Singing Together

Friday, so what could be better than some Barbara Jones birds, even if they are a bit grubby round the edges.

Barbara Jones Singing Together BBC Schools booklet 1957

Todays flock are pretty self-explanatory, playing in another lovely BBC Schools booklet of songs and music for children.  (I have actually mentioned these before, but now a copy is in my own hands, so you get to see it again).

Along with the songs ,there are further Barbara Jones drawings inside. These are in a much freer style, but still with her trademark exccentricity.

barbara jones green broom illustrations from BBC Singing Together schools booklet 1957

Mind you, the songs invite it.  The illustration above is for a traditional folk song called Green Broom which – as you might guess from the illustration – is pretty much a pagan welcome to spring.  While the young man worrying about his hair below goes with  Benjamin Britten’s setting of Begone Dull Care.

Barbara Jones illustration from BBC Singing Together schools booklet 1957

Also in there are bits of Schubert and Grieg, along with Victorian ballads and Norwegian folk songs. It’s almost as though Barbara Jones has had a hand in the selection process too.

The birds came as part of a selection box of these leaflets, all from the 1950s.  They’re all interesting, but a couple of them particularly so.  Summer 1954 was done by Derrick Hass.

BBC Singing Together booklet Summer 1954 Derrick hass illustrations

We’ve discussed him on here before (see the comments too for some memories of him) but he’s worth mentioning again in the context of what designers went on to do in the 1960s and beyond.  The prevailing story is that the rise of the all-in advertising agency put paid to the old-style poster designer:  a few – like Eckersley and Games – carried on, some like Henrion and Pick formed corporate identity consultancies, and who knows what happened to the rest.  But Derrick Hass bucked the trend by not only going into agency work but becoming an enormously successful and respected creative director who worked and won awards right up until retirement age, forty years after he did these.

BBC singing together Derrick Hass Summer 1954 small illustration

That’s quite an achievement.

Meanwhile I just like this Heather Lacey illustration, perhaps because it reminds me of illustrations in Puffin books.

Heather Lacey BBC Singing Together booklet 1950s

I can find nothing out about her at all, mainly because half of the internet seems to be called Heather Lacey.  If anyone knows more, please let me know.

These booklets, taken all together, were quite an achievement.  Every term, a school would get a new set of illustrations along with their music, perhaps not all of as wonderful as the ones I have chosen but certainly all good.  I’ve said it before but I’m quite happy to say it again; I’d love it if I thought my daughter was being exposed to both music and illustration of this quality in her primary school lessons.  But I’m pretty sure she isn’t, and that’s a profound loss.

We’ve grown used to seeing this kind of top-down culture (this is great art, you must know about it and I am right) as being elitist, discriminatory and rife with snobbery.  We don’t believe any more that the BBC or indeed any kind of media should be exposing us to high art, rather that they should be giving us what we want.  There is some truth in all of this, and in any case we can’t turn the clock back.  But we should also remember that sometimes, just sometimes, the result was profoundly democratic, and particularly so in things like these booklets where the art just arrives without any comment.  All children should be given the chance to see and hear illustrations and music like this.  They don’t have to like them – and we shouldn’t think any the less of them if they don’t. But if we just give them photocopied sheets of popular songs, we are taking away from them the chance of knowing these things exist.  And for a few children that might be the chance of knowing who or what they wanted to become.

Books and Canons

Right, back to the bookstacks once more.  In a way I’m rather pleased that there’s a backlog of things I need to write about, it shows that posters and graphic design are starting to be taken seriously.  But more than most, today’s book is both necessary and useful.

Paul Rennie GPO Poster Design book cover

It’s GPO Design by Paul Rennie, a neat guide to the posters of the GPO.  Evem better, it’s reasonably priced and available.  That doesn’t sound like much to ask, but in this case, it’s about time.  Because until now, the only book ever written on GPO design was published by a private press in a limited edition, and went for £320 at auction the last time I saw a copy.  Which makes me particularly grateful for this.

What you get is a fairly straightforward run through the history and structures of the GPO as it affects poster design, the varying kinds of GPO posters and what they were meant to achieve, and a look at some of the artist and designers who worked on the campaigns.  Plus of course, lots of lovely posters to look at.

Tom Eckersley vintage poster Please pack parcels very carefully GPO 1957
Tom Eckersley, 1957

It’s simple, but given that absolutely nothing else is available, it’s exactly what’s needed.

