Thursday, 23 May 2013

Eye 85, Russian Picture Books & 'Ravilious: Submarine'

Cover of 'Hunting' by Vladimir Lebedev, 1925
I was very excited to come home last night and find a copy of Eye 85 waiting for me - my phone is unwell so I can't post photos of it just yet. For readers not involved in the heady world of graphic design, Eye is a beautifully crafted, eclectic, entertaining magazine aimed primarily at inhabitants of that world. It says something both for the vision of editor John Walters and for the level of interest in 20th century illustration and design that I was commissioned to write something on lithographed children's books for this issue: you'll find 'Puffins on the Plate' on page 62, with an online extract here.

Vladimir Lebedev, Yesterday and Today, 1928
The feature looks great, with the gorgeous old Russian and French books shown by art director Simon Esterson as the time-worn artifacts they are - Clare Walters' related feature on wordless children's books is also beautifully laid out. What readers of Eye might not grasp is that my article is based on research I carried out for my latest book, 'Ravilious: Submarine', the first half of which is devoted to the history of 20th century artist lithography, or auto-lithography, and in particular its use in the production of children's books.

Barnett Freedman, Advert for Baynard Press 
'Ravilious: Submarine' features work by Nathalie Parain, Feodor Rojankovsky and Vladimir Lebedev as well as lovely illustrations made by Barnett Freedman, Pearl Binder, Edward Bawden, Edward McKnight Kauffer, Helen Binyon and others - the pictures in this post are all included. One of the main aims of the book is to show how Ravilious came to make lithographs, and it became very clear as Tim and I were working on the book that he was part of a widespread and energetic movement.

Pearl Binder, A Restaurant in Brick Lane, 1932 
Thanks to left-leaning friends like Peggy Angus, Ravilious knew about the children's books pioneered in the early days of Soviet Russia, and owned several titles; as soon as he tried lithography for himself he was hooked. Finding a kindred spirit in publisher Noel Carrington he transformed 'High Street' from a book of wood engravings (as was first intended) into a dazzling collection of lithographed shop fronts and interiors; Ravilious started work on a Puffin Picture Book  but was lost in action before he could turn his glorious watercolours of chalk figures into a lithographed book. He did, however, create the beautiful Submarine Series, which is reproduced in full in the book, alongside some lovely preparatory drawings.

Eric Ravilious, Submarine Dream, 1941
The pictures in this post are taken from 'Ravilious: Submarine', published by The Mainstone Press. Copyright remains with the artist's estates.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

The Unsophisticated Genius of Barbara Jones

Bateman the Opticians, Croydon, from 'The Unsophisticated Arts'
Since I first came across Barbara Jones' extraordinary book 'The Unsophisticated Arts' a few years ago I've been wondering when somebody would reissue it, and now independent publisher Little Toller Books has gone a step further. I asked Gracie Burnett, who co-owns and runs Little Toller with Adrian Cooper, how they came to publish this new edition, which is rather different from their previous nature classics...

We decided to re-issue because we love Barbara Jones and have always done so. It seemed we were talking more and more with friends about her and I guess we were prompted by these conversations to go for it and republish the book. Simon Costin who curated the show at the Whitechapel was key and whilst drinking tea with him at a cafe in Dalston we got to talking about the exhibition and the book. We felt confident and so the journey begun. 

It is a departure for us. But we have always said to ourselves that we should publish what we like and to take the odd detour away from the Classics.

Barbara Jones enjoying her work - what is that peculiar ornament on the bookshelf?
As with their previous titles Little Toller haven't simply reprinted the original edition but have substantially redesigned it, decluttering a spread here and updating an illustration there. Gracie again:

The design is very different. Adrian spent hours trawling through Barbara Jones’s  studio in Hampstead and discovered so much that we wanted to include in the new edition, especially as we wanted to bring more colour to the book - the original is mostly black and white. We also wanted to show her working process, hence the inclusion of sketches and early paintings. 

