Monday, 20 December 2010

Feel Good Books: The Spectator on 'Ravilious in Pictures'

There's a lot of discussion in the publishing world about the future of books. For fiction lovers Amazon is pushing its Kindle as if it were going out of fashion, while Apple's iPad offers some exciting possibilities for the non-fiction picture book.

Lorna Sage
I had an argument in the mid-1990s with Lorna Sage, who was my supervisor for an MA thesis in Modernism at the University of East Anglia. She was the reader's reader, a devourer of books, and she didn't take kindly to the last chapter of my thesis, which was rather pretentiously titled 'The Birth of Hyperfiction and the Death of the Book'. My thesis was about the work of American novelist Robert Coover, who had, since 1991, been involved in a project at Brown University, Rhode Island, which went under the name 'The Hypertext Hotel'.

Coover's aim was to escape from the limitations of the printed book with its bound pages, and he found a kind of formal freedom in a collaborative process whereby different writers fed into a text made up of discrete, connected sections. Anyway, he was quite happy about this and prophesied that the future of books lay in hyperspace rather than the bookshop, but Lorna wasn't keen. Books had been central to her career and her life - books as objects as well as texts - and she did not respond well to the prospect of their demise.

If she were still alive I don't think she'd be a fan of Kindle, but it is no doubt here to stay. And why not? What's wrong with having a portable device with a hundred or a thousand books embedded within it, rather than a stack of mass-produced paperbacks? Similarly, I think the prospect of interactive 'books', ie iPad or iPhone apps, is exciting.

But we need to be aware of what we lose by going digital in our reading. Downloading music is not the same as listening to a record or a CD, and there is to my mind less pleasure to be had in the music itself when you take away the rituals of visiting the record store, leafing through covers known and not known, making a choice, then, once home, removing the record (CDs have never been as much fun) from its sleeve and studying the sleeve notes as the record starts up.

As a child I could spend hours in a bookshop, a 50p book token in my pocket, exploring authors known and unknown, feeling the different shapes and weights of books by Arthur Ransome or CS Lewis or Malcolm Saville. A big hardback book on cricket or exotic animals offered luxurious pleasures: glossy paper that smelled of ink, an almost endless succession of pages, colour pictures... My mother has books on her shelf that were her Christmas treats more than half a century ago - I can't imagine anything computer-based lasting five years let alone fifty.

So I enjoyed this recent post by Emily Rhodes on the Spectator's Arts Blog, in which she did the opposite of 99% of book reviewers and focused on books produced by small publishers rather than corporate giants. It is a curious fact of life in an age of endless media coverage that a tiny number of books get all the attention - as technology proliferates so our intellectual horizons shrink - and as someone who has books published by small (but perfectly formed) publishing companies I was happy to see Emily choose one of mine for inclusion in the season's most imaginative Top Ten Books.

'Ravilious in Pictures: The War Paintings' (Mainstone Press) was designed, like its predecessor, to be enjoyed as a thing of beauty and, happily, this is why Emily chose it and another nine books including 'Visitation' by Jenny Erpenbeck (Portobello Books) and 'The Local' by Maurice Gorham, which is published under the fabulous new Dovecote Press imprint, Toller Books. She writes:

These books long to be touched, stroked and unfurled in a way for which a cold grey screen will never be able to compensate. Some of them want to lie ostentatiously on a coffee table, others beg to be slipped into a pocket; some would be happiest lined up as part of a set, others stand proudly alone. I love what is written inside each one of these books, but, moreover, I have adored the process of reading them, from the first touch of the cover, through opening them and revealing such treats as idiosyncratic endpapers, thick paper and perfect illustrations, to closing them, full of admiration, at the end.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The Art of Germany... and Ravilious the Letter-Writer

George Grosz - Grey Day (1921)
There were moments during the just finished series 'The Art of Germany' when a viewer might, having flicked to BBC4 unexpectedly, have imagined that this was a new Steve Coogan vehicle - a parody of an art programme. Is it just the physical resemblance, or is there something in Andrew Graham-Dixon's deadpan delivery that suggests a comic mind at work behind the scenes? Or is it the subject perhaps? The art of Germany, at least in this survey, has rarely been light-hearted. Romantic idealists, tortured souls, a generation scarred by war, the Austrian watercolourist and his strutting thugs, post-war doom and gloom... No room for pre-Raphaelite beauty in this picture, nor Frenchmen with waterlilies, nor soup cans. I had never thought before last night that Joseph Beuys was fun but, compared to what went before, he was.

