Friday, 26 June 2020

Bicycles, Watches & Books

As long ago as 1897 the British consumer was subject to all manner of ingenious inducements to favour one branded product over another. Nobody took the philosophy of competition more seriously than the hyperactive Lord Leverhulme in his mission to cleanse the Victorian working class exclusively with bars of Sunlight and Lifebuoy soap. Sunlight was a laundry soap, launched in 1884 while Lifebuoy was for personal use and had only been on the market for 2 years. Lux soap was still 2 years in the future. Plenty of long-standing competitors (Pears’, Wright’s Coal Tar, Hudson’s, Vinolia*) were prolific advertisers and Leverhulme’s response was to extend the reach of his advertising from general to specialist periodicals and launch lavishly funded promotional rewards designed to tie customers to his brands. To claim a prize a customer had to submit a minimum of 50 Sunlight or Lifebuoy wrappers. Combinations of the two weren’t acceptable. This was a major challenge for the average user and almost insurmountable for those who aspired to win a bicycle since the value of the prize was proportionate to the number of wrappers sent in. It’s safe to say that the additional sales revenue must have comfortably exceeded the value of prizes won by the fortunate few. History doesn’t record whether interested parties formed themselves into syndicates to pool their resources - even if successful they would have faced the problem of how to divide the ownership of a bicycle or a pocket watch. Advertisers are never less than one step ahead of consumer resistance and one failsafe technique is to present the manufacturer as a paragon of disinterested generosity, showering its loyal customers with munificence. In the last decade of the Victorian era, consumer business expanded at speed and famous brands intensified the battle for supremacy. A very different story from the languid Fin de Siècle decadence that prevailed in the expressive arts.

*Hudson’s Soap was acquired by Leverhulme in 1908, Vinolia in 1906 and Pears’ in 1920. When Simple Skincare was bought by Unilever in 2010, it became the owner of Wright’s Traditional Soap, as it is now known.

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Great Railway Stations No. 16: Leipzig Hauptbahnhof

There are many cities larger than Leipzig that have to be content with train stations no more than half the size of the one that serves Leipzig. This can be explained by what happened in 1898 when the city fathers began to devise a plan to combine all the city’s stations into a single building. Inflated with civic pride they commissioned a train station on a gargantuan scale commensurate with their estimation of the city’s importance. Since the Middle Ages, Leipzig had been a major centre for trade fairs and with its university, concert halls and classical music academies, associations with J S Bach and Mendelssohn it could also claim to be a centre of high culture. So there was some basis for their self esteem. Planning for the station began in 1898, construction started in 1909 and by the time it was completed in 1915 it was Europe’s largest station by surface area with 26 platforms to admire, sheltered by an enormous six bay train shed. Two massive entrances, each with a domed entrance hall, projected forward from a 5-storey elongated terminal building which gave on to a cavernous concourse of intimidating proportions.

After the war Leipzig became part of the DDR and the extensively bomb-damaged station was renovated at a stately pace - only fully restored in 1965, more than 20 years after it was attacked. After reunification commercial priorities dictated the scooping out of the concourse floor with a modern subterranean shopping centre slotted into the newly vacant space. The retail intrusion opened in 1997 and subtly changed the character of the space from a place alive with the excitement of arrival and departure into a shopping experience with ancillary rail travel as an optional extra. These three postcards celebrate the new station in all its magnificence. They appear to be based on artists’ impressions and may well predate the completion of the buildings. One is postmarked in 1914, a year before the new station was fully operational. The photographs are from January 2019 when I changed trains there.

