Friday, May 2, 2008

A walk along High Street

Eric Ravilious, High Street
Lithograph, 1938

Probably the most famous and sought-after English autolithographed book is High Street, with text by J. M. Richards and 24 colour lithographs by Eric Ravilious (plus two further lithographs on the front and back covers, and a wood-engraved title page). Copies change hands at very high prices – not because of Richards’ rather arch and superfluous text, but because of Ravilious’s stunning images. They seem to define the very essence of mid-twentieth-century Englishness. They depict a trim England in which everything and everyone knows its place. It is a vision, in fact, that already seems tinged with nostalgia, as if Ravilious could sense the imminent collapse of this safe, certain, ordered world. Though in one case, the cheesemonger Paxton & Whitfield in Jermyn Street, the shop façade and even the window display has survived to this day almost unchanged.

Eric Ravilious, Cheesemonger
Lithograph, 1938

Ravilious created the lithographs in 1936 and 1937, drawing directly on the stone in the studios of the Curwen Press, where he made his first lithograph, Newhaven Harbour, in 1936. The idea for an “alphabet of shops” came from the artist’s lover, Helen Binyon, and he first floated it to the Golden Cockerel Press, who were too small-scale to take it on. Undeterred, Ravilious worked on the lithographs anyway, apparently subsidized by Curwen, who were keen to encourage the idea of autolithographed books. Such books from France and Russia were admired and collected by Ravilious and his circle, and also by High Street’s publisher, Noel Carrington.

Eric Ravilious, Letter Maker
Lithograph, 1938

Noel Carrington was the brother of the Bloomsbury artist Dora Carrington. He was the publisher at Country Life Books, and was also to launch the lithographed Puffin Picture Books. Carrington was quite simply the perfect publisher for High Street Although not aimed at the same mass market as the Puffin Picture Books, High Street was not an expensive limited edition. It was published in an initial run of 2000 copies in 1938, and the lithographic stones were retained for future reprints. However the stones were destroyed by a German bomb in 1941, so the book has never been reprinted in any form – until this year, when the Mainstone Press will issue a new edition, with the lithographs reproduced by the four-colour process, and with unpublished sketches and watercolours for the project, and essays by Alan Powers and James Russell, under the title The Story of High Street.

Eric Ravilious, Submarine Engineer
Lithograph, 1938

The Story of High Street promises to be a hugely informative and well-researched book, if the articles by Powers and Russell in issue 15 of the magazine Illustration (Spring 2008) are anything to go by. For instance, Alan Powers not only identifies the rather surreal and unexpected Submarine Engineer as the shop of Siebe Gorman & Co. in Westminster Bridge Road, London, but also makes the delightful point that it was surely from Siebe Gorman that "Edward James hired the diving suit worn by Salvador Dalí at the opening of the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in the summer of 1936." It would be nice to think that this is the very suit depicted by Ravilious. Dalí nearly suffocated in it.

Eric Ravilious, Amusement Arcade
Lithograph, 1938

The idea of a book of shops was not completely original. Alan Powers points to F. D. Bedford’s The Book of Shops (1899) as one precursor; another is Faites votre marché by Nathalie Parain (Natalie Tchelpanova), published in the Père Castor series of lithographed children’s books in 1935.

Lucien Boucher, Enseignes
Lithograph, 1925

There is another powerful cross-Channel comparison to be made between High Street and a collection of 37 colour lithographs by Lucien Boucher, published by Marcel Seheur in 1925 with accompanying text by Pierre Mac Orlan, under the title Boutiques. There were 500 numbered copies of this, all on Arches, plus 20 hors-commerce copies numbered I-XX. Copies 1-4 each had 10 original drawings by Boucher, as well as the lithographs.

Lucien Boucher, La Pharmacie
Lithograph, 1925

Eric Ravilious, Pharmaceutical Chemist
Lithograph, 1938

There is some overlap in the businesses chosen – a butcher, a baker, a charcutier, a pharmacy. But there are also a number of shops in Boucher’s art deco vision of Paris that would never have occurred to Ravilious or Country Life. The horse butcher is one; the maison close, or brothel, is another.

Lucien Boucher, Maison close
Lithograph, 1925

Lucien Boucher, born in Chartres in 1889, was 14 years older than Ravilious, and survived him by 29 years; Ravilious was killed when the plane he was flying in as an official War Artist was lost in 1942, but Boucher lived until 1971. Of the two, Eric Ravilious has the greatest reputation today. Boucher is remembered mainly for the Art Deco lithographed posters he created for Air France. But although on a much smaller scale, Boutiques (and its sequel of 1926, Boutiques de la Foire) is just as lively, charming, and expressive of its era. Of all the 20th-century French prints I have acquired, these little lithographs by Lucien Boucher are among my favourites.

