Thursday 23 November 2017

Poster Girls–a century of art and design

Cup Final, by Anna Katrina Zinkeisen, 1934
London Transport Museum is celebrating 100 years of poster art and design by women with a major exhibition that opened on Friday 13 October. Women artists contribution to art on the underground has been largely overlooked during the 20th century but with the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI in 1918 and 100 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918 which allowed some women the right to vote in elections it was decided that the time was right to unearth some of the visual treasures stored in the museum’s archive and put them on public display.

Epping Forest, by Nancy Smith, 1922
Frank Pick was responsible for commissioning artists to design the iconic London Transport posters during the 1920s and 1930s and this period coincided with the birth of commercial art and advertising and the emergence of graphic design. The exhibition begins with the first poster designed by a woman, Ella Coates in 1910. It portrayed a landscape with a few words of text which was typical for the time and promoted travelling to Kew Gardens by tram. The exhibition continues, more-or-less chronologically until 2015 with fascinating examples of design that reflect the social concerns of the day like the Motor Show at Olympia, Derby Day, Rugby at Twickenham, the Oxford Cambridge boat race, the summer sales, days out to the countryside including Epping Forest and the hop gardens of Kent.

Some of the artists have signed their work but others remain anonymous. What they have in common is the ability to tell a story and to evoke an atmosphere through their draughtsmanship, use of typography and colour that are not only a pleasure to look at but at the same time promoted London Underground as an optimistic and forward thinking company.

I was invited to review this exhibition by the Islington Archaeology and History Society and while I was exploring the exhibition I was very excited to see a poster designed by Clifford and Rosemary Ellis in 1936. Clifford Ellis is the only man featured in this exhibition because he and his wife Rosemary always worked as a double act and he was also the head of Bath Academy of Art until 1972 where I later studied graphic design. In addition to this Jane Strother also has a poster from 1999 in this exhibition–we were students at roughly the same time–and seeing these pieces of work reminded me of the three years I spent at this remarkable school of art.

Poster Girls–a century of art and design, 13 October to January 2019, London Transport Museum. 

Come out to play, by Clifford Ellis and Rosemary Ellis, 1936

Tuesday 17 October 2017

Art classes in Firenze

The cloister in the Convent of San Marco, Firenze
Last week I spent a few days in Florence or I should say Firenze, Italy. I received a variety of comments when friends and acquaintances learnt this news and they can be summarised like this: 'Wow!; Florence is sooo beautiful; lucky you; I remember when I was there in the 70s...'

The photocopy we worked to
My purpose in visiting Florence wasn't to traipse around art galleries or loll around in caf├ęs, although some of that did happen, but to attend two art classes run by Dr Alan Pascuzzi on Fresco painting and drawing with Silverpoint, a forerunner of the pencil. Dr Pascuzzi has been studying these techniques for many years that were perfected during the Renaissance (a period in European history that lasted from the 14th to the 17th century) and I was delighted to have the privilege to be taught by him.

The tracing paper cartoon
First of all we were treated to a chemistry lesson as Fresco is defined as 'painting on wet plaster with water-based pigments, when the plaster dries the pigments become part of the matrix of the wall and is very durable'. This requires the artist to spend time carefully preparing the plaster, the pigments and the image that's going to be painted. When the time comes to paint you find you are racing against the clock because once the plaster has reached a certain point in its drying process it won't take any more pigment.

One of Michelangelo's remarkable achievements was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel within the Vatican in Rome. This took him four years from 1508-1512. For our Fresco Dr Pascuzzi gave us a photocopy of the Delphic Sibyl painted by Michelangelo to follow. It was traditional during the Renaissance period for apprentices to learn their craft by copying the work of their master and I enjoyed being an apprentice to Michelangelo for a morning.

My finished Fresco
Having completed our three hour class I was only fit for a relaxing lunch and strolling around the city but we did visit the Convent of San Marco on our last day to look at the Frescos in the monastery and in the former monks cells painted by Fra Angelico. I discovered an appreciation of the skill required to produce these Frescos, that I wouldn't otherwise have had, and they left me awe struck.

One of the cells in San Marco
Our art classes were organised by Penny Howard and if you feel an urge to be a Renaissance apprentice for a couple of days you can reach her at Beyond the Yalla Dog.

Wednesday 22 February 2017

Where am I now and where do I go to next?