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Postcard of the Day No. 100 - Orange Street, Kingston, Jamaica

British rule in Jamaica had more than half a century to go when in 1905, man of few words, Herbert, scrawled his brief message on the front of the card and posted it to J O’Shea at the Great Eastern Omnibus Company in Leyton, Essex. The electric tram service we see here between King Street and Orange Street had been running since 1899 and was praised by visitors for its efficiency. A Canadian controlled company (West India Electric Co.) operated the service using tramcars similar to those used in Montreal. 1905 was also the year that Marcus Garvey arrived in Kingston and found employment as a printer. Less than two years later, in January 1907 the city would be largely destroyed in an enormous earthquake in which over a thousand people died. Sound system pioneer, Prince Buster (1938-2016) was born in Orange Street and recorded his own instrumental tribute, Freezing Up Orange Street and a vocal version, Shaking Up Orange Street. In the 1960s Orange Street was the centre for Ska and Rocksteady recording where rival producers and studios battled for supremacy.

Monday, 8 June 2020

Off the Shelf - The Animals’ Trip to Sea

This generously illustrated, large format picture book for children dates from 1900. Text is by Clifton Bingham with illustrations, many in chromolithographed plates by G H Thompson (1861-?). Bingham (1859-1913) was a regular writer of children’s books for publishers Ernest Nister and collaborated with Thompson on many occasions as well as working with Louis Wain, Edith Cubitt and Harry B Neilson. Late Victorian book buyers were greatly attracted to books for children in which the characters were entirely drawn from the Victorian menagerie of exotic creatures endowed with human characteristics and costumed in the fashions of the day. On the title page, Bingham subtitled the book thus, Being a True and Veracious History of the Eventful Voyage of the SS “Crocodile” from Nowhere in particular to Anywhere in general. Thompson’s great skill was to draw animals that were instantly recognisable human types. Nothing went smoothly for these hapless characters - Bingham subjected them to endless humiliations in the service of his plots which mostly turned upon the utter stupidity of the animal kingdom. Each plate is packed with interest as a good children’s book should be, with an accumulation of detailed observation, a visual parody of human behavioural foibles. And somehow through all misadventures - driving rain, missed connections, collapsing gangways, and a ship that runs aground - an air of good humour prevails. Nister books were produced for the better-off households, many of which employed private tutors to develop the potential of their offspring. They were well served by Thompson’s richly coloured anthropomorphist fantasies which gently introduced the privileged young reader to the great unwashed with their rough and ready ways, in the eternal hope that their paths would rarely, if ever, cross.

Friday, 29 May 2020

Railroads in Fortune Magazine

Fortune magazine was launched into the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of America’s business elite in 1930 at a time when steam powered railroads were the nation’s prime movers of raw materials and manufactured goods. Many businesses were highly dependent on the services of the railroad and managerial executives took a close interest in rail pricing and performance. Fortune specialised in long-form journalism, and regular in-depth analysis of the railroad business kept the executive class well informed. In their turn the railroads advertised their services to business leaders while the manufacturers of locomotives, rolling stock and railway equipment advertised to the railroads.

Railroads made their first appearance on the cover of the second issue of Fortune in March 1930 - beneath a signal gantry a track worker shields his eyes from the slanting sunlight while far below we see an idealised harbour scene, part San Pedro, part Amalfi Coast. An example of what might be called “industrial pastoral” where benevolent business dwells in harmony with the natural world, the sort of relationship Fortune commended to its readers. In February 1931 the cover took the form of an aerial illustration of a marshalling yard showing diagonal lines of freight cars under the guidance of a pair of muscular locomotives, each dispatching powerful plumes of smoke and steam into the atmosphere - a stylish celebration of steam power in which railroad grime is transformed via a palette of vibrant complementaries. A lively use of line and flat areas of dynamic colour (blue-green, orange-red and maroon) greatly enhance what might otherwise have been a banal composition. Neal Bose, the artist has left no more than a minimal trace of his existence - a biography that starts and finishes with: born 1894, Columbia TN, lived Chicago area. For the first decade there was a Fortune tradition of covers unrelated to the contents. Covers were treated in the same way that producers of luxury goods would employ the finest of packaging to add another layer of exclusivity.

