Tuesday, 16 May 2023

East Tilbury, the Bata Legacy in Essex

A trip to Essex is a rare event so we took the opportunity to take a c2c (owned by Trenitalia) train from Barking to East Tilbury where Bata shoemakers established factories and an industrial village in the 1930s. Public awareness of Modernism in 1930s England was minimal and in the Essex village of East Tilbury even less.  It must have been a shock to the villagers when Modernism landed on their doorsteps in 1932 as they watched towers of welded steel and reinforced concrete rising out of the potato fields of the former marshland.  This marked another stage in the global advance of the Bata Shoe Company founded by Tomas Bata in 1894 in the town of Zlin, Czechoslovakia.  A visit to the Ford factory in Detroit had inspired Bata to adapt the latest production line technology to the manufacture of footwear and the company had expanded rapidly across Europe and beyond.  Bata was attracted to the social ideals and paternalism of the Garden City movement but his aesthetic preference was for Modernism rather than Arts and Crafts or Tudor revivalism.  

Czechoslovakia was much more receptive to Modernism than Britain and a company team of Czech architects led the project. Planning and design principles that had been established in Zlin were applied in East Tilbury and included material specifications and the use of reinforced concrete frames. As originally planned there would have been 3 ten-storey factory blocks plus a rail connection to what was then part of the LMS railway with sidings for loading and unloading. These were scaled down to five-storey blocks and the rail connection never materialised. When the factory opened in 1933 in the Depression, locals welcomed the employment prospects although their eyes must have been startled by the Modernist geometry and the acreage of glazing in the brand new, multi-storey factory buildings.  New housing for workers (a significant number of whom were Czech) and their families along with a clinic, sports ground and village hall were provided and despite the challenge of inducing the English to live under flat roofs, this concern for their welfare was fondly remembered by former employees.  Manufacturing in East Tilbury petered out in 2006 by which time the factory buildings had already been disposed of to an uncertain future. The Bata Company is still in business and based in Switzerland. Its products are sold in many countries from East Asia to Latin America, Europe, Africa to Australia but UK is not one of them. 

At the peak in the 1950s there were 3000 employees at East Tilbury and over 200 Bata shops on Britain’s high streets but the business was not immune to Britain’s industrial decline and in the 1960s production began moving overseas, mainly to developing countries. The design influence of the Czech parent had gradually faded away and the worker housing  became entirely conventional - semi-detached with pitched roofs. The last company housing was completed in 1966 and in the 1980s the houses were sold off to private buyers in the spirit of the time.  The process of adjustment has been difficult.  Converting the major buildings for new uses has been expensive and attracting investment has been hard but most of the factory premises have found new tenants over the years and the only major building still in need of renovation is Nelson House (the former leather factory) on top of which sits a water tank, lettered on all four sides with the Bata logo, easily visible to railway passengers almost a mile away.

In 1939 Bata completed a new 16-storey HQ in its Czech hometown of Zlin that included a top floor office for the Chief Executive, Jan Bata, designed as a giant lift capable of descending to ground level at the stately pace of 75 cm per minute. The Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 and occupation of Czechoslovakia stopped the project in its tracks and despite Jan Bata’s personal appeals to the Nazi overlords, the factory was closed.  The Bata diaspora gathered pace and new businesses were opened in the US and Canada and production expanded in India and Singapore.  When Bata refocused  on emerging economies it withdrew from most European operations leaving an architectural legacy of design excellence that became a serious problem for planners in Bataville in France and Batadorp in the Netherlands (as well as in East Tilbury) as they grappled with the challenge of adapting the buildings without compromising the features that made them worthy of preservation. There are two further sources of detailed commentary on Bata, the first is a Historic Area Appraisal of East Tilbury carried out for English Heritage in 2007 and the second is a wider historic survey of Bata’s global presence from the magazine Azure.


Thursday, 11 May 2023

Bruce McCall (1935-2023)

I’ve been a fan of Bruce McCall’s illustrations since I first saw his parodies of Streamline Moderne in the pages of National Lampoon (see above). When he became a regular cover artist at the New Yorker I collected his covers as well as his books (Zany Afternoons, All Meat Looks Like South America).  In the past I’ve read some snide criticism of his work - stylistically conservative, unadventurous and boring, but that ignores the ingenuity and asperity with which he undermined the conceits and social pretensions of self-conscious modernity. His experiments with the visually incongruous could rival those of Magritte, an artist whose work was greatly enhanced by conservative techniques of representation. By the time of his death he had drawn 83 New Yorker covers (almost 18 months worth) and though he kept returning to the same themes (human vanity, bears, ocean liners, aviation, motor vehicles, advertising) he always found something fresh to say in his familiar deadpan fashion. With decades of experience toiling in the advertising industry he knew whereof he spake. He died last Friday at the age of 87, by way of tribute this is a selection of my favourites of his streetscene covers for the New Yorker taken from my scrapbooks.

