Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Postcard of the Night No. 9, Spartanburg SC

The huge water tank is an outstanding structure of Camp Croft, SC. It can be seen many miles away and is a guide to aviators, military and commercial, whose route takes them through the Piedmont section of South Carolina. It stands 106 ft. high, 90 ft. in diameter, and when full holds nearly 2½ million gallons, and is the largest water tank in the state. 

I can never see these tanks without being reminded of the lurid sequence of events that Donna Tartt orchestrated in the climax to “The Little Friend”.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

American Railroad Journey Planners

A selection of schedules from American railroads, mostly from the 1940s. Some are from minor operations, others from the giants of railroading such as Pennsylvania Railroad, Santa Fe and the New York Central. They all offer the opportunity to plan the trip of your choice and visit many out of the way destinations in the privacy of your own imagination. If you have the inclination unreasonable amounts of time are easily wasted, immersed in masses of obsolete data. Once the war was over, the great American passenger railroads were in decline as the volume of private cars on the roads rapidly expanded. The love affair with the open road went from strength to strength as the network of Interstate Highways reached deeper into the heart of the nation. Switching from war to peace-time construction enabled the aviation industry to scoop up the majority of long distance travel and the downfall of the passenger railroads was complete in 1971 when Amtrak took over the last viable remnants of a once dominant network of routes. 

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Postcard of the Day No. 72 – Egyptian Military Band

Last week’s trip to Egypt was not an undiluted triumph for Vladimir Putin. Whether by accident or design, he was welcomed by an Egyptian Military Band playing a blissfully off-key version of the Russian National Anthem, a performance that would not have disgraced the Portsmouth Sinfonia. Putin’s poker face is a minor masterpiece of restraint, only let down by the tiniest of facial tremors as the tune reaches its bathetic climax. It’s an excuse to display this fine postcard of another Egyptian Military Band on the march in all its finery, captioned as “Returning to Barracks after the departure of Lord Cromer”. The Egyptian people enjoyed the bracing company of Lord Cromer (Evelyn Baring) for 30 years from 1877 to 1907. As Consul-General and not known for a selfless devotion to the welfare of those less fortunate than himself, Over-Baring (as he was known to his subordinates) was the undisputed ruler of Egypt and earned a reputation for ruthless suppression of nationalist activity. He gave full expression to his contempt for the indigenous population whom he regarded as totally unworthy of governing their own affairs, revealing a singular indifference to the monuments and artefacts of the civilisation of the Pharaohs that must have been easily visible to him. It might have been a considerable relief to see the back of Lord Cromer though there was little cause for celebration as British interference in Egyptian affairs would continue in one form or another until the final withdrawal of troops in 1954. The marching bandsmen register an air of weary resignation as if they already know that they will be old men before their country is fully independent. Back in England, with typical generosity of spirit, Cromer would devote most of his twilight years to the unworthy cause of opposing female suffrage. 

Monday, 16 February 2015

Palais de la Porte Dorée

Palais de la Porte Dorée was built for the Paris Colonial Exhibition of 1931 and subsequently became a museum of African and Asian art. It now serves as a museum of the history of immigration in France (Cité nationale de l'histoire de l'immigration). The building is imposing and uninviting, rectilinear and austere in form – there are 26 steps to climb to the entrance, a line of square-section segmented columns runs the width of the building supporting a deep overhang that shelters the terrace but in compensation for the unrelenting formal severity the frontage and flanks are entirely encased in a spectacular display of exuberant Art Deco-inspired bas-relief carvings telling the story of France’s imperialist adventure with unembarrassed relish. 

Carved from the stone slabs by Alfred Auguste Janniot (1889–1969) in under 2 years, deep under-cuts and richly textured surfaces create dramatic shadows and graphic visual rhythms. An abundance of exotic plant and animal life hold the compositions together while indigenous labourers and subsistence farmers toil mightily in land and sea. It’s a fantastic conceit from a time when France’s colonial project was still a subject of great national pride – an unquestioning celebration of subjugation and exploitation is expressed as a sanitised pictorial fantasy from which all the injustice, inequality, trauma and suffering has been omitted. Considered on its own terms in the light of contemporary attitudes, it functions as an essay in wish fulfilment, a comforting fantasy of social harmony and partnership between oppressor and oppressed. We may feel uncomfortable with the exaggerated sexualisation of the African figures but in the context of the time and place it was unexceptional and part of the visual vocabulary of the Art Deco era. To add to the notable mammiform wonders, the great colonial port cities of France are represented by bare-breasted voluptuaries, godesses of prosperity and symbols of economic dynamism (City of Bordeaux above). In essence it’s a richly tactile but illustrated building. It quickly paid off for Janniot, who within a year was invited to New York by the Rockefeller family to decorate the Rockefeller Center with a bronze allegorical relief symbolising Franco-American friendship. 

