The optimism of modernity: recovering modern reasoning in typography

London after the war

In an introductory note to Modern typography in Britain: graphic design, politics, and society, I pointed to London as an ever-present character in its pages. In our title by Britain we mean its capital – this reductive metonymy an accurate reflection of the grossly centralized British state and economy, life outside it mere periphery – from its bombsites, empty mansions and squats of 1946 to the smarter milieux of the 1960s in which graphic design bloomed. Just as there was no space in the book to enlarge that topic, so there is little time for it here – but enough for these glimpses of the metropolis in its immediate post-war years.

PS, September 2009

Shrunken, evacuated, wartime London accommodated not only a shifting cosmopolitan body of allied troops and a semi-permanent community of underground sleepers but also a floating population of gangs, deserters, and drifters. One example: John Atkins – poet, playwright, and literary editor of the left-wing weekly Tribune, called up in 1943 – found the army intolerable, and often went absent without leave. In 1945 he ‘stayed, amid the bombsites, at a dilapidated 170 Westbourne Terrace ... behind Paddington station. Fellow attic inmates included Alfred Perlès, Austrian writer and associate of Henry Miller, Andre Wendt, German anarchist, fresh out of Wormwood Scrubs, and the pacifist and future film-maker, Stephen Peet, who had just been released from a German PoW camp.’ [note 1]

When the European war ended, people returned to bomb-damaged streets and a housing crisis. In 1946 squatters, sometimes politically articulate and organized, colonized empty houses – as in the Kensington mass squat of September, mobilized by the Communist Party and widely supported. In the same month Anthony Froshaug expressed uncharacteristic displeasure with metropolitan life, writing from a holiday in Cornwall to his friend Stefan Themerson in London that ‘even Hyde Park seems rather like the orators, an intolerable safety valve for a situation which is inhuman. I have never been able to understand why we reach the psychological self-justification of actually liking living in a necropolis.’ [note 2]

The ubiquitous inner-city blaze of yellow and magenta, Oxford ragwort and rose-bay willow-herb, signalled natural regeneration in the pocked wildernesses of blitzed neighbourhoods. In 1945 they were described by Richard Fitter in London’s natural history.[note 3] Rose-bay (‘fireweed’ in the USA) was then probably the commonest plant in central London, because of its ‘liking for plenty of light, which of course it gets on the open blitzed sites, combined with a tolerance for soil which has been subjected to heat, which enables it to get a firm hold before its competitors’. Oxford ragwort, ‘like other things bearing the name of that city, is an alien, a native of Sicily, where it frequents volcanic ash, so that it may well find the site of a burnt-out building a congenial habitat.’

Such bombsite habitats feature in films like the first Ealing comedy, Hue and cry, its exteriors shot near Southwark Bridge, swarming with gangs of not-quite feral kids. The British Film Institute’s Monthly Film Bulletin enthused: ‘This is a film about London life, the London of the post-war period, traffic in places you know, Covent Garden, the Embankment, Piccadilly Circus, the Docks, the ruins, open spaces, suburban London. There’s life, human youth and gaiety, and it is English to the backbone.’[note 4] It was directed by Charles Crichton, with a screenplay by T. E. B. Clarke, and Edward Bawden’s posters to support its release in February 1947, of which Clarke recalled: ‘Hue and cry was first shown during the coldest, grimmest, week of a vile February. There was virtually no heating at the press reception; the critics were huddled in overcoat and the supply of drink was unavoidably limited. We couldn’t believe it was possible for our little effort to relieve the general gloom.’ [note 5]

That February was the coldest ever, in the hardest winter in memory. Wanda Garland, recently arrived in London via Kraków from the steppe of Kazakhstan, thought it normal, though wondered why the British did not heat their bedrooms. Failure in coal distribution was the problem: three months’ supply lay frozen on the ground, and power stations closed. The Tory slogan ‘Shiver with Shinwell’ – pointing at the incompetence of Emmanuel Shinwell, the determinedly autonomous Minister for Fuel and Power – reminded the people that party politics had fully resumed.

The bitter winter of 1947 was followed by a heatwave at the end of May – Camden Square reached 32°C on the 31st – and four months of sunshine, the hottest summer for a hundred years. On the wireless John Arlott’s rich Hampshire voice became as familiar as that of Bob Danvers-Walker during the Brylcreem summer of Denis Compton’s record-breaking season: 3816 runs, including 18 centuries. In The Manchester Guardian a few months later Neville Cardus wrote:
‘Never have I been so deeply touched on a cricket ground as in this heavenly summer of 1947, when I went to Lord’s to see a pale-faced crowd, existing on rations, the rocket-bombs still in the ears of most folk, to see this worn, dowdy crowd raptly watching Compton. The strain of long years of anxiety and affliction passed from all heads and shoulders at the sight of Compton in full sail, sending the ball here, there and everywhere, each stroke a flick of delight, a propulsion of happy, sane, healthy life. There was no rationing in an innings by Compton.’

