Sunday, 30 January 2011

Charlie Louvin (1927-2011)

Like many others I came to the music of the Louvin Brothers by way of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris in the 1970s. The Louvins were the last of the pre-Rock’n’Roll brother bands and when Charlie Louvin died last week one of the last living links was gone. There’s a fine obituary in yesterday’s Guardian written by Tony Russell. Brother acts enjoyed great popularity in American music from the 1930s onward and the Louvins came at the end of a long line of close harmony groups that included the Blue Sky Boys, Johnnie and Jack, the Delmore Brothers, and the Stanley Brothers. Only Ralph Stanley survives.

What made the Louvins compelling was the world they described in song – a Southern Gothic universe where the struggle to lead a righteous life was constantly undermined by the temptations of Satan. Alcohol abuse, adultery, and gambling thrived in the poor Southern white sub-culture and the prospect of economic ruin and family breakdown was all too real. This strand in their work climaxed with the 1959 album, Satan is Real that despite a somewhat camp sleeve design (a standard feature in any anthology of cheesy album artwork) was saturated in the language of sin, death, damnation and redemption delivered with terrifying authenticity. Impassioned vocals and spoken monologues invoke the desperate fear of sliding into eternal darkness. Charlie’s brother, Ira was a troubled soul who wrestled with the demon drink and was subject to sudden and violent rages – they were singing from personal experience. The brothers themselves were responsible for the sleeve design – the rocks came from a nearby quarry and the flames were created by burning discarded auto tyres. Ira designed the 12 foot high figure of the devil and had it cut from plywood and painted.

The other side of the Louvins was a rare ability to write and record the sweetest of ballads delivered via heartfelt harmonies that transcended any note of sentimentality. The ballads proved more popular with later interpreters of their music and had a defining influence on the sound of the Everly Brothers when they piloted close harmony singing into the Rock’n’Roll era with enormous success. The Louvins finally cracked under the strain of coping with Ira’s erratic behaviour and broke up in 1963. Ira and Charlie pursued solo careers until Ira died in a car accident two years later in 1965. Charlie continued to perform and lived long enough to become a country music institution in the afterglow of renewed interest in the music he made with his brother. He maintained an impressive rate of productivity releasing six new albums in the last four years of his long and distinguished life.

Louvin Brothers Top Five
The Angels Rejoiced Last Night
When I Stop Dreaming
Stuck Up Blues
If I Could Only Win Your Love
The Christian Life

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Au Bon Marché – building the store

Construction of the Bon Marché department store began in 1869 and continued in various stages of expansion until completion in 1887 by which time it occupied 52,800 square metres. The principle architect was Louis-Auguste Boileau (1812-96) with the assistance of structural engineer, Gustave Eiffel. Eiffel was responsible for the internal framework of cast iron and the glazing calculated to provide maximum illumination for the goods on display. An interlinked series of central courts and enormous skylights supported on slender columns projected daylight all the way to the ground floor from which a series of elaborately decorated staircases climbed to the upper galleries providing the customer with an ever mounting sense of theatrical expectation. Boileau designed the outer shell, façades and floor plans. Between them they made an architectural statement that placed the store at the forefront of building technology and symbolised the ambitions of Aristide Boucicaut, the founder. As well as selling floors, provision was made for back office functions, the reception of stock and the packing and dispatch of customer orders. This was the most ambitious master plan for a modern department store anywhere and the concentration on management efficiency, staff supervision and publicity would ensure that Bon Marché would quickly leave its competitors far behind. It would be a store for the emerging age of mass production and the consumer culture that grew up in step with it.

Louis-Auguste Boileau was the founder of an architectural dynasty comprising his son, Louis-Charles Boileau (1837-1914) and grandson, Louis-Hippolyte Boileau (1878-1948) both of whom were involved in subsequent phases of the store’s development. Much confusion exists over which of the elder Boileaus worked alongside Eiffel in the 1870s and a definitive source is not easily found. There is agreement that the grandson, Louis-Hippolyte, was responsible for the second major building on rue de Sèvres in 1920-23 in what is often described as an Art Deco style. There is a hint of the ocean liner about the receding profile and extended curve of the façade but the retention of various Beaux-arts mannerisms dilutes the effect although it does have the merit of relating to the original next door.

