Friday, 31 July 2015

Mr Therm’s Adventures on the Home Front

By the end of the 1950s a new era of affluence was dawning in Austerity Britain. New technologies and home improvements were actively embraced by a grateful populace. Despite being a little long in the tooth, Mr Therm (born 1931) was still doing his bit for the gas industry in the pages of the quintessentially middle class boys’ comic, The Eagle. It may seem like a doomed project to interest adolescent youth in the finer points of home insulation or transforming a hostess trolley but they were very different times. Ian Allan ABCs and I-SPY books offered genuine high-level distraction to youngsters for whom a fruit gum or a minute ice cream wafer that melted and collapsed in an instant was the ultimate in treats. Mr Therm’s adventures appear somewhat overloaded in didactic content and the entertainment value was nugatory despite the occasional lumbering attempts to inject some humour into the proceedings. For many years Mr Therm’s cheery contours had brightened up the exceedingly dull and stuffy world of British consumer advertising but he might have been expected to retire by this point – given the steady rise in Cold War nuclear paranoia in this period, he could well have been relaunched as Mr Thermo-Nuclear. As for his inventor the sober and industrious illustrator, Eric Fraser would dedicate his talents to the world of literature and performance and never again produce anything with the recognition value of Mr Therm. 

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Great Railway Stations Number 10: Delft

The new railway station in Delft opened on the last day of February 2015 after more than a decade of planning and construction that involved relocating the busy mainline between Rotterdam and Amsterdam from an elevated viaduct to a subterranean track. The new building also houses municipal offices and a new Delft City Hall. At street level it’s a large black and grey box with a gently chamfered roofline that diminishes the visual impact. The glazing features randomly alternating vertical panes of varying widths of high performance glass and moulded glass designed to evoke vintage glazing. Great care has been taken to avoid an oppressive appearance. 

The interior has a cavernous and undulating feel. Under a vaulted ceiling lined with over 4000 baffles each bearing a narrow strip of imagery sliced out of an 1877 vintage map of Delft, a large central space has been carved out to allow banks of escalators and flights of steps that descend to the subterranean train platforms. Overhead light-wells supply dramatic illumination. Disappointingly, like Porta Sousa in Turin and Antwerpen Centraal where mainline trains run below ground in redeveloped stations, the platforms have a utilitarian feel and low light levels. 

The design is the work of the Delft-based Mecanoo practice and replaces a building of 1885 that will be retained and re-used. The aim was to provide a station that offered the arriving traveller a view of Delft inspired by Vermeer’s painting – an enormous panorama of the city is revealed as the traveller turns toward the exit after arriving at ground level. Walls and columns are lined with a mosaic of ceramic fragments in shades of Delft-blue – the standard of finish is immaculate. Cafés and retail units are discreet and built into the fabric of the building – there are no free-standing kiosks or advertising displays. The result is a spacious but not intimidating station concourse that restores a measure of dignity to the travelling public by not exploiting them as a revenue stream ripe for extraction. The scale of this project is formidable and it’s very difficult to conceive of something comparable happening in Britain in a town the size of Woking or Watford. 

Monday, 13 July 2015

Art Deco Advertising

Much of this selection of advertising art from the 20s and 30s could be labelled Art Deco but the term is so elusive to define that it can be cheerfully applied to all sorts of unworthy imagery. If I must offer a definition I favour the claims of graphic art that exploits the decorative potential in Cubist and Futurist painting to command attention. Visually fragmented imagery, repetition of forms and smooth tonal transitions all offered novel ways in which products could be transformed in appearance and presented through a prism of modernity. The Goodyear ad employs a Cubist-inspired reorganization of pictorial space and scale to dramatise the perils of driving with inferior tyres. Sweeping streamline forms and dynamic representations of speed were rapidly absorbed by some advertisers and then just as quickly abandoned in favour of more conservative forms. Another strand that appears here descends from the fashion illustrations of Paul Iribe, Erté et al that inspired a multitude of insipid and mediocre imitations. Spidery drawings of limp female forms trapped in an infinity of serpentine but meaningless curves. 

These examples come almost exclusively from mass-circulation mainstream magazines that rarely explored the frontiers of visual culture that might challenge their readers’ inbuilt caution. It appears that for a few years in the late 20s and early 30s sophisticated art editors with a liking for European Modernism experimented with public taste by introducing elements of Art Deco into mass-market advertising. Some of these pictorial devices such as the radiant light sunburst motif would have an extended life but for the most part the Deco influence was brief. The growing influence of market researchers and the impact of the Depression favoured less adventurous imagery. In a hardscrabble economy where consumers were struggling with falling incomes and mass unemployment advertisers reverted to more basic methods of grabbing attention – what Roland Marchand described as “Advertising in Overalls”. 

Monday, 6 July 2015

Temple Mills, Leeds

Temple Mills in Leeds is a precariously placed survivor of England’s brief love affair with all things Egyptian. When the John Marshall company planned the construction of a new flax mill adjacent to their existing premises (built between 1791 and 1831) it was decided to build in the fashionable Egyptian style to add prestige to the project. The services of the much travelled painter David Roberts were sought to advise on authenticity and the final design produced by Joseph Bonomi the Younger was based on the Temple of Horus at Edfu. The result was a muscular frontage with extraordinary presence behind which was a two acre factory floor, illuminated by circular sky-lights in a ceiling supported by slender columns. The roof was originally turfed over to supply grazing for a flock of sheep. To overcome the inability on the part of sheep to climb steps a hydraulic lift was installed. There’s no documentary record of the story that a sheep fell through a skylight fatally injuring a worker below but for whatever reason the grazing experiment was short lived. 

