Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Saturday Evening Post

For seven decades this magazine was America’s greatest showcase for the art of illustration. The minutiae of daily life in town and country was transformed into an enduring mythology of a nation united in deeply rooted family values and comradely good fellowship by highly skilled cover artists who each week looked America in the eye and saw that it was good. J C Leyendecker, Stevan Dohanos, John Falter, Constantin Alajolov and the arch-sentimentalist, Norman Rockwell maintained an undeviating focus on the positive and excluded all but the most trivial of contemporary anxieties from their vision.

The Curtis Publishing Company in Philadelphia published, printed and dispatched this weekly ration of short stories, movie and sports celebrities, popular journalism, conservative politics and consumer advertising direct into millions of American homes. The multi-colour packaging, the magazine cover, was produced on the rotary presses shown in the above postcard. The card immediately below illustrates the colour press room of the Ladies’ Home Journal. Below that we have the Edwardian plush of the Women’s Rest Room and the subscription and sales departments.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Hydrocarbon Heaven

Butadiene is a petroleum by-product. In the 1940s the United States War Department constructed several large butadiene plants to produce synthetic rubber for the war effort of which this refinery in Port Neches, TX is one. It makes an unlikely postcard subject but such installations are not without their admirers. Their formal qualities were especially attractive to Precisionist painters and Charles Sheeler made many paintings of these distinctive industrial structures. Their potential for generating profits is very attractive to institutional investors for whom their aesthetic qualities are a matter of profound indifference. Upton Sinclair brought the pioneering days of the oil industry to life in fiction while Raymond Chandler escaped from the industry by writing short stories for Black Mask. The American economy has been driven by oil for almost a century so it is unsurprising to find it featuring as a postcard theme. This selection of cards includes a variety of approaches from the sublime celebration (Signal Hill at Night, Oil Well in Oklahoma) to the resolutely banal record (Pumping Station No. 2).

Friday, 27 August 2010


Since 1886 this funicular railway (Funicolare Lugano-Stazione FFS) has connected the city centre of Lugano with the mainline train station. The insolent manner in which it penetrates the buildings in its path is remarkably uncompromising. There are three other funiculars in the Lugano area and the image below comes from the cover of a pamphlet publicising the Funicolare del Monte Brè that has been offering passengers a spectacular mountain climb since 1912.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Gas, Food and Lodging

John Baeder’s Gas, Food and Lodging has been a favourite book since it was first published in 1982. Since 1972 Baeder has been making paintings of American Diners and roadside eating places in a hyper-realist manner. Steven Heller wrote a fascinating account of Baeder’s single-minded pursuit of the American vernacular on Design Observer and discussed with him his passion for linen postcards. Baeder told Heller how he overcame an initial aversion to the linen finish which seemed to be a crude imitation of fine art canvas, when he began to appreciate how the extensive retouching created “a very surreal visual excitement”. Heller also uncovered Baeder’s intriguing interest in the work of Marcel Duchamp. The book was sub-titled A Postcard Odyssey and Baeder drew upon a wonderful collection of cards to bring his subject to life. What follows is a small selection from my modest group of postcards on this theme, none of which I regret to say have much of the graphic exuberance or documentary riches to be found in many of Baeder’s examples. John Baeder displays his paintings and photographs on his own website – his impressive photos from the 1960s could have been taken for the Farm Security Administration under the direction of Roy Stryker.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Rue de Rennes

When dreaming up new plans for Paris, Haussmann (described by Richard Cobb as the Alsatian Attila) was especially motivated by an obsessive desire to link all the mainline railway stations with central Paris by means of arrow-straight boulevards of the greatest possible width. The rue de Rennes was devised to connect Gare Montparnasse with the Left Bank and named in recognition of the fact that Montparnasse is the departure point for trains to Brittany. From 1853 the new road forced its way northward, crushing all in its path but would never reach its target. By the late 1860s it reached its fullest extent when it arrived at Boulevard Saint-Germain. The northward extension was blocked by the location of the Institut de France, the guardian of traditional French values, language and culture. Plans were prepared that would have left the Institut marooned on a large traffic island but highly placed opponents of the scheme ensured that approval was denied. City planners were extremely reluctant to concede defeat and the scheme would resurface every decade or so for more than a century until being finally abandoned in 1976.

