Thursday, January 21, 2016
Guides to a better world. . .
I’ve noticed that some of my most popular posts (finding many readers and numerous comments by email and in person) are those I’ve done about the tiled decorations once used by W H Smith on their shop fronts. Few of these now survive in the shops where they started out. I’ve reported before on a glorious duo of examples, one on either side of the W H Smith shop window in Malvern, showcasing postcards and maps, and a single panel on a shop in Bath (this one no longer occupied by Smith’s), depicting Nature Books.
The excellent Jackfield Tile Museum on the site of the Craven Dunnill factory at Jackfield near Ironbridge has a few more of these wonderful panels. Today I’m sharing two of these, both, like the others, produced by Carter and Co of Poole in the late-1920s, to designs by an unknown artist. One is a further, rather different panel advertising guidebooks. This one is less dramatic than the Malvern Postcards panel (which has a looming castle tower and stunning night-time colours). Instead it has a more restrained, perhaps faded, palette, and shows a couple looking across a stylised landscape of hills and trees. There’s enough detail on the woman’s dress to suggest elegance; her male companion is delineated in a few simple touches of brown. They look out over blue and green hills, as if they’ve found their way using one of Smith’s guidebooks and are now drinking in the view. The overall effect is like a faded Brian Cook book jacket: redolent of England between the World Wars and full of topographical promise.
My second example from Jackfield, Ladies' Papers, is another epitome of narrow-waisted poise. The turned head, the waving arm, the hand lifting the dress just enough to show the heel stepping out across the grass, the point of the other shoe just visible – there’s plenty to catch the eye. Once more, the setting is very sketchily drawn, but the pale colours set off the figure well.
As you can probably tell, I like these panels a great deal. Combined with Smith’s classical lettering (by Eric Gill), they project a sort of accessible sophistication that must have been right up Smith’s street. W H Smith’s were then, as now, more than just newspaper merchants. They sold books and maps, and their range of magazines was a large one. They hoped to remind potential customers that you could buy more than your Daily Express and a packet of cigarettes at their counters. There was self-improvement on sale here, and books that could guide you on a route to history or literature, or could tell you about the most interesting places to visit. Their shops could be windows into a better world.