Friday, 30 May 2008

Postcards of the Day No. 16 and 17

Two cards from seaside resorts at opposite ends of the country each showing examples of landmark Victorian hotels. Cuthbert Broderick, idiosyncratic Francophile Victorian architect, designed the Grand Hotel at Scarborough in 1867, having previously been responsible for a series of public buildings in Leeds, including the Town Hall. The parents of the great actor Charles Laughton ran, first, the Victoria and later, the Pavilion Hotels in the town and there is something of Laughton in the way that the Grand Hotel effortlessly dominates its surroundings. The Metropole at Bexhill was a casualty of the Second World War and never reopened after sustaining bomb damage in 1941. Since its demolition in 1955 it has been the site of a putting green by the De La Warr Pavilion. It is the latter building that has risen in public esteem in recent decades to the status of Modernist icon and brought distinction to Bexhill. Both cards possess foreground interest. In Bexhill a young man launches a model sailboat and in Scarborough a beach photographer plies his trade.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Monkey Wash, Donkey Rinse

Benjamin Brooke’s Monkey Brand Soap was a typically versatile Victorian product with the capacity to clean almost any object or surface but “It Won’t Wash Clothes”. In an unusual marketing strategy, priority was given to promoting what the product couldn’t do (wash clothes) ahead of what it could do (clean virtually everything else inanimate under the sun). The advertising was dependent on repeated use of line engraved images of a monkey/human hybrid of the type that exercised a powerful grip on the Victorian imagination. This particular simian appeared in a variety of incongruous situations in the interests of selling more soap and made regular appearances in the pages of ‘The Graphic’ and ‘Illustrated London News’. Living creatures in human clothing were the subject of many an illustrated book and their appeal was not restricted to children. Taxidermy tableaux were especially popular with Victorian audiences. The enduring power of this family of images is confirmed by the continuing survival of the PG Tips chimps into the present day.

It can be argued that these ads make an equation between the industrious and oppressed Victorian servant class that laboured mightily to eradicate every last trace of dirt and grime from their master’s household and the primitive state of the primate genus. There were several levels to this little jest. Animal forms with human characteristics are inherently comic and a constant source of amusement. At the same time, despotic treatment of servants is legitimised if it can be shown that they are simple primitives and lacking in human feelings. This may seem an extreme interpretation of what appears to be a charming and harmless exercise in fantasy but there is no doubting the power of these images to sink deep into the subconscious and contaminate the mind. These observations and many more are much better expressed by Anne McClintock in a powerful essay, ‘Soft-Soaping Empire’ to be found in “The Visual Culture Reader” edited by Nicholas Mirzoeff.

At yet another level, many of these images appear subversive and transgressive in the same way as the Surrealist collage novels of Max Ernst (Une semaine de bonté), created some 40 years later. Conventions are undermined and social norms overturned by the sheer improbability of the imagery. Max Ernst would have been challenged to improve on this astonishing image from 1895 titled “Leisure and her Cherub”. The sultry figure of Leisure tilts her head invitingly and offers us a flirtatious smile and a bizarre avian/simian hybrid winged Cherub which perches on her left hand and glares balefully in our direction. Leisure is seductively clad in a diaphanous toga-like garment permitting more than a glimpse of what lies beneath. The relationship is a little reminiscent of the ‘Dæmons’ that play such an important part in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, “His Dark Materials”. Images of decapitation and amputation are profoundly disturbing; the Cherub appears to be the product of both, being reduced to the condition of a disembodied head that has sprouted wings and tail feathers. Many of our worst nightmares concerning violation to the integrity of the body seem to be condensed into this apparition. So, what were they thinking of? Was this simply a misjudged exercise in humour? Was the demonic character of the Cherub inadvertent and unintended? Or was the artist an admirer of Henry Fuseli and feeling inspired to introduce a gentle note of fantasy into the proceedings? If the intention was to surround the brand with warm and cosy feelings, it cannot be counted as a resounding success.

