Monday, 28 September 2009

Watching the Ships Go By

Writing the last part of 'Discovering Harbourside' was an odd experience. The closure of the Bristol City Docks seemed to represent the End of an Era: the ships are gone and all we can look forward to is another museum. The business of moving things from one place to another has become so efficient that we can no longer see it. Huge ships travel between ports that are almost empty of people and to which the public at large has no access.

Looking out to sea from Southwold in Suffolk one might see a dozen such vessels, shadowy forms that seem to belong to a different order of things. They carry the goods we will buy and use but these products are kept hidden until they appear, as if conjured out of nothing, on the supermarket shelf.

If Jim Hawkins rode into modern Bristol he wouldn't find too many old sailors, with rings in their ears, and whiskers curled in ringlets, and tarry pigtails, and their swaggering, clumsy sea-walk.

So where might a new 'Treasure Island' come from? Is there any romance left in the business of trading in ships? It's tempting to think not, but perhaps we need to look in a different way at this new world. The container was a dull metal box until the wreck of the MSC Napoli; now, every time I see one, I wonder what's inside.

Modern life gave us the container ship, but it also gave us a new way of looking at ships. Go to the website ShipAIS, and you'll see what I mean.

Look out though, time tends to slip away as you watch the ships go by.

Thanks to Ian Marchant for opening this window.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Forthcoming Book: Eric Ravilious and the Downs

Exciting news: later this autumn the Mainstone Press will be publishing 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs'. I'll post an image of the cover as soon as its available. This is the first in a series of affordable, stylish books in which a selection of the artist's finest watercolours will be reproduced; 'Sussex and the Downs' features twenty seminal paintings of the South Downs and chalk figures like the Cerne Abbas Giant.

I've written a short essay to accompany each painting, telling stories about place, artist and time. Rather than dwelling on artistic influences and techniques, these essays explore the stories hidden within the paintings, about Ravilious and his circle, about English culture in the 1930s and about the constantly evolving landscape in which he chose to work.

The aim isn't to explain the paintings - far from it. Rather, I hope to make the viewer's experience of painting and place a little richer. In spirit, my approach is like that adopted by John Betjeman as editor of the Shell Guides in the 1930s, which Candida Lycett Green, speaking in 2006, summarised as "human reactions to places, rather than academic reactions."

Further details will be available from the Mainstone Press soon.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Ravilious at the Towner

At Easter Alan and I gave a talk on the book to the Friends of the Towner Art Gallery, in Eastbourne. Frances Lloyd had this to say in the Towner Times, Aug 09 edition:

WITH TOWNER HOUSING the largest collection of his work in the world and the fact that he was an Eastbourne man, Eric Ravilious is always popular. He proved a big draw when the Friends recently welcomed writer and historian, James Russell to the Gold Room in the Winter Garden to share his knowledge about the shops featured in Ravilious’ seminal book, High Street.

The book, published 70 years ago, featured lithographs of 24 high street shops of the late 1930s and James Russell has been on a quest to identify and locate the shops – all real places but, in many cases, offering only tantalising clues as to their name or location. Only 2000 copies of the book were printed and what is left of remaining copies are much sought after, particularly as the lithographic plates were destroyed during the Blitz. Now, the Mainstone Press of Norwich has published a new limited edition entitled The Story of High Street, which reveals James Russell’s findings.

Lecturer and authority on Ravilious, Dr Alan Powers placed the book in historical context, sharing new and significant insights into its conception, production and publication. Two other experts, Christopher Whittick – the Ravilious archivist at East Sussex Record Office – and Tim Mainstone of Mainstone Press, also made contributions to this engrossing evening.

Eric Ravilious: The Story of High Street

Published by the Mainstone Press, 'The Story of High Street' contains a beautifully reproduced version of 'High Street', the seminal book of twenty-four shops illustrated by Eric Ravilious and originally published in 1938, together with two major essays.

First, Alan Powers explores the making of 'High Street'. He introduces the people behind this remarkable book and details the technical and artistic developments that allowed it to happen. This wide-ranging, absorbing essay offers experts a wealth of new material while providing newcomers an engaging introduction.

My contribution, meanwhile, is the fruit of a remarkable quest to find the shops chosen by Ravilious. A combination of detective work and serendipity led to the identification of almost every shop and revealed new insights into Ravilious and his work. At the same time, amid mounting concern over the future of the English high street, the essay investigates the fate of the twenty-four shops portrayed by Ravilious, an artist who would surely have appreciated the concept of ‘local distinctiveness’.

The book's been well-received by Ravilious fans and critics:

“Buy this book: you’ll think Christmas has come again.” Clive Aslet, Country Life

Perhaps most fascinating of all is the essay by James Russell, 'High Street at Seventy', which endeavours to locate the original stores so evocatively depicted by the artist. Given our modern obsession with authenticity … this quest is not only a nostalgic return to 'a nation of shopkeepers', but a chronicle of the shifting patterns of consumer demand... Mainstone’s revival is a welcome one…” Wallpaper

And, despite a £160 price tag, the limited edition of 750 copies is rapidly selling out. Check out The Mainstone Press website for further information.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

The Story of High Street - A Game of Shops

This is a passage from my essay 'High Street at 70':

The publication of 'High Street' in 1938 seems to set it at the end of a pre-war golden age, and one might expect to discover shops destroyed by bombing or put out of business by the more subtle effects of World War II. Yet change was already altering the appearance of the high street when the book was published, and this is confirmed by an observant chronicler of London life in the mid 1930s, Thomas Burke.