This is a serious minded effort to reproduce Egyptian architectural forms and very different from the playful polychromatic freestyle approach seen in the Egyptian House in Penzance or the Odd Fellows Hall in Devonport. The application of colour did come under consideration and Bonomi produced colour drawings but it seems to have been seen as a step too far. The client, Marshall wrote, “To an English eye the painting of the exterior walls appears a very bold step; I hardly know whether we shall screw up our courage to do that.” (Quoted from p.273 of Egypt in England, Chris Elliott, 2012) 

The building is in use as an occasional cultural event space but the overall condition is very poor. More than a third of the frontage is supported by scaffolding and shrouded in plastic sheeting and there are no signs of any work in progress. Only the office block can still be seen as originally built. Despite a Grade I listing for many years the mill has featured on lists of buildings at risk and as yet there appears to be no fully funded plan to restore the fabric of the building and find a viable future use.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Vintage Matchbooks British Style

The British matchbook tended to be printed on better quality card and to a higher standard than the transatlantic version. They were normally sold to the customer for a nominal penny or given away in hotels and restaurants. The individual matches often carried a brief message and the match heads themselves were sometimes produced in colours to suit the product being promoted. They come from a time when smoking was at the peak of its social acceptance and still traded on associations with masculinity and sophistication. A brief glance at any collection will confirm just how many of them originate in bars, restaurants, gambling dens or nightclubs. 

The best of them display a high degree of visual invention and sophisticated typography. The Eno's example is adapted from a design by McKnight Kauffer. Interesting to note how hospitals took a benign attitude to smoking and made extensive use of them to help with fundraising. Vanished tobacco brands include Rubicon, Rugby, Varsity and Rummy cigarettes as well as the splendidly named Injunella cigar. The shipping lines made very effective use of them, expressing the glamour and excitement of an ocean voyage with dramatic maritime imagery. On the basis of these examples they outperformed the railway companies whose output, with a few exceptions was resolutely prosaic. Of course to be authentically British an appearance by our much loved royals is essential – but on this occasion they must do so in the company of the Scottish Ice Rink at Crossmyloof, the Nottinghamshire Sea Scouts and Butlin’s Luxury Holiday Camps. 

If you need to see more of these beguiling miniature packages – Robin Benson has some here and Chris Mullen has some here

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Postcard of the Day No. 75 – Street-running en France

These postcards show that it wasn’t unknown for trains to take to the highway in France. It seems to be something more commonly seen with small trains in small towns although in Nantes mainline express trains ran alongside the city streets making for a fine spectacle. The village of Barbizon is close to Fontainebleau Forest and gave its name to a group of 19th. century landscape painters who made a virtue out of painting in the open-air. On the day the Second World War broke out Picasso travelled from Paris to the Atlantic coastal resort of Royan. He was chauffeur driven in his Hispano-Suiza with an entourage including Dora Maar and his secretary, Sabartés. For almost 12 months he would alternate between Royan and Paris before settling once more in Paris for the rest of the Occupation. Lunéville was described as the Versailles of Lorraine – the Château de Lunéville was the seat of the Dukes of Lorraine. Georges de La Tour, the master of candle light and chiaroscuro lived most of his adult life in Lunéville and died there in 1652. Nantes has a reputation for slave trading, ship building and manufacturing biscuits. The great French brand LU (Lefèvre-Utile) was born in Nantes but like so much else has ended up in the clammy embrace of Mondelez – a neologism created to divert attention away from any negative associations that might cling to the name of Kraft. 

Friday, 12 June 2015

Tunnel walking in Rotterdam

It seemed like the perfect entertainment for a rainy morning in Rotterdam – a ride on a 44 bus southbound through the Maastunnel followed by a northbound stroll through the pedestrian tunnel. The miscalculation arose in not appreciating just how far the 44 bus travels before the first stop after the tunnel exit. The result was an interminable footslog alongside a frenetic dual carriageway on a footway that simply ceased to exist in several places. A waste incinerator, a graveyard for ancient rusting shipping containers and a scrapyard were the best of the diversions enroute. The cycle and pedestrian tunnels share an entrance in the depths of the ventilation tower. Access is via elderly elevators where local cyclists demonstrate their expertise in handling their machines on a moving staircase. Then a short winding staircase leads to the pedestrian tunnel below. 

Tunnels are a lifelong source of fascination and back in 2012 I posted here on the subject of tunnel walking along the Monsal Trail in Derbyshire. The dislocating sense of being in an unauthorised or artificially created space is not unpleasurable. Even on train journeys there’s a childlike satisfaction to be had from the sense of passing through a completely alien geology in a protective space. Especially when travelling through the Alps or under the Channel. Walking through the Maastunnel was a solitary experience – I was halfway before meeting the only other traveller. An elderly chap pushing a supermarket trolley laden with paint tins and DIY stuff that he must have somehow manoeuvred successively down an escalator and a winding staircase. The exit on the north bank is again underneath a ventilation tower – opposite is an undistinguished café/bar and an entrance to a public park. It was still raining. 

Work on the Maastunnel began in 1937 – it was to be the first vehicle tunnel in the Netherlands when completed in 1942. It was built by submerging prefabricated tunnel sections into trenches in the riverbed. By the time it opened the city was under Nazi occupation and there was no official opening ceremony. The austere institutional tiled finish and absence of decoration is typical of a wartime economy. In 1944 the German authorities primed the tunnel with high explosives so they could destroy it as a parting gift but happily they failed to do so. The tunnel remains a vital traffic artery and is well used by cyclists if not by pedestrians.