Monday, 28 February 2011

Paris Past and Present: Boulevard Raspail

It was a long walk up boulevard Raspail from Montparnasse in search of this rather anonymous street corner. With few landmarks to go by, it was located more by good fortune than skill. The balconies and cornices confirm where we are – the intersection with rue de Grenelle. The shop premises of D Coute have been replaced by a Renault boutique car showroom and over the years the street level building has been homogenised by the elimination of architectural details. Several trees appear to have survived since the card was posted in 1926.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Buttes-Chaumont – the Permanent Way

This postcard view has been taken from the southern heights of the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Today these slopes are densely wooded and this view is unobtainable. The railway is the Petite Ceinture, the long defunct Parisian orbital railway that runs through the eastern flank of the park enabling us to unite two obsessions in a single posting. The photographer is standing on top of the Tunnel de Belleville from which the tracks run north and leave the park at the point where the road bridge carrying the rue de Crimée travels overhead. The eastern boundary fence in the park has been breached and offers one of the easiest access points on to the trackbed of the Petite Ceinture. This writer is routinely mocked by friends and family for an aversion to any activity that might be construed, however remotely, as unauthorised so this was a major step in more ways than one. Which is how these photographs came to be taken.

La promenade est interdite sur la Petite Ceinture, comme pour toute voie ferrée appartenant au réseau national. L’alinéa 5 de l’article 73 du décret n° 730 du 22 mars 1942, modifié par le décret n° 69-601 du 10 juin 1969, portant règlement d’administration publique sur la police la sûreté et l’exploitation des voies ferrées d’intérêt général et d’intérêt local (J.O du 23 août 1942) stipule qu’ "il est défendu à toute personne de pénétrer, circuler ou stationner, sans autorisation régulière, dans les parties de la voie ferrée, ou de ses dépendances qui ne sont pas affectées à la circulation publique, d’y introduire des animaux ou d’y laisser introduire ceux dont elle est responsable, d’y faire circuler ou stationner aucun véhicule étranger au service, d’y jeter ou déposer des matériaux ou objets quelconques, d’entrer dans l’enceinte du chemin de fer ou d’en sortir par d’autres issues que celles affectées à cet usage.

Down on the hallowed ground of the Petite Ceinture, having transgressed line 5 of article 73 of decree 730 of March 22nd 1942, modified by decree 69-601 of June 10th 1969, it all looks very well cared for. The ballast has been renewed and is free of weeds while the tracks themselves show little evidence of rust formation. The railway emerges from the tunnel to the south into a cutting, the west side of which is buttressed by a brick built wall with alcoves adapted by rough sleepers using outsize plastic groundsheets to provide shelter and privacy. To the north where the tracks run underneath rue de Crimée, a branch that formerly served the abattoirs at La Villette diverges to the right. Some hardcore urban explorers were already present at the mouth of the tunnel engaged on a project of their own. Ignoring them in time-honoured fashion I walked north for a few hundred yards taking photographs before a deep seated fear of authority warned me the time to retreat was at hand.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Lost Berliners

Yesterday’s postcard makes a second appearance in a remixed form. Chance placed these Berliners in front of the camera lens and preserved the lightest of reflections of their individual identities. Their lives have been and gone while their refracted images persist with no link or connection to the historical record. They converged, they dispersed and scattered but for an instant they combined in this heroic tribute to the urban experience.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Postcard of the Day No. 44, Unter den Linden

A gathering of servants and nursemaids has taken possession of the seating under the shade of the lime trees that line the centre strip - a tiny fragment from the lost details of daily life miraculously preserved. An image of maternal domesticity from the postcard universe.

An implacable uniformed chauffeur pilots a gleaming automobile, the squished-up features of his passenger can be seen in the window behind. The polished brass-work catches the sun. A limousine passes in the opposite direction and the camera records top hat turning to speak to bowler hat.