Her studio has remained largely untouched since her death; most of the artwork has gone, but her sketchbooks and ephemera remain.  We spent hundreds of hours cleaning up the images and making them good for publication. it was a joy to work on because you look so closely at every single image and you see each page in a new way.

The new edition is lighter, brighter and more colourful than the original, which was printed on paper made out of recycled porridge (it was 1951, after all). A little of the chiaroscuro of Jones's vision is lost - the photos of roundabout horses are not quite as black and sinister as they were previously - but all in all this is a fantastic book. Buy it now!

No detail too small... Interior of a canal boat, from 'The Unsophisticated Arts'
I meant to write a post on Joan Eardley last week, after reading Christopher Andreae's wonderful new book, but time got away from me. Neither Eardley nor Jones lived as long as they should have, and both had a fascination for the local and particular that went down badly with critics of the time but which now makes them - to my mind - seem doubly valuable as fine artists and chroniclers of everyday life. While Eardley became well-known for her paintings of children from now-vanished Glasgow slums, Jones is now recognised as one of the most significant arbiters of modern taste.

In a Foreword to the new edition, Peter Blake notes that 'I have no doubt that discovering Barbara Jones was one of the more important things that happened to me, and helped form the way I work.' In her books and in her almost unclassifiable 1951 exhibition 'Black Eyes and Lemonade', Jones introduced what she called 'the vernaculars' to a culture desperate for some alternative to pretentious, soulless modernism. She wasn't worried about distinctions between folk and machine-made art but stuck them altogether, choosing work that was, as she put it 'bold and fizzy.'

Never judge a book by its cover? Maybe in this case...
Her books show a similarly eclectic spirit. 'The Unsophisticated Arts' combines chapters on tattooing and the seaside, amusement arcades and taxidermy, each illustrated with a mixture of photographs, line drawings and paintings. It is disorderly, intensely personal and obsessive, but at the same time the book  hangs together perfectly.

Ravilious would have loved this, from 'The Unsophisticated Arts'
It helps that Jones was also an excellent writer, the kind who (I imagine) wrote down words as she would have spoken them. Like her contemporary Olive Cook she writes seriously about her subject in a way that an intelligent child could understand perfectly - and enjoy too. I love this introduction to the chapter on Roundabouts:

When the Romans left England there were a thousand dull years filled only with ballads, pipe and tabor, folk dancing and maypoles. Gradually, however, the fairs emerge from the manuscripts, the tumblers and dancing bears begin to perform, and at last there is something to look at.

from 'Recording Britain', early 1940s (V&A)
Here and there you hear echoes of earlier books like 'High Street', as in the chapter on shopkeeping, where we visit a butcher's that Ravilious would have recognised, complete with 'butcher's cat, noticeably sleek, and apparently unmoved even by the sale of liver'. It would have been fun if Jones had written the text of 'High Street', given her eye for the aesthetics of shops:

He makes beautiful patterns with carcasses and joints and festoons of sausages or, when meat is scarce, he hangs up sheets of paper by their corners, cut into patterns if he has time, and heightened with loops of black pudding.

Interior of saddler's shop, Croydon, from 'Recording Britain' (V&A)
I wonder if this was her Dad's place, as he was a successful Croydon saddler.
Born in 1912 a decade later than Ravilious, Bawden, Peggy Angus and Enid Marx, Barbara Jones trained at the RCA in the 1930s and cut her teeth on the 'Recording Britain' project during the early part of World War Two. Among the myriad pictures of old houses, pubs and quintessentially English scenes, Jones's work stands out. She was clearly much more than a topographical painter, imbuing her subjects with personality. A light touch and a sure eye were hers from the start.

