Friday, 17 September 2021

Great Laxey Wheel

Anyone rummaging through boxes of miscellaneous vintage postcards will soon find one of the incongruously oversized Laxey Wheel. It’s the world’s largest working water wheel and can be found on the Isle of Man where it is a major visitor attraction.  The Isle of Man was rich in mineral deposits but had no seams of coal so to pump water out of the Great Laxey Mines complex this water powered Leviathan was constructed in 1854.  Reserves of lead, copper, silver and zinc finally ran out in 1929 and the mines closed.  The wheel languished out of use until 1965 when it was taken under government control and a project to restore it to working order was completed in 1971 since when it has been conserved. It makes a comfortable fit with the island’s major attraction of antiquated transport - narrow-gauge steam railways, electric tramways, and a mountain railway that climbs to the summit of Snaefell.  The tramway and the mountain railway converge in the village of Laxey making it something of a tourist hotspot.  Passengers on the Snaefell railway are treated to commanding views of the Laxey Wheel as their train ascends the valley side.  The white painted stone work and the bright red wheel spokes enhance its visibility today just as they did when it was a working structure rather than a museum piece.


Wednesday, 1 September 2021

The Dreamland Express

A group of children - boys and girls - lying face down on the ground, staring over the edge of a precipice.  One of the boys is upright and racing towards the edge in the company of a snake.  Is he planning to jump? The scene has been visualised from above giving a strong sense that they are looking into a terrifying void.  They are, in fact, at the edge of the world.  Beyond is the limitless emptiness of space. This anxiety inducing glimpse of infinity comes from a book for children, written and illustrated by H R Millar (1869-1942), the subject of our previous post.

The Dreamland Express was published by Oxford University Press in 1927 and copies are hard to find. A new edition was issued in 1989 and these scans come from one such copy.  Millar put his heart and soul into this book, writing an adventure story in which a trio of schoolboys follow a voyage of discovery through fantastical and other worldly landscapes, encountering a bewildering sequence of wild and dangerous animals, dragons, giants and citizens of exotic and eccentric civilisations.  Holding it all together was the series of trains in which the young adventurers travelled that enabled Millar to indulge his lifelong passion for railways and spice his narrative with romantic vignettes of life on the rails.  Millar begins his tale with a haunting description of the children discovering a passenger train all but concealed in dense woodland, headed by a majestic steam engine entangled in foliage. A full complement of crew are ready and waiting to welcome them on board and get the journey underway.

In the first half of the book the train races through imaginary cities on bridges and viaducts that have all but escaped the laws of gravity, arriving at an extraordinary cavernous station built in the style of Ancient Egypt. Along the way our heroes meet a flirtatious girl, always an uncomfortable moment of potential disruption to the simple pleasures of male companionship. Unlike John, Peter and George she is not granted the dignity of a name but she wins their respect by revealing an unexpected interest in trains, enough to admit her to the travelling band. Later the group is joined by a school swot whose function is to irritate with displays of pedantry.  The second half of the book involves an enforced change of train - the new locomotive is a decrepit specimen apparently riveted together from a motley assortment of life expired parts in the manner of W Heath Robinson. A Mysterious Oriental with a private train carrying a magnificent retinue of slaves and devoted followers enters the story and by sleight of hand substitutes their locomotive for something even worse - an Oriental fantasy made from porcelain and timber with a silken canopy covering the cab.  Despite the handicap of a disintegrating locomotive our heroes find time to rescue a slave from execution, win the favour of a Giant and emerge unscathed from a pitch-black Canyon of Darkness.

Millar’s visions of alternative worlds are brought to life with pen and ink drawing combined with colour washes - the results are close to the visual conventions of the comic strip. Echoes of Lyonel Feininger and Winsor McCay can be seen in Millar’s eccentric architectural fantasies although no evidence that he ever saw their work exists. Millar employed the voice of a narrator throughout to offer context and commentary and he didn’t flinch from challenging subject matter.  The image of the eternally burning city and the desperation of its inhabitants is the stuff of young nightmares and evokes a sense of dread equal to the confrontation with the edge of the world where the journey ends. Millar resolves this situation by having the three boys simultaneously awaken in their beds back home.  Normality has been restored and the boys can resume their natural progression to adulthood where John flies a Spitfire in the Battle of Britain, eventually becoming a Conservative MP, Peter survives the privations of a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, later rising through the ranks of the Anglican Church to become a Suffragan Bishop and George, having served as a Junior Officer in the Royal Navy, studies Fine Art at the Slade, briefly exhibits his paintings of railway disasters at the Beaux-Arts Gallery while becoming a notorious habitué of the Colony Room, bantering the night away with George Melly and Francis Bacon.