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Al Parker – Up in the Air

Parker is one of the Great American Illustrators of mid-century America in the days when the artists whose work illuminated the pages of Colliers, McCalls, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Ladies’ Home Journal and Saturday Evening Post often became minor celebrities. Some were recruited for product endorsements, some had regular columns of their own and some turned up on the features pages showing readers around their beautiful homes or their collection of vintage vehicles. From his suburban home in New Rochelle NY he produced an enormous volume of print-ready illustrations for editorial and commercial clients. Like most of his neighbours in New Rochelle (who between them accounted for half the published illustration in the US at that time) he was a consummate professional taking pride in offering a wide variety of styles and delivering work on time and to the client’s brief. 

Above all else Parker was a master of asymmetric composition and spatial organisation equally at home with shallow compressed space and deep plunges from foreground to distant horizons. Every physical gesture was analysed and brilliantly portrayed and orchestrated into a complex ensemble of dynamic contrasts. Parker had a long association with American Airlines and this modest selection from his vast output is a good place to observe his compositional skills fully extended as he meets the challenge of composing in a letterbox format. The first two examples are from the 1950s when he was still offering tonally defined forms. The rest come from the early 1960s by which time a flatter style with sharply defined contours that Parker had long deployed in his repertoire had become much more fashionable among his younger colleagues in the illustration business. Cinematic composition at its finest and most convincing. This is a mere snapshot of Parker’s versatility so more posts will follow. 

Leif Peng has a stunning display of Al Parker on his Flickr pages.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Neuralgia and Nostalgia

For a warm dose of comforting nostalgia there are few better triggers than childhood recollections of confectionery treats. Online protestations of undying affection for long forgotten sweets and chocolate are easily found. The attendant miseries and insecurities of childhood are erased by the power of pleasures recalled – unwrapping and consuming sugary, candied and chocolate-coated concoctions. For the immediate post-war generation these memories carry extra weight due to the imposition of sweet rationing which lasted until February 1953. The resulting expansion in demand is reflected in these full colour, full page magazine ads as manufacturers fought for market share in a new climate of plenty. An armada of temptation was mobilised to get Britain munching and chomping its way to the top of the international league tables of consumption. The dark clouds of rampant tooth decay and childhood obesity lay just over the horizon. A Conservative opposition fought, and almost won the 1950 general election on the issue of ending rationing while the Labour incumbents campaigned for indefinite retention. This began the process of stigmatising egalitarianism as a joyless and pointless aspiration, a denial of consumer choice and a symbol of the horrors of a planned economy, echoes of which persist to the present day. It was an early example of Labour politicians committing to unpopular policies – another tradition that survives. 

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Villaggio Leumann, Turin

Corso Francia is the principle westbound highway out of the city of Turin. It’s the main route from Piedmont to France and has been witness to many movements of troops of both nationalities in both directions as the two nations engaged in regular hostilities. The first settlement outside the city is the comune of Collegno and in 1875 Swiss textile manufacturer, Napoleone Leumann chose to relocate his business from Switzerland to Collegno for easier access to the Italian market for his products. Leumann was a paternalistic employer and took the opportunity to build housing and social facilities alongside his factories. Over the following three decades the site was developed to include housing for up to a thousand people, a church, public baths, a gym and a school. The designer was the engineer/architect Pietro Fenoglio who employed a sober, eclectic style very different from the flamboyant Liberty-styled house he designed for himself in Turin. (The Casa Fenoglio-Lafleur is about 5 miles to the east on the same road, Corso Francia.) 

Fenoglio’s architectural contribution is difficult to quantify but the stylistic touches that pay homage to Leumann’s Swiss origins may well be his work. The pair of gatehouses are the most obvious examples with their hand carved wooden detailing and gingerbread air. Opposite the entrance is a modest timber-built rail/tramway station in a similar vernacular. The homes and factories are well proportioned and unassuming in style. The provision of gardens indicates the influence of British models designed to promote self-sufficiency and leisure time dedicated to labour and self-improvement. The textile business finally closed in 2007, after lingering on in a much reduced role since 1972 but the Villaggio Leumann has since been refurbished as a heritage site with some of the buildings converted into retail premises for the fashion industry. On a visit in October 2014 the housing stock seemed to be in very good order as were the retail units, but the major blocks, although recently repainted, still await a use. It was a Monday morning and there may well be busier times but there was very little sign of activity, economic or domestic. Other than the man who yelled from an upstairs window to tell me that photography was forbidden without a permit – an expression of resentment about being on public display.