Sunday, 21 February 2010

Ronald Lampitt – an eye in the sky

Post-war Britain was a curiously unsettled place as the fruits of victory rapidly turned sour. As the war battered economy struggled to rebuild, a sullen and increasingly discontented population was subjected to continual shortages of basic products. The age of deference and physical inhibition still prevailed and the stiffest of upper lips was required to endure the worst winter weather of the century. Nostalgia for the great days of naval dominance and imperial expansion was endlessly promoted, not least by advertisers whose imagination went no further than photographing a new car parked outside a half-timbered cottage accompanied by some deathless prose invoking the great traditions of British craftsmanship. Countless examples of this dismal level of invention can be found in the pages of contemporary magazines where the spirits of Shakespeare, Nelson or Dickens were held to be enough to inspire the consumer.

A visual image of a pastoral Britain, untouched by the ravages of warfare, industry or mineral extraction was cultivated in books for children and popular illustration. It was a land of peace and plenty where the social order went unchallenged and purposeful toil was the order of the day. After his years in the RAF studying aerial imagery, nobody was better prepared than Ronald Lampitt to bring this vision to life. All these examples of his magazine covers paint a picture of cosy reassurance designed to obliterate the unpleasant realities of post-war austerity. He had a sharp eye for vernacular detail and a perfect understanding of how distance could lend enchantment. The resulting images are a permanent delight for the wandering eye as we travel, with detachment, through the twists and turns of an idealised landscape entirely conceived for our entertainment.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Ronald Lampitt (1906-1988)

Most English illustrators of the Twentieth Century are better documented than Ronald Lampitt. Bear Alley blog has a brief biographical note to which there is nothing I can add. His earlier work included three posters designed for the Great Western Railway in 1936 in a striking tessellated mosaic style, please follow this link for an example. His most admired work appeared in 1948 when he illustrated a book for children entitled The Map That Came To Life. The narrative describes two pioneering junior psycho-geographers (Joanna and John) on a cross-country walk following a route on an Ordnance Survey map. The accompanying illustrations observed from an aerial perspective translate the cartographer’s graphics into richly detailed images in a style similar to Clark Hutton. The entire volume can be viewed at Visual Telling of Stories.

Much later in 1962, the same team produced a follow-up, The Open Road in which Joanna and John get to ride the length and breadth of the national road network in Uncle George’s car and in the process acquire an encyclopaedic understanding of road signs, traffic engineering and responsible driving practice. A new world of motels, motorways and multi-storey car parks has arrived in the intervening fourteen years and Lampitt’s images faithfully reflect the new sterility of reinforced concrete alongside the traditional English pastoral. Lampitt was quoted in John Bull magazine attributing his fascination with aerial views to his war service in RAF Intelligence where he was employed making drawings from aerial photographs of bombing targets. Some of his cover designs for John Bull will feature in a future posting.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Fredric March

Fredric March was at the height of his fame as a Hollywood star in 1936 when this linen postcard was published showing his home in the Los Angeles exclusive gated community of Bel Air. William Wellman’s A Star is Born was filmed that year. March played the male lead and the role would assure his place among the Hollywood immortals. Like his industry colleagues, he found it impossible to resist the easy money to be made from celebrity endorsement and in 1938 he got very excited about the new DeSoto car with its streamline styling, handy shift and wide-range safety headlights. March was a lifelong Democrat and never succumbed to the rightward transition that afflicted so many of his fellow actors from Reagan to Heston and he remained a free agent, unsigned to any major studio. There are two cars parked outside his home – whether they are DeSotos is something best left to more expert eyes than mine.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Surprise of the Month

Fair play to the man from Dallas who, unafraid to under-estimate the intelligence of the public, set about inducing the readership of Esquire to pay up $1 per month in return for an unspecified item to be delivered to the home of a lucky recipient. Persuading the sophisticates of the executive dining room to fork out for such an unverifiable return may seem like the height of ambition but I like to think this scheme was wildly successful and made a fortune for our Texan venture capitalist as he sat in the mailroom of the Guardian Life Building stuffing plastic combs and harmonicas into padded envelopes. Below are a few more gift suggestions, mostly from the pages of Esquire. They suggest that the sophistication of Esquire readers may be more a matter of self-deception than a reality.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Three-Letter Products

