Monday, 28 February 2022

Great Railway Stations No. 20, Newcastle Central Station

Two abiding memories of this grand and impressive station.  First from a Saturday evening in 2015 when I wandered into the vastness of the Centurion Bar that occupies the former First Class Passenger Lounge.  The lavish ornamentation for which it is famous, including some spectacular Burmantofts faience, was lost in the gloom - every table was packed with voluble drinkers whose voices strained to be heard over the grossly amplified music that oscillated on the threshold of pain and stunned the senses.  In the 1960s the lounge was converted to provide the British Transport Police with a suite of prison cells for miscreants. Second is a childhood memory of stepping through the slick of blood that smeared the pavement and puddled on the cobbled street as it flowed from a nearby slaughterhouse in the vicinity of the station. The latter image is attached to my late 1950s recollections of time spent watching trains pass through on the East Coast mainline - an exciting procession of prestigious expresses and filthy freight trains dragging long lines of coal wagons destined for local furnaces and power stations.

The most striking feature of the station interior is the elegant curving form of three cast-iron barrel vaults each supported on slender columns - the eye is drawn to the central glazing sections and the formal repetitions enhance the sense of generous overhead space.  The platforms are spanned by a footbridge that inscribes a gentle arc across the tracks.  Platforms 7 and 8 were built to accommodate four tracks of which two remain in place, enhancing the sense of scale and space.  There’s an air of grandeur that reflects the ambition and confidence of the North Eastern Railway.  All these features were part of the station as originally completed in 1850 (a year before Paxton’s Crystal Palace) and have survived all subsequent rebuilding.  This was all the work of a versatile local architect, John Dobson, who also designed churches, chapels and cemeteries, shops, markets and arcades, and banks, gaols and country houses. The building is protected by a Grade 1 listing dating from 1954 and is one of only 10 examples to earn a 5 star rating from Simon Jenkins in his 2017 anthology, Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations.


Thursday, 10 February 2022

Postcard of the Day No. 107, County Arcade Leeds

This postcard view of the County Arcade in Leeds shows something of what was on sale in the first decade of the arcade’s existence (1900-1910) - there was a Jeweller, Hairdresser, Optician, Confectioner and seller of umbrellas. The opulent architecture is identical to what we see today. On my annual visit to Leeds I always pay my respects to the splendour of the County Arcade. Although the gleaming mahogany shopfronts stock little of interest to me, the sheer visual exuberance of Frank Matcham’s theatrical fantasy always captivates. The repetition of ornamental cast iron ribs decorated with brilliantly coloured Burmantofts faience, Sienna marble pilasters, balustraded balconies, stone ball finials, and wonderful gilded mosaic panels combine to delight the eye. The Victoria Quarter in Leeds has been valued and cherished as a priceless civic asset offering a sense of continuity with the Victorian heyday of a proud industrial city.  Click here to read a previous post from 2008 on this subject.


Tuesday, 1 February 2022

Deutsche Plakate (1888-1933)

The sheer strength and visual power of German graphics always command attention and admiration.  Their confidence in asserting their message with clarity and simplicity is exemplary. Nothing quite equals the forceful expression of the Sachplakat style - image, text, colour, impact - that was pioneered by Lucian Bernhard in or around 1910.  It was a technique that broke through the visually seductive, decorative and ultimately over-elaborated language of Art Nouveau/Jugendstil that had dominated the previous decade or more. Suddenly all the panels of attenuated floral forms were rendered stale and formulaic.  Distorted and distended letter forms that privileged decoration over legibility gave way to the unadorned brevity of Bernhard’s simple but muscular fonts.  Sachplakat images required no more than a glance from a moving train or vehicle to deliver their content - the accelerating pace of urban life left little time for a leisurely contemplation of the visual complexities of a Jugendstil-inspired poster on a Morris advertising column.  The strong colours and bold imagery of Sachplakat posters were designed to punch through all the visual noise of the urban environment and catch the eye of the consumer in an instant in which the brand name could drill into the unconscious mind.

Based on a Berlin exhibition in 1992, this book (Kunst, Kommerz, Visionen, 292 pages, ISBN 3894660384) is one of the best available surveys of German commercial graphics and many of the illustrated examples have rarely, if ever been seen in other surveys.  The review period is 1888 to 1933 and guides the reader through the early years in which the prime influences were Jugendstil and La Revue Blanche to the Sachplakat era and beyond as the austere Bauhaus geometry became progressively more embedded in the visual culture of Weimar Germany.  What also changed in this period was that advertisers extended their psychological reach into the minds of consumers. It was no longer enough to communicate product information.  Consumers needed to be convinced about the merits of the product in the clearest possible visual language which left no space for gentle persuasion.  Brand names - Persil, Osram, Bosch, Opel, Manoli - needed to be fixed in public consciousness for which Sachplakat was the perfect vehicle, these being the only words you would see on a typical example. The image would be stripped to essentials and expressed via simplified forms and clearly defined areas of flattened colour. Sachplakat was an innovation that prepared the ground in which the Bauhaus philosophy of design could take root and endure.

These page-spreads give a flavour of the book although I have chosen to omit examples from the section that deals with the influence of Expressionism.  This is nothing less than personal prejudice - I have limited appetite for the savagely brushed letterforms and the direct and intentionally crude drawing styles found in the work of Kokoschka, Corinth, Otto Dix and Max Pechstein.  Though I must concede this genre offers a convincing reflection of the ideological conflict and political violence that overshadowed the Weimar era and Otto Dix, in particular, was an enormously impressive painter. I suppose it strikes a discordant note where the main focus is on consumer culture - propaganda versus persuasion. And that might be the point of its inclusion. I have to admit there is value in seeing these distinct genres side by side. Just not here.

Other than to note that the British approach to advertising art was formed in a much more timid, conservative visual culture where innovation was a rich source of ridicule, it seems unfair to make a detailed comparison, given that German designers were able to draw on a much deeper artistic tradition where risk-taking and challenging boundaries was not so unwelcome. There were British designers who were aware of what could be learned from Germany - among them was the figure of Ashley Havinden about whom we posted last year.  In 1926 Havinden and his boss W S Crawford (ad agency founder) visited Berlin on a scouting expedition and met with Bernhard and other designers whose work they were familiar with from the pages of Gebrauchsgraphik then travelling to Munich where they met Ludwig Hohlwein. Following this Crawford established a Berlin office from which to service the Europe-wide Chrysler account which Havinden managed from 1927-28. One of Crawford’s Berlin designers was Terence Prentis (1904-46), whose Chrysler poster is shown below - his work was featured in Gebrauchsgraphik in September 1929. On his return to London Prentis was a co-founder of Colman, Prentis and Varley advertising agency in 1934, a major agency that remained in business until 1974.