Last night's final instalment seemed all the more weighty, given that I'd spent the day reading through Eric Ravilious's letters. As a painter Ravilious had a touch so light that his watercolours can sometimes appear almost translucent, and he was as good a letter-writer as he was an artist. Writing to his lover Helen Binyon every day and occasionally twice a day, he noted with a poet's laconic phraseology the minor excitements of life in rural Essex.

Eric Ravilious - Village Street (1936)
One morning he woke up to see the aged Castle Hedingham postman coming down the street: 

'He took his time of course – he has a zigzag course and a shuffle that has all time before it – and until each letter has been looked at carefully with a lamp you don’t get it.'

And after visiting his wife Tirzah in hospital after the birth of their first child, he noted: 

'They produce tea at every visit and any hour and actually offer cigarettes. I didn’t know hospitals were ever like this.’

On another occasion he reported with some amusement how an earnest Paul Nash tried to persuade him and others to take Surrealism and the other art movements of the time more seriously. Ravilious took his work seriously, but he looked on the world with a humorous eye.

Not that the German artists discussed so brilliantly by Andrew Graham-Dixon were lacking in wit. A brutal satirical humour pervades the work of George Grosz and a more subtle variant the paintings of Max Beckmann. We were treated to the sight of Georg Baselitz's scandalous 1963 work 'Die Gross Nacht im Eimer', although AGD stood in front of it to obscure the giant phallus.

Anselm Kiefer - Milky Way (1985-7)
I have spent some time in Germany, particularly in Cologne and Berlin, and as I watched I tried to square the BBC4 version of the country's art history with what I knew. Was it all really that heavy? That grim? Who did AGD leave out?

Anselm Kiefer? Surely an artist who should have been included, given his fascination for German history and culture - but by no means a light-hearted painter. Then there are Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, whose work in the 1960s shared some qualities with Pop Art, but not its lightness.

These last two lived and worked in Cologne, which is home to one of Europe's best modern art galleries, Museum Ludwig. When it opened in 1986, the Ludwig was one of the first museums devoted exclusively to 20th century art, and in particular to the art Hitler termed degenerate. In fact the initial donation of work that was to become the Museum Ludwig collection was made in 1946 by a local lawyer, who had amassed and preserved work by Kirchner, Eric Hechel, Otto Mueller and other Expressionist painters.

Among these are paintings of great beauty and sensitivity - intense, perhaps, but full of colour. The dynamic use of colour was what first attracted me to Expressionist painting, and my (slightly hazy) memory of first visiting Museum Ludwig is of a fantastic room full of bold, energetic paintings. I loved Kirchner and the rest not because their work was grim but because it was spirited and exciting.
Otto Mueller - Lovers (1919)

This is a minor quibble. German art has been woefully - if not surprisingly - neglected in this country, and Andrew Graham-Dixon has provided us with a scholarly, entertaining introduction.

Ravilious, incidentally, was well aware of growing international tensions and the threat of war from 1936 onwards, but prefered not to dwell on the subject. Here, he reports to Helen Binyon an encounter in 'the Gentlemen' at the Geological Museum in London (July 36):
I was there in the morning and three or four window cleaners were having a quiet smoke. One said 'What's this place then' - 'Oh it's geology' - and then slowly and thoughtfully 'it's appertaining to the minerals what's in the earth, what's in the bowels of the earth'. After a bit somebody said 'I wonder how long it would take a poor bugger to clean all the windows by himself.'

Monday, 13 December 2010

Cold Nights, Hot Cider

Mulled cider is back with a vengeance this year, which can only be good news. In recent years cider has tended to be marketed and drunk as a summer drink, but it used to be enjoyed year-round in country pubs. On cold nights it was served with ginger and/or gin, heated by the simple method of plunging a red hot poker into a cup, or in a metal ‘boot’ placed in the fire. 
Today you might find inventive bar staff making mulled cider with the milk-steaming gadget on a coffee machine.