Thursday, 26 August 2021

On the Railway in 1925

This slender but large format illustrated book dates from around 1925 when it was presented to Master Norman Dore by the Fulham Baptist Band of Hope.  Norman’s good conduct and regular attendance had earned him Second Prize; he also took good care of his book, resisting all temptation to embellish it with his handiwork.  Published by Blackie and illustrated by H R Millar it was one of many such books launched on the market to engage the interest of the junior railway enthusiast.  The illustrations are atmospheric and impressionistic in execution and while paying due respect to the mechanical features on display no attempt has been made to describe them in detail. Scottish born Millar (1869-1942) was a regular contributor of drawings for Punch and Strand Magazine as well as a prolific book illustrator.  Before attending art school he had some training in civil engineering which may have influenced the linear precision to be found in much of his other published work. His collaboration with Edith (Railway Children) Nesbit, best selling author of fantasy books for children, may have been his most fruitful.  Beginning in 1899 he illustrated all her best known books until 1913.  Nesbit, intriguing for her lifelong devotion to socialism, held him in high esteem and his success in bringing her tales of fantastical creatures to life may have encouraged him to write and illustrate his own books. Almost a century after her death in 1924 many of Nesbit’s books remain in print, often reissued with new illustrations including examples by Inga Moore, Brian Robb and Edward Ardizzone. 


Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Some Victorian Steel Engraving

Victorian printing technology steadily advanced through the 19th. century towards the ultimate goal of mass production of photographic imagery.  Along the way the process of printing from engraved imagery on steel plates was constantly refined and improved.  Engraving specialists were kept busy by the demands of mass circulation magazines (The Graphic, Illustrated London News, The Sketch, Punch) for new material to entertain the readers. Pictorial representations of current events, portraits of the great and the good, celebrity portraits and cartoons were especially in demand. Another army of engravers were preparing print versions of critically approved paintings  as shown in Royal Academy exhibitions to enable the rising middle classes to display their taste for the visual arts on the walls of their own homes.  Even more were engaged on topographical subjects - scarcely a manor house, ruined abbey or castle, riverbank, forest, lake, moorland or mountain went unrecorded. There was an affordable prospect for every affluent customer.  The finest of these practitioners achieved spectacular effects in terms of describing detail and creating subtle and dramatic tonal effects through the precision of their mark making.  Reproducing engineering drawings was a highly specialist skill requiring perfect clarity of visual description - this is a section of examples taken from the plates of various encyclopaedias.  They offer impressively analytical images of new applications of steam power and increasingly complex machine technology. Starting with the printing industry, the application of steam in shipping and railways, the selection is completed with a variety of mechanical wood saws. Admire the delicate subtleties of tone, the impersonal drawing and the complete absence of visual rhetoric. 


Friday, 9 July 2021

John Hassall - Poster King

John Hassall is having a moment.  There’s a comprehensive exhibition of his work at the Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner (ending on August 29) accompanied by a new book, The Life and Art of the Poster King by Lucinda Gosling (Unicorn, 2021).  This recognition is long overdue - there has been a persistent reluctance on the part of museums to exhibit the work of graphic artists whose output fell, for the most part into the category of what used to be called commercial art.  The sense that the association of art and advertising is unworthy of close study never quite goes away, along with the gulf in status between Fine Art (engages the higher faculties) and Advertising Art (vaguely disreputable, appeals to the coarser instincts). Curiously as state patronage of the arts declines the art world has been forced into an ever closer funding relationship with the world of business and finance whose tolerance for sponsoring work that questions their activities often wears thin resulting in hidden pressures to focus on work that more closely aligns with corporate interests.  In this context the straightforwardly transactional nature of the work of artists like Hassall can seem less compromised.

The book is superb - the author has unearthed some rarely seen items and chosen to display in depth rather than showcase prime (and often over-familiar) examples. The selection of thumbnail images is generous and judicious and gives a much better impression of the range of Hassall’s output than I’ve ever seen before. Two column text blocks and visual material are well balanced and make for clarity of design. Pictorial boards, illustrated endpapers and a stitched-in bookmark make an excellent package and the absence of a dust-wrapper is something to celebrate.  Hassall’s productivity was a match for Tom Purvis and some of his drawing has the toughness and muscularity of that of Purvis.

Hassall produced all the artwork for this colouring book for children in support of the Belgian Relief Fund in 1914.  The Belgian nation has never been so popular with the British public as it was in the first year of the Great War.  An intensive propaganda campaign in the popular press, demonising the German invaders for the ruthless cruelty inflicted on the civilian population created a great wave of public sympathy, of which this publication was one manifestation.  It is striking to see the extent to which it combined philanthropy with commercial interests - every page had a business sponsor whose consumer products were publicised in Hassall’s drawings in the hope that their virtues would be embedded in young minds as their clumsy brushwork stuttered across the page.  It was presented as an alphabetic sequence with accompanying versification.  Allusions to military campaigns can be found but for the most part the patriotic note is one of restraint.  Given the audience, images of children predominate and the war is very much off stage. None are especially memorable with the possible exception of the sturdy British youth who poses defiantly in his Pesco underwear with hairbrush at the ready, fully prepared to die for King and Country.