Contrasting the pre-war years to those of his youth at the turn of the century, he noted the transformation of small shops into large stores, with a corresponding loss of character and distinctiveness.

He writes of, “Provision-merchants selling sporting equipment; gramophone makers selling refrigerators; tobacconists selling cutlery; cutlers selling foreign stamps; greengrocers selling butter and eggs, and bookshops selling gramophone records.”

Looking back, Burke makes an unfavourable comparison between contemporary retailers and the shopkeepers of his youth:

“In the past, shopkeepers knew their own minds and minded their own business. They described themselves on their shop-fronts in terms of definition. The butcher was a ‘purveyor of meat.’ The greengrocer was a ‘pea and potato salesman.’ The man who sold hats was a hatter and it was useless to ask him for overcoats or skis.”

Historian Dorothy Davis describes the role of this old-fashioned shopkeeper in more detail: “Grocers had to understand how to choose, blend and grind as well as weigh and package much of their stock. Even haberdashers bought cotton and thread by the pound and disentangled it and folded it into hanks for sale…

“Every trade,” she continues, “Needed its own knowledge and skill.”

This is the world Ravilious set out to explore in 'High Street', a world of defined spaces and roles that was already falling apart when the book was published. With the development of manufactured or semi-prepared goods, and with the spread of advertising, the modern shopkeeper found himself dealing in products that were not only made and packaged but also, in effect, sold beyond the walls of his shop. In this environment there was no reason for a retailer to specialise, hence the diversification noted by Burke, and the accompanying loss of distinctiveness. What he notices in particular is the disappearance of olfactory stimuli.

“The store has one large and nondescript smell,” he writes, “But when I think of shopping I think of each separate shop and its separate smell. There was the smell of the draper's shop; the smell of the chemist's; the smell of the grocer's; the smell of the pastrycook's - what a smell! - the smell of the oil-and-colourman's… You could range the gamut of the human nose from pungent to mawkish.”

We are now so unused to shops having a smell that it comes as shock when, walking into a shop like Paxton and Whitfield, our nostrils are assailed more powerfully than our eyes. The supermarket environment is visually stimulating but odourless, with smells suppressed by refrigeration and plastic packaging, and the same is true of the DIY store, with its pungent products sealed into branded containers. For a child, the experience of shopping must be far less intense than it was twenty years ago, let alone seventy. True, there are some shops that retain their atmosphere: the shoe shop still has a leathery aroma, and the secondhand bookshop its dust; the weary smell of the charity shop might even be new to Ravilious and Burke. However, the greater thrust is towards uniformity and ever-higher economies of scale.

In the Foreword to 'High Street' Jim Richards argues that, “It is no use regretting the coming of the multiple store and the standardization of shop fronts, as these… make better goods available to more people.”

The logic of this attitude, played out over the subsequent decades, has brought us to a crisis point. In 2004 2,157 independent shops either went out of business or became part of a larger company, compared to a previous average of around 300 per year. Our love of convenience and low prices has given us the great supermarket chains, but as the giants tighten their grip we begin to see that shopping is about more than price and efficiency. As we drive down the high street we despair that charity shops and fast food joints have taken the place of butcher’s and baker’s, greengrocer’s and boutiques selling ladies’ fashions.

Yet some independent retailers have survived. Look at the hardware store, which started out as the ironmonger’s, trading in raw materials like lamp black and brick dust, and which then evolved with changes in production and demand. Some traders transferred their allegiance to the new labour-saving devices, like washing-machines, while others responded to the explosion of interest in home decoration and gardening that accompanied interwar suburban expansion. The 1930s saw a huge increase in multiple stores specialising in decorating supplies – the ancestors of today’s DIY superstores – but on many high streets the general hardware store adapted and survived.

Meanwhile, concern over loss of distinctiveness in the retail world has given us several recent books, whose authors share Ravilious’s love of the idiosyncratic. In 'Still Open: the Guide to Traditional London Shops', Sally Venables highlights a selection of businesses that might have been included in 'High Street', suggesting that this vision of the English shop persists today. Indeed, the success of internet-based retail operations like eBay has encouraged the growth of a new generation of specialist shops funded by the proceeds of online businesses, niche outlets that double as storage facilities for the internet trade.

The specialist, whether selling cheese or stuffed animals, still has an important role to play, and in London particularly whole streets of independent businesses continue to prosper. Consider Jermyn Street, home of Paxton and Whitfield, which can claim among its famous shops Taylor of Old Bond Street (gentlemen’s hairdressers and purveyors of toiletries), Floris (a perfumery dating from 1730) and Bates the Hatters, the latter still overseen by Binks, the stray cat who wandered into the shop in 1921.

Jermyn Street is of course unusual. On most streets dramatic changes have occurred since 1938, and this tour of 'High Street' at seventy will show how a particular set of twenty-four shops, divided between London, Suffolk and Essex, has fared in the intervening years.

Each shop is a gateway that will lead us into a new realm of historical, biographical or artistic discovery. In part this process of exploration is a kind of game, a treasure hunt in which we follow the clues left by artist, writer and friends, to try and piece together not only a historical record but also a more private story that brings together places and characters that are otherwise unconnected. High Street is not just a book of shops, after all, but also a kind of autobiography: a portrait of one man’s geography of pleasure.