You can also make mulled cider at home. Any old cider will do, although proper farmhouse screech has the best flavour. The essential ingredients are cider, sugar, a dash of something stronger and some spices, especially cloves and cinnamon. Otherwise it's up to you... 

This recipe is from the National Cider and Perry Collection at Middle Farm in Sussex 

4 pints of still, dry farmhouse cider
3 apples - washed, cored and sliced
2 oranges, washed and sliced
Juice and zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
2 tsp ground mixed spice
8 whole cloves
2 cinnamon quills snapped in half
6 tbsp light soft brown sugar

Friday, 3 December 2010

'The Art of Cornwall' on BBC4

Last night's 90 minute special on the Art of Cornwall was, as they say, a game of two halves. At first it seemed as though the main subject of the programme was its presenter, who we saw walking purposefully through the streets not only of St Ives but also of Cambridge, Paris and London. With each change of venue and outfit I yearned slightly for the days of Kenneth Clark, when presenters stood about in suits and spoke the Queen's English.

Anyway, around half-time things began to improve dramatically. We saw Barbara Hepworth, 'the witch of St Ives', chiselling one of her trademark holes out of a large stone - an activity she loved, according to fleeing husband Ben Nicholson, to the exclusion of all else. The work of Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron received an excellent treatment - thoughtful, lively and entertaining - and I will certainly be heading to St Ives once this Ice Age is over.

I was reminded of Paul Nash writing in the 1930s about the particular challenge of 'going Modern' and 'being British'. He found his own, eccentric way of meeting this challenge, culminating in the ferociously expressive paintings of Wittenham Clumps that he made in the last years of his life.

What last night's programme did so well was to put Heron and Lanyon's careers in this context. They were modern painters with a New York following, but they drew inspiration from their surroundings and - importantly - used their technical mastery to describe, interpret and celebrate those surroundings. Lanyon in particular succeeded in balancing a fascination and love for the local with a feeling for international art movements.

As for presenter James Fox, we can expect to see more of him...

Thursday, 2 December 2010

'Romantic Moderns' and 'England in Particular'

Hooray for the book judges at The Guardian! 'Romantic Moderns' is a wonderful book, both academic and readable. It's going to come as a bit of a shock to some art lovers when they unwrap it on Christmas Day - a light, post-turkey read it is not - but such is the way of things in the book world that 'Romantic Moderns' is set to be this year's 'John and Myfanwy'...

So the rehabilitation of interwar English art and culture continues, and what a curious business it is. Who could have predicted a decade ago that everyone and their aunt would be banging on about John Piper as we shuffle through the snow towards the end of 2010?

When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s the only home-grown artist of that period who seemed relevant was Paul Nash, who at least made the effort to add bizarre extraneous objects to his Dorset scenes.

It's interesting that the success of 'Romantic Moderns' should coincide with a BBC series about German art. Learning rudimentary art history at school, circa 1982, I don't recall a single German artist getting a mention. Art was Italian (Renaissance), then British (Gainsborough, Stubbs, Turner), then French (Impressionists and after), then Spanish (Picasso and Dali), then American (Jack the Dripper, Rauschenberg, Warhol).

My subsequent discovery of a book of Expressionist art was a revelation, partly because of the work included, but also because it showed the bias in my education.

A similar thing happened when I first came across Common Ground, the charity that achieved widespread recognition with the 2006 tome 'England in Particular'. For two decades before that, Sue Clifford and Angela King had been campaigning with passion and ingenuity on behalf of the local and distinctive, launching Apple Day in 1990 to draw attention to the plight of our orchards and apple varieties. In 'England in Particular' they wrote:

The land is our great creation. Underpinned by nature, it is a physical thing and an invisible web. It is held together by stone walls and swallows, Northumbrian smallpipes and Swaledale sheep, Devon lanes and Fenland skies, Diwali and 'obby 'osses, round barrows and cooling towers, high streets and Ham stone, dew ponds and dialects.

Reading this, I saw that I had been living with a prejudice for years, if not for ever - a prejudice that equates the local with the parochial. The word 'English' conjured visions of old ladies sipping tea in National Trust tearooms. Englishness itself was a branch of the heritage industry, and of no intellectual importance - when I studied modern literature in the early 1990s we studied no English author later than DH Lawrence.