Lucien Boucher, Couleurs et vernis
Lithograph, 1925

Like Ravilious, Boucher has a love of the quirky and surreal; the two artists also share a love of letterforms. Where they differ is in their sense of composition and perspective. The vast majority of the Ravilious lithographs position the artist – and therefore the viewer – at middle distance from the shop, with attention focussed on the shop window, through which we peer as into another world. By contrast, although Lucien Boucher also loves shop windows and doorways, he readjusts his focus from subject to subject, now swooping in on the advertising sign of a shop specialising in artist’s paints and varnishes, now pulling back to show the sweep of the street in which a monumental mason is located. As for perspective, Boucher’s work is deliberately flat, with very little sense of depth; he doesn’t want us to forget we are seeing the world in two dimensions, not three.

Lucien Boucher, Le Manège d'aéroplanes
Lithograph, 1926

Boucher’s lithographs of fairground stalls and attractions for Boutiques de la Foire are just as delightful as his shops, from a merry-go-round for budding aviators to a modernist slide.

Lucien Boucher, Le Toboggan
Lithograph, 1926

I also have another set of prints by Boucher dating from the same year as Boutiques. These are woodcuts for Bérengier au long cul: Fabliaux du Moyen Age, published by Seheur in 1925 in an edition of 250 copies, each with the woodcuts in colour in the text, on Arches, and with a suite of the cuts in black-and-white on china paper.

Lucien Boucher, Woman and dog
Coloured woodcut, 1925

Some of these woodcuts are very witty in the way they play with the human form, elongating one woman to the same shape as her hound, and bulking out another to resemble her cow. This is a minor work compared to Boutiques, but it shows a similar graphic confidence, and demonstrates just what a versatile and talented artist Lucien Boucher was.

Lucien Boucher, Four men
Woodcut, 1925

I also have a single wood engraving by Ravilious, his contribution to the Cresset Press Apocrypha in 1929, The Song of the Three Holy Children.

Eric Ravilious, The Song of the Three Holy Children
Wood engraving, 1929

I don't suppose Eric Ravilious and Lucien Boucher ever met or had anything to do with each other, but I like to think of their art shaking hands across the channel, as each in his own way recorded and celebrated the shops and the atmosphere of London and Paris.


Philip Wilkinson said...

There's so much to say about High Street, a book for which the over-used adjective "iconic" is for once apt. For now I'll limit myself to an anecdote told by the composer Gavin Bryars about the diving suit hired by Dali for the surrealist exhibition. Lord Berners, no stranger to the surreal, was the person who went to the shop to collect the suit. "How deep is Mr Dali going to dive, my lord?" asked the shopkeeper. Quick as a flash, the versatile peer replied: "To the depth of his subconscious."

Anonymous said...

Thank you for introducing me to Eric Ravilious. I checked my local library and they have a book illustrated by him titled "English Wits", written by Leonard Russell and published (in the U.S. by Kennikat Press) in 1940. Can't wait to get it.

Neil said...

I've never seen English Wits, but I have a feeling it's not an important work. The best survey of Ravilious's art is Eric Ravilious: Imagined Realities by Alan Powers, which was published in 2003 to accompany a centenary retrospective exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. The sheer range of Ravilious's work is astonishing - murals, wood engravings, designs for ceramics, lithographs, and of course the watercolours. We have some beautiful Ravilious plates, cups and saucers from his "Travel" range , designed for Wedgwood in 1938 but not actually produced until 1952 - trains, boats, planes, even a hot-air balloon, in blue on a grey ground, which come out for afternoon tea with guests who will appreciate them.

Neil said...

Now I'm completely confused, Philip. Was it Gerald Berners who hired the diving suit, not Edward James? Could have been either, from personality, motive, opportunity and means. Trying to find out on the internet has got me nowhere, other than discovering it was the poet David Gascoyne who freed Dalí from the diving suit with a wrench and saved him from asphyxiation.

Philip Wilkinson said...

According to Bryars, who seems to know a very great deal about Berners, it was his lordship. Perhaps both he and James were involved in the transaction.

An Aesthete's Lament said...

I have been a fan of Ravilious's for so very long ... thanks for the eye candy!

Will said...

I love the Lucien Boucher images, thanks for highlighting them.

Neil said...

Glad you like them, Will. Boucher's images seem so simple, because they're so beautifully composed, but there's always something witty going on that you don't notice at first - like the pharmacist with one green eye and one red one.

Lagarde said...

That's a very good article, you can see others images from Lucien Boucher on my blog

Neil said...

Lagarde - I love your blog! We are interested in so many of the same things. I've added a link on this site, so that readers of my blog can easily find yours.