Born within 6 years of each other, the three very distinguished looking Gentlemen below are Edward Johnston (1872), Charles Holden (1875) and Frank Pick (1878) who between them had an effect on the appearance of London at the beginning of the Twentieth Century that is still evident today.
After many years working with trains, Frank Pick became the Commercial Manager of Underground Electric Railways Company of London (UERL) in 1912. He became increasingly unhappy with the diversity and seemingly endless variations of typefaces that were being across the system. One of his first key actions was to introduce a standardised approach to advertising and lettering when in 1915, he commissioned typographer Edward Johnston to design a clear new typeface for use on all Underground Group buildings, rolling stock and publications.
Johnston’s typeface, (known as Johnston sans) was first used in 1916 and was so successful that it was used virtually unchanged up until 1979 when it was (slightly) reworked for the modern age. The typefaces success was down to its flexibility and legibility. My favourite element has always been the diamond-shaped dot over the letter i. When compared to the elegant roundedness of the other letters, it has always seemed to me a rather odd and incongruous addition.
Interestingly, London Transport managed to retain almost exclusive use of the font as issue of the small metal and larger wooden letter blocks was restricted to a very small number of printers.
Johnston was also responsible for redesigning the roundel or bullseye device that still adorns underground stations to this day, with this drawing from 1925, clearly showing that the proportions and colours have remained largely unaltered.
Also in this period, Frank Pick met Charles Holden, a gifted young architect who during a twenty year period up to the War, designed some of the most iconic of London Underground Buildings using a distinctive Scandinavian inspired, clean modern style which Pick felt was appropriate for his modern system.
Holden’s works include all seven stations on the Northern Line extension from Clapham Common south to Morden (opened in 1927) all eight stations on the Piccadilly Line extension (from Manor House to Cockfosters (completed in 1933) and in the late 1920′s possibly his finest achievement for the network, the new Headquarters Building at 55 Broadway, a huge cruciform building, the outside of which, was adorned with a series of stunning bas-relief sculptures by Jacob Epstein, Henry Moore and Eric Gill.
The last name on the list is that of Harry Beck (1902 – 1974). A generation younger than the three gentleman referred to above, he nevertheless had as large an impact on the design world (and arguably an even greater one).
Under the appointment once again of the great Frank Pick, Beck in 1933, proposed a new map of the underground stations. Inspired by electricity circuit diagrams where distances are not as important as the order of the elements, Harry Beck’s new map was an instant success and is still the basis for transport system maps around the world.
I was always taken with the exotic sounding names and intriguing numbers and I can clearly remember heading off to my local library when I was about 12 or 13, to try to find out what it all meant. Sadly libraries in the 70′s were not that great, and I’m pretty certain I went home disappointed and empty handed.
My interest has not dimmed over the years and I still enjoy listening to its almost hypnotic rhythm whenever I catch it on the radio. The order in which the 31 areas are read seems to be consistent. Starting with Viking and then North and South Utsire, it then moves clockwise around the British Isles right around to Southern Iceland.
The information for each area always follows the same pattern. Wind is first, direction then strength on the Beaufort scale, then precipitation, sea state and lastly visibility. A typical description might be:
Viking, North Utsire, South Utisre: South or southeast veering southwest, 7 to severe gale 9, decreasing 5 to 7 later. Rough or very rough. Occasional rain. Moderate, occasionally poor.
Change in wind direction is indicated by veering (a clockwise change) or backing (anti-clockwise). Winds of above force 8 are described by name, e.g. Gale 8, Severe Gale 9, Storm 10, Violent Storm 11 and Hurricane, which is force 12.
Visibility is given in the format Good, meaning that the visibility is greater than 5 nautical miles; Moderate, where visibility is between 2 and 5 nmi, Poor, between 1000 metres and 2 nautical miles and Fog where visibility is less than 1,000 m.
If you’ve never heard it, you should give it a try on Radio 4, click this link:
There are also references to it throughout popular British culture. My favorites are Thomas Dolby’s wonderful track”Windpower” – Thomas Dolby – Windpower , Tears for Fears haunting Pharaoh’s – Tears For Fears – Pharaohs – Single Version and Blur’s “This is a Low” – Blur – This Is A Low
There is also an excellent episode in the first series of Black Books, where Tamsin Greig releases all sorts of built up tensions via Peter Serafinowicz’s very rich and sonorous reading of this very British of Institutions.
Peter Firmin was rooting around his pig shed (as you do) when he came across a box of old videotapes that belonged to the sadly missed Oliver Postgate. The discovery includes 26 missing black and white episodes of the show that were made between 1962 and 1964.
Postgate and Firmin’s company, Smallfilms were commissioned in 1958 to make six black and white stop motion films, these were very succesful and a further two series were then made (the missing 26 episodes) however it was always thought that they had been lost for good.
