From 1968 until the turn of the century, John Fowles lived at Belmont, his home in Lyme Regis, Dorset. Author of The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the latter is a post-modern take on the spirit of Thomas Hardy, an investigation of the Victorian psyche written in the midst of the 1960s’ liberating atmosphere.
Belmont has been restored in the last decade by the Landmark Trust, and is preserved in its original eighteenth century form: all traces of Victorian additions, save for the observatory, have been removed. When I visited, you could see John Fowles’s teapot in the adjoining stable room and a few sentences. Otherwise, his ghost is exorcised.
Yet beneath the idealised re-creation of a 1790s townhouse, now a Wes Anderson-esque confection landed by the car park, I found a deep melancholy.
Fowles’ Victorian imagination, which I think we can safely assume was fired by the house he found in 1968, has no place in this restoration for the 21st century. Yes, we have a beautifully preserved building after years of neglect, but – save for a weekend this year when it is open for the public to view – it only exists because the super-rich can afford to stay here (the Landmark Trust funds its restorations by renting out the properties).
It would be more than churlish to not appreciate the work of The Landmark Trust. We have to be so grateful that they have rescued so many buildings and left them alive with possibility for future generations.
Yet Fowles also wanted Belmont to be a retreat for nurturing new writers. At least this has been given some lip service, though I can find scant current information.
You can’t help thinking: our world could be so different, but we gallop towards extremes of beautifully-curated heritage and plate-glass luxe-life stores at one end, and at the other – well, the opposite, with not much in the middle.
For anyone still moved by other times & places – a ramble ontheir role in the everyday
Regular readers (both of you) will know I’ve tried to explore something which would draw together all the eclectic strands of those things which capture my imagination. They extend into my domestic life: each time I made a house into a home, it was not a look I was seeking to achieve (as in our century’s ‘look’ that competes and seeks approval) but an atmosphere, something I could be transported by. It’s never been the time I am living in, and ideally I’d be able to hop between 1967, 1637, 1937, with maybe the odd bit of 1814, 897 and so on. Yes indeed, a carriage crash of design on the toll road.
I know this sounds a bit grand, but my mind is a library of such atmospheres – scenes in books or films are not recalled in words but are felt. (Sure, all this will sound like something from Pseud’s Corner.) Sometimes the particular quality of the light or turn of the weather will send me to some glowering seventeenth century landscape, cider apples in the air, beeswax wafting through an oak door, the crackle of wood on the hearth.
Heat from a baked pavement might invoke a TV memory of a US city I’ve never been – distilled polaroid gold, a coffee-diesel bath of warm air, an oscillating bassline catching sky-high sun in the glitter pulse of cars on distant freeway, going where?
Just a glazing of frost and a finch squeaking on a bit of yew and I’m indoors with Mrs Oldknow at Green Knowe, a tang of woodsmoke, butter sliding off a muffin, amber light on old stone. I’m going to call these motifs – I’m sure there’s an official term, but that will do for a short ramble.
In a way it’s like a dog surveying a scene, contemplating the unremarkable, then wagging its tail for no perceptible reason. So why try to analyse the pleasure, which like most academic thought ultimately leads to a definition that dulls the magic?
I’ll quote this scene from the TV series The Durrells where the prosaic Leslie, who likes shooting animals, is talking with his sister Margo and articulates his role as a matter-of-fact foil for his family:
Margo: “Why are you so worried about the play?”
Leslie: “You’re all so artistic. I see… ‘a tree’, you lot see…”
Margo: “Broccoli. Trees look like upside down broccoli.”
…which is a neat puncturing of the concept of the artistic soul, but what if Margo had said, “I can hear hounds, there’s a figure through the acorns – I can hear his heart pounding and smell the sweat of fear…” where would it have come from? The Ladybird Book of Charles II?
A few years back I thought my imagination grew from children’s literature, but I think I have read more of it as an adult. At 10 years old I was trying to read Tess of the D’Urbevilles for example (before it got taken away). Maybe I felt all grown up after I’d finished Margery Sharp’s Miss Bianca books and went straight for the dour, tragic Victorians.
The worlds presented in a lot of young adult novels are
often chaotic and unformed (thinking, for example, of Alan Garner or Penelope
Farmer). But they also invite things to happen, quests for belonging and
reinvention, or simply, change – characters running to escape the banal and
mundane, the once weird and now weirder world of grown-ups where some odd
reason to judge, to smirk, deny or destroy is just beneath the skin.