So, for example, I now know why so many GPO schools posters survive compared to the commercial campaigns: they were sent out in their thousands to schools, where they were so much more likely to be kept, or at least thrown to the back of a cupboard, compared with the ones sent out to Post Offices.

John Armstrong vintage GPO educational poster 1937
John Armstrong, educational poster, 1935

Although, I have to say, I don’t find the designs of the school posters half as satisfying as the commercial ones, as they have a tendency towards the dreary.  The only exceptions being the McKnight Kauffer ones, which are rather fine.

McKnight Kauffer, vintage GPO educational poster 1937
McKnight Kauffer, educational poster, 1937

The book has provoked me to some thoughts, though.  Although they’re not really criticisms of the book itself, as it is meant to be a brief and straightforward run through.  My target is probably more design history as a whole, as reflected in this particular text.

What is starting to bother me is the existence of an established hierarchy of designers.  At the top of the tree are those who were also fine artists.  The chapter on individual designers here begins with Paul Nash, and moves on to ‘fellow member of Unit One, theatre designer and surrealist’ John Armstrong’, only later moving on to the poster designers themselves.

Implicit here is the idea that design itself is not enough, it is better (whether that is aesthetically more pleasing or simply more worthy) if it has been touched by the hallowed hand of fine art.  Alone, it does not deserve the attention.

Perhaps it is possible that posters designed by artists are generally better, although I’m not sure I subscribe to this point of view.  But where it really gets irritating is the continual reproduction of this Vanessa Bell design.  It turns up everywhere that GPO design is discussed.

Vanessa Bell unused post office design 1935

Now, this is a failed poster.  It was rejected by the GPO and never used.  Even Bell herself didn’t think the design worked.

I don’t know why it has been so, but for some reason it has taken me ages to do anything I thought would do at all – I think partly because of the difficulty of getting several figures into a small space and yet making them tell at a distance. I have stood about in Post Offices until your employees looked so suspicious I had to leave! – and yet I don’t know that in the end what I have done has much resemblance to a Post Office. However, there it is…

Letter from Vanessa Bell in BPMA archive, quoted in essay by Margaret Timmers

It is possible to see the design as an example of where art and commercialism failed to meet, and Rennie does discuss it in this context briefly.  But I don’t think that this alone is enough to account for its ubiquity.  Because this isn’t just art, it’s Bloomsbury art.  And Britain loves the Bloomsberries, to the extent that it can skew our critical and historical judgement sometimes.

But even when we get the artists out of the way, the book still chooses to comment on the prevailing list of designers, from Austin Cooper and McKnight Kauffer at the top, then moving down to the post-war brigade of Eckersley, Henrion, Schleger et al. (How and why this canon has developed is an interesting question and one I’ll come back to another day as this post is already quite long enough as it is.)

Hans Schleger vintage GPO poster design 1945
Hans Schleger, 1945

Partly this annoys me because I got my critical grounding in English Literature during the late 1980s, where any belief in the Canon of Dead White Males was to be stamped on as a sign of a backward and outmoded way of thinking.  I’m probably not so extreme about it now, but the ingrained urge to stamp hasn’t quite gone yet.

But again, I also think that it can get in the way of us seeing what is really there.

Pieter Huveneers vintage airmail poster 1954
Pieter Huveneers, 1954

Because one of the joys of the GPO Archive is that they commissioned a wide range of artists, some of whose work I’ve never seen anywhere else.  (The illustrations of the book do reflect this, by the way.)

For example, I was furtling around in there this morning for another reason altogether and came across this, which I have known and liked for ages.

Derrick Hass postcards crab vintage GPO poster
Derrick Hass, 1954

It’s by Derrick Hass, who also did this Christmas design, as seen on here before.

Derrick Hass shop early post early vintage GPO Poster holly

Now it turns out, after I got curious, that Derrick Hass went on to have an extraordinary career in advertising, working as an art director in most  of London’s top agencies for almost forty years, and winning prizes for his work into the 1990s.  His life and work is an important part of graphic design history, and one I’d like to know more about.

But if we only keeps looking at what we already know, histories like that will fall by the wayside.  So it’s fantastic that one book on GPO Design is at last available, but now we need a much bigger one too.  One which tells all the stories.