Wednesday 28 February 2024

The Fabric of Democracy: Propaganda Textiles

An intriguing exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey provides a snapshot of the role of the visual arts in time of conflict.  When national survival is at stake everything must make a contribution to the war effort. Collective values come into play as even the most socially exclusive artists and designers strive to make a difference - nobody wants to be accused of lacking in patriotism.  There’s a change of tone from hauteur to something more demotic - extravagance is no longer acceptable while raising public morale is a new priority.  Working under this new set of constraints the fashion industry falls back upon formal simplicity, classic elegance and a colour palette that’s light, bright and uplifting. Textile designers responded with fabric prints devised around patriotic messages and texts displayed in jaunty settings.  Other nations were involved including a strong collection of kimono prints from Japan - more bellicose in their imagery but more refined in their visual language.


Sunday 28 January 2024

A Meeting on the Rhine

An intriguing studio portrait of a group of serious minded young women, on the reverse is a pencilled date of January 1894.  They are soberly dressed with padded shoulders and smocking to the fore and have the appearance of educated middle class women but there are no obvious clues as to the reason for their gathering. Some  look out of the photo with impressive self-assurance, others look more diffident or apprehensive. Perhaps it was a social event - a reunion of a sort - but there’s no evidence of frivolity. The studio responsible was located in Neuwied, a small town on the banks of the Rhine near Koblenz.  Germany in 1894 was a rapidly expanding industrial and military power and it may be no more than a coincidence but the nation’s first major group to campaign for the rights of women, the Bund Deutscher Frauenvereine (BDF) was founded in March of 1894. Needless to say, it ceased to exist in 1933.


Friday 26 January 2024

School Bullies at Work

A series of 6 postcards sent over about 10 days in May 1907 from a mother in Witheridge, Devon to her schoolboy son who was staying away from home with his grandmother in Twickenham.  The cards form a sequence and mother’s messages display an unusual preoccupation with playground violence.  She has inscribed some odd captions on the illustrations but she really gets stuck-in on the reverse declaring  to young Master Maunder (known as Vennie):

When you come home you will feel so strong that you will want to fight all the boys at school …

Will you tell the other boys to scram?

The bobby has got one of the boys - how would you like to be one of them …

In other news from home:

Percy went up to Mrs. Cheyney’s and brought home 2 little birds in a nest - Annie took them back again because the poor little things would die without the mother to feed them …

Daddy is very busy making a meat-safe for me today in the play room - he cannot make out why you’re not homesick …

It has rained all day …

Witheridge is a North Devon village where  a chain of West Country butchers (Lloyd Maunder) was founded  in the 1870s - the business was later managed by Percy (who brought home a bird’s nest) and Venn Maunder (recipient of the postcards).  It continues to trade in the present day.

Wrestling and fisticuffs were generally regarded as character-forming rituals and it wasn’t unusual for boys’ schools to organise formal boxing contests.  An unspoken acceptance of the playground as war zone meant that hierarchies of status were determined by shows of aggression and brute force.  Today’s high-functioning school bullies are equally adept in the dark arts of psychological violence - their repertoire of dirty tricks vastly extended by the arrival of social media. At some future date, they and their colleagues will be serving in the Cabinet, replacing the present incumbents whose vindictive incompetence may be regarded as trivial compared with their successors.


Sunday 31 December 2023

Bridge Postcards of 2023

We begin the annual round up with less familiar views of London’s Tower Bridge followed by a pair of medieval-themed examples from Germany (Bonn and Berlin). The double-decker arched viaduct at   makes a splendid sight.  A pair of bucolic scenes from the Peak District (Monsal Dale and Hathersage) follow - I’ve a soft spot for Hathersage having first seen it from the top deck front seat of a Sheffield City bus in 1978 that had just made a spectacular winding descent from the viewpoint known as Surprise View that very much lives up to its name.  Next is a distant view of Saltash and the river Tamar followed by much steelwork on a single span railway bridge in Costa Rica. There are more rail bridges from Riga, Jutland, Porto, Florida and Texas.


Saturday 9 December 2023

Mother of Parliaments

It’s our very own National Theatre of Cruelty, an antiquated forum of futility.  On one side the benches are occupied by the defenders of property rights and privilege, drawn from the products of private education and Oxbridge, supported by subaltern recruits from the lower orders attracted by the prospect of personal enrichment and all too happy to identify with the interests of their social superiors.  All of which enables them to operate in a culture of impunity. Opposite them is a motley assortment of lost causes including sundry nationalists, an official opposition with a nominal commitment to social justice, minority parties and some empty spaces that the most intransigent of nationalists refuse to occupy.  Bewigged courtiers in pantomime costume strut back and forth bearing fundamentally useless objects of veneration without which proceedings cannot go ahead.  