The Ivor I recognise from my childhood is the star of the 40 remade colour episodes that Smallfilms produced during the mid 1970′s, and I had no idea that Ivor was originally made in the 1950′s…
So Ivor, Jones the Steam, Idris the Dragon, Owen the Signal and Dai Station all get a new lease of life. A happy find indeed.
Well it would seem that Nanny State Britain has struck again.
After only two days of being open to the public, this wonderful looking piece has been closed to public access due to “ceramic dust”, an apparently vicious killer that up until now, I was happily unaware of.
This kind of negates the whole point of the work. Visitors are now only able to look at the work from behind a barrier. Personally I think this is a cynical move by the Tate to counter their worry that every visitor would steal a couple of the seeds (that’s what I was going to do anyway when I went) thereby reducing the value of their investment. How much would you think Mr Weiwei got paid for this work: £100K, £2ooK, £500K maybe? I honestly have no idea, but I doubt that it would be worth half its value if half the seeds disappeared, Art doesn’t work like that. It keeps its intrinsic value regardless
Mind you with over 100 million ceramic seeds (I wrote 10 million in my original post and thought at the time that I must have misheard that figure as too high, but it does now seem to be the astronomically high number of 100 million) it would take a very long time… I also can’t believe that someone as obviously intelligent and considered as Mr. Weiwei didn’t anticipate this. My guess is that by accepting that next time the piece would be exhibited, it would almost certainly be in a considerably smaller space, he just designed in some “automatic demassing”….
But as to the excuse from the Tate, honestly when will people be trusted to take responsibility for their own lives. We walk daily through carbon monoxide soaked streets and smoke and drink and whatever else we want to do to our long suffering bodies. Why can’t we sign a bit of paper saying that if the deadly ceramic dust makes us cough a bit, we won’t hold it against the gallery, then we could enjoy the work as the artist so obviously intended it.
Following on from my earlier post regarding Pelican books back in August, here are some of my Penguin books to keep them company, and for no better reasons than I like them and I think they look good together….
After some rooting about on the net, it appears that Urban Exploration (Urbex) is a big thing, whereby people with cameras gain access into abandoned buildings/ factories/ hospitals/ exposition sites etc and take atmospheric and artfully tasteful shots of what they find.
There are some truly breathtaking photos in this book, the one that sticks in my mind is of a school classroom with literally hundreds of gas masks strewn about the floor… I think it was somewhere in a forgotten corner of eastern Europe, a very unsettling image.
There is obviously risk involved in this pursuit (arrest, injury, and occasionally death by all accounts) but that’s obviously all part of the attraction. The images below illustrate a few of these otherworldly places and I can see why people are willing to take the risks…
I first wrote about this Chinese artist back in August and now he has the honour of the annual Tate Turbine Hall Installation…coincidence…
The work looks amazing from the reviews I have read today and we will be hopefully be going to see it at the weekend. The work comprises of an almost unbelievable 10 million sunflower seeds scattered over a large area of the halls floor.
The seeds refer to a number of things: everyday life, to hunger (the seeds were staple food during the Cultural Revolution), to collective work, and to enduring Chinese industry. But look closely and although they look realistic, each seed is made out of porcelain. And far from being industrially produced, ‘readymade’ or found objects, they have been intricately hand-crafted by hundreds of skilled artisans back in China, and then shipped over like any other commodity.
One of the greatest comics of last century died over the weekend aged 95.
Growing up in the sixties and seventies, I have very fond memories of the seemingly indestructible Pitkin bouncing around on our television at Christmas or in a Saturday afternoon matinee. I particularly liked “The Early Bird” where Norman takes on the might of a huge modern dairy that wants to take over his small horse drawn milk round. The modern dairy as I recall looked something from the film “Things to Come” all gleaming white and futuristic…
Its difficult to imagine now, but after the war, Wisdom became unbelievably popular and during the 1950′s and 1960′s was one of the cinemas biggest draws, outdoing even the James Bond films in audience numbers.
Try shouting out Mr Grimsdale to someone my age and see if they don’t smile….
A week ago tomorrow, thanks to the tube strike, I had to find an alternative way into work. After opting for the riverboat and realising/ remembering what an excellent mode of transport this is, I wondered why I didn’t take the boat more often… and then I remembered, even with a weekly Oyster travelcard its an extra £7 a day…. shame really, as it was a very relaxing and enjoyable 40 minute journey from home up west to The London Eye.
Anyway, to the point of this post.. Although it’s a journey I’ve done a number of times before, this time I noticed several things that made me think…..
Firstly I was struck by how quickly we become used to change, when I saw the shiny new development on the former site of Mondial House, once one of the most distinctive buildings in London. Described by Bonny Prince Charlie as looking like a cash register, this wonderful building was designed by Hubbard, Ford and Partners, and on its completion in 1975, was the largest telephone exchange in Europe. It was designed to be bomb proof and fully self sufficient, with internal generators powering the building in the event of an enemy attack (this was the height of the Cold War after all). These generators vented to the outside via the six cube shaped vents on the lower terrace and these, together with other distinctive black vents and the clean white GRP cladding, added much to its distinctive appearance.
