Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Louxor – a cinema reborn

The architectural language of Classical Greece is heavy with a sense of authority and power but that of Ancient Egypt is indelibly associated with either fun and frivolity or the curious world of freemasonry. Egyptiana is one of the most fundamentally impure architectural styles and finds its place in shopping arcades, theatres and cinemas, where it is viewed with either indulgence or offence depending on your predisposition. The refined and incorruptible eye will see a promiscuous assemblage of dubious decorative devices while the hedonistically inclined will see something cheap and cheerful, unashamedly designed to please. 

The Louxor Palais du Cinéma on Boulevard de Magenta (at the Barbès-Rochechouart intersection) opened in 1921 as a dazzling example of Egyptian-inspired Art Deco. It prospered for many decades but time ran out in 1983 when it closed and became, for a while, part of the Tati empire that flourishes on the north side of the crossroads. After years of campaigning by local interest groups the City of Paris funded a programme of renovation that began in 2010 and finished in April 2013 when the Louxor reopened to great acclaim. Every cornice, every lotus leaf and every palm motif meticulously restored. The cinema programming reflects the ethnically diverse character of the locality and has brought much needed community enhancement to one of the least prosperous areas of the city. At the end of this post we offer a brief home-made video portrait of this never less than exhilarating intersection where Parisian drivers, bikers and cyclists put on a magnificent display of manoeuvring at the outer limits of safety. 

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Nicotine Madonna

This ad for Philip Morris cigarettes bears examination for a number of reasons. To begin, it’s a case of borrowing a convention from one product range (soft tissue and personal hygiene) and applying it to another very different. While women were often portrayed in tobacco advertising they were usually presented as either working women, exemplars of high fashion, celebrity goddesses or free spirits asserting their independence. Female smokers formed the target audience but great care was taken to avoid alienating men with troubling indicators of gender equality. I can’t find another example of mother and baby promoting tobacco products. All the noxious fumes associated with tobacco combustion are sweetly dispersed in the mind by a cloud of talcum powder and infant formula. There’s a sense of protection and security and the gentle touch of soft and yielding skin. And the stench of stale tobacco and malodorous breath are all forgotten. As far back as 1927 there were physicians such as Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen who wrote “Motherhood and tobacco are as antagonistic as water and fire ... motherhood is too complex to tamper with tobacco or any other drug-forming habit.” Other medical critics noted links between nicotine and spontaneous abortion and claimed that nicotine was present in amniotic fluid and breast-milk. In the light of all this, to associate motherhood and smoking in this way in 1956 was a masterpiece of effrontery. With hindsight, given what is now known about the impact of smoking on the unborn child, it seems even more impudent and reckless. 

This companion piece is an example of one of the most notorious campaigns in advertising history when the tobacco industry responded to the rising tide of health concerns with literally breath-taking counter-claims that smoking was essential for good health, offering protection against coughs and sore throats. And, endorsed by the medical profession. The careless reader of this example (which could be sub-titled Birth of a Smoker) might well conclude that life expectancy was rising hand in hand with the rising consumption of tobacco. The slogan, More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette was employed for 6 years in a sustained campaign of disinformation and obfuscation devised to undermine the growing volume of scientific evidence demonstrating a link between smoking and lung cancer. To back up the slogan, free packs of Camels were distributed at medical conferences while a team of pollsters was employed to ask doctors what brand of cigarette they were carrying. The results were presented as ‘independent research’. A detailed and thorough account of this inglorious episode can be read in “The Cigarette Century” by Allan M Brandt (Basic Books, 2007).

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Saltaire World Heritage Site

Salts Mill and the former Midland Railway
If only Sir Titus Salt, the worsted mogul of West Yorkshire, had succeeded in his attempt to transplant the Crystal Palace to his model industrial settlement of Saltaire, the greatest of all glasshouses might still be with us today and the great fire of Sydenham would never have happened. Although there is something to be said for exploring industrial heritage sites in the rain and gloom the much improved weather on our second visit to Saltaire was very welcome. There was time to tramp the compact network of residential streets (mostly named after the large number of Salt offspring) and admire the ambition and scale of Salt’s achievement in untypically balmy conditions. 