There are other themes to be noted in Monkey Brand iconography. In terms of costume the tendency is to extremes of wealth and poverty. Invariably our simian hero appears as a tatterdemalion or toff; just occasionally he will be wearing the uniform of a servant or sailor. The top hat and tails are mostly for comic effect, to contrast with his menial tasks, such as dragging some mobile advertising or pushing a wheelbarrow through the city streets. He is exposed to a wide range of indignities but there are times when he is temporarily released from servitude to indulge in more regressive behaviour such as sliding down the banisters or practising his downhill mountain biking skills. There is even a trip to Paris where, on bended knee, he is solemnly invested with a frying pan sized medallion in recognition of his excellence in the art of cleaning and polishing. The frying pan is a constant, endlessly scrubbed and burnished to a dazzling lustre, even to the point where it can function as a mirror in which the children or the ladies of the house can admire their fairness of countenance.

There’s an entire book to be written about these ads. The artwork is mostly unsigned; the initials G E R appear occasionally but the identity remains a mystery. What at first appear to be fine examples of eccentricity in advertising prove, on closer examination, to embody a wide range of unsettling Victorian values and social attitudes. Before you know it you can be knee deep in issues of creationism, gender, race, exploitation and colonialism and the apparent innocence of our bright eyed and not-so-bushy tailed simian friend will soon be a distant memory.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

From Orchard to Home

A small selection of publicity from the Twenties and Thirties produced by Chivers’ & Sons of Cambridge, famous for their range of canned fruit and vegetables, and jams and jellies. The small illustrations above are from a promotional booklet and display a graphic simplicity typical of the 1920’s – unambitious but not unattractive. Below are two contrasting examples from the 1930’s. The black and white ad from Punch is an effort to inject a little sophistication into an intrinsically basic product while the lower example makes a virtue out of the agricultural connections. To find out more, there is an informative history of the Chivers’ enterprise at Histon & Impington On-Line.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

The End of a Perfect Day

The advertising of tobacco products in British periodicals in the inter-war years was, for the most part, especially formulaic, dull and unimaginative. I can’t bring myself to display examples of just how awful much of it could be. Suffice to say that appeals to patriotism, grizzled old mariners and scenes of medieval pageantry predominated. Just occasionally there would be a campaign or individual effort that stood out from the rest. Wills (later Players) Gold Flake is a now defunct brand but in its heyday its distinctive yellow pack made it very easy to spot on the shelves of your tobacconist. The examples above are from 1929-30 and promote the art of nocturnal smoking by associating it with, respectively, the air of excitement generated in busy neon-lit city centres and the quest for relaxation at the end of a demanding working day. Both employ uncredited artists with a flair for evoking the atmosphere of mystery inherent in the landscape at night and make a refreshing change from the more common advertising clichés.

Advertisers in Britain were extremely quick to reach for an equestrian image when imagination deserted them. The world of horse racing, selectively portrayed, could be depended on to suggest quality, discrimination and the social status of the landed gentry. The jockey’s companion wears an animal fur wrapped casually around her throat to confirm the link with wealth and good breeding. Other images of air travel and intimate dining out were pressed into service as indicators of sophistication. It’s a brave effort to market the product to the fashionable and high status consumer and to suggest to those of more modest status that there’s something in it for them. The visual convention is that of fashion illustration and the simple uncluttered monochrome backgrounds bled out to the edge of the page make a strong impression. The pack shot is another idle recourse and something done far better across the Atlantic where there are no inhibitions about employing vast inflated images to bully the consumer into submission. British advertisers, mindful of the need for understatement, prefer a more conventional still-life arrangement (as on the right below) with typically pompous prose or construct a minor pretext, in this instance recalling notice boards with moveable plastic letters of the type sometimes seen even today in more dilapidated, down-at-heel office foyers. Perhaps this was a more high-end association when the ad was originally conceived in the late 1940’s. If you still wish to sample the pleasure of smoking a Gold Flake cigarette, they remain on sale in India, where it is one of the leading brands.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Gladys Peto (1890-1977)