Teams of scribes and record keepers toil away in the orchestra pit while the Remembrancer lurks in the under gallery, poised to intervene should anything arise that is less than favourable to the interests of the City of London. (The Wikipedia description of this shady character is at such great pains to point out how little influence he has, that you may wonder why he exists at all.)  The chamber has been designed to facilitate the exchange of insults and though much time is devoted to this, it’s an offence of the utmost gravity to accuse another member of lying.  Otherwise accountability is nugatory, members may attend as little as they wish without sanction and their degree of participation and voting is for them to decide.  As a general rule the greater their majority, the poorer the service offered to constituents leaving them well placed to take on additional, often better paid jobs.  These tend to be in the legal profession, in business and financial services (in an advisory capacity) or as well rewarded gobshites on GB News. There is no inspectorate of MPs and no requirement to report their activities to constituents.

Supporters of these anachronisms loudly proclaim that they are what makes Parliament so unique and special while remaining silent on the point that they act as enforcers of the status quo, inhibiting any change that might result in wealth redistribution or rebalance the existing power structure.  Even the architecture has a part to play - Barry and Pugin’s Gothic Revival extravaganza invokes the England of stately homes, medieval Oxbridge colleges and ancient private schools - a Hogwarts orgy of ornamentation entirely familiar to members who have grown up with it but disconcerting and intimidating to those of more humble origins for whom the message is “this place is not for you”. Every attempt to update facilities and procedures fails in the face of furious opposition and an exorbitant refurbishment plan is currently stalled while ongoing repairs are costing the taxpayer £2 million a week.  There’s an almost irresistible impulse in British public life to employ delay as an avoidance strategy (contaminated blood scandal, Grenfell, Hillsborough, Post Office/Fujitsu IT scandal) so it seems inevitable that Parliament itself should fall victim to institutional procrastination.  In the spirit of doing more with less (so often commended by government), a budget solution would be a repurposed fulfilment centre in the Northumbria town of Haltwhistle, the geographic centre of the UK.  Appleby Parva in Leicestershire is the centre of population in the UK and suggests an alternative location.  Ancillary services and committee rooms could be housed in site offices and Portakabins which would have the merit of giving parliamentarians a taste of the working conditions enjoyed by millions of their constituents.  Compulsory annual reports to constituents could include attendance, voting and speaking record, donations received and freebies, income earned from additional occupations, assistance to constituents, links to lobby groups and details of overseas jollies. A little bit of accountability and transparency, could be simply posted online once a year - it’s never going to happen.

Tuesday 28 November 2023

Walt Disney’s Family Album (1937)

It’s impossible to over estimate the extent to which the emotional life of every child exposed to the output of the Disney Corporation is formed and shaped to create an insatiable demand for the irresistible embrace of the Disney Universe. For almost a century, children have been at the centre of what has grown into a global grooming project as an entertainment portfolio that began with the moving image has expanded to include mass merchandising, retail stores, theme parks and dedicated streaming services.  There’s an acute understanding of the juvenile appetite for sentiment and spectacle layered over eternal themes of sibling rivalry, jealousy, cruelty, suffering and redemption.  Every feature is attached to a bulging package of ancillaries - models, dolls, princess costumes, soundtracks, illustrated books, sticker collections, action figures, backpacks, board games, stationery and customised clothing - entirely designed to separate fools from their money. It’s a massive corporate presence that generates enormous revenue streams and yet, despite this long performative diatribe, two things must be conceded.  To begin, some of the products are undeniably ingenious, amusing, sensitive, compassionate and offer cunningly contrived entertainment that can be appreciated on many levels, enough to undermine the most curmudgeonly resistance.  And secondly, with very little effort, the company has roused the intemperate fury of the ineffable Ron DeSantis, Governor of Florida, triggering a feud that is currently grinding its way through the US legal system.

All this was a long time in the future when this book was published in 1937.  The colour illustrations were supplied in the form of stickers to be pasted in the book by the young reader. The star of the book was only 9 years old but the process of brand characterisation was well underway. Disney’s first full length feature (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) released at the end of 1937 marked the emergence of Disney as a major studio, even so, dreams of future world domination would have seemed implausible in those early days. But it was the end of the Disney age of innocence and a sign of what was to come.


Wednesday 22 November 2023

T E North on the High Seas

The book illustrations of T E North were featured here a few months ago when we posted about an aviation picture book (Airways) published in 1939.  Notable for compositional originality and precision drawing, the qualities displayed in Airways faded in his post-war output in line with contemporary trends.  After 6 years of war during which he served in the RAF, rebuilding his career and adapting to a much changed commercial situation would have been difficult. The services of an assiduous agent would have been essential and it may have been an agent who spotted his affinity for transport subjects and marketed his skills to publishers. Appropriately for an artist born and bred in Hull this example is a book of maritime illustrations for young people. Atmospheric effects predominate, brought to life by more gestural brushwork and a dramatically intensified colour palette.  Perhaps the romance of the age of the great ocean liners and the cargo ship demanded a more vigorous approach.  Recent collective memory of war fought at sea and the prestige invested in building ever larger and more luxurious liners fixed all things maritime firmly in the mid-century popular imagination in a way that’s inconceivable today.  The image of the ship’s captain was a figure of steely resolve, commanding the loyalty of the crew in the face of danger from the elemental terrors of hostile seas. Young readers could be enthralled by the exotic network of international shipping, at the centre of which they were assured, Britain stood supreme and unchallenged - a supremacy that evaporated at breathtaking speed over the next decade as the nation first decolonised and later de-industrialised.