Tuesday, 24 January 2023

More London Life

Thanks to German printing technology, this is an unusually well produced postcard with a detailed image of London buses posed outside the Bank of England. A somewhat diffident constable holds up the traffic alongside a young messenger boy who succeeds in occupying the centre of the picture. A handful of pedestrians stare in a desultory fashion as the camera operator prepares for the shot.  History records that the advertised play, The Ogre by Henry Arthur Jones, opened to lukewarm reviews on September 11th. 1911 at St. James’s Theatre which dates the postcard to the late summer of 1911.

Route 7's history can be traced back to 1 November 1908, when an un-numbered daily route operating between Wormwood Scrubs and Liverpool Street station, was allocated route number 7. Today’s route 7 connects East Acton with Oxford Circus. Route 9 is one of several claimants to the title of London’s oldest bus route, dating back to 1851. In its present form it runs between Hammersmith and Aldwych. Both routes are a lot shorter than in their heyday and neither penetrate as far east as Bank, making this an unrepeatable encounter. Pedantic note - both buses display spelling mistakes. An extra letter B has been added to Wormwood Scrubs on the 7, while the first letter N has been omitted from the word Kensington on the 9.


Sunday, 15 January 2023

Bridge Postcards of 2022

There’s an incalculable number of postcards featuring London’s Tower Bridge - it may well be the capital’s most popular subject.  But there are very few examples of this view of the bridge, looking at the roadway. It’s always a joy when a publisher of cards takes the risk of printing views that defy the prevailing visual cliché. Two more examples of alternate views of over-familiar subjects come from Bristol (Clifton Bridge) and Saltash, on the Cornish bank of the Tamar, where Brunel’s famous bridge has been relegated to the background in the same way that Hokusai treated Mount Fuji.  The next group of cards are of footbridges in Yorkshire, Roubaix and the coast of the north of Ireland.  Following them is a quartet of North American bridges that typically reflect the American preference for hammering together crudely formed rebarbative metal sections in the hope they may stand for thousands of years.  Four images of swing-bridges follow - two from East Anglia and one each from Saigon and the Manchester Ship Canal. Then two curiosities from Lincoln and Linlithgow of bridges that reflectively resolve themselves into perfect circles. Our annual survey concludes with a trio of trestle type constructions - always easy on the eye but not always the most reliable formula. These examples are from Yorkshire (Hardcastle Crags - a bridge designed to be temporary and since dismantled), Crumlin in Wales (also dismantled) and Salta in Argentina.


Friday, 23 December 2022

Bridges of 2022

Another modest year for recording bridges.  Two railway bridges to begin with, the first is on London Overground where it crosses Leytonstone High Road. Next is a Great Western Railway bridge in the Wiltshire town of Chippenham, part of a nine arch viaduct designed by Brunel, completed in 1841 and Grade II* listed. Below is the nine arch Town Bridge that spans the River Avon at Bedford on Avon. It’s a 13th. century former packhorse bridge with the addition of a lock-up in the 17th. century and listed at Grade I. It still carries a heavy flow of traffic.  Another bridge of similar vintage is the Monnow Bridge in Monmouth, the last surviving combined bridge and fortified gatehouse. Listed at Grade 1, it dates from the 1270s and remained in use as a road bridge until 2004 after decades of damage inflicted by careless drivers, when a replacement was built downstream enabling it to be pedestrianised. Finally we have Keadby Bridge over the River Trent in the Lincolnshire village of Althorpe- a road and rail combined Scherzer rolling lift bridge constructed in 1916. The bridge is Grade II listed and has been fixed in place since it was last lifted in 1956.