Route map of the North London Line from Drawing my way round London
Where am I now and where do I go to next are two questions I am asking myself a lot at the moment and they have nothing to do with getting from A to B. I've completed two contrasting art projects and now I feel at a bit of a loose end. I would love to get my teeth into something new but nothing intriguing has yet appeared on the horizon. So instead of kicking my heels at home I visited Tower Hamlets History Library & Archives to learn a bit about life in the Jewish East End in Whitechapel in the late 1890s and that included looking at maps.

Map of my route along the Hertford
Union canal.
As it happens Drawing my way round London and 805 steps along the Hertford Union Canal did both involve travelling and map-making. Having spent a long time drawing these maps it made me think about how we use them. In my case I wanted to show a simplified route of where my art was taking me and to make it easier for the readers of my blogs to follow.

The exhibition Maps and the 20th century: Drawing the line at the British Library was worth visiting and is ending in a couple of weeks. It shows many types of maps that I have never seen before. For example I was very struck by a huge Soviet town plan of Brighton from as late as 1990. I always try and read the labels on maps to try and get a handle on the geography but these were in Cyrillic which made these familiar names completely foreign and I found that a bit disturbing.

Some of our own collection
I enjoyed seeing the original rough pencil sketch for the London tube map from 1931 which was hand drawn by Harry Beck. This basic design has survived for nearly 90 years and has been flexible enough to undergo numerous changes over the years and works just as well on digital platforms while retaining the original characteristics we have become so used to. I also became nostalgic for the A to Z maps of London which were originally compiled in the 1930s by Phyllis Pearsall, a British painter and writer. For years I used never to leave home without one and now we just rely on Google Maps to direct us.

An example of a different kind of map was produced by the Ford Motor Company as a souvenir of a trip you could take through the Ford Rouge Plant in River Rouge MI in 1940. This was a diagrammatic map of the progress of iron ore to the finished car. And as a complete contrast from any other exhibit there was an Escape Map dress on display. At the end of the war there was a surplus of military 'escape and evasion' maps which had been printed onto silk in order to be lightweight, more durable than paper and silent when opened. This dress was made using military maps of South East Asia which may have come from an RAF airfield in southern England. This reminded me that my Grandmother made my aunt's wedding dress from parachute silk in the late 1940s because there was so much of it available.

My foray into maps may or may not lead to a new direction for my artwork but it has been fun exploring them and if I fancy browsing any more unusual maps I can pore over The Map Book edited by Peter Barber that I was given as a birthday present.

Sunday 1 January 2017

Happy New Year

I am writing this on New Year’s day 2017. This is the time of year when we have the leisure to review the past year and many of us optimistically make resolutions for the year to come knowing that they might last no longer than the fire works that explosively marked midnight. We always hope that this new year will be more peaceful than the previous one and 2016 certainly held plenty of moments for me that I am happy to see the back of and also memories that I will treasure.

So this has got me thinking about seasons since we have just past the winter solstice, or the shortest day in the year for those of us living in the northern hemisphere, and can begin to look forward to longer days with more light. Here is one definition of seasons that I read this morning: a season is a division of the year marked by changes in weather, ecology and hours of daylight. I can’t disagree with that but in my review of my life I realise that I have recently come to the end of a personal ‘season’ which I think began roughly in February 2015 and ended in November 2016.

I am an artist but I was trained as a graphic designer. I practised as a designer for around 35 years and for the most part it kept a roof over my head and food on the table. I did not have a stellar career but I know that my work was often appreciated and occasionally I made the most all mighty cock-ups. For many of those 35 years I had a hankering to develop my life as a artist and slowly, slowly I began to concentrate on that side of my life.

It is common for those of us who describe ourselves as artists to follow a path which goes something like this. Produce, produce, produce work of varying quality and exhibit, exhibit, exhibit anywhere and everywhere it in the hope that sales will follow. This strategy of spreading yourself too thin can occasionally be successful but it doesn’t work for me.

Back in early 2015 I was offered the opportunity to rent part-time desk space at Fish Island Labs in Hackney Wick. This proved to be a turning point for me as I needed to experience a form of retreat and really consider what the hell I was doing as an artist. Hackney Wick is walking distance from my home yet feels a million miles away from anywhere in spite of its proximity to the QE Olympic Park.

