Friday, 29 February 2008

Eric Fraser in Graphis

In 1957, issue number 70 of the famous Swiss magazine, Graphis published a 6 page feature on the work of Eric Fraser, written by Alec Davis, who in 1974 wrote the book, The Graphic Work of Eric Fraser which for many years was the only available book on this inventive and resourceful artist. In the mid 1950’s Fraser would have been at the height of his fame and it was certainly an accolade to be written up in the pages of such an eminent magazine as Graphis. There is a generous selection of Fraser’s work to be viewed at the Alphabet of Illustrators and Chris Beetles has some original artwork that can be viewed by clicking here. Finally, I include a wartime commission for a cover illustration to a small card covered book celebrating the contribution of women to the war effort. It’s a fine exercise in tonal control in a robustly fashioned pictorial space and concludes our postings about Eric Fraser.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

More Eric Fraser

As promised yesterday, we bring you more evidence of Eric Fraser’s wonderful skills as an illustrator. Some book illustrations and jackets and some work for advertisers are today’s focus. After studying art at Goldsmith’s College, Fraser began his long career in the 1920’s as a commercial artist in the R P Gossop agency. His early work shows that he had absorbed some of the visual vocabulary of Cubism and Futurism and these influences continued to inform his work throughout his long career in an indirect way. An early client was London Transport; Fraser’s poster designs can be viewed by clicking here. He continued to produce artwork for advertising but soon developed as an illustrator for books and magazines. From the 1960’s onwards advertising art was very much in third place after book and editorial illustration.

This small selection of advertising art begins with a rural idyll drawn for the Ford Motor Company. One of Fraser’s specialities, it serves as a reminder of a bucolic England that was soon to vanish under the tarmac. Next are two pairs of drawings from a series designed to illustrate the ability of the Rolex Oyster to survive in the most desperate situations. The image of a diver is especially accomplished; the marine flora and fauna beautifully realised. These ads were published very widely, in Illustrated London News, Punch and even Graphis in Switzerland. Finally, a pen and wash drawing from the 1930’s to promote Munrospun Scottish Tweed that looks back to Fraser’s fashion illustrations in Harper’s Bazaar. Plus an example from the world of electrical engineering. The drawing of the hydro-electric installation reveals just a hint of the Cubism that was inspirational in Fraser’s early training.

The illustrations that follow come from just 3 books from Fraser’s enormous output. Pioneers in Astronomy (Harrap, 1964) was an educational book aimed at young people and provided Fraser with a chance to indulge his passions for costume drama and the precise visualisation of geometric forms. There is no dilution of effort for a juvenile audience. I suspect that Fraser was constitutionally incapable of applying anything less than maximum effort to any task. The next example is the splendid English Legends (published by Batsford in 1950). The design for the dust wrapper is outstanding, a master class in the organisation of multiple images and forms into a single coherent whole. Two images from the book reflect Fraser’s fondness for the unclothed female form, St. Dunstan showing great strength of character in resisting the charms of those formidable tubular nipples. The last pair of drawings come from the Story of Mond Nickel (1951) specially commissioned to celebrate the achievements of business. Fraser goes for the historic reconstruction and another favourite theme – a glimpse into a technological future through the visionary eyes of youth.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Eric Fraser Revisited

I have been reminded that I promised to return to the subject of Eric Fraser. So, after an 8 month gap, here we go. (To read the original posting on Eric Fraser, please click here.) Given his reputation for orderly, industrious sobriety, there are some surprising qualities to be seen in his approach to subject matter. All of the work here was done for Radio Times in the 1970’s and Fraser’s task was to catch the attention of prospective viewers and listeners with a very small monochrome hand drawn image. That he succeeded so brilliantly was down to three things. Firstly, he had the ability to select the most dramatic point in a narrative to illustrate and secondly, his compact compositions were tightly organised around diagonals and vectors to maximise their visual impact within a very restricted space. Thirdly, he was a master of surface incident, pattern and texture, balancing light and dark contrasts with the same perfect judgement as he balanced areas of complex surface activity with areas in which forms were defined exclusively in line. Proof of their quality lies in the fact that they lose none of their tension when enlarged.

