Sunday, 25 January 2009

Les Baigneuses de Boulogne

An unseasonal trip to the sea in the company of this fine group of females, enjoying the hard-won freedom to immerse themselves in seawater. Unintimidated by the climate of prudery represented by the bathing machines encroaching from behind, they confidently make the most of their day in the sun, presenting their best faces to the camera. The bathing machines could be the advancing army of the guardians of public decency, outraged by this display of immodesty. Travelling westwards to le Touquet, we encounter a group of young, smartly dressed, adolescent males taking the air with a certain swagger at the water’s edge. Another group have taken control of a small boat, grounded on the sand, and stare wistfully in the direction of the breaking waves and the open sea with a hunger for adventure. In the postcard universe, the crashing of the waves is silenced and the sea breezes are stilled, but the colour and light, the surface textures, and the sheer sensation of time and place remain marvellously preserved.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Cigar Smoke

Postcards depicting back-breaking manual labour were very popular. Perhaps they reminded the holiday maker of the situation from which they had (temporarily) escaped. The above card from Cuba is exceptional in the degree to which the workforce appears oppressed and exhausted by the tasks they must accomplish. Shifting these massive and weighty bales around has induced a mood of weary lethargy. The second card (below) relates to an earlier stage in the process with an image of a Cuban Tobacco Barn in which the tobacco leaves would have been cured. The third card shows a room full of workers engaged in the art of hand-rolling cigars in a Florida factory. Cigar production was a long and labour-intensive activity and it is pleasing to find some recognition of this in these fascinating postcards.

Thursday, 22 January 2009


These attractive and uncredited illustrations come from a promotional book published by the Carlsberg Brewery in the early 1950’s. The book itself is a rather sober affair with a lot of text and monochrome photographs explaining the brewing process. The visual monotony is relieved by the presence of these intensely coloured, double page illustrations. Stylistically they are untypical of the period. Modified elements of sachplakat are combined with vigorous, scrubbed brushwork. The colour palette is one of deep and rich hues deployed with great flair, supported by some deceptively sharp and accurate drawing. They demonstrate the worldwide availability and natural goodness of Carlsberg with carefully considered images structured in an almost cinematic fashion. The luminosity of the paper and the colour selections combine to produce a sense of spaces flooded with light. It’s deplorable that the identity of the artist went unacknowledged. Sadly, this was so often the fate of the inventive, highly skilled and grossly undervalued commercial illustrator.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Helen Madeleine McKie (1889-1957)

This group of illustrations by Helen McKie come from a promotional book entitled “Ford at War” published in 1946 to celebrate the Ford contribution to the war effort. Ford’s Dagenham factory complex produced vast quantities of military vehicles plus marine and aircraft engines and all aspects of the operation are described in these illustrations. McKie worked through two world wars as an artist/illustrator concentrating on genre scenes rather than combat but this task must have involved many hours of observation in heavy industrial surroundings and seems to have brought a new edge to her work. Forges and machine shops are not familiar territory for female artists although, like Laura Knight, she had no problem making herself at home there. McKie’s paintings bear comparison with Knight’s factory scenes possessing the same robust characteristics despite a lighter quality of paint handling. The presence of such a large female contingent in the workforce is properly recorded in the Dagenham pictures; confident and poised female workers are well in evidence.

Biographical information on Helen McKie is thin on the ground. She is not recorded in the Dictionary of Twentieth Century British Book Illustrators. The best source is the Archive of Art and Design which holds a collection of her personal papers. Much of her work was carried out for magazines and has never been gathered into one place. Magazine illustration is extremely ephemeral and McKie is one of many unsung illustrators whose reputation has suffered as a result. Her drawings were always lively and well observed and she had a genuine flair for portraying crowds. The paintings of Waterloo Station packed with travellers that she produced for the Southern Railway were wonderful demonstrations of skill. Please follow this link to the Science & Society Picture Library to see them plus a generous selection of her other work.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Postcard of the Day No. 24, Ostende