'Romantic Moderns' and 'England in Particular' are very different books - the latter is ideal for post-prandial browsing - but they share common ground. Both are inclusive, generous and wide-ranging. Both seek to broaden our view of this country's culture, allowing us to enjoy and appreciate our surroundings and the art of those surroundings.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Jon Snow: Paul Nash, Jeremy Deller and The Art of War

Paul Nash, We Are Making a New World, 1918 (IWM)
The final instalment of Channel 4's survey of British art gave us Jon Snow's personal survey of the war artist's role from 1914 until the present. Given the seasoned news reporter's experience of war's grim reality, it is perhaps not surprising that the flavour of the hour-long film was anti-war.

Jon Snow
We began with Paul Nash and Richard Nevinson, whose violent, often cynical portrayals of trench warfare remain the visual complement to the poetry of Owen and Sassoon. One or two odd lapses aside - Nash may have become a Surrealist in later life, but could not have been one in 1917 as the movement did not exist - Snow captured perfectly the cultural shift that occurred during the course of the war, as early militarism gave way to horror at the soldiers' suffering. A visit to see Stanley Spencer's work at Sandham Memorial Chapel in Hampshire was especially moving, and the comparison between the controversial Nevinson and Gulf War artist John Keane proved effective.

The treatment of the artists' role in World War II was less good, however, perhaps because characters like Paul Nash did not fit Snow's vision of the artist as messenger of war's horrors. Nash was pictured, sketching wrecked Nazi aircraft, but nothing was said of his attitude to the conflict.

Paul Nash, Totes Meer, 1941 (Tate)
The Paul Nash of 1939 was fiercely in favour of war against Nazism, and his painting 'Totes Meer' - which was based on his sketches of the Cowley aircraft dump - exudes a grim satisfaction in the aerial invaders' fate.

Instead of following the careers of war artists like Edward Bawden and Edward Ardizzone, who travelled to France with the British Expeditionary Force and recorded the evacuation from Dunkirk, Snow focused on the Home Front. In part this was perhaps because his admitted favourites were Stanley Spencer - a pacifist who painted shipbuilders rather than soldiers - and Henry Moore, whose tube station sleepers proved such a memorable response to the terrors of aerial bombardment.

The rolling exhibition of war art shown at the National Gallery from the summer of 1940 did of course contain fine paintings from the Home Front, but it also featured, over the course of the war, thousands of paintings from around the world.

Steve McQueen, Queen & Country, 2007
Kenneth Clark and the War Artists' Advisory Committee commissioned artists to cover every aspect of the war; some gloried in grand battles, while others showed scenes of suffering and devastation. All brought their own attitudes, experience and vision to the vast, complex subject of a global war, leaving us with a huge, startlingly diverse body of work.

The Imperial War Museum website has thousands of images, some of which glorify war, while others more closely resemble the Great War paintings of Nash and Nevinson.

So to the present day, and here the programme found its touch again, with fascinating reports on the work and experiences of modern war artists Steve McQueen and Jeremy Deller. It was fascinating to see how contemporary artists have taken on the subject of war, and equally interesting to follow their progress. Having found life as an embedded war artist unstimulating McQueen had the brilliant idea of printing stamps showing portraits of dead UK servicemen and women, but he has so far failed to persuade the Royal Mail to use his stamps.

Jeremy Deller, Baghdad, 5 March 2007

Deller, meanwhile, had the equally brilliant idea of exhibiting a car smashed by a bomb in Baghdad street - I wonder if he had heard about the exhibition of wrecked cars JG Ballard put on in 1970. Ballard found that reaction to his crashed vehicles was vitriolic and often physically violent, but when Deller toured the United States with his exhibit he found responses more verbally confrontational.

The car is currently on show at the Imperial War Museum in London, among the tanks and planes, under the title 'Baghdad, 5 March 2007'. If you go along, make sure you visit the art gallery upstairs, where you'll find paintings by Nash and Nevinson, and by Eric Ravilious, Stanley Spencer and numerous others.

'The Art of War' is available to watch here. Overall, it is a moving, beautifully composed and thoughtful film by a man who has seen his share of wars.

