The curwen press’s illustrators: rebels against commercial ugliness
Commissions from the innovatory Curwen Press helped Edward Bawden and his fellow artists to revolutionise graphic design in interwar Britain, as Peyton Skipwith explains.
Peyton Skipwith, Monday, 7th January 2008
Unlikely as it may seem, in March 1915, at the time of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, and with no hint of irony, an exhibition of German manufactures was held at Goldsmiths’ Hall in London. The emphasis was on well-designed goods, and the immediate result was that a number of architects, designers and retailers called a public meeting to air their concerns at the deplorable state of British industrial design. The meeting, chaired by Lord Aberconway, took place a few weeks later at the Great Eastern Hotel and the Design & Industries Association – DIA – was born.
The association’s inaugural committee included such well-known figures as Ambrose Heal, Cecil Brewer, Harold Stabler and Harry H. Peach of the Dryad Workshops. By the end of the year it had a membership of over 200, including many of the biggest names in British industry. Amongst them were Harold Curwen of the Curwen Press and Frank Pick of the London Passenger Transport Board, two men who – both in partnership and separately – were to play an influential role in the promotion and dissemination of well-designed graphic art over the following years.
Awareness of progressive German design had been growing since the turn of the century, and the real catalyst for the dia was not the Goldsmiths’ exhibition, but that of the Werkbund exhibition in Cologne in 1914, which had been visited by most of the members of the dia’s inaugural committee. The Werkbund had initially grown out of German admiration for the achievements of the English Arts and Crafts movement, but had embraced the fact that machine production was not only inevitable but desirable, thus enabling Germany to outstrip Britain and become the world’s leading industrial nation. However, for those in the printing industry, such as Curwen, familiarity with these developments had been de rigueur for some time as, due to the hectic pace of change from the use of gothic to roman script, German firms had become the leading developers of advanced printing machinery. Curwen had been born into a printing family: the firm of J. Curwen & Sons had been founded in 1863 in Plaistow, east London, by his grandfather, a dissenting minister, to publish Tonic Sol-fa music for congregational singing. Although music remained its principal activity, by 1914 the firm was also doing a lot of miscellaneous printing – candle wrappers, soap labels, letterheadings and general stationery – plus a few big jobs, including catalogues for Crittall’s and account books and ledgers for the West Ham Tramways Corporation.
Curwen had been educated at Abbotsholme, a new and advanced school, where he not only learned different crafts, but also absorbed the idealistic Morrisian ethos of the Arts and Crafts movement. After leaving school he worked on the shop floor of the family business in order to learn about printing from the bottom up, before going to Leipzig, by then the Mecca of the printing industry. Having spent the best part of 1906 in Germany, he returned to London and enrolled at the Central School of Arts and Crafts to study calligraphy with Edward Johnston. Thus, by the time he joined the staff of J. Curwen & Sons in 1908, he was a fully fledged artist-craftsman intent on moving the firm into fine printing. He was by nature a consensualist, so there was little immediate change in the firm’s methods of production; however, he became a director three years later and virtually took over the running of the printing business in 1914, whilst the music publishing remained the concern of his cousin Kenneth. The war gave him the chance to put his ideas into practice. Staff shortages enabled him to push ahead with technical developments; he acquired new machinery, and established the firm as a pioneer in the development of offset lithography.
Curwen also took the opportunity to sell the bulk of the firm’s ugly and outdated typefaces, which he represented to the staff as a patriotic gesture to help ease the country’s lead shortage. He culled over 200 different fonts, which had accumulated over the years, retaining only Caslon Old Face, Monotype Old Style No. 2 and Modern Wide No. 18. One of the earliest examples of the revolution Curwen wrought is ‘Get the Spirit of Joy’, a single decorated sheet that reveals as much about his nonconformist background as his aesthetic aspirations. Soon however, thanks to friend- ships formed through the dia and the encouragement of Joseph Thorp, this new ‘spirit of joy’ was manifested in the reproduction of many colourful labels and vignettes designed by Claud Lovat Fraser.
The tragically short-lived Lovat Fraser is best remembered today for his post-war production of The Beggar’s Opera, but prior to that he had played an important role in promoting the revival of the 17th-century chapbook style of illustration. With the development of offset litho printing this became both a cheap and effective way of illustrating pamphlets, broadsides and rhyme sheets, such as those published by Harold Monro at the Poetry Bookshop. Curwen was a devotee of Lovat Fraser’s spontaneous technique and his almost psychedelic palette – yellow, vermilion, aniline green, carmine, cobalt and ultramarine – as well as his range of subject matter. Bernard Newdigate, writing in The London Mercury shortly after Fraser’s death, said, ‘I have before me a sketchbook, belonging to Mr Harold Curwen, which contains some 300 of these sketches, showing the wide range and grace of his [Fraser’s] fancy…Here are pen-and-ink studies of farmsteads and churches, trees and clouds, lobsters and crabs, fishes, birds and beasts, and a wonderful variety of human figures, recalling by their character and humour those grotesques with which medieval illuminators loved to adorn the margins of their psalters and their books of hours.’
