Yet another selection of didactic ephemera from the the artist and illustrator, H M Brock. The task was to produce an illustration packed with the greatest possible number of objects to feature in the printed vocabulary on the reverse. Brock was ideally suited, being a master of orchestrating busy compositions while portraying every detail with perfect clarity. The fluent and subtle drawing quality is always a delight. For more postings on Brock, please click here and here.
Tuesday, 25 February 2014
Friday, 14 February 2014
Today’s postcard is a small town scene from rural New York state. There’s a tree-lined dirt road and a railroad crossing complete with diamond-style warning sign in front of a neat clapboard house. Other dwellings can be glimpsed through the trees. The caption tells us that we are on Main Street and looking east from National Bank. The road is empty of human presence, the weather is overcast. Depending on your angle of approach it’s featureless and devoid of interest or it’s a haunting image of stillness and ominous emptiness. The railroad and the clapboard house are still there after a hundred years or so but the trees have gone. Cloning out the warning sign removes the focal point but curiously, the greater sense of emptiness does little harm to the image.
Wednesday, 12 February 2014
Known to readers of Private Eye as the Street of Shame, the name derives from London’s largest subterranean river. It’s a classic view looking east towards St. Paul’s and the City. The chosen cards are about 3 decades apart and as well as showing some improvement in traffic congestion they illustrate developments in printing technology and the change from monochrome to colour. The card above shows a street in the era of horse-drawn buses, throttled with traffic in an impressive amount of detail. Louis Levy (LL) of Paris was the publisher, the only producer of postcards to set up shop on this side of the Channel and noted for the excellence of their printing in terms of definition and tonal subtlety. The colour card below is the work of Valentine’s of Dundee, one of the major suppliers of postcards in the inter-war years with a large selection of colour views of Central London subjects. Printing cheaply in colour meant sacrificing the photographic clarity for which the company had been famous. The result here is an image that releases very little in the way of texture and detail while the colour palette is primitive and unconvincing.
Wednesday, 5 February 2014
The centre of cultural life at the grammar school I was privileged to attend was located somewhere between the rugby scrum and the parade ground where members of the school Cadet Corps were prepared for the task of inheriting the earth. Cruelly, nature had ill-endowed me for chasing the oval ball and lacking the temperament for square-bashing, I gave my time to more effete pursuits including the study of architecture via the pages of Bannister-Fletcher and J M Richards. A book that I spent many hours browsing was Richards’s Pelican paperback Introduction to Modern Architecture where I learned about such wonders as the Gardner Warehouse in Glasgow and the Cité Radieuse in Marseille. I’ve written before about the strange power of this modest book to shape my preferences and another example was the inclusion of Charles Holden’s Arnos Grove tube station (above). The photograph of Arnos Grove was one I kept returning to, comparing its pristine Modernist lines with the ramshackle (Moor Park, which then still had wooden platforms) and drearily suburban cottage specimens (Chorleywood and Rickmansworth) to be seen in my corner of Metroland. But although it was only 20 miles from home there was never any compelling reason to visit that part of North London.
From a contemporary perspective the partnership of architect and administrator that existed between Charles Holden and Frank Pick at London Transport in the 1930s seems both miraculous and anachronistic and I finally went to see for myself the legacy of this creative collaboration. Miraculous in the excellence of design and the consistency of vision at every level. Anachronistic in the way that it was a product of a high-minded sense of public duty, simplistically caricatured as the patronising art of knowing what’s best for people and imposing it upon them without regard for their views. The difference was that Holden and Pick were designing to meet the needs of all Londoners – not just a minority of the wealthiest and most influential.
Charles Holden designed a spectacular low-rise cylindrical station building for Southgate, like a spacecraft touched down on a roundabout – an affinity enhanced after dark by the concealed lighting round the cornice and the concentric rings of a lighting beacon on the station roof that glows with the promise of the power of future technologies. Even after 80 years the conceptual clarity of design retains its excitement. The clean flowing lines have been protected by a Grade II* listing at English Heritage (that includes all surface buildings, platforms and escalators) and careful stewardship on the part of Transport for London. The street level interior is illuminated by a glazed clerestory and a central steel column supports the roof. Passengers ascend via escalators into an airy and elegantly curved interior enhanced by vertical and horizontal tiled surfaces.
Arnos Grove is another Holden design, listed by English Heritage in 2011 at Grade II* and featuring a tall brick built drum with vertical glazing surmounting the station. Like Southgate and others, it was designed to function as a prominent landmark and succeeds triumphantly whilst maintaining a strong sense of dignity and restraint. The lofty ticket hall interior complete with fluted central column offers a generous sense of space for public circulation. Holden drew inspiration from Scandinavian architecture, adapting the style of large public buildings to the more modest proportions of local stations while resisting any compromise on quality or detail.
The story of Frank Pick’s all-embracing commitment to design excellence has been told elsewhere but Southgate and Arnos Grove offer a great opportunity to experience the full impact of how this worked. The northern extension to the Piccadilly Line in 1930-33 was enabled by a government loan guarantee scheme for construction projects to relieve unemployment while planners and developers built large new housing estates to expand the market for the new service. This level of co-ordination seems impossible to achieve in the age of PFI and outsourcing. While Crossrail is a stunning engineering project, there is no associated planned approach to any industrial or residential development that may follow.