Friday, 5 November 2010

War Artists Remembered: Eric Ravilious, Thomas Hennell, Albert Richards

In June 1940 Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, suggested to Churchill that the nation's art treasures be moved to Canada. 'No,' the new PM replied, 'Bury them in caves and cel­lars. None must go.'

So the collection was hidden away in a Welsh quarry, while the National became a showcase for the work of artists commissioned by the government to record the progress of the war. Has there been another period in the gallery's history when its walls have been hung, almost exclusively, with the work of living artists?

From June 1940 there was an almost continuous, rolling exhibition of war art. That the British government employed artists is in good measure thanks to Clark, who believed that a nation's artistic heritage included not only its Grand Masters but also its living, working artists. By 1945 the War Artist's Advisory Committee, chaired by Clark, had employed over 300 artists and acquired over 5000 works, making the war period something of a golden age for state sponsorship of the Arts.

In this, as in his career generally, Clark was successful. Of the 300 artists employed, only three died on active service, and this in spite of the fact that artists travelled all over the world and were often close to the action.

Edward Bawden, for example, was evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, then sent to the Middle East. After travelling by camel around Sudan and Ethiopia he was shipwrecked off Lagos and spent five days in a lifeboat before being picked up by a Vichy French warship and taken to a POW camp in Morocco. Eventually he was rescued by American forces and returned to Britain, but too late to see his friend Eric Ravilious again.

Like Bawden, Ravilious had been among the first artists appointed by the WAAC in late 1939. Earlier he had thought about joining the Artists Rifles but had been advised by his friend John Nash - one of the fine soldier-artists of the Great War - not to do anything hasty. Not that it was physical danger Nash was concerned about, but the tedium of soldiering and the waste of talents that might be better used elsewhere.

As it was, John Nash and Ravilious were both appointed to serve with the Admiralty, though Nash found the experience very different from that of the previous conflict and soon abandoned art for a job in naval intelligence. Though rather too insouciant in matters of uniform and appearance for his superiors, Ravilious thrived in a role for which he had been prepared by years of work as a commercial artist.
His most striking work, or so Kenneth Clark thought, was the series of paintings he made during the Allied invasion of Norway in May/June 1940. Inspired by the light of the far north in summer, Ravilious painted exquisite watercolours of the ill-fated aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and of HMS Ark Royal. The fact that his ship, HMS Highlander, was constantly under attack by enemy aircraft and U-boats, seems not to have concerned him.

When the opportunity came to return to the Arctic, this time on a posting to the RAF in Iceland, he seized it. It was the late summer of 1942 and he had spent the previous months perfecting a new technique of sketching from a plane in flight. On arrival at the base he immediately volunteered to accompany an air-sea rescue mission - presumably intending to sketch the rescue - but his Hudson aircraft disappeared soon after take off and was never recovered.

Ravilious, who was 39, was mourned by his widow Tirzah and three young children, and by numerous friends and colleagues. One of these was Thomas Hennell, a watercolourist, poet and lay preacher who had turned up one day in the kitchen of Brick House, the Essex home shared by the Bawdens and Raviliouses in the mid 1930s. With a mutual interest in the countryside they became friends, and Ravilious produced four engravings for Hennell's 'Poems' of 1936.

At the outbreak of war, Hennell wrote to the WAAC, offering his services as an artist, but it wasn't until 1943 that he received his appointment and his first posting - to replace Ravilious in Iceland.

For this sensitive clergyman's son, who had earlier spent time in mental hospital recovering from a nervous breakdown, the posting must have been a challenge. But Hennell prospered in his new role, painting fluent, breezy sketches of Reykjavik and the surrounding area before leaving to join the Allied invasion force on D-day.

A year later he was sent further afield, to record the war effort in India and Burma, which he did with success until the official cessation of hostilities. He survived the war but was not to survive the peace, being captured by terrorists in Batavia, Indonesia in November 1945 and subsequently reported missing, presumed killed.

Both he and Ravilious were artists adopted by the military machine, but Albert Richards was a trained soldier whose rank of Captain was more than honorary. Born in 1919, he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art in 1939, only to be called up three months later. He joined the Royal Engineers, then moved on to the Parachute Regiment, and from 1941 onwards he regularly sent paintings of his own volition to the WAAC.