The more surprising elements in his work are a certain sensualism that emerges from time to time and an appetite for violence. The incidence of violence is in part, a consequence of the type of material he was commissioned to portray but there is a generous quantity of sword fights, smitings, hangings and beheadings and much brandishing of staves and staffs, clubs and cutlasses all suggesting some relish on Fraser’s part for the visual power of such events. The sensuality is inspired by the female form, often defined by the sort of sinuous line employed by Eric Gill, although entirely without the slightly voyeuristic feeling that creeps into some of Gill’s graphic work. There is a tendency for necklines to plunge a little lower than strictly necessary in the interests of historical accuracy and occasionally, rather more well formed female thigh will be revealed than might be expected! All well within the boundaries of good taste. Our next posting on Eric Fraser will look at his books and advertising art.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

David Watkin (1925-2008)

Chris Mullen wrote the following tribute to the celebrated cinematographer who died last week.

David Watkin died at the age of 83 in his mews house in Brighton at 10.15pm on the 19th of February, 2008

This must come as a shock to those of you who did not know of the severity of his illness, or were unaware of the speed of his decline in health.

Those of us with him during the last days knew with what courage and fighting determination he confronted the inevitability of his cancer. His spirit, wicked humour, and relish for life were with him to the end, undiminished as he lost control of his body. Everything above the neck is wonderful, he would say, everything beneath, a nightmare. The hearing is the last of the senses to be surrendered, and he listened at the last to Mozart piano sonatas and Richard Strauss.

Readers of his two printed memoirs will know the rich fabric of his life, the complex paradoxes of a man of complicated responses who always laid claim to the simplest of answers and propositions in dealing with life and the Film Industry. Friends will know how these paradoxes played out in conversations, negotiations, dealings and an infinite number of kindnesses, small and large, thoughtful and epic.

Students and visitors expecting a master-class in cinematography, and suggestions for successful film-making, were treated instead to Bruckner, Wodehouse and Dr. Johnson in the pursuit of the incisive, emotional drive and economies of effort. Despite himself, he consistently inspired and provoked, and was never forgotten by those who encountered him, students, fellow professionals, and even passing literati in the delicatessen.

In the days to come, just tributes from his peers will record the technical and aesthetic achievements of this remarkable man, his beginnings in the British Documentary Movement, early pioneering TV commercials and the shooting of his first feature films. His career developed in the British Film Industry but also in Hollywood, providing a broad cultural perspective of two different types of cine-madness. Mention will be made of his innovations in lighting, and the Wendy Light. A keen sense of the absurd, tempered with a steely determination to get it right, saw his rise to a pinnacle of achievement he would never allow others to articulate and frequently dismiss as hyperbole. When asked for a motto to embellish the tee-shirts of the International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography at Lodz, where he received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004, he refused the usual gusty wisdom in favour of “One tries not to fuck it up”.

His two autobiographies Thesaurus and Clara are both woven through with ample evidence of the source of his creativity in a love of people, and a cultivation of friendship. A new film was the opportunity of getting his Crew back together, a band of kindred spirits, a breed of Merry Men united in their professionalism and love of one-liners. He had heroes – Tony Richardson, Peter Sellers, Peter Brooks and many others who were often given a chapter to themselves, a reward for their energy, and a shared hunger for taking risks.

Weeks before his death, copies of his Second Autobiography, Was Clara Schumann a Fag Hag?, arrived from the printers, to his great satisfaction.

He concludes the Vale Chapter, “Above all, I am surrounded by love, and its little brother laughter, and I am happy. I don’t even have a problem with death. Pain is at an end, and we, who love, and are loved are always part of each other’s lives.”

Chris was, in David’s words, impresario to the two autobiographical volumes that he produced in his last decade. Through Chris I met David on a handful of occasions on visits to Brighton. He was marvellous company, ever courteous with a talent for hugely entertaining conversation that switched in an instant between beautifully modulated subtlety of expression and scandalous profanity and back again. His complete lack of pretension, his unreconstructed passion for socialism, his loathing of Tony Blair and New Labour, his refusal to take himself seriously and a wonderful sense of humour were absolutely irresistible. Plus a schoolboy enthusiasm for trains and transport that he never lost. Inexhaustibly curious about all aspects of the arts, he went entirely his own way in following his passions without regard for either fashion or orthodoxy. An admirably idiosyncratic and talented personality who will always be recalled with fondness and great esteem.

To read the Guardian obituary, follow this link.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Musée Albert Kahn

Tonight BBC2 is showing the first in a series of 5 programmes, The Twenties in Colour: The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn. This will be the third series to feature the work of Albert Kahn’s team of photographers and there have been many comments elsewhere from viewers making the point that this is the type of intelligent television that used to be expected from the BBC as a matter of routine and now appears so unusual. The sober, unpatronising presentation, the use of academic experts to supply context for the material and the spare and unobtrusive use of background music and sound make a welcome respite from the prevailing tone of hysteria typical of the likes of the egregious Bill Oddie and the presenters of Coast for whom shouting, extreme hand and arm gestures and quite terrifying levels of forced enthusiasm seem to offer the only hope of retaining their jobs.