Curwen believed that every job, however small, should be carried out to the highest standard of design and printing, and he immediately put this into practice with the firm’s own stationery, often calling upon his store of designs by Lovat Fraser, or commissioning fresh work from Dorothy Hutton and Dora Batty. However, with the advent of Oliver Simon, first as a pupil and then, from 1920, as a colleague, the Curwen Press moved into a higher league. Simon, a Yorkshire-man, was a nephew of William Rothenstein, principal of the Royal College of Art; his lust for printing had struck when he saw a copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer in the window of Sotheran’s, the antiquarian book-sellers. In a Damascene conversion, he knew instantly that printing and books were his vocation.
Just as the years between 1891, when Morris set up his Kelmscott Press, and the outbreak of war were the heyday of the private press – Kelmscott, Doves, Chiswick, Ashendene – so those between 1918 and the Wall Street crash witnessed the high-watermark of commercial book production. As Simon said in a lecture at Stationers’ Hall in 1929: ‘Twenty to thirty years ago the finest and most ambitious books were produced by amateurs who owned private presses. Today I can confidently assert that the majority of the best books in England are produced by the trade, which in itself is a satisfactory state of affairs.’
The directors of the West Ham Tram Corporation were appalled at receiving their noteheadings printed in Caslon, and immediately cancelled their contract with the Curwen Press, but through contacts in the dia and, post-war, with the Royal College of Art, a new and enlightened clientele filled the breach. Curwen, Simon, Pick and Rothenstein formed an extraordinary nexus, bringing artists, clients and public together in a popular aesthetic revolution that altered the face of Britain: posters, pamphlets, newspaper advertising, dust-jackets and book-production changed for ever. Curwen’s ‘Orders and Payments to Artists’ book, covering the years 1926-33,3 lists close to 200 names, including Mary Adshead, Edward Ardizzone, S.R. Badmin, Edward Bawden, Barnett Freedman and his wife, Claudia, Eric Gill, McKnight Kauffer, Enid Marx, John and Paul Nash, Eric and Tirzah Ravilious, Albert Rutherston, Betty Swanwick and Feliks Topolski. Never before had so many distinguished artists had the opportunity of supplementing their income in the cause of commerce. The client list is equally distinguished and includes the London Transport Board, Westminster Bank, Royal Exchange Assurance, bp, Bryant & May, Fortnum & Mason, Moss Bros and a swathe of hotels, including the Savoy, the Dorchester and Tom Laughton’s Pavilion Hotel, Scarborough. A further list divides the artists into various categories: general, imaginative, humorous, lithographers, fashion, scraperboard, etc. Edward Bawden, who became almost an ‘in-house’ artist, working at Plaistow one day a week, appears most frequently, as qualified to produce imaginative and humorous drawings as well as pattern, lettering and maps; Ravilious is listed under lithography, pattern and wood engraving, and Paul Nash, their former tutor, under imaginative and pattern.
One of Rothenstein’s first innovations at the Royal College of Art was to bring in part-time staff. Thus the design school, to which Bawden, Ravilious and Enid Marx had been consigned, benefited not only from the presence of Nash but also from that of Edward Johnston and Harold Stabler. Johnston, who had already designed the sans-serif typeface for London Underground, one of the most distinctive and enduring letter forms of the 20th century, finally produced his seminal book Typography in 1923, published by Francis Meynell’s Pelican Press.
Bawden, whose distinctive lettering features in many advertisements, brochures and book-jackets, claimed to have attended only one of Johnston’s lectures, on the grounds that as he had spent an hour discussing the letter ‘a’, the chance of ever reaching ‘z’ seemed unlikely. He was introduced to the Curwen Press by Harold Stabler, and the first work he produced was a calendar for Carter, Stabler & Adams, followed by a booklet, Pottery Making at Poole. Stabler, one of the forces behind the foundation of the DIA, was both a silversmith and potter; he designed the cream relief tiles for Pick that can still be seen on some of London’s older underground stations, and commissioned witty tile designs from Bawden, which were exhibited at the International Building Trades Exhibition at Olympia in April 1928.
Oliver Simon described his first meeting with the excruciatingly shy Bawden, who had brought a portfolio of work to his office: having shown the work Bawden closed the portfolio and backed towards the door. Simon recalled that he was so impressed with the young man’s taciturnity that he got up and opened the door, and the interview terminated without a word. Despite this inauspicious beginning, there followed a long and fruitful relationship, with Bawden producing borders, trade cards, swelled rules, and publicity material for the Underground and Westminster Bank, not to mention wallpaper designs and pattern papers. Pattern papers were in particular demand – most of the artists on the Curwen payroll produced designs for them over the years.
