Saturday, 24 October 2020

Custard on the Wall

Two paintings commissioned by custard manufacturers, Alfred Bird & Sons hang on the walls of Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery.  Wrapped in gilded frames they offer ecstatic visions of cakes, jellies and custard based delights, piled high on groaning tables. Peering out from under the table cloths, wayward small boys with impish grins have succumbed to temptation and helped themselves.  Unusually for a gallery display, their existence is a purely commercial expedient, having been produced as source material for advertising and promotional purposes. The larger of the pair can be seen in a primitive reproduction in this recipe brochure and no doubt its partner found a use elsewhere.  The product quickly secured its place in the affections of the British consumer - its sugary viscosity offering comfort to some of the worst teeth in Europe. But competition was fierce and Bird’s would defend their position as market leaders with prolific advertising campaigns on posters and in print. I like to think of these paintings proudly hung on the walls of the boardroom, witnesses to earnest discussion of sales targets, corporate projections, income tax liability and depreciation of fixed assets. A later example of Bird’s advertising from 1941 can be seen here, further examples will follow in future posts.


Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Great Railway Stations No. 17: Amsterdam Centraal

Amsterdam Centraal station is widely admired for its extensive frontage designed by Pierre Cuypers in the same eclectic mix of Northern Renaissance and Gothic styles that graced his design for the Rijksmuseum. It stands on a small chain of artificial islands in the Ij and when originally planned in the late 1870s it aroused fierce opposition in the city because it would completely block all much loved views of the lake from the city centre.  In an exercise of force majeure the government imposed its plan, compelling the city fathers to bow to the inevitable. When the building was completed in 1884 the city was transformed from a waterfront city to one that looked inward for its centre of gravity.  The massive cast iron train shed that sheltered the platforms was designed by L J Eijmer, a civil engineer with the state-owned railway, built in Derby by Andrew Handyside and finally opened to passengers in 1889.  Additional platforms were added in the twentieth century but the building is substantially unchanged from that date.

The station entrance is an ornamented pavilion flanked by two clock towers, one of which displays the wind direction. Heraldic devices, gilded crests and hand-carved decorative panels near the base of the towers and over the centrally positioned windows offer a rich variety of visual distraction. As elsewhere in Europe at that time, there was a nationalistic flavour to the decor with the mercantile splendour and colonial triumphs of the state celebrated in allegoric form, although there is more evidence of restraint than we see, for example, in Antwerp.  During the war, Jewish deportees from the Netherlands began their long and arduous journeys to death and extinction at the hands of the Nazis from these platforms. Best known among them being Anne Frank whose personal journey began in September 1944.  These terrible events cast a long shadow over many major European stations that will last as long as they do.


Thursday, 8 October 2020

Detroit City

It was in Detroit that Aretha Franklin mastered the art of gospel singing in her father’s New Bethel Baptist Church. In 1930 Charles Sheeler painted Ford’s River Rouge Complex transforming it into an Industrial Acropolis for the Twentieth Century. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were welcomed to Detroit by Edsel Ford in 1932 where Rivera would paint the Detroit Industry Murals. In 1943, John Lee Hooker began working in a Ford Factory in Detroit, part of a massive migration of African Americans from the Jim Crow South drawn by the prospect of working for Alfred Sloan, Walter Chrysler or Henry Ford. Vast fortunes were made in the auto industry in the decades when Detroit was America’s fastest growing city. Smokey Robinson met Berry Gordon Jr in 1957 - two years later Motown Records was founded by Gordy. Left wing activism in the late 1960s saw the formation of the White Panther Party, one of whose founders, John Sinclair, poet and Marxist provocateur, became manager of the MC5 - a notoriously raucous band of musicians whose repertoire was aggressively anti-capitalist. Today they would be written off as Cultural Marxists - their demise in 1972 was every bit as rapid as their brief but explosive ascent to fame. An attentive reader may have noted how the roll call of cultural references stalls almost two generations ago - a sad consequence of the creeping disconnect from popular culture that afflicts all but a few as the decades pile up. Only Eminem and The White Stripes have penetrated my general ignorance and their achievements have no place in my personal Pantheon where the gates slammed shut many years ago.

History caught up with the city with a succession of blows - the decline of heavy industry, the Twelfth Street Riot of 1967, rising unemployment with the contraction of the auto industry leading to depopulation of an already racially segregated city as departing white homeowners deserted the city for the outer suburbs.  All of which contributed to an unenviable reputation for urban decay which was crowned in the 1990s when the abandoned relics of lost industry became a kind of rust-belt theme park for urban explorers whose glamourised photographs of dereliction would go on to fill a library of coffee table books.

Detroit was home to a pioneering producer of early colour postcards. Formed in the 1890s, the Detroit Photographic Co. (later renamed Detroit Publishing Co.) developed an enormous photographic archive of North America based on photographs taken by William Henry Jackson. A large proportion of them were landscape subjects that stylistically mostly conformed to the prevailing Pictorialist code which prioritised compositional balance and atmospheric values. But Jackson’s natural curiosity drew him toward more vernacular subject matter, including the urban environment, street photography, industrial and workplace subjects and portrait studies of Native Americans, Asian Americans as well as the local inhabitants encountered on his journeys, all photographed in high definition. Postcard versions were printed in often vivid colour via the Photochrom process and marketed across the nation from the base in Detroit.  In the years preceding World War 1 the company enjoyed much success selling a product that was markedly superior to that of its competitors. But a wartime slump in sales combined with the development of new and cheaper printing technology left the company struggling to compete and it went out of business in 1924. The Detroit archives remain mostly intact and have been extensively reprinted in recent years, notably by Taschen whose oversize volume, An American Odyssey, inflates the images across 600 pages to breathtaking effect. There are just two examples of the work of the Detroit Publishing Co. in this selection.