Friday, 16 December 2022

New York City Landmarks No. 4 - USS Recruit

This was a New York landmark that came and went within the space of 30 months but in its brief existence it made a major statement. Constructed from timber by the US Navy, it was a full size replica of a Dreadnought Battleship located in Union Square on the boundary between Lower and Midtown Manhattan.  Commissioned into the Navy in September 1917 with a captain and 30 crew members its function was to serve as a central recruiting station for the entire city. On board was crew accommodation, officers’ quarters and a suite of offices.  Fully armed with a complement of wooden replica guns, the ship stood ready to bombard the neighbouring real estate.  Visitors were dwarfed by its great mass but turned up in great numbers, attracted by an ever changing programme of patriotic and social events, including concerts and dances.  Over the next 2 years, more than 25,000 volunteers were recruited for service in the Great War.  When the end finally arrived in March 1920, the ship was dismantled with the intention of moving it to Coney Island - a plan that was abandoned when it was calculated that the cost of reassembly greatly exceeded the value of the salvaged materials.

The postcard view includes two prominent buildings that are now landmarks in their own right - in the centre is the Germania Life Insurance building (now a hotel) and to the left, the Everett Building of 1908. The headquarters of the US Communist Party was elsewhere in the square and it was a popular place for organised labour demonstrations.  Frank Dobias wrote a few helpful facts on the reverse and posted it (presumably inside an envelope) to an address in New Zealand, suggesting that it might have been an example of postcard exchange, a popular pastime in the early decades of the last century. This was a part of the general mania for postcards (that died away after the Great War) and involved collectors making contact with total strangers in far off countries in the hope that their collections could be mutually enhanced by swapping examples from their respective home towns. Something like it still happens, even into the digital age.  The post concludes with postcard images of real battleships and an overview of Union Square without a wooden ship.


Tuesday, 13 December 2022

Kasmin and his postcards

From 1963 onwards, John Kasmin’s  Bond Street gallery was a place of pilgrimage for London art students and aspiring abstract painters.  Accessed via a long narrow corridor between shop premises, the pristine gallery space was tall, top lit, and painted in Brilliant White.  Exceptionally well bred young women sat at the reception desk, barely concealing their distaste for the uncouth, disheveled art students who attempted to engage them in conversation. On the walls hung enormous abstract paintings by American painters such as Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis and Jules Olitski - most of them were colour-field painters operating with the approval of Clement Greenberg.  Polychromed metal constructions by Anthony Caro were regularly on display.  Figurative paintings by David Hockney made an appearance as well as a contingent of British abstract painters - Richard Smith, Robyn Denny, Bernard and Harold Cohen among them.  The gallery closed in 1972 and while Kasmin remained an active participant in the art world his star never again burned so brightly.  However, in the last decade he has re-emerged as an impresario of the vintage postcard and self-published a series of themed volumes (Trivia Press) reproducing some of the highlights of his collection.  Almost all the books bear a single word title (Want, Kids, Perform, Fish, Burden) although a few more recent have two word titles (News & Shoes, Music & Dance). Each card is described at the back of the book in a few well chosen words in a deadpan style. A long journey from the contemplation of the vast floating, disembodied colour clouds of Louis and Frankenthaler to the intense scrutiny of the visual compressions of the picture postcard.

As a collector, Kasmin operates at the top end of the market - not for him the pleasure of rummaging through mountains of boxes of mixed unsorted cards at four for a pound.  Examples with bumped or missing corners, unsightly postal cancellations, sinister stains, or misaligned printing have been passed over - only the most pristine and perfect have made it into the collection.  Deep pockets must have helped but most dealers whose stock I’m familiar with have no more than a few examples of this quality.  The impression from looking at the published examples is of a collection much closer to that of Leonard A Lauder (joint heir to the Estée Lauder cosmetics fortune) than to Tom Phillips’ demotic selection as seen in the Postcard Century.  New volumes continue to be added and thus far the focus has been on documentary or curiosity value, monochrome printing and a cut-off date around 1925.  It seems the collection extends to early illustrated cards and advertising but the full scope remains a mystery.  There are now more than twenty volumes in circulation, the latest of which were published in 2021.

