Friday, 21 October 2016

Postcard of the Day No. 85 – Hauling Rocks, San Pedro CA

It’s a great day when a card like this turns up. All our expectations of postcard imagery are overturned. A steam powered freight train hauling rock armour may be a thrilling sight to some (myself included) but that’s very much a minority view. More curious is the presence of a trio of ladies of leisure dressed for a stroll through the shady avenues in the garden of a luxury hotel, scrambling down an embankment to the railroad tracks. There’s a possibility the figures were added by a picture editor in the hope that a feminine touch would enhance the appeal of the image. Or perhaps there’s a pedestrian right-of-way across the tracks – given the extent of the tracks and the lack of an obvious destination that seems unlikely. San Pedro was, and remains the port for Los Angeles and the breakwater was constructed between 1899 and 1911. Below are some other examples of railroad freight on postcards.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Cinematic Illusions Explained

From its earliest origins the language of cinema has been all about illusion and deceit. These Liebig trade cards from 1913 reveal some of the ingenious tricks designed to fool the viewer into accepting an alternate reality. Moments of high drama and tension are improvised by solemn technicians with slender resources. A model train hurtles off a table top in a simulated disaster while a hit and run victim contemplates his severed legs with an indignant air. A primitive form of back projection is shown in a two part image that turns the picture space inside out. What look like giant gooseberries are pursued down the street. Finally we are shown how the illusory can be made complete by rotating the camera lens through 90 degrees.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Road of a Thousand Wonders

This extravagantly produced book dates from around 1910 and promotes the scenic value of a train journey through the High Sierras from San Francisco to Salt Lake City on the Southern Pacific railroad. Generously illustrated with more than twenty tipped-in photochroms of highlights along the permanent way, it made a fine souvenir of a memorable trip. This copy comes with terse annotations from its original owner who signed herself as Nellie when she inscribed it. The selected images make a pleasing mixture of the sublime and banal, alternating views of soaring mountain peaks and shimmering lakes with dairy farms, hydraulic mining and pulp mills.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Holland House

Dutch architect H P Berlage (1856-1934) is a key figure in the early development of Modernism in the Netherlands. In Amsterdam he designed the city’s Commodity Market (now the Beurs van Berlage) - a sprawling red brick building with a massive clock tower, containing three large multi-storey trading halls. Constructed on the Damrak between 1896 and 1903 it retains a dominant sense of presence in the city centre. The City of London is home to Berlage’s only building constructed outside the Netherlands – Holland House in Bury Street, in the shadow of the Gherkin.

The client was Wm. H Müller & Co, a Dutch shipping line with whom Berlage had a close commercial relationship. Berlage drew on the experience of his 1911 visit to the US and designed a steel-framed 4 storey office block faced with grey-green faience above a polished black granite plinth. At the centre was an open atrium, another feature observed in the US. Strong vertical ribs and inset panels below the windows provide visual drama especially when seen from an oblique angle. On the south east corner there’s a stylised nautical relief in black granite featuring the prow of a steamship by Dutch sculptor, Joseph Mendès da Costa (1863-1939). This is the centenary year – the building was completed in 1916.

Internally there are central lobbies decorated with stained glass, mosaics and wall tiling schemes. Berlage’s interior decor assistant was the artist Bart van der Leck (1876-1958), later an associate of Mondrian and De Stijl. Maritime themed imagery predominated in the form of anchors, compass points and wave forms. Marine blue tiles were used on the basement level to symbolise below the waterline and salvaged material from scrapped ships appeared in the form of brass rails and timber panelling. The light fittings were a later addition and designed by Henry van de Velde (1863-1957), a Belgian pioneer of Art Nouveau who in later years moved towards Modernism. The building is Grade II* listed – the listing can be seen here. The photos were taken when the building was open during Open House London 2016. Just outside enthusiasts queued for hours to get inside the Gherkin while a ten minute wait was all it took to see around Holland House – which I suspect was a richer experience.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

In the Ark with Colman’s

Another example of Colman’s of Norwich campaigning for the hearts and minds of the nation’s children. Crisp drawings, bright colours, cute animals and catchy rhymes combine to engage the interest of the junior consumer. No opportunity wasted to sing the praises of the Colman portfolio of products from mustard to starch, from Waverley Oats to Krusto Pastry. Unsophisticated by today’s standard but the advertising industry hasn’t forgotten the importance of targeting children – the net is simply cast wider as the adult population auto-infantilises. Many of the most successful TV campaigns are built on the simple notion of treating the nation’s adults as if they were children.