The first book printed by the press, in 1920, was a modest affair, The Lute of Love, an Anthology, decorated by Lovat Fraser. This was followed a year later by another Fraser production, The Luck of the Beanrows (Fig. 4). Fraser’s death aged just 31, as a result of war injuries, did not deter either Curwen or Harold Monro from continuing to use his work, but it probably added greater urgency to other commissions. In 1922, the Press produced The Four Seasons Calendar (Fig. 6), with illustrations by Albert Rutherston, William Rothenstein’s younger brother, who had anglicised his name. The receipt of this calendar – really a diary – provoked a puzzling response from Pick, who wrote to Curwen saying: ‘I like it very much, and even like the drawings by Albert Rutherston, much as I struggle with these modern developments in art.’
After all, it was Pick who, six years before, had introduced the much more radical poster art of Edward McKnight Kauffer to the travelling public. Kauffer, who had been studying in Paris until the outbreak of war, stopped in England on his way back to America. An introduction to Pick from the popular poster-artist John Hassall led to commissions, starting with In Watford and Oxhey Woods, with the result that Kauffer remained in Britain until 1940. Whereas Curwen introduced Bawden to Pick, it is almost certain that Pick introduced Kauffer to Curwen. The production, in 1929, of Arnold Bennett’s Elsie and the Child, illustrated by Kauffer, ranks with Paul Nash’s edition of Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Buriall and The Garden of Cyrus three years later, both published by Cassell and illustrated using the pochoire, or hand-coloured stencil technique, which Curwen’s, uniquely, had perfected in England. Nash, in a draft review for The Bibliophile’s Almanack, wrote, ‘The Stencil Department of the Curwen Press has for many years produced every reasonable effect demanded of it by illustrators but in the reproduction of the drawings for Elsie and the Child, spurred on by Mr Kauffer, it seems to have jumped into the realms of improbability. It is not reasonable to expect such work – even from Mr Curwen’s young ladies. But it has been done and, personally, I am still marvelling.’ Herbert Read described Nash’s Urne Buriall as ‘one of the loveliest achievements of contemporary English art’.
An exhibition ‘Books Printed at the Curwen Press’ was held at Bumpus’s bookshop in Oxford Street in May 1929, followed a year later by one devoted to ‘Stencilling from the Curwen Press’ at Zwemmer’s, which a reviewer in apollo described as ‘a feast for the modern bibliophile’. Although for print-runs of less than 1,000 copies stencilling was cheaper than ordinary colour work, sadly, Urne Buriall was the last of the pochoire-printed books that Curwen produced, and the highly skilled team of stencillers was disbanded. The Depression and Kenneth Curwen’s large and unremunerative investment in ‘Synchro-phone’ – an abortive system for adding sound to film – had together taken their toll of the firm financially.
From 1922 Oliver Simon – once described by his brother, Herbert, as the firm’s ‘most uncommercial commercial traveller’ – was deeply involved, with Stanley Morison of the Monotype Corporation, in the production of Fleuron, a journal devoted to typography. It was never intended to be a long-term project and only seven numbers were published; the first four edited by Simon, the final three by Morison. During these years, its offices, which doubled up as Curwen’s, became an international meeting place for everyone interested in the art of printing – printers, typographers and typefounders – and were likened by Simon to ‘a private University of Printing’.
A further key character who fitted neatly into the Curwen-Pick-Simon circle appeared in England in 1928; this was Jack Beddington, whose taste and influence were to have as profound an effect on advertising and graphic art as theirs. Beddington had been working for Shell in Shanghai and, whilst there, had been a regular recipient and admirer of Stuart Menzies’s individualistic ‘Commentaries’ publicising Fortnum & Mason; these had led him to be highly critical of his own firm’s approach to advertising, with the happy result that on his return to London he was put in charge of publicity. A nephew of Sydney Schiff, one of the founders of the dia, he helped define a fresh approach to advertising.
Together with Edward Bawden and John Betjeman, Beddington devised the witty series of advertisements based on British place names such as ‘Winterbourne Came in Dorset but Winter Shell came in last Monday’ and ‘Travellers Rest but Shell does the Work’. The sheer ingenuity of Bawden’s drawings, especially that for Llanfair P. G., in which the train’s wheels, like hoops of spaghetti, recede into the distance, giving at once a sense of speed and length, have assured them a place among the classics of advertising history. The frequently repeated punch line ‘You Can Be Sure of Shell’, recurred on the many posters Beddington commissioned from McKnight Kauffer, Paul Nash, Bawden, John Armstrong, Leonard Rosoman and others on the popular theme that ‘These People’ – be they footballers, actors, explorers, magicians, blondes or brunettes – ‘Prefer Shell’.
Curwen, who described himself as a rebel against commercial ugliness, and Pick had taken to heart W.R. Lethaby’s stricture that ‘we do not allow shoddy in cricket or football, but reserve it for serious things like houses and books, furniture and funerals.’ In the wake of World War i, they, with Simon, Beddington and others who were inspired by the aims of the DIA in their fight against commercial ugliness and the ‘shoddy’, drove forward a technical and aesthetic revolution that in artistic terms was to define the popular face of Britain during the interwar years.
Peyton Skipwith is currently preparing a book with Brian Webb on the heyday of the Curwen Press for the Antique Collectors’ Club.
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