Thursday, 30 January 2014
The best record we have of Paris in transition from a compact medieval city to the grand network of broad boulevards masterminded by Haussmann is the photographs of Charles Marville (presently the subject of an exhibition at the Met in New York). In the 1870s he made a series of more than 200 images of the new street furniture gracing the boulevards – newspaper kiosks, Morris columns, vespasiènnes, Wallace Fountains, as if he was already aware of the extent to which they would define the future image of the city. None of these features is unique to Paris but taken together they are integral to the way the city is perceived in the eyes of visitors. Another observer of Paris en flanant was the painter Jean Béraud whose keen eye for telling detail was all too often undercut by a tendency to add an ingratiating element of fashionable caricature to the scene. While artists like Caillebotte and Pissaro looked to reveal deeper truths about the urban experience, Béraud gave his attention to getting the detail right.
Vintage postcards are the next best guide to the spirit of Parisian streets and the enormous volume of cards produced in the first decade of the last century provide a comprehensive archive of imagery. While Paris was swept by waves of political agitation and the second campaign of anarchist bombings (almost nothing of which disturbed the surface of the postcard universe), postcard photographers explored every corner of the city leaving behind a mountain of documentary evidence. Sometimes, as here, the evidence is in the foreground in the choice of subject but often it’s to be found in minute examination of the margins and periphery from which many of the details below have been taken.
Victor Serge (in Memoirs of a Revolutionary) described the sight of newspaper kiosks burning on the Parisian pavements when a mob of demonstrators protesting against the execution of Francisco Ferrer denied access to Boulevard Malesherbes vented their fury on the Grands Boulevards in October 1909. They made an easy target and being well stacked with combustible material, a satisfying conflagration was guaranteed. An artistic response to this social turbulence can be seen in the Musée d’Orsay in a painting entitled La Charge (photographed in 2006 when still permitted), a vertiginous description of a clash between police and demonstrators on the Boulevard Montmartre. The artist was André Devambez (1867-1944), a junior member of the famous dynasty of Parisian printers of the same name, a significant part of whose workload was printing the posters that were displayed on the Morris columns. Between 1927 and 1934 this painting was on display in the office of the Prefèt de Police, Jean Chiappe, who, in another age of ideological conflict on the streets, became notorious for the enthusiasm with which he repressed demonstrations by socialists and communists while showing very little interest in responding to the violent activities of the right, mostly from the odious Action Française. Chiappe also campaigned unsuccessfully for the elimination of the vespasiènnes from the city streets – another 50 years would pass before this was finally achieved. Today’s Parisian kiosks are made from polycarbonate in a modified traditional form. Reports suggest an insecure future with a collapse in the sale of print media. The Morris columns are no less threatened with plans to reduce their numbers by 25%.
Monday, 27 January 2014
This is a rather delayed account of an expedition to the outer fringes of Thamesmead (what was once Erith Marshes) last October. It’s the location of the Southern Outfall where the accumulated sewage of South London was discharged into the Thames. In 1865 the Crossness Engines were installed to pump the faecal matter from the holding reservoir into the waters of the river in the final stage of Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s scheme to supply Londoners with unpolluted drinking water and relocate the stench of the city to a place of safety underneath the streets in a network of sewers.
In the great British tradition of rescuing the past from oblivion, the volunteers of the Crossness Engines Trust have done a brilliant job of restoring one of the four steam powered beam engines to working order and every few months the public are admitted to see this engineering marvel at work. When it was built the Victorian civic pride in engineering achievements was expressed via the extraordinary assemblage of decorative, multi-coloured wrought-ironwork. The desire to impress encompassed the most basic and unglamorous projects.
The true splendour of this place is to be found in the Engine House containing 4 beam engines, one of which has been restored to working order. The Engine House interior is a marvel of theatrical presentation. Entrance is via a central cast iron Octagon supported by maroon painted columns with stencilled arches. Above there are balustrades, richly embellished with lozenges of writhing plant forms, acanthus leaves, cast iron flower heads, floral stencilling and the ornamental crest of the Metropolitan Board of Works. Immense care has been taken throughout to ensure that the stonework, brickwork and paint finishes are as close as possible to the original condition to comply with its Grade I listed status. An upper level gives access to the main beams. The three unrestored beam engines have been out of action since 1956 although plans exist to rebuild one of them. The metal floor was perforated to allow excess heat from the engines below to rise up to the ventilation shafts. Opening days in 2014 can be seen by following this link.
Saturday, 25 January 2014
This colourful publication represents a worthy effort by the Missouri Pacific Lines (popularly known as Mo-Pac) to inject some excitement into marketing its services. Styled as the Route of the Eagles it operated a network of passenger and freight trains based in the Midwest city of St. Louis. It was the era of diesel powered streamliners and MPL offered five named trains under their Eagle branding to a choice of destinations, from Omaha in the northwest and the Gulf of Mexico to the south. The aquiline association was chosen from employee suggestions in 1940. The attractions of Pullman roomettes and observation cars were described in detail to tempt passengers on to the trains. Freight handling services featured prominently, including a helpful timetable confirming that a consignment departing Baton Rouge at one minute after midnight on a Monday would reach St. Louis at 3am on Wednesday.