To all intents and purposes I was doing much the same things as normal. I was still socialising, visiting art exhibitions, hanging out with friends, going to the hairdressers but internally I was experiencing my own winter. This was a prolonged period that I needed to live through before I could see the green shoots of spring. I didn’t feel very productive since I only completed two paintings but I redesigned my website, finished and launched my ebook of drawings around north London and undertook a series of drawings along the Hertford Union canal before the property developers change it beyond recognition plus I recognised that my life as a designer is well and truly over and that I am an artist.

Last September marked my 60th birthday and I threw a big party. It was a great success and all my guests enjoyed it. Now I see that as my way of announcing that my period in retreat was coming to an end but I still had a couple of months to go before all the loose ends were tied up and I could leave Fish Island with no regrets. 

Looking back I can see that my personal ‘seasons’ tend to overlap each other like an untidy pile of paper and they don’t begin and end neatly one after another like a tidy ribbon which might explain why I don’t feel a need to celebrate New Year because I’m not sure when my new year begins or when the old one ends. 

Happy New Year!

Wednesday 19 October 2016

Time for some new designs

I've been selling reproductions of some my art work as greetings cards for 10 years so now seems like a good time to add to my collection. With these two new designs I now have 24 cards for my customers to choose from.

They are blank inside for your own message and cost £3 each and they are on sale in my shop on my website which you can find here.

Tuesday 4 October 2016

A visit to Bletchley Park

The tea room in the visitors centre. I thought this was a good visual metaphor for the grids and patterns that the code breakers were looking for
A comfortable 45 minute train ride from London Euston saw us delivered to Bletchley railway station in bright sunshine followed by a short walk to the entrance to the visitors centre at Bletchley Park. What a contrast this must have been to how members of staff used to arrive at work during WWII when Station X (as it was known) was completely secret.

Now Bletchley Park has its own website but it very nearly didn't survive plans in the early 1990s to be demolished and replaced with a housing estate, petrol station and supermarket. Thanks to the dedication of some well-connected enthusiasts and veterans who had worked there the site has been preserved and allows us, the visitors, to get a glimpse of what it was like slogging away on eight hour shifts breaking the Enigma codes that the German Army and Air force were sending day and night.

In hut 11 the display gives you some idea of the constant noise the WRNS (Women's Royal Naval Service) had to endure not to mention the discomfort of standing up for their whole shift. In huts 3 and 6 where the top secret code breaking took place you can see packets of cigarettes at every desk so the staff must have been working in a fug of fag smoke all day long not to mention worrying about getting the job done which reminds me of working in publishing in the early 1980s.

The results achieved at Bletchley Park due to the perseverance of scholars like Gordon Welchman a fellow at Sydney Sussex College, Cambridge who led the Enigma decryption team and mathematicians including Alan Turing, are credited with shortening WWII by two years which is remarkable. Once the war was over Bletchley Park was shut and all the staff returned to their civilians lives having been instructed never to mention to anyone what they did during the war.

Obviously a visit to this previously secret site feels a bit artificial. Civilians would never have been given access to stroll around the offices, loll about in the canteen or lounge around the gardens any more than we would be able to at MI6 or MI5 now but it does give the visitor some idea how complex the business of preserving a nation's security is which is not something I've ever given much thought to.

Quick pencil sketch of the mansion

Saturday 9 July 2016

Boating lake in oil pastels

Victoria Park West Lake
I've indulged myself and bought a big box of 72 oil pastels. My old ones were all dried up so I threw them out. I wanted to work with a larger range of colours and I've never had so much choice.

Earlier today I braved the blustery wind and strolled into Victoria Park which is right next to where we live and set up my garden chair underneath a tree near the West Lake where they have boats for hire.

I was attempting to try and convey moving water with the boats bobbing around on the surface. I have tried to do this before in a different medium and was reasonably pleased with the results. I think the best approach is not to be too critical of the results and just accept whatever you come up with. I also wanted to include some of the ducks that were busy swimming around but you have to be careful to not make them too big otherwise they can end up looking like the Loch Ness monster.

One of the hazards of working outside, apart from the weather, are the passers-by who might like to offer advice, talk about themselves, or if they are children just make a lot of noise and stare at you. I was fortunate today that I must have been virtually invisible because only two people made any comment and they were polite and undemanding.

This box of pastels are made by Sennelier and they are easy to hold and lovely and oily. I didn't realise until I read the information that they only exist because Pablo Picasso asked Henri Sennelier in 1949 if he could 'create a new medium that had qualities of oil paint and soft pastel in an easy to apply stick form.' So that's a high five to Picasso!

This is part of my view from my chair under the tree