested in public health care campaigns to stop and think critically.  Which posters work and which don’t?  How do we evaluate their effectiveness?  Can a poster work on its own or does it need to be part of a much bigger approach to behavioural change?  Although posters are getting flashier, are they getting better?

French poster for play

These are questions which don’t just apply to the posters in the book.  How much did World War Two posters affect what people did or didn’t do?  Did they even make people feel better or worse about what was being asked of them, from recycling to the blackout?  I’d love to know.

WW2 ministry of health poster about cost of colds

The book itself is a bit frustrating, because it doesn’t give any context for the posters themselves, in terms of place or date, and even scratching through the acknowledgements at the end doesn’t help much.  Although it did let me identify this Lewitt-Him for certain.

Lewitt Him WW2 poster grow fingers

But this is also a reminder of just how difficult collecting and curating posters can be.  There’s an interesting article on the Wellcome Library blog about this, as a spin-off from the book too.  They also link to their own online catalogue, which includes many posters.  But no pictures, which makes it simultaneously fascinating and deeply frustrating.  I’ve been wondering for some time about Summer is here–and now extra cleanliness please. Issued by Danish Bacon Company Limited. It’s by Unger, it’s from the 1950s, and it’s probably not half as interesting as I imagine.  But because I can’t see it, it’s now, in my head, the greatest poster ever.  Still, and more importantly,  I wonder if it did its job and prevented any cases of food poisoning?  We may never know.

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Vegetabull revisited

These children’s books just won’t leave me alone right now.  I still have Tom Eckersley’s Animals on Parade and John Burningham’s lovely London Transport poster work on the list of things to write about here (depending on an appointment with the scanner and an Amazon book order respectively), but as if that isn’t enough, another whole treasure trove has just arrived by email.

A while ago, I posted some images from The Vegetabull, the picture book written by Jan Le Witt, one half of the Lewitt-Him partnership, as a spin-off from their classic wartime poster.

Lewitt Him Vegetabull ww2 poster

I wasn’t a huge fan of the published book, which didn’t seem to have the verve of the original, but didn’t think any more of it.  Until I saw this.

George Him vegetabull original rough for book

Which is one of the original layout roughs for the book done by Le Witt and Him together, with George Him’s artwork.  Here’s the title page as well.

Vegetabull Rough designs

George Him’s step-daughter Jane very kindly sent them over in response to the original blog piece, along with an insight into what had happened.

The book designs were one of the very last things that Jan Le Witt and George Him worked on together, as their partnership broke up in 1954.  In the dividing up of work which followed, Jan Le Witt must have taken over the Vegetabull commission – I’m guessing it had already been contracted, as the title page above credits Harcourt Brace.

Vegetabull book roughs Lewitt Him

But the roughs are very different to the book that Jan Le Witt eventually produced, so much so that I can’t even begin to match the spreads from the published book to their equivalents in these designs..

Vegetabull book roughs Lewitt Him

For all I know they may not even illustrate the same story.

But they’re fascinating to look at even without the plot, not least as an insight into the working process.  Some are very rough – and all the more delightful for it.

Vegetabull George Him Lewitt Him book rough dog

While others are well on the way to becoming finished illustrations.

Vegetabull George Him Lewitt Him book rough

There’s an ironic twist to the story as well, because although Jane had known the book roughs for a long time, she had thought that was the end of it.  It was only when Ruth Artmonsky came to visit her in the course of researching her book on Lewitt Him and pulled out a copy of Jan Le Witt’s published book that she had any idea that something had become of them.

Vegetabull George Him Lewitt Him book rough the end

All of these designs, along with the rest of George Him’s archive, are now in the Archive of Art and Design at the Victoria and Albert Museum, so you can, in theory, pop in and see them for yourself.  (One day I will try and get my head round what is in the V&A and their holdings and how to access them on your behalf, but it’s a task of such mind-aching complexity that I keep finding something else to do instead).

George Him sketch of bull 1975

This much later sketch of a bull by George Him is probably in there too.

Should you fancy a much easier life than trying to find things in the V&A, there is a comprehensive and useful website about his life and work here.

And if you want a copy of the Le Witt book, it can be got for a very reasonable £15 or so.  As a mint copy is going elsewhere on Abebooks for close to £100, that seems like a very good deal indeed.

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Two for the shelves

Look what’s turned up on eBay.