Advertisers’ wisdom had it that brevity was all when it came to naming a product. A single syllable, easily remembered, would lend itself to simpler, more punchy, graphic treatment enabling the busy shopper to quickly locate it on the crowded supermarket shelf. There is a long tradition of three-letter product names and a selection is presented here. The popularity of this strategy seemed to peak in mid-century and many of these examples come from that era. Some, such as Lux, Oxo and Vim have a long history, the last-named having been launched by Lever in 1904 as a successor to the great Victorian colossus of branding, Monkey Brand. A few have sunk into commercial oblivion but most survive into the present suggesting there may be a longevity factor associated with three-letter names. Today’s preference in product names is for cryptic combinations of letters and numerals and a large and profitable industry has evolved to shoulder the burden of finding new names for old tosh.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Place de Clichy

Place de Clichy is a place of lasting fascination to map fanatics as one of the few locations in Paris where four arrondissements meet at a single point (8th, 9th, 17th, and 18th). As a result it contrives to be both everywhere and nowhere in particular. There’s no public amenity space or planting. An enormous volume of Parisian traffic circulates around the grandiose statuary at its centre – the bronze figure of Napoleonic Marshall de Moncey immortalised in the act of slaughtering the enemies of France towers over passing vehicles from a height of 14 metres.

The gargantuan grinning features of the cherubic but slightly sinister Bébé Cadum beam a message of hope to all Parisians with anxieties about personal hygiene. The avenue of trees draws us along boulevard des Batignolles and a 30 minute walk via Parc Monceau, with a slight left at Place des Ternes will bring us to Place de l’Étoile. Métro line 2 follows the same route, a few metres underground. To the left is rue d’Amsterdam that leads directly to the Quartier de l’Europe and Gare St-Lazare. This corner of the city has escaped the attention of developers and is physically little changed since the postcard was produced almost a century ago as the recent photographs confirm.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Blaise Hamlet

The north-west fringe of Bristol is the type of place that J G Ballard might have invented. It includes the vast and depressing acreage of Cribbs Causeway Shopping Centre, the M5 and M49 motorways, Filton Airfield and the tiny bucolic enclave of Blaise Hamlet, a curious place of pilgrimage for lovers of the extreme picturesque. Nine compact cottages were built around the meandering perimeter of a village green, every detail calculated to give the most intense impression of studied irregularity. The informal layout was intended to convey a sense of timeless theatricality. Building began almost exactly two hundred years ago in 1810. On completion their fame spread rapidly as Blaise Hamlet became an essential stopping point on any civilised tour of the West Country.

John Nash, with the assistance of George Repton, was the architect. The client was a Quaker banker, J S Harford and the brief was to provide a select group of retirement homes for his former employees. Steeply pitched hipped and half-hipped roofs covered in tile or thatch, over-height diamond and cylindrical chimney stacks with cut and faceted brickwork, oriel and bow windows with both rectangular and diagonal leaded lights and gabled porches combine to produce an almost manic quality of the picturesque. The hamlet was concealed behind high stone walls to protect the dignity of the occupants as recipients of charity. The stylistic details were faithfully transcribed into thousands of pattern books and widely imitated wherever there was a demand for the picturesque. A new generation of architectural clichés was born.

The current occupants are tenants of the National Trust who own and manage the hamlet. The modest dimensions of the internal spaces have to be balanced against the pleasure of living in such distinctive surroundings. It would be difficult to maintain an acquisitive lifestyle. Each cottage is Grade I listed so there’s no chance of a loft conversion, conservatory or uPVC double-glazing. No gnomes or decking in the garden, no satellite dish or wind turbine. Only two hundred years of calm seclusion amid the raucous turbulence of city life.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Track Inspector

This face displays all the tension and stress that goes with working for Network Rail. The latest low-emission sustainable method of track inspection places a heavy burden on the shoulders of the workforce, not to mention their legs. As long as we have workers of this calibre the nation’s rail infrastructure is in safe hands. Let us here salute these guardians of passenger safety and commend them for their unswerving diligence and devotion to duty. Of course if you’re fortunate enough to be managing Network Rail you could purchase this landscape with your spare change. To find out how, please follow this link.