Double Pott and an Elephant, please

It’s been a while. Sorry, I’ve been busy writing about hill forts and cows and men who stride out to walk.

But all the time, this thought has been nagging away at me. It’s a very simple question, which someone asked me a while back, and I was astonished that I had never thought to ask myself.

How did the poster sizes get their names?

Because let’s face it, poster sizes are not merely daft, they are irrational. As Tom Eckersley will now demonstrate.

Tom Eckersley vintage poster sizes

The most general proportions of poster sites in Britain are illustrated here:

Extreme lower left: Crown (15 x 20 inches)

Lower left: Double Crown (30 x 20 inches)

Top left: Quad Crown (30 x 40 inches)

Right: Double Royal (40 x 25 inches)

Tom Eckersley, Poster Design, 1954

The left hand Crown sizes are predominantly used for commercial posters.

Go To Work on an egg pink poster Egg Marketing Board
Bradford St Deritend Phyllis Nicklin 1954

While the right hand Double Royal size is mostly used by the train companies and London Transport.

Original 1956 London Transport double-royal POSTER 'Epping Forest' (Dick Turpin) by John Bainbridge (1919-1978) who designed posters for LT from 1953- 1957.
Posters outside St Pauls Station, 1951.  London Transport Museum

And of course if you make a Double Royal but twice the size, that would be a Quad Royal, which is me, and also used by the railway companies for their larger posters.

But how did they get these names? I pondered this for a while, and then I had a thought. Perhaps the Royal isn’t just a poster size, but began in the first place as a name for a certain size piece of paper.

And so it turns out to be. There’s a lovely chart on the website of the British Association of Paper Historians which gives the dimensions of all sorts of Old English Paper Sizes. These include, of course, Royal and Double Crown, and so the paper gave the posters their names. Although the chart does also make me realise that there were many missed opportunities. Why did no one choose Double Pott as a poster size, or Postal, or Elephant?

For six months or so I was quite happy with that explanation, until I started writing this blog post, at which point I started to wonder whether I could trace things back further. Pleasingly, I can: all the way back to 1389.

Meet the Bologna Stone.

The original (what’s pictured above is a seventeenth century copy) stood in the centre of the city of Bologna in Italy and laid down the law about paper. There were to be only four sizes of paper in the city, and these were they. If anyone produced paper in any other shape or format, it would be destroyed. And take a look at the second largest size. It’s the Realle – in other words the Royal.

Until the end of the seventeenth century, most of the paper used in the UK was imported, and with the paper came the European paper sizes. A list of paper which was offered to the Oxford University Press in 1674, consists of the four Bologna sizes: Imperial, Royal, Median and Chancery, a.k.a Recute; along with three new English sizes: Crown, Medium and Pott. Ah Pott, what a missed opportunity.

So Crown was invented in the UK, at some point. But how did the Royal arise in Bologna? The answer is that a medieval Royal sheet is very close to an Arab paper size named – I suspect by academics further down the line – the half 1337 Damascus.

So then we have to ask, what made the 1337 Damascus what it was? And the answer is goats. Arab paper sizes were derived from earlier parchment sizes. And the ratio* of the Royal’s long edge to short is exactly what you want in order to get as much parchment as you can from a single goat skin.

So there you go. Royal posters are determined, in the end, by the shape of your goat. Bet you didn’t see that coming.

*Really, so much of paper history turns out to be about ratios. I’ve left most of it out here, but it’s worth noting that all the Bologna paper sizes are very much like our current A4 system. If you fold them in half, the ratio between their long and short sides remain the same. Clever, eh.

Planning ahead

When Kenneth Clark set up Recording Britain in 1939, the idea was to capture the spirit and atmosphere of ‘typical’ Britain*, hence the use of watercolour rather than photography, because that gave an atmosphere, not just a factual summary. The urgency came from the war – who knew what of the nation would survive the bombs or occupation.

But the scheme was also looking further ahead, aware that development was also a threat. One of the categories for recording was ‘Fine tracts of landscapes which are likely to be spoiled by building developments.’ In this they were prescient, but in fact it was larger towns and cities which suffered most. And the danger was not from housing, but from roads.

In 1940, Lich Street in Worcester was recorded by the artist Raymond Cowern, who managed to combine producing watercolours for the picture with being an army intelligence officer.

His picture does not glamourise the street, with the telegraph pole leaning in and the dustbins ranged down the side waiting to be collected. The focus is the Old Deanery, which was old and quaint enough to have been featured on postcards.

But this was not enough to save it, nor the rest of the medieval street, nor the only remaining medieval lychgate in the country, through which coffins had been brought to the graveyard and which had a shelf down one side so that the bearers could rest their load for a moment.

All were demolished to make way for a new road, a roundabout and a shopping centre. Its concrete replacement of sleek glass fronted shops and pedestrian arcades, with a sleek blue-glazed modernist hotel sat above was named the Lychgate Centre, the name all that remained of the site.