Two gentlemen of leisure, unencumbered by luggage, stroll across the deck of a Dover bound ferry at Ostende. Bidding farewell to the uncivilized chaos of Continental Europe and looking forward to a welcome return to the country of courtesy, cricket and warm beer. Or perhaps, reluctantly leaving behind the superior food, music and architecture of Continental Europe and anticipating the obnoxious food and foul manners of the arrogant English. These are some of the last days of peace before Europe descends into the barbarism of mechanised warfare. For those with the funds to afford it, there was a freedom to travel the globe with an ease that could never be achieved again.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Transporter Bridges Revisited

This fabulous postcard explains the romance of this antiquated but astonishing bridge technology. This is a view of the car, or gondola, that glides through the air as it crosses the River Usk at Newport. It is very similar to the example constructed in Marseille to a design by the same engineer, Fernand Arnodin (see below). There’s an affinity with the world of the seaside pier but the ornate period architecture of the shelters and control tower and the overhead canopy suggest a distinctly theatrical experience. It’s not difficult to imagine this structure simply carrying on when it reaches the distant shore and gaining altitude as it sails across the Bristol Channel and out into the open Atlantic. Next stop, Coney Island.

The gondola has an air of ramshackle fragility when compared with the mass and weight of the supporting structure. The platform would make the perfect location for a dinner party; the gentle motion of the gondola would, no doubt, assist the digestive process. There’s space to accommodate an army of chefs and even a small orchestra to grace the occasion. It would also make an unusual and rather pleasing location from which to have one’s ashes scattered. The Newport bridge has been out of action for over a year but there is encouraging news in this report in the South Wales Argus of January 2, 2009. Previous postings on this topic are here and here.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Howdy Podner!

A raffish cowboy welcome to Sin City. An unsophisticated image with a lewd wink, an upturned thumb and a mis-shapen cigarette wedged between the lips. Inside the card is a lavish display of buildings devoted to amusement and pleasure. The object of the exercise is to lose enormous sums of money to enable the casino operators to make a return on their investment in contemporary architecture and some of the largest neon signs in existence.

Architectural styles pioneered in California such as Coffee Shop Modern followed the highway across the desert from Los Angeles to Las Vegas as California based entrepreneurs took full advantage of relaxed Nevada gambling laws. These images include examples from some of the masters of these mid-century styles such as Wayne McAllister, architect of El Rancho Vegas, the Desert Inn and the Sands Hotel, the latter, a spectacular exercise in Late Moderne. The Hotel Flamingo was designed in California Modern style by George Vernon Russell; the client was Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, noted LA mobster of fond memory. The Flamingo opened in December 1946 and closed in February 1947 having lost a colossal sum of money in a very short time. There was more bad news for Siegel four months later when a bullet in the back of the head that exited through his eye socket, brought his life to an end at the tender age of 41.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Cleveland Noir

These images are greyscale versions of colour originals from a postcard folder celebrating the city of Cleveland, Ohio in the 1940’s. The Forties was the great decade of Film Noir and it’s intriguing to note just how much these adjusted images resemble storyboarding for some great unmade Film Noir. Pools of light enclosed by large wedges of dense black shadow. Deserted freeways, windswept, neon lit sidewalks, empty hotel lobbies, Art Deco cocktail lounges – all perfect locations in which to intimidate a witness, blackmail a friend, commit murder or dump a corpse. The smell of cigar smoke and cheap perfume lingers in the air. The city streets make a lethal breeding ground for alienation, paranoia and betrayal. The ghosts of Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang glide silently through the shadows. Somewhere off-screen, Gloria Grahame, John Garfield, Gene Tierney and Robert Mitchum are preparing themselves for a long night of emotional treachery, mutual deceit and sudden violence in front of the camera.

Monday, 12 January 2009

F Moore, a fictional identity

In the lower right corner of a multitude of railway pictures in children’s annuals, railway books and picture postcards, the neat signature of F Moore can be easily distinguished. I spent some time researching the identity of this artist only to discover that there was never such a person. The name had been devised by the Locomotive Publishing Company to conceal the identity of Thomas Rudd, who so far as can be established created all these images in the form of oil paintings based on black and white photographic originals. The full story was told by V R Webster in the November 1984 issue of Railway World in a comprehensive article (F. Moore, the story of a notable railway artist, page 582). The publishers realised that while locomotive enthusiasts would be content with monochrome images, colour was essential if sales to the general public were to be expanded.