Astonishingly the two images coexist in the same postcard space in a masterpiece of street photography. Two worlds that almost collide – the world of baby milk and talcum powder and the world of gasoline, carbon monoxide, pressed steel and solid rubber tyres. The sound and fury of the modern metropolis invades every millimetre of the card with stunning immediacy.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

H M Brock goes Deutsch

Today we revisit the work of prolific English illustrator Henry Brock, once again in instructional mode. Three examples of German Picture Cards with German language questions on the reverse to test comprehension. Brock has great fun with the rustic costumes, paramilitary uniforms and bulging stomachs of Prussian stereotypes. His drawings are so lively and effortlessly precise – boots and shoes are described to perfection and every figure firmly located in its own space.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Across the Borderline

For the postcard publisher it often seems that no location is too mundane – for which we should all give thanks. This border post between France and Italy has no great notoriety and has been here at Pont Saint-Louis since 1860. In the world of fiction the border crossing is a regular standby – a place of intrigue where forged documents are presented and contraband is smuggled. Romantic separations, fugitives from justice, espionage artists – there’s room for all here. Inside the EU (and away from the British Isles where frontier paranoia runs at a high level) crossings are, like this one is now, often unstaffed and vehicle movements are completely unchecked. Curiously when travelling by train between France and Italy, passports are inspected with cold-eyed scrutiny by stone-faced officials from both countries. Presumably research into terrorist profiles has unearthed a preference for rail travel on the part of subversives and insurgents.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Port Sunlight Enlightened

The existence of Port Sunlight poses questions about paternalism and philanthropy. Lever’s intention to house his workforce in clean and spacious surroundings with community facilities was amply realised for the minority who could be accommodated. What was more problematic was his plan to micro-manage their lives and promote self-sufficiency, thrift, sobriety together with an appetite for high culture and moral values. A free lending library, a college offering evening classes in modern languages, business studies, engineering and chemistry were provided for the cultivation of the intellect while a swimming pool, gymnasium and playing fields encouraged healthy pursuits. As a pragmatist Lever could afford to compromise on sobriety and the Bridge Inn served alcoholic drinks when it opened in 1900. There was no compromise on culture and the art gallery project was single-mindedly pursued for over a decade up to the opening ceremony in 1922. It has been pointed out elsewhere that the classical design of the museum building more closely resembles American galleries of the period than those closer to home. This would seem to follow from the fact that American museums often owed their existence to individual benefactors. This was much less common in Britain where benefactors on the scale of Lever were comparatively rare.

Whether the museum succeeded in creating a taste for visual culture in the local community is difficult to assess. While the museum was under development and construction (1913-1922) Lever began by setting aside items from his personal collection for future display but he also purchased artworks specifically for the museum, sometimes to supply greater chronological depth (ceramics and furniture) and sometimes because he guessed they would enjoy wider popularity (arms and armour) with the public. In 1900 Lever paid for 1,600 Port Sunlight employees to visit the Exposition Universelle in Paris where the dignity of their deportment and serious mindedness was reported in glowing terms by Le Figaro. Lever took the opportunity to do a little shopping on his own account and came away with the marble and bronze sculpture, Salambo, based upon Flaubert’s novel of the same name of 1862 that is now the centrepiece of the rotunda at the Lady Lever Art Gallery. This confirms Lever’s susceptibility to the charms of the unclothed female form when presented in smoothly contoured marble surfaces in the name of Fine Art. In an era of prudery, such a display of glacial eroticism would be certain to command public attention.

Other aspects of Lever’s collecting activities throw light on his business practice. The ethnographic collection, mainly African and South Pacific in origin came from the overseas trips that Lever made to the far flung corners of his world-wide commercial interests. Visits to the vast palm-oil plantations established in 1911 and company town (Leverville, formerly Lusanga) in what was the Belgian Congo were especially productive. The Masonic relics tell a different story. There was a cluster of Masonic Lodges at Port Sunlight for managers, supervisors and workers respectively, actively encouraged by Lever, himself a Mason since 1902, as an instrument for promoting hierarchies, respect for authority and high standards of personal conduct. Lever’s personal collection of Masonic regalia was greatly augmented by some shrewd acquisitions at bargain prices from a disgraced confidence trickster, Albert Calvert (1872-1946). Calvert needed funds to pay £10,000 in compensation to the sister of Russian Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, whom he had defrauded on a grand scale, which led to a forced dispersal of an unrivalled collection of relics.