Lest we get too sentimental straight away, this did make sense at the time. The future was heading towards us – in a car with chrome trim – and we needed the architecture to meet it. My family come from Worcester, and we went round this roundabout on every visit. I thought the Giffard hotel looked impossibly glamorous, like something from Thunderbirds, but we never went in. It was only for weddings and posh people.

Having said that, this kind of development would never happen again – the buildings would be saved, the street line preserved and no one in their right mind would drive a main road within twenty metres of a cathedral. In fact, when the roundabout was being upgraded a couple of years ago, the site was excavated by archaeologists, trying to find out more about the history of buildings which had only been demolished within living memory.

I feel slightly guilty about writing this piece. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel; the redevelopment of Worcester has become one of the most notorious post-war pieces of planning that took place and of course it looked more picturesque beforehand, even if most of the old buildings had become close to slums.

At the same time, this obviousness can be instructive. Recording Britain knew that, war or no war, development was going to change the way the country looked for good. But they did not entirely predict how this would happen. The collection contains more than a dozen pictures of Underhill Road near Ditchling in Sussex, which had become a cause celebre just before the war because of a threatened housing development. But the edge of the downland is as bucolic now as it was when pictured, repeatedly, by Charles Knight.

When Raymond Cowern was recording Lich Street, I would be surprised if he thought it in danger, except from the bomber. This is just a piece of typical England, where old and new mingle, the telephone lines dip past Tudor and Georgian roof lines and life goes on, in the form of dustbins and men peering into shop windows, despite the war.

*In fact they meant England: Scotland ended up with its own scheme, Wales was treated as though it was a county and Northern Ireland was ignored entirely.

Recording Britain pictures from the V&A Archive.

What the Dickens, Miss Jones

I was going to try and order the Recording Britain pieces so that they told a story, but that requires a kind of logical organisation which eludes me at the moment. Also I have spilt coffee on my keyboard and now my space bar doesn’t work properly, so writing is harder work than it needs to be.

Instead, then, you get this.

A Barbara Jones picture of The Hop Castle at Chieveley in Berkshire, a place now better known for being services on the M4. The building is, unusually, even more strange than it appears in her picture, because the outside is faced not just in flints but in animal bones and skulls.

Barbara Jones painted a lot of follies and grottos for Recording Britain, and she was the only artist to choose them as a subject. I think she was right, the frivolous and whimsical is an important part of the English character.

It’s a subject which comes up every so often on here, and covers all sorts of graphics and design of that period, from the work of Rowland Emett – here in Basildon.

To Lewitt-Him’s designs

Lewitt Him Kiaora advertisrement 1950

To categories in the Artist Partner’s brochure.

Reginald Mount AP2 artwork

That’s kind of a digression, but it isn’t. The Hop Castle is still standing and has recently been refurbished, but it also exists in the present in another form.

This is the Hop Castle Set from a group called the Dickens Village. And no, I do not know what the man in purple thinks he is doing. It’s the same building, but now made out of porcelain as a limited edition of 5600, and it’s a collectable.

Dickens Village – a vast assemblage of illuminated tweeness which seem mostly to be decorated for Christmas – have been made and sold in America since 1984, and the range has been growing since then, including an Anglesey Cottage made to celebrate the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. The website asks me if I ‘need help?’. I think I do.

There is a lot I could say about this, about the way in which Britishness, which the Recording Britain project was set up to preserve, has been commoditised and sold to other nations. And how, in the process, all the bones and skulls and weird stuff gets left behind. But for now, let’s concentrate on one thing. The Hop Cottage is small, it’s functionless, but it’s very definitely whimsical.

I know this is an American product, but at the same time it represents what has happened to the idea of whimsy in the seventy five years since the end of the war. Back then it was something which was entertaining and unnecessary, but which could also be quite sophisticated and modern. Being part of our national character, it had to be something which every single one of us could embrace.

Now, though, whimsy has become debased. There’s nothing chic, or even entertaining about it now; instead it is twee and slightly cloying, and also dangerously nostalgic. And it’s used to sell functionless objects which have no purpose other than to celebrate those attributes. It’s not something to be proud of at all. And that is a great loss.

Recording Britain: an introduction

Right, we are going a bit off-piste for a while, mainly because I have a bunch of interesting stories that don’t have a home elsewhere.

For the last few working weeks I’ve been immersing myself in the Recording Britain archives, which the V&A have, mostly, put online.

I’ve written about Recording Britain on here before, although very briefly, but the description still holds true:

The Recording Britain project began at the start of the Second World War, and was in many ways an close relative of the War Artists Scheme.  But instead of documenting the war effort, Kenneth Clark instructed his artists to go and record in watercolours the Britain that would be lost if the Nazis invaded.  

He chose watercolours for a reason, because he believed that the topographical watercolour was perhaps the quintessentially British form of art. Photographs had their place – and Clarke also initiated the National Buildings Record, which began as a means of documenting buildings which might be or had been damaged by the war – but he believed that only art could convey the atmosphere or feeling of a place.

The results were collected into a set of four books, but these only show a few hundred of the 1500 original watercolours, and even then mostly reprinted in a murky beige. The archives are both brighter and more variedly interesting

Having not only stared at the pictures very hard, but also researched them individually, I have an enormous number of things to say: about what it means to try and define Englishness, about why Barbara Jones’s contributions are not only amongst the most striking but the most prescient and whether the way in which we look at and preserve the countryside has changed.