The offices at Salts Mill
New Mill of 1868 with Venetian campanile chimney
The alpaca and the Angora goat were major contributors to Salt’s fortunes. Salt’s engineers and technicians found ways to spin these intractable materials and supply a commercial advantage over his competitors. In 1848, near the end of a decade of industrial conflict, Salt was elected mayor of Bradford. A rising tide of labour unrest and environmental degradation brought the Chartists out on to the city streets and after a cholera epidemic killed over 400, Salt was one of the first of the mill-owners to realise that things had to change. In 1850 he began work on a plan to relocate the business to the clean air and bucolic surroundings of the Aire Valley alongside purpose built housing for the workforce. 

Victoria Road looking north with Victoria Hall tower on the right. The trees lining the road are due to be removed.
Looking east along Albert Terrace, Saltaire station and Salts Mill to the left and workers’ homes on the right.
Full implementation of the scheme would take over 20 years but by 1865 it was largely complete with over 400 dwellings, a large public park, a Congregational Church, a Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, a Mechanics’ Institute, a hospital, school and almshouses. The housing stock was mostly back-to back with more spacious dwellings reserved for high status employees. Salt’s Mill itself was strategically positioned between the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and the Midland Railway. The architectural design was the work of the Bradford-based partnership of Lockwood and Mawson who took full advantage of their client’s ambition to make a grand statement. The mill itself was a massive presence with as many as 4,000 employees at its peak and its six storeys were generously embellished with Italianate details. When a second mill (the New Mill) was added in 1868 the chimney was disguised as a Venetian campanile. 

Back alleys designed for deliveries of house coal.
Substantial two and three-storey housing in George Street as seen from Titus Street. Homeowners whose front doors don’t conform to the approved styles compatible with World Heritage Status may be served with enforcement notices.
The Salt family gradually lost their grip on Saltaire and by 1892 changing market conditions forced Salts Mill into receivership. The business was rescued and returned to profit under new ownership but the housing was sold off in 1933 and the Mill finally closed in 1986. Conversion to retail and exhibition space followed quickly after the Mill was acquired in 1987 by Bradford entrepreneur, Jonathan Silver. Designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 helped secure the future of Saltaire as a visitor destination. The formidable space in the New Mill is now occupied by Bradford District NHS. 

Victoria Hall, former Mechanics' Institute
Titus Salt Hospital
Victorian entrepreneurs were not universally given to enlightened paternalism but there were enough to make a difference. Some (especially Quakers) were motivated by their religious beliefs and others by the sort of self-interest that took account of the negative impact of social unrest on a favourable climate for business. As we come ever closer to regressing to Victorian levels of income inequality we cannot expect much in the way of mitigation from today’s generation of plutocrats, most of whom no longer produce tangible products but enrich themselves by the manipulation of capital and the avoidance of taxation. Even the self-interest argument falls on deaf ears when economic power lies in the hands of a callous trans-global minority whose lack of national allegiance has persuaded them that social unrest can never harm their interests. 

Tower of the Grade I listed United Reform Church

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Père Lachaise – on the trail of famous painters

Amanda Vickery was on TV recently, filmed in the cemetery at Passy and deploring the modesty of Berthe Morisot’s gravestone compared with that of Edouard Manet (The Story Of Women And Art, BBC2). Off-topic digression – at the risk of sounding like Brian Sewell, for how many of the 60 minutes in each episode was Dr. Vickery off-screen? Not nearly enough for me. The constant in-your-face intrusion of the presenter, the arms that never cease from semaphoring and the wildly declamatory oratory contribute nothing to understanding and test the patience of even the most saintly viewer like myself. Back to the topic – it is surely misguided to equate the achievement of the deceased with the grandeur of their tomb. A recent walk around Père Lachaise on the trail of famous painters produced some interesting examples. 

At the top is the grave of Georges Seurat – an austere family vault, a space-saving design of the type supplied by any of the monumental masons whose premises line the boulevard de Ménilmontant. Movie buffs may recall young Georges, perched on a stepladder in front of La Grande Jatte, discoursing on Divisionism to an excitable Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas) in Minnelli’s Lust for Life bio-pic. When Seurat died at the age of 31 he left behind some of the most significant and beautiful paintings of the 1880s and a career trajectory of immense potential that was cruelly truncated. The relative anonymity of his grave seems in keeping with his famous sense of privacy which has ensured that his biography is a scanty affair. 