Despite the Committee's best efforts to recruit him in an official capacity, Richards maintained his independence until the end of 1943, when he accepted a six-month commission. Sketching with watercolour in the midst or immediate aftermath of action, he produced a substantial body of work that conveys the violence and chaos of D-day and the subsequent battle for Europe. He was killed when he drove into a minefield, only a month before the German surrender.

It is to the great credit of Kenneth Clark and the wartime government first that these and other artists were commissioned to record the progress of the war and, second, that their work was so carefully preserved. Seventy or so years on, as we see Arts funding slashed, it's worth remembering that a government facing invasion by a foreign power viewed visual artists as a national resource to be nurtured and protected.

The record they left, which you can see for yourself in the Imperial War Museum Collections, is comprehensive and extraordinary. It is not necessarily better than the vast photographic record of the conflict, but it is significantly different.

As John Rothenstein, Director of the Tate, put it in 1943, ‘During both the last and the present wars artists had been sent to make records in the theatres of war at home and abroad, each artist being entirely free to respond to his experience in accordance with the laws of his own nature…'

This, he suggested, gives 'a record not only of events but of the many-sided outlook of the people engaged.'

The sinking of HMS Glorious in June 1940 is an interesting case in point. Shortly after the carrier was shelled to destruction by the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the Nazi propaganda ministry released a harrowing film of the battle, showing their giant guns blasting the ship to pieces.

A month later, visitors to the National Gallery saw a very different picture: the Ravilious watercolour of planes circling Glorious as they prepare to land following the successful evacuation of Norway. Painted only hours before the carrier's destruction, it is a brilliantly lit, defiant and optimistic painting, an expression of freedom at war, not war on freedom.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Turn Back Time: The High Street & Eric Ravilious, part 2

How has the British high street changed over the years? Here are two of the shops illustrated by Eric Ravilious in 1938, and notes on their subsequent history. These extracts are from 'Eric Ravilious: The Story of High Street' (Mainstone Press, 2008):


A sense of timelessness pervades Jermyn Street, where Paxton and Whitfield still sells its fabulous cheeses from the shop depicted in High Street, but this belies a turbulent history. A combination of trust ownership and planning restrictions has made change to the built environment difficult since the eighteenth century, but there are no rules to protect a small family business, and the famous emporium has known its hard times.

Winston Churchill summed up the shop’s significance when he remarked that, “A gentleman buys his hats at Locks, his shoes at Lobbs, his shirts at Harvey and Hudson, his suits at Huntsman and his cheese at Paxton and Whitfield.”

It was no coincidence that these businesses could all be reached on foot from St James’s, since it was the emergence of the streets around Piccadilly Circus as the locus of fashionable society that attracted their founders in the first place. The men who established Paxton and Whitfield were, as current Sales Manager Jeremy Bowen puts it, barrow boys from St Paul’s, and they seized the opportunity to trade “within the gaze of the Prince Regent.”

Handy for Boodle’s and White’s, and with Buckingham House nearby, this was the place to be in 1797 when Harry Paxton and Charles Whitfield opened their shop at 37 Swallow Street. Unfortunately this first shop was demolished to make way for the magnificent new Regent Street, and the move was made first to 18 then to 93 Jermyn Street.

The shop today
The future looked bright as the twentieth century dawned, but economic depression and war almost proved disastrous for the shop; during the nadir of World War II it was unable to offer the exiled French leader Charles de Gaulle anything more specific than ‘cheese’. That it survived is perhaps because it has remained, through numerous changes of owner, a private, family-run business. Retired businessman Fred Moore saw Paxton and Whitfield through the crises of mid-century, then his son Archie took over, passing the business in turn to his partner Dermot Adamson.

In 1992 the Adamson family sold the shop to the current owner, Arthur Cunynghame, who already owned thriving cheese shops in Stratford upon Avon and Bath. Nowadays the nerve centre of the business is its national distribution centre in Gloucestershire, from which fine cheeses travel to shops, restaurants and markets around the country, and direct to the homes of online customers. The company links expert producers and discerning consumers with an efficiency unimaginable before the Digital Age.