I’ve always been intrigued by the illustrations of Gladys Peto. The combination of a precision line wrapped around flattened areas of colour and pattern gives them an unmistakeable flavour enabling them to be spotted at twenty paces. There’s some affinity with the world of William Brown but the children are often listless and lacking in energy. Another distinctive feature is the absence of shadows. Her figures, mostly children, inhabit a sunlit world in which not a single shadow falls on the ground. The result is subtly disorientating and contributes a certain dreamlike quality. They are superior versions of the type of drawing for children that inspired Glen Baxter’s exercises in the absurd.

The Bookman cover from October 1929 shows her at her best, employing a limited colour palette with a lovely wandering line and a perfectly weighted distribution of pattern and contour. This example of her advertising work for Allenbury’s Infant Foods is a striking image of a squadron of rosy-cheeked children in night attire drifting silently through the night sky with more than a hint of Art Deco. I soon discovered after some casual research that Gladys already has her internet champion in the person of Jeanette Payne whose blogspot (highly recommended) is entirely dedicated to her work. Jeanette is clearly an expert on her subject and has displayed the entire range of the Peto output including a fascinating selection of advertising illustration.

In the twenties and thirties there was a Gladys Peto industry turning out large format colour illustrated books for girls at Bedtime, Twilight or in the Gloaming! Times were Merry, there were Sunshine Tales, Playtime Stories, Summer Days, Holiday Stories and Happy Tales. There was a Peto product for every occasion and well behaved children everywhere were likely to be rewarded with gift-wrapped copies. Despite all this emphasis on pleasure, the children in the illustrations were almost always unsmiling, often with distinctly ambiguous expressions of the sort that Balthus became famous for. The sense of orderly tweeness is undercut by curious images of Alsatians taking afternoon tea or serried ranks of passive mute schoolgirls.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Coming, Sahib!

The disembodied brown hand of a native bearer enters the room through a Vorticist explosion of colour, gripping a brass tray laden with tall glasses, a crystal jug and a package of Horlick’s Malted Milk. All the way from Slough to refresh the hard pressed colonial administrator. It can even be mixed with brandy or sherry to make a “drink for the gods”.

Today, we examine the advertiser’s response to the challenge of advertising in India. Some of these examples address the realities of colonial life with explicit reference to the master-servant relationship. The ever attentive servant hovers in the background, almost unseen, ready to perform his duties with perfect self-effacement. The mem-sahib can relax in the knowledge that every household chore will be carried out with discretion and efficiency, leaving plenty of time for leafing through the pages of the Times of India Annual and dream of luxuries like a fashionable watch or a ciné camera. Many of the finest and most reassuring brand names from home can be found there. Peek Frean and Jacob’s biscuits, the perfect accompaniment to Brooke Bond Tea, Horlicks, Wincarnis and Eno’s Fruit Salts to calm the nerves, Pears’ Glycerine Soap for a matchless complexion and Wright’s Coal Tar Soap for well scrubbed children, Odol and Kolynos for gleaming teeth. All the comforts of home for the wives and daughters of the officer class.

One successful artist, possibly of Indian origin whose work features in both advertising and editorial illustration (including the covers) is William Spencer Bagdatopulos (born 1888). His signature appears on the two more exotic adverts for Pears’ and the Valet Auto Strop Safety Razor. The Pears’ image evokes a dreamy sensuality with a sultry foursome in provocative mood. The peacock in the background is the main player in the Valet advert with a severe, unsmiling androgynous creature mounted on its back. The Hindu God, Skanda is sometimes depicted mounted on Parvani the Peacock. Perhaps there is a connection with the world of wet shaving. Follow this link to see some poster designs by Bagdatopulos promoting India as a tourist destination.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Going Home