Fortune cover artists enjoyed remarkable autonomy - some were submitted on-spec while others were the result of one word commissions. Full advantage was taken of this freedom and artists successfully offered up imagery that in subject and treatment, aligned with their personal interests. This culture of tolerance was all part of Fortune’s mission to raise the sights of business leaders to aspire to a higher sense of purpose. A change of policy in the 1940s led to more directed assignments and covers that reflected a major story inside the magazine. Representation and stylisation were succeeded by a cautious embrace of Cubist-inspired semi-abstraction, Modernism, montage and, finally, photography. Several of these cover artists were associated with Precisionism - Francis Criss and Edmund Lewandowski drew on their repertoire of crisply rendered geo-mechanical forms. Lewandowski (August 1945, March 1948) pushed his compositions towards abstraction with a judicious selection of re-ordered simplified details. Criss (November 1942) found visual drama in the intersecting vectors of transmission lines and electric catenary - at ground level a maintenance crew bustle around a fleet of streamlined coaches, every aspect equally favoured by the artist’s dispassionate attention.

For May 1936 John A Cook produced an image of a sequence of passenger trains entering and departing from a busy station observed from an elevated viewpoint. John O’Hara Cosgrave II’s boxcar image for May 1939 shared the Precisionist sensibility and would be revived 35 years later in a modified form as an album sleeve for J J Cale’s Okie issued in 1974. Modernist graphic designer, Lester Beall was responsible for the montage on the cover of the March 1947 issue, announcing an account of Britain’s newly nationalised railways. A subject of crucial importance to an American audience as evidence of the creeping tide of socialism that sent shivers down the collective spine. Finally, from August 1958 is a grid of railroad company emblems, locked together in a black mesh and separated by wedges of vibrant primaries and secondaries. This is the work of Bauhaus graduate Walter Allner, master of hard-edged graphic simplification, who served as Fortune’s Art Director from 1963 to 1974. In all, Allner designed 79 Fortune covers, beginning in September 1951.

Much more about Fortune is readily available at the Visual Telling of Stories and an extended visit is highly recommended. It conforms to nobody’s template and prioritises information over style. Curiosity will be rewarded with a wealth of unexpected visual treasures, under the guidance of unshowy fonts and the gravity-defying inverted pyramid of thumbnails.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

By Coach to France 1938

This is from a holiday scrapbook recording a coach trip to France and Switzerland in May 1938. Luggage labels mark the route taken. The happy travellers can be seen, lined up for a photograph en route - the group leader is in the centre - he is described as a professor of English from the Sorbonne, a fluent linguist and “possessed of a first class knowledge of the history of France”. Missing is the photographer and chronicler of the trip. He’s an articulate observer of rural life and the natural world. When recording his impressions of human behaviour, he favours a sardonic tone that shades into pomposity and, on occasion, downright misanthropy, nowhere more so than when commenting on the physical imperfections of the ageing dowagers of Aix les Bains at their leisure in the casino. Orléans is a source of irritation - constant reminders of England’s defeat at the hands of Jeanne d’Arc overshadow the pleasure of a superb lunch at the Grand Hotel d’Aignan. Despite being a “port city”, Bordeaux meets with approval. Half the hotels in Biarritz are closed due the Spanish Civil War. At the Hotel de France in Pau they were served with the “finest lunch in all France”. The scale and mass of the fortified city of Carcassonne “impressed itself in detail more permanently upon our recollection than any other place we visited”. Nightingale song is heard in Avignon but Provence is too hot for comfort. In Geneva there was “a tablet to the memory of Woodrow Wilson, the man who fashioned the boat of peace and wouldn’t row”. Swiss pluralism is commended thus, “Happy is the state which has the genius to keep the demon of racial intolerance at arm’s length”. There’s an opportunity to do some snowballing in the heights of the Jura but all too soon the coach is back at Calais after overnight stops in Vittel and Amiens. A three hour crossing to Dover in storm force winds followed by a traffic jam in Kent concluded the trip and the participants went their separate ways with scarcely a mumbled farewell.