As a collector, Lever had a weakness for the gigantic and his purchase in 1890 of Frederic Leighton’s huge painting, The Daphnephoria, (just visible on the far wall of the gallery photograph) left him with a problem. An attempt to display this grande machine on the walls of Hulme House (the dining hall for female employees) was unsuccessful – the vast looming presence of Leighton’s vision of classical festivities was not conducive to consumption and digestion of food. Determined to share the wonders of Leighton’s procession of comely youths and maidens with the widest possible audience motivated Lever to begin planning his own purpose-built gallery. It may be that Leighton’s remote and emotionally detached paintings were much to Lever’s taste or he may have pursued them for their fashionability but the Lady Lever is well supplied with examples. Lever also collected society portraits by the likes of Lawrence and Gainsborough, landscape paintings by Constable, Wilson and Turner and Pre-Raphaelite paintings, especially of the morally uplifting variety. Most of the figures inhabiting these paintings were clad in historic costume and thus removed from the audience’s daily experience. Only a few examples portrayed something approaching contemporary dress (Millais’s Apple Blossom or Gregory’s Boulter’s Lock). The single glowing exception to all the chaste imagery was to be found in the languid sensuality of Alma-Tadema’s Tepidarium, a reclining female nude whose modesty is scarcely protected by a strategically positioned ostrich feather that reads as an enlarged version of the pubic region it purports to conceal. A crowd-pleaser for certain.

Evidence of the impact of the museum on the inhabitants of Port Sunlight has not been found. It is plausible that for every local resident for whom it was a source of pride there would be a significant number for whom it was money wasted that would have been better employed by adding it to their wage packet. Despite the fact that Lever often offered conditions of employment far superior to his competitors the demands of the working day, not to mention compulsory cultivation of the allotment left little time or energy for cultural activity. As the decades passed the reputation of the Victorian art at the heart of the gallery rapidly declined and first hand experience of the hand crafted luxury items on display would have seemed very remote from the lives of local visitors. Since the 1960s when it appeared most notable as a monument to dubious taste and lunatic ambition it has risen steadily in public esteem in step with the general rehabilitation of Victoriana and now additionally benefits from the charm that distance lends to the view.

The War Memorial (1916-21) with its regiment of sculpted bronze figures by Goscombe John probably comes closest to uniting the tastes and concerns of the paternalistic provider and the surrounding community. Every community deserves visible expression of the respect due to relatives, colleagues, friends and neighbours whose lives have been lost in defence of the nation but few are favoured with such an ambitious but simultaneously intimate memorial as this one. Children and adults, servicemen and civilians, male and female, all play their sculptural part in the defence of the village and all are realistically portrayed without distortion or sentiment and therein lies the emotional authority. Of all the civic memorials and projects at Port Sunlight this one has the greatest integrity and authenticity.

Port Sunlight today is a conservation area managed by the Port Sunlight Village Trust in accordance with a 2007 Conservation and Management Plan (CMP). Home ownership is subject to restrictive covenants that, among other things require residents to observe specified colour schemes when repainting their property and follow detailed guidance when planting front gardens. Lime mortar must be used when re-pointing brickwork. A detailed survey in 2006 identified a variety of concerns about maintenance and the incremental disappearance of original features and the plan was put in place to address them. Two paragraphs from the CMP throw light on some of the social tensions arising from the evolution of the village from rental to owner occupation. Redrow Homes have recently built 12 houses (described as The New Heritage Collection) in a feeble approximation of “Port Sunlight Style” that look a lot more Redrow than Port Sunlight. The Trust has recently upset many residents with plans for an additional 12 family houses on vacant land on the former Gardeners’ Store at the south east corner of the village.