Although advertising itself as ‘Baker and Confectioner’ this shop only seems to be selling bread, and indeed Ravilious includes in an early list of shops, ‘Soho baker (bread only, no cakes)’. This being said, an independent bakery that only sold bread was an unusual find in the mid-1930s.

By the end of the Victorian age mechanization was already enabling wholesalers to produce cheap bread on an industrial scale, and over the following decades production massively outstripped demand. So much of this bread was delivered direct to the customer’s door that most shops diversified into cakes, pies and other baked goods (which put pressure on specialist cake shops like Buszard’s), and for an independent baker to make a living selling only bread he must have enjoyed the support of a large local population. In Soho, with its eclectic pre-war population of Italians, Greeks and Jews working close to home in the clothing trade, this baker evidently found his market.

Change of use... the building today
Considering Soho’s more recent history it is not surprising that the bakery has gone, taking with it late-night warmth and light and the smell of baking bread. However, we do know where it stood, and its fate. Derick Martin, CEO of Cooks the Bakery, remembers the shop from his boyhood. He told us that the business remained independent until the 1960s, when it was acquired by Clark’s, a division of RHM Retail. It survived almost until the century’s end as a retail operation, and when it finally closed the brick and coal ovens were still in the basement. Today, however, the scene is rather different.

Occupying a prime site on the corner of Brewer Street and Walkers Court, the shop now lies near the heart of (the late) Paul Raymond’s empire, and the basement store is strictly for adults only.

Turn Back Time: The High Street & Eric Ravilious

The Family Butcher

If you're interested in the history of the British high street, you might enjoy this extract from 'Eric Ravilious: The Story of High Street', which was published in 2008 by The Mainstone Press.

My contribution to the book was an essay based on a quest undertaken by Tim Mainstone and I, to find each of the 24 shops depicted by Ravilious in his 1938 book 'High Street'. We wanted to know whether the shops were still there and, if not, what had happened to the business and the building itself...

You'll find my essays on two of the shops in Part Two, here.

This essay began as a mission to track down the shops but, as material began to accumulate and information emerged, it became apparent that this exercise in social history was developing in unexpected ways. Each shop has its unique history as a building, a business premises and a business, and each history involves families and individuals whose lives are in many cases otherwise undocumented. Research into 1930s Castle Hedingham (the artist's Essex home) conjured shopkeepers out of the buildings where they once conducted their business – people like Bennett Smith, the ceiling of whose hardware shop was hung with chamber pots. Working back from the present incarnation of Castle Hedingham, with its general store and tea room, we can reanimate the village the artist looked on as he worked.

Castle Hedingham site of the Butcher's Shop

Other discoveries have opened unexpected avenues and offered valuable insights into artist and work. A number of photographs have come to light, showing the real shops on which the High Street illustrations were based, and some of these photos show startling discrepancies between reality and art. Seeking documentary evidence to confirm the identity of a shop, we found instead evidence of artistic licence, which seems to have found its fullest expression around Sudbury and the Hedinghams. Why is this? How, we might wonder, was Ravilious inspired by the village itself, with its idiosyncratic mix of medieval, early modern and Victorian architecture, and its fanciful plasterwork?

Of the 24 shops depicted, the Clerical Outfitter (Wippell’s) and the Cheesemonger (Paxton and Whitfield) are still trading from the same premises, but what of the others? 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, as Richards makes clear, 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.

The shop in 2007 - it's changed again since

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.”

The Public House

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 Public House today - recognise it?!

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. Among the old, independent retail businesses that persist in twenty-first century Soho are venerable hardware stores like Gould, Hopkins and Purvis, which have so far withstood rising rates and rents.

Shopping in the old days

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.

A Soho hardware store
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.

Inside the Cider House

In the past the way cider was drunk reflected the way it was made. Fashionable London folk of the 1660s may have drunk their Redstreak like wine, from elegant, engraved glasses, but villagers across the West Country gathered around the barrel to share the cider they had helped to make.

The barn or shed in which the cider was stored and shared was known as the cider house, a casual, non-commercial institution that was an integral part of village life – and unknown to anyone outside the village. As industrial cidermaking took off in the last decades of Victoria’s reign, draught and bottled cider was sold alongside beer in pubs around the country, and gradually the village pub replaced the cider house, even in Somerset.