The rise and fall of Detroit lay in the future when these postcards were published. They’ve been selected to evoke a largely pre-industrial city where respectably dressed young girls could launch their model sailboats on to a tranquil lake in the park - a place where thousands would flock to the park for an evening concert. A world of gentility where the good citizens could take the air as they stroll along the canal bank in a city park with distant views of factory chimneys - a premonition of the industrial giant in the making.  Women in unfeasibly large hats were welcome to dine in the basement Selfserv in the Daniel Burnham designed Majestic Building while outside in Woodward Avenue streetcars still passed every 60 seconds. Visitors to Palmer Park could admire the hollowed-out Spruce Log with its bear cage and adjacent office space. A fleet of pleasure steamers offered cruises on Lake Michigan to a variety of destinations while Canada could be reached via a passenger ferry. Any spare dollars could be deposited at the Wayne County Savings Bank.

 The nostalgic country song “Detroit City” was a hit for singer Bobby Bare in 1963 - it expressed the longing of a disenchanted Southern exile in Detroit dreaming of a return to the land of the cotton fields. A sentiment that resonated just as deeply with African American performers - Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, Arthur Alexander and Joe Tex would all record their own versions. 

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Rail Tunnel to Canada

For twenty years before Detroit was connected to Canada via a road tunnel, the only physical link was a rail tunnel built in 1909-10 by the Michigan Central Railroad. It was clearly a thing of wonder given the variety of postcards recording its scenic attractions.  There’s a certain spatial complexity with a tunnel portal located beneath an over bridge with busy tracks on either side, but hardly enough to make it a place of pilgrimage. Freight trains still run through the tunnel which is now owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway although the surrounding infrastructure has largely disappeared leaving a wasteland with even less to commend it.  According to Wikipedia the area is now extensively patrolled by Homeland Security, the Detroit Police and railroad security agents. More to follow on the city of Detroit.


Friday, 25 September 2020

Road Tunnel to Canada

There are two ways to drive from Detroit in the US to Windsor in Canada. The most favoured route is across the Ambassador Bridge (1929) that sails high above the Detroit River that separates the two nations. An alternative route is via the Detroit - Canada Tunnel (1930) - a southbound journey through an immersed tube just short of a mile in length.  Detroit is by far the larger of the two cities and some of these postcards underline the point. One shows the imposing Detroit skyline with a graphic representation of the tunnel approach while another depicts the tunnel in cross section with the humble cluster of low-rise buildings on the left, contrasted with the magnificence of Detroit on the right. Both postcards of the tunnel interior are focused on the mystical point where two countries meet at a subterranean border. Last is a dingy card view of the tunnel entrance on the Canadian side in a depressing setting between two barrack-like hotels. Not much improvement since by the look of the Streetview image.


Thursday, 17 September 2020

Parisian Sightlines - Boulevard de Bonne-Nouvelle

This tall and slender Parisian corner building is wedged into the space between rue de Cléry and rue de la Lune at the junction with Boulevard de Bonne-Nouvelle.  The photo was taken from the corner of rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis on the opposite side of the boulevard.  The lower floors of the corner building are visible in the vintage postcard view below - based on a photo taken from the same location at a slightly different angle.  The streetscape is little altered in over a hundred years although the proliferation of advertising (LU Biscuits being the most prominent) and signage has been much reduced.  The second photo was taken from rue de Cléry and offers a sidelong glimpse of the triumphal Porte de Saint-Denis hemmed in by surrounding building - it’s a great example of the visual pleasures to be found when exploring side streets of modest distinction but possessed of wonderful sightlines. The last two postcards reproduce the scene from the corner of rue de la Lune where the view of Porte Saint-Denis is uninterrupted.  Two decades separates the postcards, the monochrome example being the earlier.  Brioche de la Lune continued to be available from the Patisserie du Soleil but these formerly elegant premises today stand boarded up and empty.


Friday, 11 September 2020

Monocle Men

Monocle Men were never short of employment opportunities in the Universe of Brand Characters. Their association with good breeding and their foppish tendencies made them ideal product ambassadors. Rea Irvin’s creation for the New Yorker, Eustace Tilley, epitomised the air of effortless superiority that a monocle confers. The updated Tilley from 2018 was drawn by Malika Favre. Heinz, of soup and ketchup fame, chose a monocled tomato (known as Mr. Aristocrat) to spearhead their advertising campaigns in the 1930s.  Often deployed in multiple, the top hats were conventional class signifiers but the rubicund features sent out a very mixed message suggestive of short temper and irritability - not the qualities looked for in a brand mascot. The breezy monocled bonhomie of the Striding Man in red frock coat and polished black boots has been around since 1909, embodying the virtues of Johnnie Walker whisky to the present day.  Mr. Brandyman does the same job for Martell with a brandy glass for a head - hand drawn in cartoon form, his raffish demeanour is amplified by the cigar or cigarette that’s never far from his lips.  In 1919 Sharps Toffee introduced Sir Kreemy Knut (biography here) who, with bow tie, briefcase and swagger stick, launched his campaign to ruin the nation’s dental health with caramelised sugar.  A final mention for Mr. Peanut whose contribution to monocled marketing has been featured extensively on this blog, most recently here in 2012.