The tomb of Delacroix is more substantial and a simple inscription is left to speak for itself. That of Ingres includes a suitably severe portrait bust set into an alcove in a Neo-Classical plinth. Together they set a benchmark for dignified commemoration. Théodore Géricault died in 1824 at the age of 32 after a short but explosive career in which he developed a taste for visual melodrama on a grand scale that peaked in 1819 with Le Radeau de la Méduse, equally vast in terms of ambition and influence. This painting can be seen, modelled in relief on the side of Géricault’s memorial, on top of which his carved likeness lounges, paintbrush at the ready, in the manner of a sultan in his harem. This is a more grand affair with more than a little theatre about it, but compared with what follows, it’s a model of restraint. 

For the full symphony of bereavement we turn to the last resting place of Paul Baudry, an academic painter held in high esteem by his contemporaries whose reputation has not endured. History painting and classical subjects make up most of his surviving work but his real passion was for painting rear views of reclining female nudes with classical credentials to silence the prudish. The disembodied and moustachioed head of the artist rises from a plinth, cradled by an angel’s wing while a female figure, shrouded in mourning, sobs in silent despair at the base of the structure. What seemed appropriate and fitting in 1886 now appears disproportionate, extravagant and absurd in the light of history’s revaluation. 

Monday, 2 June 2014

Weymouth Harbour Tramway 1994

Twenty years to the day have passed since these photos were taken on this date in 1994. This special train, which originated at Waterloo, was conveying US Veterans of the Second World War and the invasion of Normandy to the quayside at Weymouth as part of the 50th. anniversary of D-Day commemorations. A US aircraft carrier was moored offshore and landing craft were on hand to re-enact troop landings on the beach. Until 1987 there were regular trains on this route taking passengers to the Channel Island ferries at the Town Quay. After 1987 only special trains or charter trains for enthusiasts made the journey. Most of the route is along the public highway and trains were preceded by railway staff with flags to ensure the track was free of obstructions. Motorists were especially affronted at having to yield road space to an inferior form of transport. This kind of street-running is common in the US but in Britain it’s very unusual. Railway administrators hate anomalies and there have been many attempts to close it down. In the end it has been allowed to wither away – no train has passed since 1999 and it’s impossible to envisage another doing so in future. The spectacle of these full size trains inching their way through the back streets of Weymouth is unlikely to be repeated. Unsurprisingly, on the day of the special train the locomotive broke down on the return trip and after a long delay a replacement was procured to take it on its weary way. 

Friday, 30 May 2014

Postcard of the Day No. 67, Tex the Trainer

Meet Tex the Trainer, resplendent in shiny lace-up boots, necktie and suspenders. Tex makes light of his celebrity status as he demonstrates his technique for suppressing the natural instincts of these fearsome carnivores. These reptiles were placed on earth 37 million years ago to add to the sum of human happiness by making themselves available for inspection by paying customers on purpose-built reservations, often called ranches or farms. And when their performing days are over they generously donate their skins to be made up into shoes for pimps or handbags for whores. Repellent, scaly and reptilian, with a formidable reputation for unprovoked savagery – they made ideal material for the producers of postcards. Similar businesses can be found today at ranches or farms across the southern USA although, in tune with the times, they are keen to emphasise the conservation value of their activities. 

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Postcard of the Day No. 66, Cawston Ostrich Farm

Never a dull moment down at the Ostrich Farm as these postcards show. When they’re not fighting among themselves they’re being encouraged to swallow oranges or forcibly divested of their plumage. Others were pressed into service to take visitors on carriage rides. In the ultimate demonstration of man’s mastery over nature, this ostrich has been mounted by a gent in a Derby hat. The egg looks on in silent reproach. While the ostrich is the more successful in maintaining its dignity. The Cawston Ostrich farm was a visitor attraction in the Los Angeles area for almost 50 years from 1886 until 1935. The world has moved on from this type of exploitation – today’s most lucrative proposition would be an ostrich rescue centre.