Elgar’s bear: woodcuts from 1964

Unicorns and lawyers from BBC schools

Found in the attic squashed between the Skippy the Kangaroo TV annual and Amateur Gardening 1972. Illustrations by John Griffiths.

Above: Reclaiming the unicorn as a proud, kick-ass beast of legend as opposed to the My Little Pony makeover of recent years.
From ‘Mowing the Barley’ – lawyer spies a ‘handsome and clever’ maid, stalks her, then places her on his horse. Apparently they now live ‘in a happy content of life, and well in the station above her’. I take issue with this. If you were kidnapped on a horse and expected to live in a bus station you wouldn’t be happy at all.
Rather crestfallen lion who was hoping to reinvent himself as My Little Lion and got stuck with toxic masculinity again.
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Portals in public places: Charles Keeping and Tibor Reich

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.

Age of Kings, textile design by Tibor Reich

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.

Printer’s specimen book 1958, Pt.3

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’.

Calvin Swann

In amongst all the mid century modernity, the Pepys layout above demonstrates an ongoing love of gentle baroque decoration, coloured like fine china.

Uncredited

Printers’ specimen book 1958, Pt.2

More mid-century fonts, layouts and illustration from Abbey Mills, North Wales

Ru van Rossem

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.

Judith Bledsoe
John O’Connor
Thomas Hennell

Printers’ specimen book, 1958, Pt. 1

Mid-century fonts, layouts and illustration from Abbey Mills, North Wales

Designed by Eric Fraser, originally from Curwen Press

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.

Drawing by Charles Mozley

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.

Figurehead by A Romney; Shop by C Arthur; Initial letter R Busbridge
Illustration by Cecil Keeling