The great glass and iron interior was lost when the original store was destroyed by fire in 1915. When rebuilt the exterior was a close relative of the original but the new interior was much more conventional and left nothing of the spectacular original to be seen. There remains a central atrium with smartly clad escalators connecting all the floors. The glossy trim seems in keeping with the corporate values of the present owners, luxury goods conglomerate, LVMH (Moët Hennessy • Louis Vuitton) with its massive portfolio of aspirational brands. Today’s store seems awkwardly poised between its mass market traditions and the instinctive exclusivity of the present owner. Seriously high-end products can’t be seen alongside price sensitive mass market goods without something being lost. Modern marketing practice has saturated consumers in the rhetoric of exclusivity to the point of nausea but the messages will never go away as long as feeble-minded customers with status anxiety are willing to pay premium prices to associate themselves with luxury labels and buy their way into the basement of dreams.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Au Bon Marché – selling the store

Despite being located far from the Grands Boulevards at the Sèvres-Babylone intersection on the Left Bank, Bon Marché was the pre-eminent Parisian department store for 50 years between 1870 and 1920. It wasn’t the first and it wasn’t necessarily the largest but in volume of business, marketing and innovation it outstripped all rivals. So grand was its reputation that in the English speaking world the name of Bon Marché was routinely co-opted by home-grown retailers to add a little Parisian sophistication to their operations. A further distinction was inspiring Emile Zola’s monumental novel, Au Bonheur des Dames (1883) in which the character of Aristide Boucicaut, founder of Bon Marché is the basis for Octave Mouret, hot-blooded proprietor of Zola’s fictional store. Zola’s turbo-charged descriptive prose ascended to new heights when it came to describing the vast profusion of luxury goods arranged in spectacular displays that tumbled down the full height of the store’s central atrium for the celebrated January sales event, the Blanc.

Management was organised on a military model of command and staff were subject to a rigidly enforced code of conduct that extended outside the store and into their private lives. Wages and salaries were modest but generous sales commissions were paid to those with a flair for selling. Transactions were exhaustively recorded and analysed to develop new product ranges and expand the volume of sales. The art of selling was planned in minute detail and new standards were set in terms of advertising and publicity. The services of the most fashionable poster artists were engaged with the aim of placing the name of the store in front of the public at every crossroad, every mainline train station and on the sides of trams and buses. Lavishly illustrated catalogues were regularly published and maps, guides, agendas and illustrated collectors picture cards in which Bon Marché was carefully positioned at the centre of the universe were freely distributed. Masters of Zola-style prose declaimed the wondrous extravagance and the monumental dimensions in a tidal wave of superlatives in full page newspaper advertisements.

The poster designs of René Vincent (1879-1936) helped define the Bon Marché image and his contribution is described in this extract from Commercial Art, September 1926. Vincent’s posters employ the clean lines and slender forms of 1920s Japonisme with few concessions to the novelty of Art Deco. He turned to poster design around 1920 after a career as a satirical illustrator in magazines such as la Vie Parisienne and l’Illustration. His most distinguished work was illustrating for l’Imprimerie Draeger, printers of Fine Press Books and master typographers. Despite the enduring popularity of his images with on-line poster retailers there is no published survey of his work.

Henriette Touillier Feyrabend et al, Quand l’affiche faisait de la réclame, Paris, 1991
Michael B Miller, The Bon Marché, Princeton, 1981

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Postcard of the Day No. 43, Zoppot

Today’s cards feature the lost architecture of the seashore. This magnificent assemblage of beach furniture provides shelter from the harsh winds of the Baltic shore. Polish one day, German the next and then back to Poland, these are the occupants of contentious territory. In the Third Reich it was known as Zoppot, the Poles prefer to call it Sopot. The beach is packed with curious structures – attenuated basket-woven beach huts or canopied basketwork chairs. There remain some outposts in the Baltic coast where modern equivalents can be found. In the past they were especially popular in Holland in the form of Scheveningen High Back Beach Chairs. The beach at Blankenberghe takes on an unsettling air of impermanence – there’s nothing here that couldn’t be rolled away in a matter of minutes. An alternative reading would have it as the first line of coastal defence, ready and willing to protect the integrity of the motherland by any means necessary.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Jean d’Ylen (1886-1938)

