Of all the illustrators you’d find in a mid-century public library (in my mind, there’s a formica desk, a lightly medicinal scent of polish from a parquet floor, heavy swing doors with perfect geometry and wired glass, perhaps a square of orange carpet and a few teak chairs with brown hessian covering) Charles Keeping would be the most striking, memorable or even haunting. His images for Rosemary Sutcliff’s work send you to an eerie half-lit dawn, atop a pagan burial mound, with the ominous glint of shields on the skyline, before you’ve even touched the paper.
Keeping’s imagery is connected for me with the spectral designs of someone like Tibor Reich, thinking in particular of his work for the Shakespeare Trust at Stratford in the 1960s. This, and many other designs of the era for public spaces, take us through portals to other times and places – communicating something far beyond the scope that titles like ‘illustrator’ and ‘designer’ are meant to suggest (‘lesser than an artist’, I assume).
Of course, a Victorian Town Hall hung with Burne Jones might serve a similar purpose, but these stylised, mid-century interpretations have something hauntological about them. They don’t reassure, but unsettle.
Charles Keeping’s late widow Renate made a short film to promote the gallery of work she had curated after his death in 1988, along with much more to explore on the Keeping Gallery website.
I’ve posted a few H E Bates covers before, but just to say again, I’ve no idea why he isn’t more appreciated these days. My own feeling is that he was too prolific and easily able to turn his hand to many genres, and much of his work was eclipsed by the Darling Buds of May. That’s a great shame, because his best work is incredibly bittersweet and melancholy in a warm, Septemberish kind of way.
Perhaps the titles here fit more into the prolific, career writer category, though of course Fair Stood the Wind for France has been incredibly popular: his output during, or drawing on, World War Two fairly cornered the market, from reminiscences of a fighter pilot to celebrations of rural life that were as much a part of capturing a country’s essence as the Recording Britain artists’ project.
Again the artwork moves from the late fifties to the early seventies. The Poacher gets the inevitable lusty Panther paperback treatment. (There was certainly a slight frisson of erotica in the way his work was sometimes portrayed, as if it brushed up against Henry Miller, and as proof I remember my grandma allegedly complaining that one of his books ‘had smut in it’.)
The Fabulous Mrs V is a perfect early Seventies ode to Martini-style sophistication. Mrs V appears to be wearing tennis whites, but if you look closer it’s actually far less practical and indeed one of Margo Leadbetter’s party dresses, and she has as much connection to the racket as an artefact from an alien spaceship.
Yet more mid-century fonts, layouts and illustration from Abbey Mills, North Wales
In the 21st century, anyone designing text and graphics has an infinite palette of colours and effects to throw at a design, and we can see the results vomited on street signs and shop fronts in all our towns. They’re not street signage of course, but the simple, effective designs here are not just a product of diligent training and effort, but also the restraints placed by what was technically possible. And surely these are delivering just as much impact.
It’s quite sad and a sign of the times that concise graphic design like this – used for everyday items, like food packaging, signage, informative and promotional materials – as opposed to book covers, artwork for music and posters, for example – has been shepherded into a visual language for what was once called the ‘discerning consumer’, shorthand for aspiring, likely to be sold overpriced product packaged beautifully or a word now rarely seen, ‘tastefully’.
In amongst all the mid century modernity, the Pepys layout above demonstrates an ongoing love of gentle baroque decoration, coloured like fine china.
More mid-century fonts, layouts and illustration from Abbey Mills, North Wales
All these images are a reminder of how much has been lost in the age of digital printing: a traditional printer was a true craftsman, custodian of skills passed through generations and now lost forever. Of course letterpress lives on as a niche artisan craft, but this kind of beauty was once an everyday item, as throwaway as a paper bag. The marriage of paper and colour is incredible, the tones so pure and vivid.
Mid-century fonts, layouts and illustration from Abbey Mills, North Wales
Featuring papers with names like Glastonbury Coloured Antique Laid, Basingwerk Parchment, Chariot Cartridge and British Oak Parchment this is a gorgeous volume. The production values are incredible, arresting the senses at every level, and even now the scent of musty forest hangs among its leaves.
Every letter is flawlessly crisp, and touching the many silks, sheens and matts of the papers makes you feel like a Tudor merchant plunging his hands into a trove of fabrics from a newly-arrived shipment.
Illustrations by Angela Barrett from a retelling of the story of Joan of Arc (text by Josephine Poole).
The following is from a profile of the illustrator published in The Guardian, 2006, by Joanna Carey. It’s just as you would hope…
“This strong feeling for the past extends to Barrett’s own surroundings – entering her mansion flat, in a Dickensian part of London, is like stepping into one of her illustrations. She works at a huge desk beneath a mirror, surrounded by artworks and curios. Aside from a digital radio and a propelling pencil, her life seems untouched by modern technology – certainly there’s no computer. And if she needs a light box, she simply pushes aside the tasseled drapes and tapes her rough drawings to the window in order to trace images on to watercolour paper.”
And this is fascinating:
“When I draw figures, I like to distort them a little – it heightens the emotion. I draw them again and again until they are just out of proportion.” She takes the same liberties with perspective, and her illustrations frequently have an illusory sense of theatre, with vistas opening up unexpectedly as the page turns. “When I’m travelling I love those fleeting glimpses you get between buildings, or through trees – it’s lucky I don’t drive; I’d always be turning for a second look … I love the way you are just left with a memory – it’s the lure of the unattainable.”