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.
Derek Birdsall: Birdseye view
1 day ago