The Public Consultation Exercise revealed tensions between existing older residents and young people “invading” the Village from outside areas. It is noticeable that the Village has very few facilities for young people. There is no playground or space where they can congregate safely. At the public meeting the suggestion of providing more facilities for young people, including a playground, was very strongly resisted. The impression given was that young people should not be attracted into the Village and should be “encouraged to leave”. Many of the residents at the consultation event confessed to being “threatened” by the presence of young people in the Village.

If Port Sunlight is to avoid being classed as a “Retirement Village” then it must seek ways to incorporate new developments which cater for families with children and younger couples/single people. There should also be an element of more “affordable housing”, possibly using ‘shared equity’ models to encourage people into home ownership who would otherwise be unable to afford a property within the Village.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Port Sunlight Observed

It’s tempting to imagine Le Corbusier being shown around Port Sunlight, his beady eye observing the wondrous display of vernacular building as a hapless guide attempts to explain to the Swiss modernist how such an abundance of architectural ornamentation should have come to rest in one small place. As a professed admirer of the industrial aesthetic he would have struggled to make sense of a planned community, built on the proceeds of mass production, where the prevailing aesthetic was defiantly pre-industrial.

The fascination of Port Sunlight is more than the visual pleasure of contemplating a diversity of architectural mannerisms deployed in a uniquely spacious setting. The questions that it raises about the relationship between capital and labour, about the merits of autocratically planned settlements, about the enduring attractions of past architectural glories, about individualism and paternalism and about managing and conserving for the future are all equally interesting. Walking the avenues, drives, causeways and corniches is a delight to the eye with a calculated diversity of surface treatments, textures and details, infinitely permutated to avoid repetition while maintaining some sense of universality and continuity. All this is very English, representing a determined effort to recreate a comforting vision of a lost pre-enclosure rural arcadia of orderly agrarian communities where, from the Lord of the Manor to the humblest of subsistence farmers, all prospered in perfect harmony with nature. (This fiction is so intensely reassuring that it continues to haunt the English collective imagination with arguably even greater resonance than it did a century ago.)

What is emphatically un-English is the generous provision of open space in the original master-plan. This is a country where privacy has an even greater value than space; the latter is always at a premium and normally the prerogative of the wealthy. The need for privacy was recognised by planning for individual dwellings but the provision of outdoor space on this scale is something rarely seen. A resident in St. George’s Drive is separated from his or her neighbour opposite by the width of the Champs-Élysées. There are two roadways with pavements, four avenues of trees set in grassland, a broad paved central footpath and flowerbeds between the opposing front doors. Elsewhere the frequent insertion of modest wedges, segments, semi-circles and ellipses of green space ensures that only a minority of residents are confronted by buildings opposite. These amenity spaces were originally allotments and playing fields. Notwithstanding the hierarchy of provision with superior dwellings for managerial and supervisory staff, the entire scheme was remarkable for the provision of working class housing that was not designed to look like working class housing and remind the occupants of their humble status.

In 1920 there were 8,000 employees (this figure had halved to 4,000 by 1927 as the economy contracted) in the Port Sunlight factory and the village with about 900 dwellings was never large enough to accommodate more than a fraction of the workforce and demand always outnumbered supply. The favoured few had the benefit of rents that were set at a level of between a fifth and a quarter of the local wage and overall were about a third lower than elsewhere in the area. On the other hand Terms and Conditions were strictly enforced and tenants were subject to an inspection regime that could lead to speedy eviction if they were found to be in breach of Rule 8 and neglecting to pay due regard to order and cleanliness. For those who were prepared to conform to Lever’s vision of a proper and productive existence these homes provided a level of comfort and a quality of environment that was normally well beyond the reach of working people.