For Richard Cobb, rue de Rennes is the most desolate, inhuman street in Paris and its existence continues to be greatly resented by those who bitterly regret the passing of medieval Paris. It is not blessed with architectural treasures (save one) and the southbound view is dominated by the 55 floors of the Tour Montparnasse from which the photograph at the top was taken. The single redeeming feature is the flamboyant department store at number 140 built in 1904 as part of the Félix Potin grocery empire. Designed by Paul Auscher under the influence of Art Nouveau, the undulating exterior was formed from moulded concrete casts. The moulds could not be reused and much time and expense was consumed in the manufacture of separate moulds for each section. The six storeys are crowned by a vast free-form bell tower embellished with three oculi bearing the name of the founding father. The flirtation with Art Nouveau was short lived and the next Potin store (rue Sébastopol) was built in 1910 in a Beaux-Arts Baroque manner. There is a sombre footnote – in September 1986 when the building was a Tati store, a terrorist bomb left 7 dead and over 60 injured.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

My Gilbert & Sullivan

The illustrated booklet reproduced here was produced in 1961 by Guinness for distribution to general practitioners – one in a long series intended as an annual reminder of the medicinal virtues of stout. A Conservative government was presiding over a consumer boom and prosperity was on the rise. The Cold War and de-colonisation dominated foreign policy. The age of austerity had given way to an age of anxiety – the culture wars of the 1960s were just beginning. Amateur productions of Gilbert & Sullivan retained their appeal for the middle class – a respectable opportunity for exercising their choral skills and dressing-up in exotic costumes. These illustrations offer a visual equivalent to the comforting melodies and verbal wit for which the Savoy Operas were so highly valued. The sly intrusions of Guinness-related imagery add to the charm. Credit for these richly coloured illustrations goes to Antony Groves-Raines – a master of visual wit with a talent for combining his own magic realism and crisp contours with a jaunty amiability certain to please.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Good to the Last Drop

The slogan Good to the Last Drop has been in regular use since 1917 to promote what for many decades was America’s best-known and best-selling brand of coffee. These examples of mass circulation magazine advertising are from the 1940s and 1950s in an era when the company was resolutely exploiting the emerging potential of TV sponsorship and product placement. All these ads depend on illustration for their imagery but reveal a scattergun approach in terms of target audience. Each is aimed in a different direction and the social scale ranges from old money snobbery to the ruralist idyll via true romance, adventure on the high seas and metropolitan sophistication. Maxwell House is no longer America’s leading brand - that honour goes to Folgers but recent reports suggest that both brands are stagnating in today’s market.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Postcard of the Night No. 4, Palestine, TX

There’s a city in the state of Texas called Palestine (pronounced Palesteen) and it’s the subject of today’s nocturnal treat. Spring Street as seen here is a broad thoroughfare with substantial buildings on the left (hotel, offices, stores) and what may well be a railroad station on the right. The clusters of globe lamps imply civic pride. A brief wander around downtown Palestine in search of this location, courtesy of Street View, was inconclusive – Spring Street (or West Spring Street to be precise) appears to be a wide boulevard with low-rise business premises (set back from the road) on the north side and an extensive Union Pacific rail freight yard on the south side. If the scene on the postcard still exists it must be in a different place. The image itself has a pleasing air of intrigue as if the citizens have taken refuge in their homes leaving the streets to a handful of vagrants. Early motor vehicles and horse drawn transport co-exist under the spectral moonlight. Many musical favourites have Texas connections and there must be a chance that the Bob Wills tour bus swept through these streets in the 1940s and disgorged its cargo of Texas Playboys at a local venue for a euphoric session of fiddle, steel and Western Swing. Meanwhile in another part of town the rhythmic pulse of the T-Bone Shuffle might be heard slinking forth from a juke joint where the great T-Bone Walker entertains an enraptured audience with a display of guitar picking with his armour plated teeth.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

In Search of La Petite Ceinture

Last April we took a walk through the eastern fringe of Paris, following, so far as possible, the line of La Petite Ceinture, the city’s long abandoned circular railway route. Previous postings on this topic are here and here. The continued existence of this anachronism is a source of fascination to many and the subject of an exhaustive monograph, La Saga de la Petite Ceinture by Bruno Carrière. The need for this orbital railway rapidly declined after the opening of the Métro and regular service on la Petite Ceinture ceased in 1934. It is ironic that after more than 75 years the migration of workplaces from the centre to the suburbs and the development of high-density housing along the outer boulevards have created a demand for the very links that the Petite Ceinture was intended to deliver. Contractors are hard at work tearing up the roadway to accommodate the planned extension of tram route T3 from Porte d’Ivry to Porte de la Chapelle following a route that closely shadows the line of the Petite Ceinture and is due to open in 2012.