Confident, business-like and serious minded – there’s nothing remotely Bohemian about the image that Jean d’Ylen projects here to prospective clients in the pages of Commercial Art magazine in 1926. Biographical details are scant (even his date of birth is given variously as 1866 and 1886*) but it has been claimed that he was a pupil of the great Cappiello – that would make perfect sense. D’Ylen’s mastery of the art of flamboyant product personification is clearly derived from Cappiello’s animated and exotic imagery. According to Jack Rennert (in The Posters of Leonetto Cappiello, New York, 2004) , d’Ylen succeeded Cappiello as the favoured house artist at Pierre Vercasson’s printing shop in Paris in 1922. The lack of biographical information is puzzling given his enormous success, in both France and England (where he had an impressive list of clients) and the enduring popularity of his images which are extensively marketed on-line at AllPosters and the like. This small sample of his prolific output comes from the pages of Posters and their Designers (Special Autumn Number of The Studio, 1924) in which d’Ylen’s posters took pride of place suggesting that his reputation was at its peak. Modernism and its stepchild, Art Deco, in the persons of Cassandre, Jean Carlu, Paul Colin and Charles Loupot would sweep away poster designing in the grand manner and within a decade these examples would appear overblown and anachronistic.

*I have opted for 1886 because Jack Rennert states that Jean d’Ylen became a full time poster artist in 1919 – this would make him 53 years of age if he was born in 1866.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Great Railway Stations Number 3: Eastbourne

It was the practice of Victorian railway companies to arrive at the coast with a bit of a flourish and Eastbourne was well favoured in this respect. The town may have a reputation for respectable mediocrity, deserved or otherwise and it certainly has none of the wanton charms of Brighton to the west but this can hardly be blamed upon the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LB&SCR) who pulled out all the stops to provide a station of distinction for what was a modest coastal town. When first connected to the railway network in 1849 the population was less than 4,000. By the time the present station was built in 1886 the population was over 30,000. Today it’s more than three times that figure. The station is of interest because its idiosyncratic architecture offers a distinctive sense of occasion to the arriving traveller. A mildly eccentric assortment of building types are wedged together on a constrained and irregular site. An Italianate clock tower is flanked by various domes and French-style pavilions presented with a sprightly bravura that somehow bypasses any sense of visual clutter. A variety of window types, decorative arches and surface treatments combine to dazzle the eye and overcome any aversion to the air of casual disorder.

Internally the original brickwork, ironwork and period detail has been retained and renovated with a sympathetic colour scheme to create a light and airy concourse that takes full advantage of the potential of terminal stations. Responsibility for the original design went to a Brighton-based architect, Frederick Dale Bannister (1823-97). Bannister was also Chief Engineer to the LB&SCR for whom he designed a number of other stations including Hove and Tunbridge Wells West. There is a readable tribute to Bannister and Eastbourne on the Victorian Web.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Village and Town

Modernism in all its forms remained an object of suspicion in the minds of all right-thinking educated Englishmen as the results of three decades of artistic experiment and innovation in Europe crossed the Channel and slowly filtered into the public consciousness. Thoughts of Bolshevism and Primitivism were more than enough to terrify the locals and inspire decades of resistance. In terms of architecture, at best, in the post-war era there was a cautious acceptance of those elements that could translate into cost savings and greater profit margins for the construction industry. The stylistic combination of geometric forms and undecorated surfaces was deeply offensive to the pre-war intelligentsia whose taste was dominated by the English vernacular vision that S R Badmin faithfully recorded in this Puffin Picture book, Village and Town.

This book was first published in October 1942, although according to Chris Beetles (in S R Badmin and the English Landscape, 1985) the artwork was commissioned and produced in 1939. Badmin is best known for his slightly pedantic watercolours of English rural scenes that were reproduced on greeting cards by Royle Publications. Conventional and reassuring picturesque compositions under fair-weather clouds set the tone, although the best of them were distinguished by a sharp eye for the telling detail. Noting the regular appearance in these images of the local blood-sport enthusiasts would suggest that Badmin could safely be filed under the huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ rubric. Not so - after active campaigning on behalf of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, he continued to support radical political causes throughout his career. In 1935 there was a working visit to the USA courtesy of Fortune magazine, an account of which can be read at Visual Telling of Stories.

In keeping with the progressive values behind Noel Carrington’s Picture Puffin project Village and Town concludes with an open-minded look at recent examples of Modernist architecture in Britain. A modified version of Lubetkin’s famous Penguin Pool and a drawing of the Highpoint tower block are accompanied by text that emphasises the versatility of reinforced concrete and the quality of beauty to be found in the repetition of simple shapes and patterns. The auto-lithography process enabled Badmin to describe his subject in more formal and three-dimensional terms than in his watercolours and the results, especially on the back cover (see top) where a Charles Holden Underground station takes centre stage, were pleasingly robust. Whether Badmin, in addition to his passion for the delights of the countryside had a hidden sympathy for Modernism is something we may never know but I like to think that he had.