St Mary's Homes and Chapel, Godstone, 'Recording Britain' (V&A)

Fairground litho, 1946 (V&A) - there's a detailed chapter on this subject in 'The Unsophisticated Arts'
I suspect that many artists besides Peter Blake owe a debt to Barbara Jones; she looked about her with keen eyes, found subjects no-one had bothered with before and took her discoveries seriously - but never too seriously. One of her more extraordinary achievements was the book 'Design for Death', in which she expanded on the final chapter of 'The Unsophisticated Arts', exploring all the 'beautiful, vulgar, frightening and propitiatory things that people make when confronted by that shocking and unwelcome reminder, the death of another'. The cover alone is remarkable, both beautiful and grotesque; I hope that her own death in 1978 was commemorated in suitable style.

An extraordinary cover for an extraordinary book...

On a lighter note... an illustration from 'The Unsophisticated Arts'
Recently, Barbara Jones has become known to a wider public, thanks in part to the tireless Ruth Artmonsky and her 2008 tribute 'A Snapper Up of Unconsidered Trifles'. Gracie adds:

She's become popular I think because of a new audience today, and because of the revival in artists of that time and the influence they have today. There's a new breed of artist who are deeply inspired by people like her, Bawden and Ravilious. etc etc.

At the moment The Whitechapel Gallery are hosting an exhibition about 'Black Eyes and Lemonade', and in June there's going to be a selling show of work from Jones's own collection at Burgh House in Hampstead. The pieces below will be featured. Meanwhile, if you want to know a bit more about her books, there's a nice page at Ash Rare Books.

Original artwork for 'Gift Book', on display at Burgh House, Hampstead, June 2013 
Original artwork from 'The Unsophisticated Arts' - also at Burgh House

Stook Duck Houses, Calbourne Water Mill, Isle of Wight

She was the author of three important books that significantly affected the taste and perception of her contemporaries in ways that more famous artists have never succeeded in doing. The first, The Unsophisticated Arts (1951), opened people’s eyes to the art in everyday life … and that the enjoyment of art was not restricted to an educated few, but was available for the enjoyment of all. It is difficult to over-emphasise her work in this area, but one can see the effects in the displays in almost every museum and gallery throughout the country today. The second, Follies and Grottoes, developed an entirely new field for architectural and building historians, and led to the founding of an international society … The third, Design for Death (1967), sparked a similar fashion for the study of funeral customs, cemeteries, and artifacts associated with death … How many other artists and writers can boast of having achieved so much in changing the perception and temper of succeeding generations? … The roll-call of English artists in the twentieth century is not so lengthy that we can afford to overlook such a distinctive figure.  (BC Bloomfield – The Life and Work of Barbara Jones [1912-1978] via Ash Rare Books)

All work shown is the copyright of Barbara Jones's estate.

Friday, 10 May 2013

The Big Apple at Blossomtime

Dark clouds above, cider within...
Having not been able to get to The Big Apple Blossomtime Festival in Putley (Herefordshire) last weekend I dug these photos of a previous visit out of the archive. The weather doesn't seem that different to now!

In the heart of perry country, a much-loved village hall.

Is it bigger on the inside?

An ironing board put to good use for once...

There's something about corrugated iron...

Is that a scene from a David Inshaw painting in the background?

Meanwhile, back at the Hall, the Leominster Morrismen enjoy the sunshine.

Love the violinist's jacket...

Pears for heirs - a lovely old perry pear tree growing within sight of May Hill, as they're supposed to.
You can find more about the Big Apple and similar festivals, not to mention a rather nice photo of the Leominster Morrismen in The Naked Guide to Cider.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Ravilious in Capel-y-Ffin

Eric Ravilious, Waterwheel, 1938 (Brecknock Museum)
Early in 1938 Eric Ravilious spent several weeks at the Welsh hamlet of Capel-y-Ffin, previously home to artists Eric Gill and David Jones. You can read all about his experiences in 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist', but I thought I would post a few pictures of the place. You have to imagine the constant sound of rushing water and the sense of being somewhere close to the edge of the world...

Possibly painted here...