Tom Eckersley Poster Design book from eBay

Poster Design by Tom Eckersley.  Currently a complete steal at £6, but I suspect it will go higher, as the going rate on Abebooks is running close to £50.

But mostly pleasing because it allows me to post this again.


Who knew colour separation could be such fun.

While we’re thinking about books on eBay, you could also also pick up “the definitive book on London Transport posters“.  Perhaps.

London Transport book from eBay

But you only get to see the book way down their listing; they’re advertising it via this rather lovely bit of Bawden.

Edward Bawden detail from LT book eBay

It comes from this 1936 poster for Kew Gardens.

Edward Bawden kew Gardens poster London Transport

This is currently at 99p (the book, not the poster), but again I’m sure that won’t last. Watch and wait.

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Last of the summer wine

I was thinking about elderberry cordial, and so dug this out of a drawer.  Then I was so struck by what a beautiful image it is that I forgot all about recipes and went off on the trail of its design instead.

WI wine book front cover

The book is the Womens Institute Book of Home Made Wines Syrups and Cordials.  Curiously, it has an introduction by our old friend Sir Stephen Tallents of GPO and Empire Marketing Board fame (who says that country wine is a good thing and so is the W.I.), but it’s the illustrations that are the real star here.

They’re by Roger Nicholson, who did what I think is an even more lovely job of the back cover.

WI wine book back cover

As well as a series of very attractive line drawings for the inside too.

WI wine book illustration equipment

This is for Equipment, while below is Herb Wines.

Herb wine illustration

The first edition was 1954, which I’m guessing must be when the drawings date from, but it was published in exactly the same form until at least 1967.  I should know, for some reason I have three copies.

3 copies of the same book

Still, it is very useful.

Something about the style reminds me of this book, the wonderful Plats du Jour, illustrated by David Gentleman, which happened to be on the shelves above.

Plats du Jour front cover David Gentleman

And which also has a similarly appealing back cover.

Plats du jour back cover

This too has lovely black and white illustrations heading each chapter.

The Store Cupboard from Plats du jour

I could quite happily scan each and every one of them, except that I’m afraid I would break the spine.

vin ordinaires from plats du jour

Plats du Jour was published in 1957, so together these books are a reminder that there was a lot more going on in post-war Britain than just modernism.  I’m thinking about this a lot at the moment, partly because of Paul Rennie’s book, and will write some more on it in a week or two.  But for now, I wanted to celebrate Roger Nicholson.

He turns out to be the sort of person who ought to be better known.  He painted and did graphic design as well as these illustrations, but his main work was in fabrics and the like – he was Professor of Textile Design at the Royal College of Art in the late 50s and 60s and produced some very well-known wallpaper designs as well.

But I can’t turn up a lot of his stuff.  Here’s a poster he designed for the Festival of Britain (thanks to the Museum of London archive that I’ve mentioned before).

Nicholson Festival of Britain poster Living Traditions

And here is one of his textile designs from 1951.

Roger Nicholson textile design

But that, I am afraid, is it.  It’s a real shame, I would have loved to see more and to know more.

I did managed to find one short biography as well, which offered an intriguing quote about his work.

It was Roger Nicholson’s gift and curse as an artist that he was incapable of making an ugly mark on a piece of paper.

There are far worse ways to be remembered, but I think he deserves a bit more than just this.

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Rich Inner Substance

We’re going out of our usual territory today, but the detour is worth it.  The destination?  The Museum of Anti-Alcohol Posters.

Out Soviet Anti Alcohol poster

This is a great collection of anti-drinking posters put together by Yuri Matrosovich for no other reason than his own amusement.

To Health Soviet anti-alcohol poster
To Health!

He found a few, then started to collect them, and then put them online and that is, er, it.

Russian vintage anti-alcohol poster

All the information I can give you about them is the English translations that he’s provided (and if anyone feels up to translating the one above I’d be very grateful); not knowing any Russian, I can’t discover dates or designers or, indeed, anything at all.

Socially Dangerous Russian anti-alcohol poster
Socially dangerous!

All there is to do is enjoy them.  There are plenty more on Yuri’s website, but as he himself says, some are brilliant, some a bit more slapdash.  But worth taking a look at anyway.

Rich Inner Substance Russian anti-alcohol poster
Rich Inner Substance

And now I’m off for a drink.

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