Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Broccoli & Tin

If Unmitigated England had a gallery with unlimited space, then at least one room would be entirely devoted to the Shell County Paintings. Produced in the 1950s and 60s the originals were reproduced as advertisements, calendars, and, very memorably for me, as school wallcharts. Shell commissioned some of the very best artists of the day such as S.R.Badmin, John Nash, Rowland Hilder and David Gentleman. Each picture was accompanied by a brief description of the county and a key to what were the salient points in each image, a capriccio if you like of the many things that gave each county its particular character. Above is one of my favourites, Cornwall by Richard Eurich (1903-1992). Dated 1958, I still find things that I've missed in the plethora of detail. The wheel-headed wayside cross, the train on the viaduct, the deserted tin mine and what I wouldn't have known without the key: the basket of broccoli carried by the man walking up the hill. And Eurich hasn't ducked putting in the lunar landscape of waste from china-clay workings.
    Sadly Shell sold all the originals of these and the accompanying series of nature paintings in 2002, and Cornwall was used for the front and back covers of the catalogue. (Which reminds me Sotheby's, you still owe me a call from last year.) Anyway, we still have the reproductions. Some will remember the Shell BP Shilling Guides that used the whole image over the covers, and the Shell Guide to Britain which could only use half of it, but the wallcharts really are the thing. Superbly printed and complete with metal strips and hook to facilitate hanging, I first saw them put up around my school hall, stared at as I went across its parquet floor with Philip Barlow to fetch the milk crate from the yard. I learnt that there were places like Wiltshire (Keith Grant, 1960) that specialised in big stones and white horses and that Middlesex & Hertfordshire (S.R.Badmin, 1963) harboured George Bernard Shaw and royal palaces embowered in blossoming trees. I recently talked to David Gentleman about them all, and his Shell series on roads, and he recalls that he was pretty much given a free hand as to what to put in his paintings (Somerset, Gloucestershire, Nottinghamshire). What a brief. What amazing things to put together.


Ron Combo said...

Blimey, embowered. What a lovely word!

Peter Ashley said...

Thank you Ron! More where that came from. I quite like 'encrusted' too.

Philip Wilkinson said...

You're right: the quality of the printing of the posters sets them above the reproductions in the Shilling Guides and the Guide to Britain. The posters glow, and this quality, together with their size, enables one to appreciate all the details. Most of the artists did well in conjuring up the essence of a county, even if this means, as it inevitably does, leaving aspects out.

Zephyrinus said...

Thank you, Peter, for this riveting read.

In case you are unaware, the following Web-Site is devoted to "The History Of The Shell County Guides". You even get a mention in The Bibliography.


In addition, I must also congratulate you on the splendid cover design and photography, showing Oakham Railway Station, Rutland, for The Shire Books publication of "Railway Architecture", by Bil Fawcett.

Alan Godber said...

A wonderful image and still educational today. There seems a woeful lack of knowledge about the character and history of counties. I see Richard Trevithick is in there too; arguably the true father of the steam locomotive. The Cornish seasonal broccoli traffic required the GWR to lay on dozens of special trains to get 30,000 tons of the stuff to the markets in London and elsewhere. As well as goods vans, cattle wagons, horseboxes, anything with a roof and wheels was used.

Peter Ashley said...

Thank you Zeph for telling me about the website and your appreciation of my Shire cover, and Alan for your broccoli fact. Phil, you're so right about the print quality. And I was once again amazed at how my 'phone camera picked up the superb detail.

John Simlett said...

Fascinating insight, many thanks for a really interesting posting, Peter.

Although in a much lower league, I was fortunate enough in 1985 to get a commission, from a Northern Irish Linen company, to design tea-towels for a number of counties also Welsh Castles, Royal Homes and London.

About this time I realised I was never going to be a famous painter, and settled on being a 'jobbing-artist.' The tea-towels had seemed little more than nice little earners and it is only in latter years that I admitted to them, and even later that I became rather fond of them.

.... and thanks David (Zeph) for that website

Peter Ashley said...

I think that's brilliant John. Get them ironed and framed!