Is there an audience of grown-ups out there still hungry for Ambrosia like Billy Liar, disenfranchised and disappointed, still hoping to find something more through the back of the wardrobe? Should we be embarrassed?
There are pleasurable motifs we carry with us and I think they’re essential to our sense of wellbeing, cinematic flashes of images and experiences internalised from reality or art. They can be used, if we want, to ‘create’ with our own filters applied.
And of course, there are unpleasurable motifs – things that
stifle, doubt and procrastinate, and darker places.
From Mary Shelley to Richard Jefferies, from the cult series Survivors of the 1970s to 28 Days Later, The Handmaid’s Tale right up to The Walking Dead (oh yes, Fear the… as well) I’ve always been fascinated by post-apocalyptic visions.
But visiting dystopian futures on screen or in novel has lost that playfully gothic frisson of unsettlement. Science fiction is an outdated term because stock fantasies are a reality, weaving their way into our lives like mutating tendrils from John Wyndham’s pen. We peer into our near future with Black Mirror or Years and Years. But where once it was reassuring to return from these nightmares, we’re now putting the kettle on with predictability now dearly-departed and anything seems possible.
Did we choose our motifs at an impressionable age? Do we
know where we found our fascinations? Are we more than the product of those who
shared their imaginary worlds, those authors and screenwriters who showed us
Herne the Hunter or that strange things happen when the wolves are running? I’d
like to think we came into the world predisposed to the things that move us.
Is this ‘childish imagination’ a virtual reality overlay? Are we summoning these atmospheres from our personal motifs to challenge us (overcome our fears, the monsters under the bed) or enhance our reality, whether we want it simplified or decorated, or to realise ourselves and our possibilities, or just to feel some magic among the mundanity?
Somewhere I have the germ of an idea that this might be about noticing and recognising. In reading or watching a story we absorb what are, after all, other people’s experiences. If they strike a chord, as motifs they become part of our own consciousness.
This is part of the act of reading fiction, to download the working of another’s mind, though in film an actor can do the same with barely the flex of a facial muscle or the shift of an eyelash. In this shared consciousness, there are connections from our own experiences (those ‘oh, you feel like that too’ moments). To continue a theme, we might be Game of Thrones’ Three Eyed Raven (the one who can “perceive the past, present and future through visions and time travel with ease”).
I’m not for a moment suggesting there is anything supernatural here, just using the ‘visionary’ trope to explore how a response to external ‘art’ becomes an internal experience which is ‘not real’ – as in not first-hand experience – but it becomes part of us, hidden until we notice and recognise it again, like the lamp-post from Narnia outside a branch of Aldi.
These motifs serve to remind us that things have been and will be, which is affirming, whether from light or dark. And so we end of up with a form of faith, a belief in the power of the imagination.
It would be great to hear if others enjoy a bit of time travel in the course of the everyday, or get transported in unlikely places when a motif is triggered…
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.
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.
The jury is out these days on D H Lawrence, and yet he was as much a part of the Swinging Sixties as Mary Quant or Christine Keeler, and it’s quite entertaining to see them in the same sentence. Rightly so it would seem, as there are those who think the trial over the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover kickstarted the sexual revolution of the coming decade.
There’s no doubt he chimed with the sixties’ moves towards liberation and would presumably have found an ideal home in the beardy and basic drawings of Dr Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex. And Oliver Reed and Alan Bates’ naked wrestling in the 1968 film of Women in Love put him again in the front line of changing attitudes. Thinking he was able to write about a woman’s feelings was his downfall, but it can’t be denied he was ahead of his time, and even if a little barking mad, had a genuine, fully realised moment, which the Penguin paperbacks here reflect.
Sons and Lovers and The Virgin and the Gypsy were also filmed, the photographic stills above using an idealised ‘natural’ beauty so prevalent for book covers around 1970, just a step ahead of a shampoo advert. The illustrated versions are by Yvonne Gilbert (who gained a little more fame in the eighties for her racier work for the band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, which you might guess from The Prussian Officer) and date from the late 1970s.
The move from an advertiser’s style of photography to illustration is interesting here… before it, in the early sixties, stylised artwork was prevalent, and after it, almost hyper-real illustration gave way to the use of imagery chosen with Merchant Ivory-style attention to period detail in the eighties.
My favourite is The Trespasser, for the lovely typography (excepting the full stops) and what they do with the W, and the enigmatic, half-shadowed figure in a full summer’s meadow.