Wednesday, 7 December 2022

Tom Phillips (1937-2022)

 I can’t let the death of Tom Phillips pass without a tribute to his magnum opus, The Postcard Century, published in 2000 and still widely available.  More than any other anthologiser of postcards, Tom Phillips dived deep into the mysteries of his subject. This survey is like a geologist’s core sample retrieved from a century’s accumulation of ephemera. The Postcard Century is a heroic compilation of all the finest qualities that postcards possess and evidence of a massive commitment in terms of time and resources, put together by a collector with a passion for postcards that extended beyond periods and subjects. The book displays a year-by-year selection that crosses virtually all genres and categories and is enriched by the correspondence that the author has transcribed from the reverse, thus adding greatly to the social documentary feel of the enterprise.  It is quite simply a humane and fascinating book that can be opened at any page, instantly immersing the reader in a chronicle of lost voices and lost times.  The visual images and the transcribed text are mutually enhancing and add up to a lot more than the sum of their parts.  If he had produced nothing else in his life this book would remain a great achievement. As it is, Tom Phillips had a long and industrious career across a great variety of visual media in the course of which he never settled for second best. The range of his activities made him difficult to categorise which goes a long way to explain his absence from the Great Narrative of Artists of Substance. All the better for that, I would say.

Friday, 25 November 2022

William Burges - Knockback at Knightshayes

William Burges pulled out all the stops for his Devon client, Sir John Heathcoat Amory, and in 1873 he presented Sir John with a magnificent folio of 57 pages of watercolour drawings of his detailed plans for the interior decor of Knightshayes Court.  Burges’ relatively restrained plans for the exterior and internal partitioning had been approved in 1869 and by 1873, construction was well underway. Sadly for Burges, Sir John would prove to be a lot less indulgent than his regular patron, the Marquess of Bute whose financial commitment to Burges’ extravagantly ornate visions had no limits. While Bute’s coal mines and ports delivered an endless stream of cash, the Heathcoat Amory business (lace and textiles) was more exposed to economic downturns and the money simply wasn’t there to pay for Burges’ lavish scheme.  Sir John occupied himself with hunting foxes and stags on Exmoor, shooting on his Scottish estate or fishing in Norway where he owned a lodge.  It’s easy to imagine that Burges’ bejewelled medievalist fantasies would have held little appeal for such a tweedy character and in 1874 he sacked Burges from the project. 

J D Crace inherited the Burges design scheme and diluted it to suit the family purse and taste.  Crace was a remarkably versatile and successful interior designer and produced a modified version that retained some of Burges’ ideas (such as the jelly mould ceiling decor), discarded the wilder fantasies and came up with a scheme that had a little of Burges about it while being much easier on the eye.  Even this would prove too much for the family who in a few years had contractors in to conceal the ornate coffered ceilings (largely the work of Crace). Fireplaces and other features would follow until what remained was a conventional country house Georgian interior. For Burges, this was another deep frustration, in a career marked by false starts, unrealised projects, and rejected competition entries. Compounded in 1854 when Burgess won the competition for a cathedral in Lille fair and square, only to be laid low by a change in the rules that handed the commission to a French team of architects.

Even without the tower that Burges designed for the west wing, Knightshayes remains an imposing presence thanks to its subtly detailed physical mass.  From the Drawing Room the parkland gently descends, offering a distant view of the family factory and its pair of chimneys. Sir John found running  a business got in the way of the pleasures of the chase and left the task to his younger brother, but without those profits his fine country house would never have been built.  In their growing aversion to all things High Victorian, the family were ahead of the times - several decades would pass before popular taste would finally condemn it to obscurity.  When its rehabilitation came to pass, the National Trust was left with an enormous task to return the house to its as-built original condition.  The photos were taken in mid-November on a day of exceptional warm sunshine.  Regrettably there was no access to the first floor rooms due to a post-Covid shortage of volunteers.