I must admit that before I looked up the details on the web, I had always thought that Mondial House was the headquarters of someone like IBM or Olivetti, and that its striking appearance had been deliberately contrived as a not so subliminal form of advertising. So it’s with a slight sense of disappointment to find out that this is not the case.
A little further up river I was taken by the stark juxtaposition of Containers House and the OXO Tower. The OXO Tower was looking as resplendent as ever since its refurbishment a decade or so ago, whilst Container House had received a huge black, white & yellow sleeve of advertising (apologies for the poor photo, but I only had my phone with me).
I recalled the story of how, in order to overcome a total ban on advertising at riverside which was in effect throughout the first half of the 20th Century, the architects cleverly designed the window fenestration at the top of the tower to read, O X O vertically and after some apparently heated discussions with the authorities, got away with it.
75 years later and for better or worse, advertising is as intrinsic a part of our society as breathing oxygen. As such the sheer scale of the new skin over Containers House is surprising only for a moment or two, so used to this sort of thing have we become. And whilst undoubtedly technically impressive, it does to my mind, lack the ingenuity of its neighbour.
This work is part of the current Aviva campaign, called “youarethebigpicture” which by coincidence launches today, exactly a week after I originally thought of this post. It all looks very shiny and worthwhile, but when you visit the site is in fact just business as usual for one of the worlds largest Insurance companies. By using the pretence of human interest and the tactics of scale (from the global size of the campaign to the macro size of the buildings they have covered, right down to the micro size of individual human stories), Aviva cynically tries to convince us that such a huge financial company thrives on individualism, and that by allowing us to send in a photo of ourselves, they somehow demonstrate this. I already know who I am and I don’t need Aviva to tell me that I’m an individual.
Anyway, I didn’t mean to finish with a diatribe. The original idea was to consider some chronologically different approaches to advertising on the river, looking at connections between the subtlety and craftmanship of the 1920′s OXO windows, the brash confidence and brutalism of the 1970′s as seen at Mondial House, and the technically impressive but conceptually thin application of a single idea to an existing structure on a huge scale, which seems to typify the current vogue…
Not sure I nailed it very well however, so I may have to come back to this post…
Ever since I went to the V&A Museum when I first came to London back in the late 1980′s, and chanced upon the wonderful Japanese Arts collection, I have had a fascination for Netsuke, the small carvings that were worn as part of the traditional robes of Noblemen throughout the country.
These beautifully carved objects had both a functional and an aesthetic role. Firstly, as Japanese robes such as kimono’s, had no pockets, precious things like money, tobacco, medicine and herbs, were kept in lacquered wooden, segmented boxes (called Inro) that slid up and down a cord and were held together by an Ojime (a sliding bead). This cord was then tucked underneath the belt and was prevented from falling out by the Netsuke, threaded on to the other end of the cord. The wonderful example to the left shows the arrangement beautifully.
Netsuke started out life as a simple utilitarian object; a simple “lump” designed to stop things falling through a belt. Over time however, these simple objects (like the boxes and beads) developed into a highly sophisticated and artistic expression of not only a person’s status and wealth, but also of how cultured they were, a key aspect of Japanese Culture.
Netsuke (pronounced Netski) have been around for many hundreds of years. Early examples date from the Edo Period (roughly the beginning of 17th Century) and the relative scarcity of early ones and the intricate and supremely high quality of later genuine antiques, means that they are very valuable and consequently very expensive.
There is a however a market for newly made ones, and this has allowed me to own afew of these little pieces of beauty. Historically the large majority of Netsuke were made from either ivory or boxwood, with occasional highlighting in precious metals. As ivory is quite rightly banned now, other materials are used in its place.
Whilst in Hong Kong earlier this year, we managed to acquire a couple of excellent examples; the serene sitted boxwood water buffalo and his keeper, the happy monk. The monk is made from tagua nut, which is from the ivory palm and is often called vegetable ivory.
The other two netsuke’s above, are a dragon and a snake (our Chinese birth signs) which we got from Greenwich Market about 6 years ago.
The photo to the right is off the bottom of the water buffalo and shows the two holes through which the cord would have been threaded. Also visible is the peralesque makers mark, inlaid into the base of the carving.
As an aside, we were in Japan in 2005, and we went with high hopes of seeing lots of “proper” Japanese Netsuke. Sadly we were to be disappointed, as we visited a number of National Collections in Tokyo, with the most stunning and beautiful objects you could possibly imagine, but as I recall, I think we saw one case with about four Netsuke, Inro and Ojime sets in it. Very lovely, but not enough…