Friday, May 27, 2016

Britain, 1946


Build it new: Illustrations of the month

Edward Bawden (1903–89) is probably one of the best loved of British illustrators. His work, from glorious big linocuts like the one he did of there interior of Liverpool Street Station to his tiny lithographic illustrations for the King Penguin Life in an English Village, from London transport posters to adverts for Twinings Tea, will be familiar to many readers. And Bawden has been made more familiar by books such as Malcolm Yorke’s lavish Edward Bawden and His Circle* and smaller glories like Peyton Skipwith’s One Lump or Two,† on Bawden’s work for Twinings.

But sorting through a pile of old Architectural Reviews of the 1940s I was pleased to come across a couple of Bawden’s illustrations that I’d not seen before. They are from a series of advertisements for the Zinc Development Association promoting new building in the post-war period and the use of zinc (for roofing, flashings, and so on) in new buildings. Each advertisement covers a specific building type and begins with the line ‘We need new…’. The two I found were ‘We need new hospitals’ (above) and ‘We need new houses…’ (below).
The tone is gently humorous, pointing out that much of Britain’s infrastructure in the post-war period was old and out of date and needed replacing with buildings fit for modern purpose. Bawden’s illustrations bring to amusing life the state of things. In front of the Victorian hospital (19th-century Classical and Venetian Gothic), nurses march purposefully, carrying brooms, chamber pots, and teapots, visitors turn up with flowers, and the walking wounded exercise in the courtyard. In a suburban street people get on with their lives in an assortment of buildings – an Art Deco house, a Victorian corner shop, a highly eclectic bungalow with an assortment of mock-Tudor detailing. This is 1946, but people are still bravely making do, whether they’re tending their gardens or gamely hobbling along on crutches, and the artist has delineated each of them in a few purposeful lines. This is all very British and picturesque, but the text puts us right about the realities. Here’s a bit of the ad featuring hospitals:

Some of the older hospitals were evidently designed by and for a hardy race. Cold winds blew down long grey corridors. Only the most strapping amazons could clean those labyrinths. Only the strongest patients could be cheerful in those wards. Only the fittest survived – which was perhaps the aim. The new hospitals and hospital wings will, let us hope, be different. Not gaol-dark and portentous, but bright, open, airy, labour-saving, hospitable…

And roofed with zinc, of course.

As usual, Bawden is well up to the task of capturing the right mood and helping the copywriters make their point. There are just enough telling details – the Gothic gate lodge, the finials on the hospital fence piers, the diamond-pattern tiles on the bungalow roof, the boxy shop window. As so often, he evokes the atmosphere of the times and of England’s eclectic, organically grown, mashed-up built environment, as much of it was back then. And as it still is in some places: the general hospital in my own local town still looks a bit like the Bawden illustration at the front, although there are any number of new wings around the back.§ Plus ça change…   

- - -

*Antique Collectors’ Club, 2007

†The Mainstone Press, 2010

§My thanks to a reader, Mike Rigby, who has pointed out the similarity of the porticoed frontage of Bawden's hospital to the General Hospital in Cheltenham, precisely the hospital I had in mind. Apparently Bawden was in Cheltenham in 1946, so the similarity may well not be a coincidence.  

7 comments:

Mike Rigby said...

The hospital could be a conceit based on Cheltenham General. Bawden was in Cheltenham in 1946.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank, you, Mike. I live about 7 miles from Cheltenham, and Cheltenham General was exactly the hospital I was thinking of at the end of my post.

Anonymous said...

Lovely pictures, not sure they convey the message to the modern audience though, I think he makes the suburban street and the hospital look very attractive and fitting, especially if I then think of a lot of the 1950s-60s buildings put up to replace the pre-war world...

Philip Wilkinson said...

Anonymous: Yes, I know what you mean. It probably worked better for the original intended readership – architects in 1946. Now it just looks charming.

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Hospital with a portico - so you know where the entrance is supposed to be, without those paper notices, "Please use the other door"...Eclectic suburban house - just what you need in post-war suburbia, where you need to memorise how many turnings you've taken, just to know where you are... I have a feeling that even in 1946 many would have been uneasy with the Brave New World of non-architecture. And guess which hospital I'd prefer to get better in - having just visited a modern one with a few crude abstract sculptures to relieve the otherwise all-embracing sense-deprivation of the building! "English City - The Story of Bristol" appeared hopefully in Jan. 1945, complete with a hideous, soulless collection of concrete blocks to show a proposed rebuilding after WWII. The caption at least has the grace to read, "When we rebuild, shall we recreate a better 'Bricgstowe'?" Thank goodness there was never enough money for this master plan!

Mike Rigby said...

Back to Cheltenham. The Venetian gothic in the background is, of course, the neighbouring Boys College.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Mike: Or rather, the Cheltenham College cricket pavilion, moved across the road and realigned. Come to think of it, the railing piers and the gate lodge are also reminiscent of those next to the College, although the College gate lodge is actually octagonal. With my penchant for buildings that are not rectangular or square, I ought to photograph it and do a post about it. Thanks again.