Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The Visual Delights of Belgian Beach Huts

A heavy blanket of cloud, a sharp cold wind off the North Sea and a deserted sandy beach at De Panne with a late September autumnal feeling in the air. Perfect conditions against which to observe the painted geometry of a small army of beach huts silently confronting the ocean. Rich colour statements, some bold, some subtle, sing out under leaden skies. The beach becomes a temporary art installation for lovers of abstract geometric form. The vintage postcards confirm that Belgium has a long tradition of this sort of seashore display.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

James R Bingham, Illustrator of Fiction

The illustrations of James Bingham (1917-71) in Saturday Evening Post are not among the most highly regarded. It’s easy to see why – there’s no flashy brushwork, no painterly flourishes and no crowd-pleasing caricatures. The flat and undifferentiated surfaces are not especially inviting and the use of colour can appear garish at times. But Bingham was a consummate professional and his understanding of composition and ability to organise and combine form on the printed page never failed him. There was a strong cinematic element in his images, often suggesting the asymmetric dynamics of Hollywood film noir where dramatic slanting beams of light contrasted with deep pools of shadow to enhance the sense of unease. At his best in images like the erotic encounter between doctor and nurse or the femme fatale stealing from a suitcase outside a motel he captures a deep sense of foreboding that events are going out of control and all will end badly. Plunging perspectives and a preference for a low eye-level all played a part. His talent for visualising criminal behaviour made him the first choice to illustrate Earl Stanley Gardner’s “Perry Mason” stories whenever they appeared in Saturday Evening Post. Only once, for the issue dated 22 December 1945 did Bingham paint a cover for Saturday Evening Post but he produced an enormous volume of illustration for advertising which will feature in a future post.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Great Railway Stations Number 11: Wemyss Bay

Wemyss Bay station was built by the Caledonian Railway in 1903 to connect with the ferry service to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. It’s the terminus of a line that runs from Glasgow Central. Behind a rustic exterior with half-timbered gables, a fine glazed canopy extends over the concourse and platforms in a splendid ensemble of elegant curving steelwork. The ticket office occupies a central rotunda from which the lofty glazing arcs over the concourse. Access to the pier is via a gently descending covered walkway perfectly integrated with platforms and concourse. Much overdue and no doubt expensive renovation was underway at the time of my visit in June curtailing the views along the platforms and cluttering the site with security fencing and scaffolding. By next summer the station should be restored to its full glory for another twenty years. Accounts of the station in its inter-war heyday report teeming throngs of Glaswegian day-trippers enroute for sorely needed recreation on the Isle of Bute – scenes that are very unlikely to be ever repeated.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Old Dutch Cleanser Girl

The Old Dutch Girl had none of the freedom of movement granted to the Dutch Boy. While the Dutch Boy scampered around at will, she remained a prisoner in her traditional native costume with her face concealed, doomed for eternity to chase away dirt with her stick at the ready. The Dutch connection was chosen to benefit from the association the Dutch have with high standards of cleanliness – an association we British have never had to contend with. These examples come from a time when Old Dutch Cleanser was a major presence in the American marketplace and advertised extensively in prime positions in mass circulation magazines. Over the decades it seems to have faded from the public eye although it remains in production and the Old Dutch Girl still disports herself on the pack in the interests of continuity. In the example above, illustrator Andrew Loomis has captured the moment of revelation – the scientific proof that Old Dutch Cleanser will never scratch thanks to the addition of Seismotite, a substance that despite the Atomic Age name seems to be nothing more than pumice. 

Friday, 28 August 2015

Dutch Boy House Paint

Today we pay our respects to the Dutch Boy brand character – an eternally cheerful scamp and willing servant of the National Lead Company. An effeminate hairstyle and a camp cap did little to dim the affections of the American public. Clad in overalls and clogs he traded on the famous tale of the blonde Dutch boy who saved the day by plugging a leaky dike with his fingers. First seen in 1907 he was still waving his brush around fifty years later reminding the public of the enduring values of Dutch Boy House Paint. In these examples from the 1950s he plays the master of ceremonies to perfection but his role today is much diminished – a small scale stylised product logo. So let him be remembered in his prime when no American home was complete without a generous application of Dutch Boy House Paint. 

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Les Demoiselles de Tiger Bay

Since last week’s post about the Newport Transporter Bridge in which I wrote about the theatrical potential of the bridge I’ve been reminded that the 1959 movie Tiger Bay opens with the mariner hero crossing on the gondola, passing through the gates, and by virtue of film-maker’s licence, finding himself in the streets of Cardiff. With his wages in his pocket after a long voyage, spirits are high as he looks forward to being reunited with his girlfriend but of course, tragedy awaits him. Tiger Bay shows us a seedy and decrepit Britain as yet untouched by the hedonism that would follow in the 1960s. The multi-racial character of Britain’s major ports is well captured. 

The credit sequence on Jacques Demy’s 1967 film, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort seems to have sprung from another universe with its colour, energy and optimism. We know that Don Draper watched the trailer for Demy’s 1969 movie Model Shop and it’s easy to imagine him watching the syncopated brilliance of the opening sequence of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort and thinking how this cinematic energy could be put to more profitable use promoting cigarette sales. The Rochefort Pont Transbordeur is still in existence and operated principally as a visitor attraction. Unlike Newport it is restricted to pedestrian and cycle traffic. The Rochefort bridge, like the examples built in Nantes, Marseille and Rouen is recognisably of the Arnodin family, though it lacks the distinctive captain’s cabin on the gondola. It was opened in 1900, six years before Fernand Arnodin’s Newport design began operating. 

Friday, 21 August 2015

Postcard of the Day No. 77 – Traffic Tower, New York City

Seven of these curious beasts were installed on New York’s Fifth Avenue in the 1920s. They didn’t last long as they quickly became a cause of congestion rather than a solution. By 1929 they were gone. Cast in bronze and architect designed they were intended to impress but they just got in the way. An early instance of the surveillance society that we all inhabit today, they attempted to bring a militarised solution to the problem of traffic flow. The Beaux-Arts decorations and mouldings were to reflect the prestige of the commissioning authority – the Fifth Avenue Association. Somehow they contrive to be simultaneously sinister and ridiculous. It would have been interesting if the claw feet on which they stand were to wrench themselves out of the tarmac in an emergency and set off in hot pursuit of a felon.