More haybales than houses... Y-Twmpa (Lord Hereford's Knob) in the background

Rav stayed here - there wasn't much competition

St Marys Church, the approach from Hay-on-Wye

Eric Ravilious, Wet Afternoon, 1938 (private collection)
He wasn't quite so lucky with the weather.

St Mary's Church

The gravestones in the churchyard seem to have been hand-picked...

Close-up of stone above

Sometimes the lichen makes the lettering clearer

The monastery, home in the 1920s to the Gill clan, including David Jones

Baptist Chapel, with gravestones and Y-Twmpa...
Capel seems to have more ecclesiastical buildings than houses, hence its name I suppose

It's go go go in Capel-y-Ffin

'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist' is published by The Mainstone Press.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Eric Ravilious: Chalk Paths

Eric Ravilious, Chalk Paths, 1935 (private collection)

Between the wars the Downs became synonymous with freedom. Then, as now, the chalk hills fascinated people whose homes lay in lowland towns and cities, and they came in increasing numbers by rail, or by car, or by Green Line Coach from London, to experience the wide skies and breezes. As early as 1903 Edward Thomas had written enticingly of the Sussex Downs in The South Country, describing his escape from London by train to ‘this pure kingdom of grass and sky’. To Thomas, the chalk paths were filled with mystery and promise.

‘The long white roads are a temptation’, he wrote. ‘What quests they propose! They take us away to the thin air of the future or to the underworld of the past.

Eric Ravilious once remarked that he never knew the date at Furlongs, and he was not alone in relishing the freedom of life there. Here he conveys the airy, open quality of the landscape, and the lure of the white road, although this vision of freedom seems circumscribed by the taut black barbed-wire fence that separates us from the path. We may be unwise to look for a meaning in this fence, but its presence adds to the painting a certain quality of unease.

Subjects like this seemed plentiful in the country around Furlongs, a landscape that fascinated and inspired Ravilious like no other. Experiencing it, he told Peggy Angus, changed his whole outlook and his way of painting, ‘I think because the colour of the landscape was so lovely and the design so beautifully obvious.’
He got up early, often at dawn, and set off carrying his drawing board in a large brown canvas satchel made for him by Tirzah. A tall figure, with a brown round-brimmed hat pulled firmly down on his head, he would stride off across the Downs, stopping to work either standing, at a light sketching easel, or else seated with the board across his knees. Returning to Furlongs at midday, he ate mutton or eggs for lunch and rested for a while before going back to work more on the painting he had begun earlier; he had an uncanny ability to retain his intense first impression of a subject, however the light or weather might change.

Often, pressure of time or vagaries in the weather meant Ravilious had to finish drawings in his caravan-studio - or even back in Essex - from notes pencilled onto the paper. But this seemed if anything to enhance his vision, in which a topographer’s eye was combined with an uncanny sense of the visual possibilities in a landscape. The creative power of memory allowed him to get beyond geographical details and, as he does here, capture the spirit of a place.

This is an extract from my book 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs', which is published by The Mainstone Press.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Some Pictures of Submarines

Last week I gave a talk at the National Maritime Museum about 'Ravilious: Submarine', which was illustrated with various pictures borrowed from the Imperial War Museum's online collection. They have the most astonishing array of images, and I'm very grateful that they allow non-commercial use. Anyway, here are some of the photos...

Not fun: a trainee submariner learns how to use Davis Submarine Escape Apparatus at HMS Dolphin, Gosport

New recruits arrive at HMS Dolphin, Gosport

L-class submarines, HMS Dolphin

Control Room, WWII submarine

Submariners worked, ate and slept wherever they could - note hanging teacups

The Ward Room - the officer in the middle is Peter Young, in peacetime Penguin's production manager

Motor room, with engine room beyond

The Commander of HMS Snapper hard at work

Occasionally someone else had a go, in this case the Bishop of Liverpool

Successes were recorded on the Jolly Roger carried by every sub -
That's what happens when you label submariners 'pirates' as Admiral
Arthur Wilson did early in the century...