 Plus two examples kindly provided by Robin Benson.

Wednesday, 26 April 2023

Off the Shelf - The Airship in Animal Land

This is the second collaboration between the children’s author, Clifton Bingham and the illustrator, G H Thompson to be featured here. A predecessor, The Animal’s Trip to Sea, can be seen here.  The Airship in Animal Land follows the same format and formula with 8 full-page chromolithographed plates and dates from around 1910.  In a reckless endeavour, a family of bears take to the sky in a home made aircraft, spreading alarm and consternation before crash landing after an unlikely encounter with two elephants in a balloon. The charm of the book is almost entirely due to Thompson’s lively anthropomorphic drawings, packed full with detail to engage the observant child.  Perhaps there’s a not so well hidden message to young readers about the perils of overreaching oneself, in tune with the advice of experts of the time.  But the visuals display a swaggering good humour from which no amount of preaching could seriously detract.


Monday, 17 April 2023

Chalk Figures

England has a sizeable collection of chalk figures incised on the nation’s hillsides.  Born of the enduring desire to leave a mark on the landscape, especially in areas where an underlying layer of chalk can easily be exposed. Horses greatly outnumber human figures and only one, the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire is accepted by all authorities as being of ancient origin.  There’s no agreement on the age of Uffington - Bronze Age, Romano-British and Early Modern are among existing theories.  Best known of the human figures are the Wilmington Long Man in East Sussex and the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset.  The Long Man, grasping his two staves was a popular subject for postcards while the Cerne Abbas Giant disqualified himself from this role by publicly exhibiting his abnormal state of arousal.  The earliest recorded date for the Long Man is 1710 which makes him either a lot older or much younger than the Cerne Abbas Giant according to which of the many competing theories you subscribe to.  Some speculate that the Long Man originally sported male genitalia and that at some time in the past they were removed in the name of public decency.  If he had been spared this fate then his postcard career would never have begun.  The majority of chalk figures date from the last 250 years.  The Westbury White Horse is recorded as having been restored in 1778 to its present contours but there’s no reliable evidence of the existence of an earlier figure.  King George III was a frequent visitor to Weymouth, boosting its profile as a holiday resort in the process and in 1808 the grateful citizens had his equestrian figure inscribed on a nearby hillside at the village of Osmington. Eric Ravilious was one of several artists from the interwar years who took a fresh look at the English landscape and the ways in which it was formed by human intervention.  Chalk figures made repeat appearances in his work and included those at Westbury, Wilmington and Osmington to great effect.


Wednesday, 5 April 2023

Tibidabo, Barcelona

Tibidabo is a 500 meter hill overlooking Barcelona.  With the example of Sacré Coeur in Paris in mind and the encouragement of Pope Leo XIII, the Spanish Roman Catholic Church began construction of the Sagrat Cor (Sacred Heart) church on the summit of Mount Tibidabo in 1902. Three years later its supremacy was challenged by the impudent arrival of the Tibidabo Amusement Park which opened in 1905 (just in time for the global boom in postcard sales). An amusement park can be thrown up in a fraction of the time needed to build a cathedral and the Sagrat Cor was only completed in 1962. Since when the pair have represented the sacred and profane in a relationship of mutual reproach. The park and most of its original rides remain in operation supplemented by the regular introduction of new attractions.  Public access was via a new purpose built funicular railway that began running in 1901. Opposite the funicular station, a Moorish-styled hotel was built.  A superabundance of roller coasters and white knuckle rides suggests that the citizens of Catalunya possess an unusual appetite for dramatic demonstrations of gravitational force.  A suspended monorail (Laderas del Monte) conveys passengers in open capsules around the perimeter of the summit offering spectacular views of the city far below.  More gentle attractions - carousels, a puppet theatre and a Museum of Automata - are available but the emphasis is on vertigo-inducing contemplation of the void.  The postcard industry supplied a wide range of views of the park and recorded an exhaustive survey of the operation of the funicular railway from which this selection is drawn.