For a glimpse of the old country cider house, the top destination has to be Rog Wilkins’ Lounge Bar, which is a bare, draughty room adjoining the main cider barn at his farm overlooking the Somerset Levels. The place is a bit fancier these days than it used to be, with a mural of Rog decorated one wall, but the window still has no glass in it and the chairs are a mismatched assortment of office and kitchen rejects. If this is a bit disconcerting to the uninitiated, the strangest thing is the manner in which business is conducted.

When you walk in. Rog or one of his staff asks if you want Dry, Sweet or Medium, and pours you a half pint from one of three hogsheads that stand side by side in a corner of the barn.

If it’s pressing time, the man himself will probably stop building a cheese, come over to pour you a drink, then go back to work, leaving you to enjoy your cider. You might be wondering how much it is, how you pay for it, how strong it is, and what happens next. By drinking your half are you signing up to some wholesale deal? This is a different world from the uniform, regulated world of the pub. Outside, across the road, you can see the trees on which the apples grew to make this cider. The barn is filled with the smell of apple juice and the racket of the mill. And the cider is being made right there, in front of you; you can see the physical effort that goes into the making.

November is the month to visit Wilkins, when the pressing is in full swing. In the summer the experience is more of a tourist trip, with hen parties out from Bristol and families doing the Somerset tour. Go when the old boys are sat round, gossiping about village life, on a nasty afternoon in autumn or winter.

Cider has rarely been as commercially important as beer or wine, but that’s mostly because it’s a drink people tend to make themselves for their own pleasure. Who knows how many groups of friends and neighbours are gathered right now in sheds and garages around the country, enjoying a cup of their own cider?

Anyone can make cider, and anyone can create a cider house – it’s just the place where your cider lives. But if you really want to get into the spirit of the thing and design something a bit more stylish (imagine one of those home improvement programmes where they have to turn a 30s semi into a mock-tudor mansion while the owner’s out buying some fags) here are some tips:

Start with a shed, garage or other form of shelter, where you store the cider while it ferments and matures

Display your cider with pride – up on a shelf, not hidden on the floor behind an old bike

Get in some chairs, not a patio set but a motley collection of discarded office chairs and hospital rejects

Arrange dusty old bottles, ancient garden tools, pilfered pub ashtrays, old brooms, beer crates, out-of-date trade calendars, dead bikes and suchlike to create atmosphere

Provide a good pile of old newspapers and magazines, the more dog-eared and mildewed the better (Wilkins has this down to a T)

Fill your quart mug, switch off your phone, settle down and enjoy…

This is an extract from The Naked Guide to Cider.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Eric Ravilious in Sussex - a Miscellany

Seen from the slopes of Beddingham Hill, the cottage is Furlongs, where Eric Ravilious often stayed during the 1930s...

Eric painted this painting, Downs in Winter, nearby. When you walk around the area everything looks slightly familiar...

The immediate surroundings have changed a lot since the 1930s, with much more tree cover...

The contours of the land are the same though...

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Ravilious in Pictures: The War Paintings

We're putting the finishing touches to the next instalment of the 'Ravilious in Pictures' trilogy. It will be out in early November and is looking really good.

‘Ravilious in Pictures: The War Paintings’ celebrates and commemorates the wartime career of Eric Ravilious (1939-42), who died on active service in Iceland at the age of thirty-nine. One of a series of books that began with ‘Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs’ (2009), it creates a vivid portrait both of the artist himself and of life in the wartime Britain.

As an Official War Artist, Ravilious visited ports, naval bases and airfields around Britain, witnessed the Allied invasion and retreat from Norway and produced watercolours and lithographs of subjects ranging from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal in action to the interior of a mobile pigeon loft. This remarkable body of work blends defiance with exhilaration and insists that there is a place for beauty in the darkest times.

‘Ravilious in Pictures: The War Paintings’, features twenty-two of these fascinating images, each accompanied by a short essay in which I explore the historical context of the work. Drawing on the artist’s correspondence and other contemporary sources, these essays offer an unusual, intriguing vision of life during the early years of the war.

‘Ravilious in Pictures: The War Paintings’ is a 48-page hardback book priced at £25. It will be published in early November by the Mainstone Press, and will be available in all good bookshops.