Mr Webster recorded a bewildering amount of detail in his article about the revisions, amendments, anomalies and inconsistencies to be detected as well as the plethora of publications in which they appeared. He catalogued some 626 separate subjects produced between 1897 and 1933. Most were painted on top of card-mounted photographs measuring about 10” by 15”. A number of originals have survived and most are in the collections of the Science Museum and the National Railway Museum. Mr Rudd did a lot more than add colour to the images and displayed considerable drawing skills when it came to redrafting from the original. The image at the top of this post shows the entrance to Woodhead Tunnel in the Pennines and Mr Webster discovered by comparison with the photographic original that the composition was almost entirely revised by Rudd. The train that emerges from the tunnel towards us was entirely Rudd’s invention and the locomotives about to enter the tunnel had their identities completely changed. All that remained of the original was the background and the footplateman whose head is turned back towards the viewer.

As for the elusive and overworked Thomas Rudd, eyewitness accounts are few but he seems to have been an unassertive and unambitious individual. The suppression of his identity may well have been a consequence of the business culture in Edwardian publishing where a rigid hierarchical structure prevailed in which Mr Rudd was no more than a low status technician despite the enormous amount of money generated by his artwork. One small insight is to be found in the story that Mr Rudd was instructed to cease working at his home and work instead at the company office where it was believed he would be more productive under direct supervision.

The published images with an F.Moore signature vary in quality but at their best they reflect a high degree of technical skill in which accurate rendering of engineering detail takes precedence over all other aspects. In many instances landscape details are a product of the artist’s invention and appear disappointingly generalised and lacking in character. The potential drama of light and shade offered by brilliant sunlight is scrupulously avoided, presumably to avoid obscuring vital details. Thus the results are sometimes short on atmospheric qualities and have little of the visual excitement that often accompanies railway subjects. What remains is a kind of stilted period charm and a persistent air of unreality. It would be interesting to know how much Mr Rudd was paid for his efforts but it would be no more than a tiny fraction of the lucrative returns his employer obtained from such widespread exploitation of the images. As well as magazines, books and postcards, they turned up on jigsaws, art prints, cigarette cards and collectors’ stamps. These examples come from my own books and cards and offer a reasonably representative selection.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Un flâneur?

One of my readers recently said in conversation that in this blog I come across as a bit of a flâneur. I did my best to appear blasé, as if such comments were an everyday event but under the surface I was secretly rather thrilled. Could I possibly have contrived a convincing impression of a flâneur? Is it a compliment to be mistaken for one? Is my definition of a flâneur the generally accepted one?

In my mind, the term “flâneur” is indelibly associated with the writing of Baudelaire and the paintings of Manet. A flâneur is someone who is in the city but not of the city. An intrepid explorer of the insalubrious and unfashionable neighbourhoods and an astringent observer of wealthy and fashionable ones. A collector of obscure information and a connoisseur of the absurd and neglected. The Baudelairean association implies a rather dandified appearance of understated elegance. A flâneur takes pleasure in the extremes of human behaviour to be observed and delights in the random and piquant contrasts typical of city streets. The worlds of commerce, leisure, travel and architecture come under scrutiny. Something between a social anthropologist and an urban explorer.

So, is the designation of “flâneur” entirely honourable or is there a downside? I suspect there are two inherent dangers in excessive devotion to flâneurism. The cultivation of a cold analytical eye and a studied air of detachment could easily give rise to a profound disenchantment with the common run of humanity that in turn might rapidly curdle into a generalised contempt. Not an attractive quality in anyone. In extreme cases, a flâneur develops such an intense refinement of sensibility that almost anything that falls short of perfection will give offence. The second danger lies in the development of specialised language and vocabulary with which to analyse and interpret the data gathered by the flâneur. An active and committed flâneur gathers an immense volume of disparate information and in an effort to make sense of this blizzard of data it is easy to resort to impenetrable language and over intellectual jargon. It makes no sense to develop ideas in such a convoluted form that virtually nobody can understand them so this should always be avoided.