Two factors contribute to the stylistic diversity, first being the extended period of construction beginning in 1889 with the area around The Dell and finishing in 1938 with Jubilee Crescent. Second was the large number of architects commissioned for various phases of development. Most of the architects employed were local to the North West and to begin with they exhibited a strong preference for regional vernacular, especially Cheshire half-timbering, and locally sourced Ruabon bricks and materials. As the development progressed and the number of architects expanded the styling became increasingly eclectic with Arts & Crafts features alongside imported styles from Flanders, the Netherlands and France. Italianate and Classical features were less common, largely being confined to the company office block and the art gallery. In later phases dependence on local materials was much reduced to the point where all the bricks for the Flemish House were imported from Belgium in the interests of authenticity. Notable among the architects was William Owen (1846-1910). Owen designed much of the early development as well as the office. His two sons, Segar and Geoffrey were involved in later developments. The Liverpool practice of Grayson & Ould specialised in half-timber revivalism and the landscape architect, Thomas Mawson, an enthusiast for the City Beautiful Movement, was very influential on the planning, planting and layout of the great central axis connecting the War Memorial with the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

We spent a week in September 2010 staying in the village and exploring the streets and open spaces. First impressions included a sense of wonder at the architectural homogeneity and the extent to which all appeared exceptionally clean and tidy. There was an alarming disparity in ambience between the village and the neighbouring shopping streets at New Ferry, just a few minutes on foot. Apart from Bolton Road that takes through traffic on a roughly north-south route the streets were remarkably traffic free. The absence of uncoordinated home improvements in the form of extensions, loft conversions, Velux windows, storm porches, conservatories, replacement windows and doors plus, with limited exceptions, the absence of divided front gardens and the associated diversity of hard surfaces, horticultural self expression or conversion to car-standings with dropped kerbs was all a joy to the eye. It may be a source of frustration to the residents, overwhelmingly owner-occupiers, that they are unable to express their individuality in these ways due to planning regulations and the need for listed building consents but the high level of formal cohesion and visual amenity and harmony that results is on a par with the best of Bath, Cheltenham or Salisbury.

In future postings we will look at Lord Lever’s cultural legacy in the form of public buildings, memorials and the Lady Lever Art Gallery plus a look at the factory.

W J Reader, Fifty Years of Unilever, London, 1980
Edmund Williams, The Story of Sunlight Soap, London, 1984
Edmund Williams, Port Sunlight, the First Hundred Years, Kingston upon Thames, 1988
Edward Hubbard & Michael Shippobottom, A Guide to Port Sunlight Village, Liverpool, 1988

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Port Sunlight Prelude

Lifebuoy and Sunlight were the twin pillars of the Lever Brothers commercial empire. A combination of quality control, attractive packaging, strong brand identity and a massive advertising budget rapidly achieved market dominance to the point that the name of Sunlight was as well known over most of Europe (see examples above) as it was in Bolton where it all began. Today we look at the advertising and promotion of products manufactured by what was then Lever Brothers at their Port Sunlight factory by way of a prelude to a survey of the village of the same name. We have an exclusive interview from the pages of Commercial Art magazine, September 1926, with Viscount Leverhulme (1888-1949) in which he waxes lyrical about the importance of employing only the finest of artists to publicise his products. His florid prose is a wonder to behold:
“But with regard to the ill-drawn, offensive advertisement, it is always the prerogative of the public to decline to purchase goods advertised in that way.”

William Hesketh Lever (1851-1925), the founder of the business (and father of the verbose Viscount) spent a total of £2million on advertising (£175million at today’s values or nearly £9million per year) in the first 20 years of his business. Competitors were comprehensively outspent and the name of Sunlight was hammered into public consciousness across Europe and the wider world. Lever was an avid collector of paintings and sculpture and had the idea of building his publicity around images from the world of art and sprinkle a little lustre on the products. The collection reflected his conservative preferences with pride of place going to the work of the Pre-Raphaelites and Victorian Narrative paintings. To stress the moral virtues of cleanliness improving images were located and put to work adding prestige to the message and give it the force of holy scripture. In due course the Lever art collection would be displayed in the Lady Lever Art Gallery at Port Sunlight for the betterment of the inhabitants of the model village he created for his workforce. This fascinating experiment in Edwardian paternalism will be the subject of a future posting. An earlier posting on this topic can be read here.