Kahn was a wealthy banker with philanthropic and pacifist instincts. His great project was his Archives de la Planète which employed a team of photographers and cinephotographers to travel the world and record the details of daily life and the built environment that were soon to vanish. The use of the autochrome process produced some of the earliest known and most detailed colour images. Last autumn the BBC screened the first series and described the project on a webpage that can be seen by clicking here.

Five minutes walk from the end of Métro line 10 at Boulogne Pont de St-Cloud in southwest Paris is the Musée Albert Kahn which displays a changing selection of images from the project in what was Kahn’s own home. At present the focus is on images from North Africa plus a more general selection displayed in light boxes. The example shown here of Porte St-Denis is a spectacular feast of store front signage. There’s also a suite of 26 inch iMacs on which to browse the database; the plan is to have all 72,000 images digitised in the next few years. Khan moved into the house in 1895 and began construction of a large garden that reflects his internationalist outlook and includes a Japanese and an English-style garden. We visited on the shortest day of the year (December 21st.) and there was much to appreciate in the garden. It’s a mixture of formal and informal planting and designed as a series of themed rooms. The new Japanese garden looked especially fine in its winter guise. A relatively recent addition, it was designed in 1990 by the Japanese landscape architect, Fumiaki Takano.

Friday, 8 February 2008

St Pancras Revisited

It’s not easy to get past all the hype that’s been flying around this place and vast spaces like this one can numb the critical faculties. At first glance, the impact of the massive roof canopy painted sky blue is astonishing. It’s never looked so enormous or so pristine, at least, in living memory. The restoration of the original fabric is a major triumph and the lighting shows Scott’s architectural details in all their glory. It’s the new infrastructure that I find so disappointing. The subterranean shopping mall has nothing to distinguish it from its numerous suburban counterparts. The retail outlets are clones and have no individual character or distinction. Where commercial considerations come first, we really can’t expect much better but we could have expected a much more imaginative and spectacular train station to match the magnificence and ambition of the original structure.

When the rebuilding of Euston Station was completed in the 1960’s the designers were presumably very satisfied with the way in which they had eliminated almost any trace of the actual trains from the concourse. The very things that were the reason for the building’s existence were relegated to a dimly lit concrete basement. There is a bizarre affectation in the British character that deals with engineering technology by concealing it wherever possible lest it should give offence. The designers of British steam locomotives hid the working parts deep in the interior of the bodywork. This made them much more difficult and expensive to repair and service than their more practical European and North American counterparts that carried their engineering on the outer surfaces of the machine. Much of this thinking has persisted into the 21st. century and might explain why the actual trains themselves are so difficult to see at St. Pancras. This technology should be celebrated in the structure and displayed for all to see and not treated as if it were some rather ugly but essential business to be concluded behind closed doors. It is true that the experience of Eurostar travel has virtually none of the sense of adventure, romance or glamour that traditionally attached to international train travel but that is no reason for so ruthlessly excluding all these qualities from the design.

In the end, what we get reflects a sad lack of imagination and an inability to rise to the challenge set by Barlow and Scott in 1868. There are some expensive materials, a champagne bar that stretches almost to Cricklewood and reflective surfaces are everywhere but all this is small consolation for the pedestrian flavour of the design. And then there is the matter of the Meeting Place sculpture.

As a piece of public art, this is very mediocre. Whenever a group of people set out to create something (in their words) “iconic”, the outcome is likely to be dismal. When the group in question is composed of marketing experts, image consultants and PR professionals, the prospect is even more depressing. The choice of sculpture was entirely dictated by the requirement that it be “iconic”. Conceptually shallow, it presents an image both unconvincing and slightly disturbing.
The male figure has a predatory air and the worrying likeness of a Nazi officer straight from central casting. In reality, he’s probably a consultant who trades in PFI schemes while his female partner is perhaps an Event Organizer or a Fashion Buyer for a chain store. Together they resemble outsize participants in a TV perfume ad who have suddenly found themselves immobilized and immortalised in bronze. To my mind, they would be improved by the addition of some bright colour, in the manner of Jeff Koons. Then it would at least be cheerful kitsch instead of pretentious kitsch.