The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Books roundup October 2012

All reviewed by Catherine Croft

British Aviation Posters:  Art, Design and Flight by Scott Anthony and Oliver Green (Lund Humphries, 200pp, £35)

This expert survey drawing on the British Airways archive includes material from the five airlines BA incorporated, including Imperial Airways, BOAC and BEA.  The illustrations are fabulous – mainly high quality posters but also marketing materials and photographs.  Two periods are particularly outstanding; the first was in the 1930s, when Marcus Brumwell’s Stuarts advertising agency employed artists such as Ben Nicolson and John Piper to design posters for Imperial.  There were also collaborations with the GPO and Shell.  Then, the late 1940s to the early 60s, when industrial design and  corporate identity became key, with work by Robin Day and Abram Games.  The book stops before the launch of Concord and mass market budget flying, but an epilogue – complete with Joan Collins as stewardess in a 1980s TV ad – reflects on how changing ideas of Britishness led to the ethnically diverse tail fins so hated by Mrs Thatcher, and the sponsoring of the London Eye.

The Art of Modern Tapestry:  Dovecot Studios since 1912 ed. Elizabeth Cumming (Lund Humphries, 192pp, £40)

Dovecot Studios were founded in 1912 by the Marquis of Bute.   The first weavers came from William Morris’s Merton Abbey workshop and their first commission was for Mount Stuart, the Marquis’s flamboyant gothic revival home.    Postwar, the studio collaborated with John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore and Stanley Spencer, and in the 1990s they completed a version of R B Kitaj’s If Not, Not for the British Library.

Cumming charts the studio’s history and personalities and the struggles to remain financially afloat (Bute family support seems to have been crucial).  The story is brought up to date by David Weir who became Director in 2000. The new benefactors   Alastair and Elizabeth Salvesen (about whom we learn very little) could not buy the original Arts & Crafts home and the studio moved  to a renovated and extended public baths (the architect Malcolm Fraser doesn’t get a credit—a pity as it’s a good scheme).

The second half of the book looks in detail at 38 individual works, with fascinating reminiscences from artists, weavers, and commissioners.  Kitaj ‘did not want to influence the weaving’ and so did not visit the studio at all, Robert Motherwell was apparently ‘not keen on the texture’ added to his image, while Alan Davie would show up with his wife and enthusiastically see the tapestry as a collaboratively produced artwork.

Sadly, of course, flat images cannot fully convey what is fundamentally special about tapestry. But the book is both a celebration and a consolidation of the history underpinning an ongoing project.   It takes for granted that tapestry is a fantastic medium which, like a rare species, must be nurtured to survive.

Sir Gordon Russell CBE, MC RDI (1892-1980): a twentieth century design pioneer by Helen R Auty (The William Shipley group for RSA History Occasional Paper 21, 37pp, £7.50 from RSA)

Although not really a book,  this is a fascinating and well written essay on the renowned furniture designer and maker, and a complement to Jeremy Myerson’s biography. It includes a chronology, bibliography and the text of Russell’s own talk Skill, originally published in 1978.   I was particularly fascinated to read of Sir Gordon’s collaboration with Geoffrey Jellicoe on his garden at Kingcombe, working with concrete and pressing rushes and cabbage leaves into wet surfaces for decorative effect.  It draws on the collection of the Gordon Russell Museum in Broadway, which is well worth a visit.

Glasgow’s Listed Post War Buildings by Dawn McDowell (Historic Scotland) Available free online from

This is a very welcome  guide to listed postwar buildings in Glasgow, complete with map.  It ranges from school and university buildings in fact designed before the war, to the politically controversial fibreglass statue of a Spanish Civil War heroine by Liverpool artist Arthur Dooley (1974-79). It’s great to see a city Council Member  saying  that ‘we are proud that the significance of the post-war architecture of the city has been recognised’, although out of 1,829 listed buildings in Glasgow only 38 are from this period,  despite the city having more than its share of postwar talent.   Postwar listing is still incredibly stringent.

Architecture: The Groundbreaking Moments by Isabel Kuhl (Prestel , 208pp, £14.99)

50 Photos You Should Know by Brad Finger (Prestel, 160pp, £13.99)

I can’t resist ordering titles like these, just to check that the C20 gets due credit. In fact, Kuhl’s introductory guide to world architecture from earliest times  is quite imaginative, with chapters on glass houses and the impact of exterior lighting on buildings contributing to a concise but engaging text.   The surprising thing about Finger’s  book is the almost complete  absence of C20 architecture.  Buildings are merely the victims of war or natural disaster, or a backdrop for moments of intense human emotion.

Published October 2012