More advertising from the Raj, with the focus on transport and communications. These sectors were more likely than any other to play up the image of the exotic sub-continent and these examples are typical with their hot colours and deep shadows. The great steamship lines represented the vital link with the mother country for the exhausted colonial master wearily casting a nostalgic backward glance to the freezing fog and drizzle of the green hills of home. And, with the assistance of Callender’s finest cables there are telegrams to dispatch and even the possibility of a brief telephone conversation with loved ones at home.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Nunc est Bibendum

About ten minutes walk south from Albertopolis is the wonderful Michelin Building at 81 Fulham Road. In January 2011 it will be a century since its inauguration. But despite its great age it remains in excellent condition with virtually all the original decoration intact. It was a remarkable conception to design a building that, in its entirety, functioned as an enormous permanent advertisement for Michelin products. In doing so it had one great advantage over all its rivals in the existence of a uniquely successful brand character, Monsieur Bibendum, ripe for exploitation. The image of Bibendum is everywhere on this building in two and three dimensions plus, spectacularly, in stained glass. Every facade and every feature is designed to reinforce the Michelin brand and embed it in the public consciousness. In this sense it has a clear affinity with the Victorian tradition of narrative architecture typical of nearby Albertopolis. It could even be argued that the intensity of commercial imagery begins to take on transcendent or religious overtones. The prominent stained glass feature and the chapel-like frontage on to Fulham Road possess an almost spiritual fervour.
According to Olivier Darmon’s book, ‘One Hundred Years of the Michelin Man’, the character made his debut in April 1898, his form having been inspired by a stack of tyres. The artist responsible was the splendidly named O’Galop. Images of Bibendum rapidly proliferated in poster campaigns and public appearances to the point where it very quickly became one of the best known characters of the century. Rotund, bespectacled and non-threatening, Bibendum was ideally equipped to achieve an extraordinarily high degree of public recognition. The Michelin company was relentless in the deployment of its mascot in the service of publicity; it has been estimated that more than 20,000 images of Bibendum were circulated between 1898 and 1930. The unique brilliance of this character is that it can be inserted into virtually any situation and a humorous response is guaranteed.
When I was a student in this part of London in the 1960’s this building was much admired, I suspect, in part, because its playful air matched the prevailing Pop Art sensibility. It was riotously eccentric and also contained echoes of the Art Nouveau tradition which was being rehabilitated at the time. The building survives resplendent in its present incarnation as Food Hall and Restaurant. The only disappointment of my recent visit was discovering that contractors have surrounded all of the Fulham Road frontage and part of the Sloane Avenue frontage with a gigantic excavation making photography extremely difficult. So most of these views are of details and the bigger picture will have to wait for another occasion.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Albertopolis Part Three

The Royal College of Organists is the subject of the third stage of our exploration of Albertopolis. This is a compact, bay fronted, four storey building adjacent to the Royal College of Art in the lee of the Albert Hall. It was originally built to house the National Training School for Music in 1875-76 to a design by H H Cole and from 1904 to 1991 it was the home of the Royal College of Organists. The visibility of the building benefits greatly from a decision to distinguish its design from that of the Albert Hall by refraining from the use of red-brick and terracotta. The plasterwork that animates the entire facade was applied in the form of decorative panels in preference to architectural mouldings. A generous provision of glazing is another distinctive feature and was dictated by the need to read musical scores.

The true glory of this building, which appears to be in near perfect external order, is the incised plaster (sgraffito) decoration designed by F W Moody in the form of multiple friezes of musician-cherubs and their instruments combined with vertical and horizontal panels of repeating patterns derived from musical forms. Assemblages of heraldic devices incorporating instruments celebrate Rhythm and Harmony and the scheme is held together by a subtle colour harmony of cream, maroon and pale blue. The projecting bay windows at second and third floor level strike an exotic note and have lead to comparisons with Istanbul and Venice. There is a detailed account of the origins of the building at British History Online and the Victoria & Albert Museum has an online tour of Albertopolis that can be accessed by clicking here.