My friends and enemies alike are of one mind when considering to what extent my fashion sense could be described as dandified. All are agreed, the idea is preposterous. No evidence of an unusual flair for dressing well has ever been detected. Whether a lack of sartorial distinction is enough to disqualify me as a flâneur is a matter for debate. But a more serious reason for disqualification may be a lack of commitment. I suspect it is just not possible to be a part-time flâneur and any attempt to do so is doomed. An additional prerequisite of hard-core flâneurism is private means. The responsibility of earning a living would present a compromise too far. At the top of this column is an illustration that appears to reflect the world of the flâneur but on closer examination, the two most likely candidates for the accolade, fail the test. The man on the right in the smock who stares down at the railway tracks emerging from Gare St-Lazare is clearly a member of the working class but enforced idleness cannot be taken for flâneurism. The toff on the left who advances towards us has the correct bearing and social status but any claim he may possess to be a flâneur is fatally undermined by the presence of a female companion. Flâneurism is a solitary occupation. A gregarious flâneur is better described as a boulevardier - an opportunist in search of the pleasures of city life with no interest in observing or analysing anything that does not further their own self-interest.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Postcard of the Day No. 23, Bordeaux

A weekend walk in the park in early Twentieth Century formal dress. Almost every face is turned away from us. Tiny visual echoes of long vanished lives can be detected. The camera captures the scene with the same compositional neutrality as Manet employed in Music in the Tuileries. A large cast of figures pass the photographer’s plate including schoolgirls accompanied by a governess, bowler-hatted gentlemen, deep in conversation, a pair of soberly attired, tight-waisted females, and right of centre, a nurse pushes a pram and a small and startlingly luminous girl turns her head towards us. She has an almost spectral presence. The footbridge in the background is packed with the to and fro of Sunday strollers. The rigid period dress codes extend to leisure activities. For those fortunate to live a full lifespan, two world wars lie ahead and an old age spent in truly baffling times.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009


During the 1950s, Schlitz beer was regularly advertised in America’s great weekly illustrated magazines as an essential accompaniment to a contented family life. These examples from 1953 and 1958 show how the American family gradually lost a sense of three-dimensionality as illustrators discarded conventional modelling techniques in favour of hard-edged clearly defined flat patterned shapes. An element of caricature crept in as physiques were stretched and elongated and eyes began to pop under the pressure of excessive excitement. The new Flatland of the late Fifties looks like a lot more fun when compared with the dull conventionality of life for the couple on the beach. It might be argued that the elimination of three-dimensionality reflected the rising tide of social conformity that typified the Eisenhower years.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009


Postcards are invaluable reference material about the past but, just occasionally, they can supply a glimpse into the future. As fossil fuels become exhausted we can expect to see a lot more of this kind of transport. There are few more potent ways in which one human being can assert their superior economic and social status over another than being conveyed in this fashion. The unfortunate provider of motive power is reduced to the condition of a beast of burden and compelled to compete for work with horses, donkeys and bullocks. Unappealing as it is, perhaps we should be preparing ourselves for this kind of toil. Human dignity is one of the first casualties of economic catastrophe.

Friday, 2 January 2009

The rewards of a close shave

A generous display of scantily clad Barbasol Babes selflessly dedicated to the task of eliminating facial hair from the American male by promoting the sales of Barbasol shaving products. This degree of raunchiness would soon become unacceptable in the 1950s but the moral climate of the immediate post-war years was rather more forgiving. No fear of reproach or censure to divert these femmes fatales from their responsibilities. The keen eye will note the presence of a Barbasolette whose fancy has been tickled by an expertly navigated feather to the extent that her upper body is almost entirely disrobed. The credit for this act of gratuitous graphic undressing must go to a previous owner of this copy of Life magazine whose pencils and erasers have been deployed with limited expertise in this curiously perverse mission to expose. Among the other minor dramas in this compilation are a vigorous demonstration of the art of resuscitation, some gentle gardening and even a little telephone sex. The rewards of a close shave.