Today, however, I am going to tell you a story about how we imagine Recording Britain ought to have worked.

victorian building covered in statues by Walter Bayes from Recording Britain archives

This picture from the collection is Naval Relics at Millbank, by Walter Bayes, an artist who had been part of the Camden Town group, which he painted in 1940. It’s pleasingly unsettling, recording a Dickensian London which has now almost entirely been erased. The place is even more evocative, if anything, in photos.

This odd building wasn’t tucked away in a narrow side street, but rather was in the heart of the City, on Millbank, just down from the Houses of Parliament. And it was the home of Castles, the most famous ship-breakers in the country. The great warships of the British navy were brought here on their last journeys to be broken up. The wood was recycled: indestructible teak was turned into their famous garden furniture, while oak went into buildings, and anything left over was sold as logs. This left the figureheads, which were kept, and so gods, nubile women and naval officers, fifteen or twenty feet high, loomed over passersby at Millbank.

Within a year of Bayes’ picture, the entire extraordinary construction had gone. At 11pm on the night of 16th April 1941, a single bomb demolished the office. Four hours later, three more finished off the job and destroyed the yard. With the figureheads went a whole museum’s worth of name boards, steering wheels and bells. The battered remains were allegedly used as boiler fuel. (This may or may not be true. Another story says that some items were in good enough condition to be transferred to Castles’ other office in Plymouth, including figures which had allegedly come from the Fighting Temeraire, as painted by Turner. But even if they were, these offices were flattened by bombs in 1944, also taking out the firm’s records. Of all the figureheads that Castles collected, just two survive, in the Mariners Museum in Virginia USA, but only because they were sold just before the outbreak of war.)

This is what Recording Britain should have been all about: immortalising evocative and distinct places which were lost to the destructiveness of war. But that’s not actually what happened. Of more than 1500 images in the full collection, just four places were bombed in the war. The others were the Chevalier House in Exeter – a pair of half timbered houses which had just been bought by the City Council as heritage, a church in Dover which was hit twice, and the Camel House at London Zoo.

dilapidated building the camel house at London Zoo Recording Britain

The peace, it turned out, would be far more destructive of our heritage than the war. But that’s another story for another day.

All Recording Britain images come from the V&A archive, and if you want to know more about Castles, there is an entire, very informative website devoted to their history.


Sound the klaxon, there’s a bargain in the area. It doesn’t get to blare out that often these days, posters being what they are, but the objects of interest today aren’t paper but ceramic.

The London Transport Museum Shop had the wit and discrimination to commission a range of Harry Stevens pottery. Now I have banged on about how under-rated Harry Stevens is so much on here that I had hoped that the whole world now appreciates his style. It seems not. The range appears to have appealed only to a few afficionados, and so are now in the sale, dirt cheap.

You can have a four piece expresso set (two cups, two saucers) for just £5.

Harry Stevens 1961 poster design on  saucer

This comes in either bird or dog.

Harry Stevens design on saucer with pink cup

Or you can get a dog mug for a ridiculous £2.50.

mug with design of mug

All three designs come from this poster, ‘In the Vernal Seasons of the Year’, which he designed in 1961.

poster of bird and dog in sixties stained glass style

The quote is from Milton, the picture from the London Transport Museum.

You will not be in the slightest bit surprised to learn that we have bought all of these. What are you waiting for?

The eyes have it

This was my Christmas present.

If only I could go back in time to actually attend the private view. It was sent through the post to Herbert Simon at the Curwen Press, hence the postmark smudges on the front.

It’s been staring at me from the bookshelves for a couple of weeks now, and after a while I realised not only that staring was exactly what it was doing, but that this isn’t uncommon for a Barbara Jones design. She really liked eyes.

My first thought was – whose wouldn’t be – of the owl dishwasher in her kitchen.

Barbara Jones kitchen newspaper cutting

And then there are her designs for the educational television programme Looking At Things.

barbara jones school booklet 1954 looking at things reverse

Or this image from The Unsophisticated Arts (which, I am pleased to say, I recently scored a copy of for just £16 on Abebooks: no cover but who cares).

Or this later mural.

Barbara Jones International Labour Exhibition 1961

I could go on.

Barbara Jones cover for Design for Death

There is more than simply a trite coincidence at work here. If there is one thing which links the many, many strands of Barbara Jones’ work, from murals to exhibitions to books to simply collecting extraordinary things for her home, it’s the act of looking. And she doesn’t just want to see these strange, mundane or ignored objects herself, she wants us to look at them properly as well. We should honour her memory by doing more of it.

Two additional thoughts. One is if you would like to look at things in the manner of Barbara Jones, then this auction of extraordinary odds and ends in Chiswick might be a good place to start, as it contains everything from fossilised Elk antlers to a coffee table made from a Rolls Royce engine turbine to photographs of flea circuses and much else besides.

The other is that, yes I am very thoroughly spoiled with my presents.