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Pastoral, commercialisation, and vulgarity: the LJ version of my latest at the Torygraph - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
Pastoral, commercialisation, and vulgarity: the LJ version of my latest at the Torygraph


Pastoral, commercialisation, and vulgarity


A very dear friend of mine [I can say, here, that it was tree_and_leaf] – with whom I agree about practically nothing – recently adverted me to the wonder that is MemoryPrints, a site owned by Cabinet UK Ltd, that is in a partnership with the V&A, the Railway Museum, the Courtauld Institute, and so on.  In particular, my friend noted the ‘vintage railways posters’ section, and, like the happy anorak I am, off I toddled.


In many ways, of course, it was a visit with old friends: Sunny South Sam; the Jolly Fisherman (Skegness is, I should think, particularly bracing just now).  The LNER is fixed forever in its classic form, advertising the east coast as the drier side; the Southern is captured in its eternal moment, celebrating the early summertide of the South (were one to accept all that was implicit in the Southern’s advertising, one had expected languid caballeros strumming guitars in Bournemouth or a souk in Brighton); the GWR hurtles unrelentingly towards a gilded West preserved as in amber.


Some things emerge.  Terriers beseeching one to take one’s dog along; whimsical elephants advising that one may and ought to send one’s (wait for it) trunks ahead; East Coast Follies; East Coast Types (from donkey boys to Scottish fishwives): every appeal is made.  Herne Bay and Epping Forest figure in numerous posters as desirable destinations: it is a measure of my own mind that my immediate reaction to seeing the name of either place is criminological.  (For those of purer mind and life, I should note that Herne Bay was famously – or infamously – the site of the first ‘Brides in the Bath’ murder committed by George Joseph Smith, and Epping Forest, notorious for murders including the 1970 ‘Babes in the Wood’ murders.)  Themes emerge: the regions of England, of Scotland, and of Ireland (less so, those of Wales); cathedral cities; Rabbie Burns’ Country (when the traditional regions palled), Sir Walter Scott’s Country, Shakespeare’s Country, Sir Francis Drake’s Country, the painterly Constable Country.  There are race day specials, Cup Final specials, exhibition specials (poultry and pigeons).  Ruins with poetic, Romantic, and abbatial associations are celebrated.  Nor are the up trains forgotten: London is depicted in all its pomp and splendour, monarchs and lords mayor, the Thames and St Paul’s iconic upon the skyline.


The art and artistry – and the artfulness – is astounding.  The LMS in particular was partial to showing its engines being built or its permanent way being completed, and the best of these by, Terence Cuneo, say, are brilliant genre paintings that leave Ford Madox Ford standing.  Equally impressive is the bold, pure colour of Tom Purvis, which defied the conventions of the medium.  For make no mistake, the railway poster was a medium with certain conventions of its own, so much so that – at the dictates of technology – it is not always possible at first glance to distinguish Frank Newbould from, let us say, Leslie Carr, or even Norman Wilkinson.


Within – and precisely not in despite of – that convention, great art came forth.  Cuneo, Wilkinson, Newbould, and Frank Henry Mason were, simply, great artists.  Some of the paintings that became railway posters: the series of paintings that were used for series of adverts – ‘Service to Industry’, ‘Havens and Harbours’, Wilkinson’s paintings of minor public schools for the LMS (Fettes, Oundle, that placed named for an agricultural implement … ah!  Yes, Harrow, that’s it … one doesn’t see one’s own school, or WinCo), the history paintings for such destinations as Carlisle and Ely – stand out like Canalettos amidst chocolate boxes.  And, after all, it was in Newbould’s work for the railways that his justly famous ‘Your Britain – fight for it now’ war posters were implicit: Alfriston Fair, the South Downs, and a cathedral scene I find (said he, archly) remarkably familiar.


And yet….  This was art, ultimately, in the service of Mammon.  It was selling something; and it was a sell.  In the 1920s, Norman Wilkinson painted St Paul’s for a railways advert: London, the seat of Empire by the grace of God.  And then one turns to two posters by Mason: London once more. The first – both were done for the Great Western, the artistic connexions of which included, after all, Frith and Turner – dates to 1938 and shows – more aptly than Mason knew – London as night fell: the Tower, the Thames, the bridge and beyond.  The second, from 1946, is entitled ‘London Pride’, and shows London River and the gleaming dome of St Paul’s in cloudless day.  It is beautiful; and, showing as it does none of the still-present scars of the war, it is profoundly false.  A sell.


In this were the seeds of the grim future.  The urgent post-War attempts of the Big Four to survive by trading on nostalgia rang false.  In the Twenties and early Thirties, one needn’t have been John Betjeman to indulge such propositions as Surrey’s being ‘London’s Highlands’, or to respond to promises of thatch and packhorse bridges and old coaching inns.  The Big Four’s Betjemanic attempts to recapture that innocence, and still more the more febrile attempts at it by the nationalised British Railways, failed; and what cane after was unbearable.  There were the 1960s and 1970s graphical monstrosities, deliberately ugly, faux-primitif.  There was ultimately the final BR logo, the Arrow of Indecision, resembling nothing so much as a particularly nasty derailment.  At the last came the final indignity: Jimmy Savile in his ghastly trackies, the overt appeals to use the train for your dirty weekends, and the 1975 InterCity poster consisting simply of a Page Three girl, wearing a shirt and a hat and nothing else, bra-less (and this is clamantly, pokingly evident), and the slogan, ‘Want to see a friend this weekend?’: a (wait for it) naked appeal to what would nowadays be called, simply, the booty-call market.


You may, as your temperament dictates, regard this as progress towards a sterner honesty, the end of a period of slick, commercial deception; or as symptomatic of national decay.  I can only say, How the mighty are fallen: and I am far from rejoicing in their fall.

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noeon From: noeon Date: January 12th, 2010 01:01 am (UTC) (Link)
Not with a bang but a tit shot?

It is odd that one can be nostalgic for the sell, but the encapsulation of what is valued or what stirs the imagination certainly means something. What we want and who we imagine ourselves to be perhaps.

Now I have to find an idle moment to seek out the site, although typing that on LJ seems the height of disingenuousness.
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