Our northward exploration of the Est-Ceinture began at Bel-Air and concluded at the entrance to the tunnel that runs under the streets of Ménilmontant, having crossed east-west axes at avenue de St-Mandé, Cours de Vincennes, rue d’Avron and rue de Bagnolet. The streets we walked were uncannily deserted as if the energy of the city were dissipated at the margins. Strong sunlight produced intense contrasts of light and shade, enhancing the sense of dislocation. The track infrastructure is heavily defended with high security fencing to discourage the urban explorers. It must be conceded that the itinerary lacked much in the way of spectacle so the excitement at encountering one of only two level crossings in Paris (in rue de Lagny) has to be seen in context. The real reward was visiting just those nondescript locations that railways so often run through – places whose identity and distinctiveness have been silently extinguished by neglect but have the compensatory merit of having mostly escaped the attention of developers (often because of the presence of the railway).

The vintage postcard below shows an extérieure train departing southbound from the station Avenue de Vincennes as photographed from one of the logements on the south side of Cours de Vincennes. The gas holders on the left have been replaced by the Charonne métro workshops and the Collège Maurice Ravel while a 10 storey housing development occupies the area on the right. The image is pre-1914 and shows an industrialised zone of which no trace remains other than the silent rusting tracks of the Petite Ceinture.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Off By Train

Pictorial alphabets provide endless fascination. They embody all manner of cultural assumptions and attitudes to childhood learning. In this example the vocabulary of train travel is ransacked for appropriate imagery in an age when railways were the most accessible source of mobility. Today’s rail network is an enfeebled relic of former glories and well-rewarded teams of consultants and accountants have left us a threadbare system and an enormous bureaucracy. As the network has declined much of the vocabulary has been made redundant. Milk trains and newspaper trains run no more while corridor trains, horse-boxes, water towers and guard’s vans have also ceased to be. Tunnels and viaducts and queues will always be with us and might even merit a place in today’s railway alphabet along with V for vandalism, R for replacement bus service, G for gauge corner cracking, U for unattended baggage, C for customer interface and F for franchisees.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Pikes Peak

There is no apostrophe in Pikes Peak and the Colorado State legislature passed a law to this effect in 1978, presumably in response to a vision of dense clouds of pedantic apostrophes sneaking their way through the Rocky Mountain passes. Our female explorers above may be scanning the horizon for illegal punctuation or perhaps they’re contemplating the delights of zigzagging their way to the summit in the comfort of their auto. An alternative route to the top is via the Manitou and Pike's Peak Railway (note the apostrophic infiltration) that has been in service since 1891. Our postcards below show contrasting views of the cog railway in the age of the steam train and the age of the streamliner. The prospect that these modest trains might achieve the sort of downhill speeds where streamlining would be an advantage is nothing less than terrifying.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Cocoa Story

Today we see how Frank Newbould (1887-1951), one of the greatest and most prolific of poster designers in the inter-war years, turned his talents to illustrating an instructional book for Cadbury’s, published in 1927. The visual idiom is the same as he employed on his work for the Empire Marketing Board – intense hues, strong tonal contrasts, all supported by beautifully observed drawing executed with flair. A little graphic wit is included where the artist notes the formal similarity between the small boats and the cocoa beans they are conveying. Newbould’s work has been featured here before and there are generous selections of his poster designs in the care of the National Railway Museum and London Transport Museum. The book itself is an example of a familiar type where a sober account of mercantile adventures in tropical territories is accompanied by exotic illustrations for the benefit of those children with limited capacity for the absorption of facts and figures.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Postcard of the Day No. 39, Genoa

Photographers and postcard producers have long had an eye for the picturesque possibilities of urban clotheslines as a visualisation of inner-city deprivation. By any standards, this is a spectacular example, recorded in the tenement streets of the Italian port city of Genoa. The intersecting panels of multi-coloured fabric suspended high above the street make a fine show. An impressive crowd of locals has gathered to confront the camera only to be transformed into a gallery of grotesques by some absolutely inspired or utterly incompetent retouching. Some of these characters could have stepped out of Goya’s Disasters of War. Others resemble the misanthropic products of the imagination of James Ensor. Their expressions range from a menacing blankness to stunning malevolence. We have to assume that the degree of detail in the original unimproved image was unacceptable to the publisher, leading to the intervention by a photo retoucher whose efforts, intentionally or otherwise, plunge us into a demonic vision of the social underclass poised on the edge of violent revolt.