Monday, August 17, 2015

Bridport, Dorset

Line and liveliness: Illustration of the month

This month’s illustration is by Barbara Jones (1912–78), one of my favourite illustrators, whom I like for her eclectic interests, her love of the byways of architecture, and her lively line. But she was much more than an engaging illustrator: she crammed a lot into her life. After school in Croydon she went to Croydon Art School and then the Royal College (first in the Engraving department then in Mural Decoration, which she preferred). She graduated in 1937 and began work as both a mural painter and a commercial artist when the war came. She contributed paintings to the wartime Recording Britain project (subjects ranging from fairground horses to the Euston Arch), worked as both an author and illustrator (Watercolour Painting, The Unsophisticated Arts), put together the exhibition ‘Black Eyes & Lemonade’ at the Whitechapel Art Gallery as part of the Festival of Britain, and pursued a tireless interest in eccentric and unusual architecture, resulting in her fat book Follies and Grottoes. And this is just a selection: her working life seems to have been a beguiling combination of interesting jobs, from more Festival of Britain Work, to designing exhibitions, pageants, and book jackets, and embracing interests that ranged from the decoration of canal boats to the design of tombstones. Popular or vernacular art – barge-painting, signwriting, fairground ride-making, the art of advertising, the creation of seaside amusements, etc, etc – was always close to her heart.

One book series including work by Barbara Jones is Visions of England, edited by Clough and Amabel Williams-Ellis. Her illustrations for the volume on Dorset include this stunner of a shop front, which illustrates her art and her enthusiasms rather well. The frontage has a kind of exuberance that I associate with the work of the woman who drew it.

Dr Roberts, pharmacist and manufacturer of patent medicines, set up in business in Bridport in 1788. By the early-19th century he had commissioned this outstanding shopfront, which unleashes the whole architectural works – double bow windows with Gothic and other patterned glazing bars; a fascia above the ground-floor widows that features a band of Gothic arches; double doors with more ornate glazing. The whole is topped with a very fancy pediment, plus scrolls. Barbara Jones clearly relished all the fancy details, as well as the abundance of lettering, not just on the panels bearing the business name, but also on the sign between the windows, with its central curve: more scrolls.

Such details are close to the popular art that Jones loved. Those exaggeratedly large scrolls at the top and the rows of star-like finials along the upper edges of the windows are kindred in spirit to the carvings on carousels or ships’ figureheads that feature in some of her books. The combination of swagger, bold gestures, and the common touch: that’s what she liked.
Barbara Jones: Hambro Arms, Milton Abbas

I’ve included a couple of other examples from the Dorset volume. The sign for the Hambro Arms, Milton Abbas, displays the lively lettering that the Victorians and Edwardians often used for publicity, whether printed or sign written. It’s set in the context of a lot of curvaceous ironwork that holds up a lamp and the canopy over the door. Yes, yet more scrolls to delight the eye and to give Jones the chance to show off her way with an expressive line and a pen stroke of varying thickness. The gateway at Mapperton is slightly different, closer to the tradition of polite design. But it’s no surprise that similar curves – shell-topped niches in the stone piers, barley-sugar twisted uprights in the wooden gate, and those lead eagles (enlarge them and they could do double duty on a carousel)  – have caught her eye and been caught by her pen.
Barbara Jones: Gate piers near Mapperton House

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Ruth Artmonsky, A Snapper Up Of Unconsidered Trifles (Artmonsky Arts, 2008) is a fitting tribute to Barbara Jones’s life and work
Barbara Jones, The Unsophisticated Arts (originally published in 1951) has been reprinted by Little Toller Books


Hels said...

Although I was too young to remember the Festival of Britain from personal experience, I have incorporated it into my inherited experience - from what my parents said, from reading and from blogging. But I don't remember Barbara Jones. Was there a catalogue or other written record for her Black Eyes & Lemonade exhibition that was held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery?

David Gouldstone said...

A fascinating post (as usual). Jones is one of those artists that I'm aware of but have never got around to properly investigating; your post will perhaps be the impetus.

The Vision of England books, too, I've not given a proper chance, even though I know they're illustrated by people I like, such as Kenneth Rowntree. I know it sounds ridiculously precious, but I don't like the coarse paper they're printed on, and the way the text and photos aren't integrated. I prefer the Shell Guides, though maybe I'll come round to the Vision of Englands one day.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: I'm likewise too young to remember the Festival of Britain and I only became interested in it as an adult. I have bought a few of the 1951 booklets and brochures, which can sometimes be found, but I've never seen an example of the exhibition book for the Black Eyes & Lemonade exhibition. A book/catalogue was certainly produced, but copies must be rare now. In Mary Banham and Bevis Hillier (eds), A Tonic to the Nation (Thames and Hudson, 1976), there is a short piece by Barbara Jones about the coverage of the popular arts in the Festival, with a photograph of the large 'talking lemon', advertising a brand of lemonade, that gave the exhibition part of its name.

Philip Wilkinson said...

David: Thank you. It's certainly worth poking around online, or getting hold of Ruth Artmonsky's book, to see if Barbara Jones is your thing.

The Vision of England books are a mixed bunch. The texts are a bit uneven and the paper, as you say, is poor. I only have a handful of them, mostly bought because I like some of the artists - including Kenneth Rowntree, absolutely. The Shell Guides ARE better, but they're also different, as you know, being proper guides with a short entry on each place rather than the discursive essays of the Vision books. This gives the Shell Guides more focus and, with their very good photographs, they conjure up a real sense of each of the counties (as they were and, to a certain extent, as they still are).

Linda said...

Beautiful illustrations.