Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Paul B Mann was a British illustrator active in the Forties and Fifties who specialised in industrial and engineering subjects. He illustrated several Picture Puffin books, including The Story of Iron, Locomotives and Marvellous Models. The flair he displayed for visualising industry and transport far exceeded his ability for portraying the human figure. The combination of an incisive line and chalky areas of colour was typical of the period. The images below come from a series of educational posters produced by Macmillans for use as classroom visual aids. Most of these posters illustrated either stories from the Bible or pictures showing contented and grateful indigenous peoples the world over enjoying the benefits of being subject to the power of the British Empire. In among them were a few of Paul Mann’s industrial exercises which are reproduced here.
Saturday, 15 March 2008
The Listener was a BBC weekly born in the age of radio as a vehicle for translating the best of the BBC output into printed form. A certain degree of literacy on the part of the reader was assumed – it is long defunct by now. Not the sort of enterprise with which today’s BBC would wish to be associated. In the 1980’s a determined effort to revive its fortunes included a cover in full colour and being part of the same family as Radio Times, there was a significant commitment to the art of illustration. The work of Bill Sanderson made regular appearances on the cover and always added a note of distinction. Wikipedia has a brief but informative note on the rise and fall of The Listener.
These images reflect a fondness for cut-aways, heraldic devices and the decorative excesses of High Victoriana. The visual conceptions are ever ingenious in reflecting the subject matter. The sober and fastidious technique is redeemed by a visual energy in terms of composition and drawing that is never less than a delight to the eye. A collection of these illustrations would make a very fine book.
Friday, 14 March 2008
This terrifying image of Margaret Thatcher is all the more scary because the portrayal of her features is only millimetres away from the flattering image that her supporters worshipped. It is the work of the illustrator, Bill Sanderson, whose work was characterised by an uncanny skill in mimicking the techniques of Victorian wood and steel engraving using scraper board. The trick was in applying it to contemporary subject matter and infusing the image with a turbulent, linear driven sense of movement.
These covers for New Scientist are from 1984 to 1988, a period when this magazine was one of the last to regularly commission illustration for the cover. There was a good fit to the relationship – Sanderson’s images recall the wonderful world of Victorian scientific illustration. It’s a pleasure to admire his drawing skills and the subtle use of colour to enhance the period feel. The near Baroque spatial qualities add another dimension. All is described with a sure touch and crispness of line and contour.
I remain highly suspicious of commentators who regularly evoke past golden ages, usually with object of denigrating the present, but I must confess that, as far as illustration goes, the decade from the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties seems like just such an age. Artists such as Peter Brookes, Mick Brownfield, George Hardie, Peter Till, Bush Hollyhead, Barry Craddock and James Marsh were producing witty and innovative illustration in response to a genuine demand from the printed media. Bill Sanderson is part of a talented generation that matured in the 1970’s and has carried on working in much the same way to the present. There is a generous selection of his work on his own website that can be viewed by clicking here. In 2005 he won an award for book cover design from the V & A, details of which can be seen here. Authors whose books he has illustrated include Harry Harrison (interviewed here) and Felix Dennis.
Wednesday, 12 March 2008
These classic Curt Teich images of a Land of Plenty come from the fruit growing territories around San Bernardino in Southern California. The year is 1944 and this is one of many cards I have found that have been sent back to Britain by fellow countrymen who have found themselves across the Atlantic, far from the horrors and privations of the war in Europe. The writers of these cards make no more than a token effort to conceal their good fortune. The generous portions they have been eating are described in loving detail with scant regard for the sensibilities of those back home ekeing out their meagre rations of subsistence food. Citrus fruits were in especially short supply in wartime Britain so this card must have aroused mixed feelings on the part of the recipient.
It is hard to resist this vision of fertile abundance although the air of industrious sobriety and contentment does not entirely correspond with the narratives of Woody Guthrie when he passed through a few years earlier or Jack Kerouac when he passed through a few years later. For Guthrie this was the front line in a ferocious battle between organised labour and agribusiness. All this unhappy history is, of course, airbrushed out of these pictures – no labour camps, no pickets and no strike busters intrude on the air of purpose and prosperity.
San Bernardino has the honour of a name check in the song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” and the further distinction of the world’s very first McDonald’s restaurant which in 1944 had already been feeding the local population for 4 years. The postmark is from San Gabriel, now a small city in Los Angeles County completely surrounded by urban development.
Tuesday, 11 March 2008
These little pocket-size paper covered books were part of the mid-century project to improve young minds at every opportunity. From the seaside to the zoo, from the army to the church, from town and country, train and plane, youngsters were expected to seek out and record all the items that were illustrated. The accumulation of points was their only reward. There was no escape – even the sick child was catered for with volume 36, “In Hospital”. These exercises were designed to encourage a healthy curiosity about the world on the part of the young readership and perhaps guide them towards a sensible career in something like auditing or accountancy where the ability to complete checklists would be valued. An ambitious member of the I-SPY Tribe would have little time for leisure as almost everything that fell within their field of vision could be converted into points. Ball bearings and wheel flanges, kerbstones and lamp posts, shock absorbers and soakaways, nothing was too humble to be without some value. Some things featured in more than one book which must have presented a challenge to the dedicated I-SPY Redskin.
Not being a country boy, the volumes that appealed to me were those dealing with the world of transport and street life and a selection are illustrated here. The environment described in their pages has been transformed and many of the items have disappeared for ever. There might be some fun in devising a contemporary version where the knife-grinder gives way to the crack dealer, the pavement artist gives way to the chainsaw jockey and points are awarded for spying hoodies, binge drinkers, Community Support Officers, bandwidth thieves, tattoo parlours and security cameras. There is more to be read on these fascinating books at Wikipedia and a memoir of Big Chief I-Spy.