Lord’s is in St John’s Wood, postal district NW8, part of what Robin Kinross imagined as ‘central-European London’. A mile eastwards the historian E. J. Hobsbawm autobiographically described his neighbourhood in NW1: ‘a middle-class sliver on the edge of Camden Town, the westernmost outpost of the vast zone of London’s bombed and as yet totally ungentrified east End, which attracted intellectuals both because it was then still extraordinarily cheap and wonderfully accessible ... In 1946 Gloucester Crescent was not classy, but, as I wrote in a tender piece on Camden Town commissioned for Lilliput by Kaye Webb (then married to the cartoonist Ronald Searle, just returned from the Japanese gulag), one could pretend the roar of the lions in Regent’s Park Zoo was audible there.’ [note 6]

‘Portrait of a neighbourhood’, the piece he mentions, accompanied four pictures by the magazine’s new art editor, James Boswell. There Hobsbawm wrote, of Camden Town:
‘It is Victorian, except for the south-west, now blitzed and slum-cleared, and the beautiful grey, black and yellow Mornington Crescent. The Irish, with their nose for Georgian architecture, have settled there, and the coloured seamen drink in the pub at the corner ... What gives Camden Town its special air is simply the fact that its ordinariness is slightly démodé. Somehow it has stuck fast in the period in which Sickert painted it ... Its skilled trades are still old-fashioned – making pianos, organs, bagpipes and furniture. It has the street-crowds, the stalls of oranges, whelks and jellied eels, the odd jobs, the smell, the music-hall gilt and the greasy soot which the LNER and the LMS spread impartially over it. It isn’t as flamboyant as Stepney or Shoreditch, or as grim as Canning Town; it is just ordinary.’ [note 7]

One of James Mosley’s recollections of 1947 is of a distinctive local perfume: ‘the book barrows in Farringdon Road, where the air was scented with the whiff from Lloyds tobacco factory on the other side of the railway’. Just above, on Holborn Viaduct, was Atlantic House, where in the previous year HMSO had set up a ‘layout section’ under Harry Carter – the first graphic design unit within a government department in peacetime.

In 1947 Theo Crosby, dissident from the coming apartheid regime, quit South Africa for good and arrived, aged 22, in what he remembered as London’s golden autumn: ‘beautiful, dusty, faded, and broken. The streets were quiet and empty, and one walked, simply and gratefully, everywhere. The great city was healing, wounded but alive with underground energies. The pubs were full of returned soldiers elbowing their way into the universities, into the professions ...’ They were also full of ‘eager colonials’ like himself. After drawing studies at the Sir John Cass School, Crosby fell on his feet, quickly getting work in the ‘kind, open, and encouraging office’ of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, and so an opening to ‘the great world of CIAM and the Modern Movement.’ [note 8]

A melancholy aspect of townscape was captured by John Minton’s paintings of the time, like ‘Street and railway bridge’ of 1946. One of two books which he illustrated for Paul Elek in 1947 was The wanderer, a translation of Le grand Meaulnes, Henri Alain-Fournier’s novel of 1913. [note 9] This edition marked an extraordinary conjunction: of Minton’s attempts to evoke in pen and ink that silver domain of lost childhood in the Sologne, and Anthony Froshaug’s ‘typography binding cover design’, as it says on p. iii. Robin Kinross shows Froshaug’s specification layout for the book’s cover on pp. 86–7 of Anthony Froshaug: Typography & texts. Minton’s biographer Frances Spalding was unfavourably impressed with the result:
‘Suggestive landscape descriptions, based on the countryside of Alain-Fournier’s childhood (near Blois, in Lois-et-Cher) allowed Minton to delve into his now well-rehearsed repertoire of landscape devices, though unfortunately his original cover design was replaced by another in which the quintessential motif of a figure disappearing down a deserted lane is reduced to a miserable size and merely sits of the front cover like an enlarged postage stamp.’ [note 10]

In that year Minton and Froshaug were not quite neighbours in NW8: Minton, aged 29, lived in Hamilton Terrace, behind Lord’s; Froshaug, three years younger, a half-mile further north in Springfield Road. If they did meet that year, it would have been before Minton set off in August, with Alan Ross, to Paris, to obtain a passage to Ajaccio from the French Ministry of Culture. This was their first stop on a journey to Corsica, paid for by their publisher John Lehmann. Its product came out in 1948: Time was away: a notebook in Corsica – words by Ross, pictures by Minton, spine and typography by Minton’s flatmate Keith Vaughan, who was also Lehmann’s production manager. Minton and Froshaug may not have met in 1947 at Paul Elek’s Hatton Garden office, but it is just as likely that they did.

1. Pete Kennedy, obituary of John Atkins, The Guardian, 18 May 2009. [Back to text]

2. The letter is in Robin Kinross, Anthony Froshaug: Documents of a life, 2000: Hyphen Press, p. 66. [Back to text]

3. In the 1930s R. S. R. Fitter worked as a social science researcher for the think-tank Political and Economic Planning where he met another amateur naturalist, Tom Harrisson, later a founder of Mass-Observation – which Fitter duly joined. During the war he worked in operational research at Coastal Command, writing his book in the evening. The third volume in Collins’s ‘New naturalist’ series, it was produced with colour photographs by Adprint, and sold over 40,000 copies to Britain’s war-tired public, then still hungry for all kinds of reading matter. Fitter’s words are on pp. 231–2. [Back to text]

4. Volume 14, no. 158, February 1947, p. 21. [Back to text]

5. Clarke’s words are given by Charles Barr in Ealing Studios (1977, London: Cameron and Tayleur, p. 94.) [Back to text]

6. Interesting times, 2003, London: Abacus, pp. 175–6. [Back to text]

7. Lilliput April 1947 (vol. 20, no. 4, issue 118) pp. 320, 325, 326 (p. 325). [Back to text]

8. Theo Crosby’s memoir is from his ‘Night thoughts of a faded utopia’, in Robbins (ed.) The Independent Group, 1990, Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press. [Back to text]

9. Alain-Fournier, The wanderer, 1947: Paul Elek, translated from Le grand Meaulnes by Françoise Delisle. [Back to text]

10. Frances Spalding, Dance till the stars come down: a biography of John Minton. 1991. London: Hodder & Stoughton, p. 116 [Back to text]