Wondering on Wandering
Being anxious and often over-caffeinated, I am perpetually early – often meaning I kill time aimlessly sauntering round London. On my wanderings, I find fascination in the decorative and public arts of the city – London’s artistic presence outside of the world-renowned museums and galleries. Join me as I share my thoughts on the things I find, and how we can escape the ticket-booking and timeslot-choosing of Galleries by treating the city itself as a work of art.
1843 — the Reinvention of the Identity of Christmas
Thursday, December 17th
Currier and Ives, American Winter Scene
‘It’ll nearly be like a picture print from Currier and Ives’ sings the well-loved 1948 Christmas song, ‘Sleigh Ride’ - reminiscing on the images of Christmas produced by the popular nineteenth century American lithograph printer. Both sides of the Atlantic, the trappings of a modern Christmas are rife with nostalgia for the spirit of Christmas past - embracing Victoriana and enthusiastically garish imitations of the nineteenth century. Just a quick stroll into your local town centre will confront you with gilded, intertwining cursive typefaces wishing you a ‘Merry Christmas’, tempting you into shops filled with velvet sashes, nutcracker figurines and ornate candlestick displays. Special edition Christmas biscuit tins often feature somewhat charming, kitsch reproductions of nineteenth century paintings - bizarrely John Lewis’ panettone tin this year sports some vaguely Whistler-esque peacocks, which I don’t think are particularly festive. Nevertheless, the visual identity of Christmas - with all its red, gold, and green; its candles and its general festive maximalism - is saturated in the imagined world of Victorian Yuletide.
I’ll make no hesitation in attributing this to one singular year - 1843. One week in mid-December 1843 redefined Christmas in Britain, shaping it for centuries to come. By the start of the 1840s, Christmas had basically died out - as the vicar of a poor parish wrote, ‘The people here seem hardly to feel Christmas Day.’ The beginning of the industrial revolution had seen the time off work over Christmas cut from at least a week, to at best only Christmas Day itself. Christmas carols, once an important and popular folk custom, had become almost extinct. As could be expected under ‘flourishing’ capitalism, the rich were getting richer and the poor were, quite plainly, destitute. Whilst the wealthiest parts of London put on a showy facade of commercial displays, all that was really holding Christmas together were traces of festive spirit and the hope that a familial haven would help extinguish the cold and the toils of the world for just a day.
These sentiments were fully summed up in perhaps the most famous piece of festive literature ever written, Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ - published on 19th December 1843. Being a work of ghost stories, of social commentary, and of a clear establishment of a new visual culture surrounding Christmas, it was a massive success - the first edition selling out by Christmas Eve. It remains a resounding success and a clear image of what Christmas is in the UK and US today - it has never been out of print since its original publication and has inspired hundreds of theatre productions and films (including a Barbie and a Muppet version - both of which I think are rather good). Ebenezer Scrooge’s re-enchantment with the spirit of Christmas - transforming from a cold and resentful man corrupted by wealth, into a figure of joy and charity - acted as a metaphor for Christmas itself, a call to arms to rediscover an idealised Christmas of the past. But it wasn’t just a revival of sentiment - it was a whole new approach to the material and visual culture of Christmas.
BL Christmas Carol first edition source-BL
The first edition of the book itself is ‘Christmassy’ - its pea green endpapers and crimson cloth binding bearing the gilded title within a similarly gilded wreath of holly, ivy and mistletoe. The book unmistakably sets out a visual quality of Christmas before you even read it. And within its text, this establishment of a new culture of Christmas grows. The visions of the ghosts bear descriptions of bags full of treats and toys, parlour games, and music; the joys of carollers and turkey introduced to him in the Christmas morning to which he awakens. This was a very new vision of Christmas - one that revived the romanticised idea of the wintry feats of the medieval world, a joyous mix of the pagan, the secular and the religious. The visual descriptions of Dickens’ Christmas world directly contrast the perceived modernity of greyness and poverty with the nostalgia of brightness, joy and prosperity. Written contemporarily to the Gothic Revival, Dickens evokes the visual ideals of the movement, without explicitly referencing the Middle Ages. Thus, the new visual for Christmas that he invents is futuristic - yet simultaneously nostalgic. It is a manifesto of how a return to empathy, communal spirit and Christmas jollity could improve the plight of the poor. As Scrooge wakes up to bells quite literally ‘ringing the changes’ of this new bright world, filled with holly and mistletoe, toys, gifts, and games, we too are encouraged to embrace this new brightness and Christmas spirit.
And it worked. Like a storm.
Within the following years, turkey became a popular Christmas meal, the effort to revive carolling and wassailing finally took off and the new Gothic Revival churches were richly ‘decked’ with Anglo-Saxon style evergreen garlands. Christmas was back on the cards (excuse the pun). Of course, this was not just the work of Dickens - Prince Albert had a lot to do with the introduction of Christmas traditions into Britain, most famously the Christmas Tree. Talking of Christmas cards, Henry Cole - the first director of the V&A - also ‘invented’ the Christmas card as we know it today. On 17 December 1843, just two days before the publication of ‘A Christmas Carol’, he issued a pre-printed card designed by Royal Academician, John Callcott Horsley, as a way to send Christmas massages more quickly to friends and family. Bearing the image of his family feasting, alongside image of charitable acts, these Christmas Cards uphold a similar sentiment to Dickens’ novella. The use of ‘Merry Christmas’ on the card - instead of the more respectable ‘Happy Christmas’ - especially evokes the Neo-medieval joviality of Dickensian Christmas. Christmas, it seems, thrives off nostalgia for a time we have never experienced - for an idea of ‘the good old days.’
First Christmas Card - source- V&A
So what of our maintained obsession with cladding Christmas in the regalia of 1843?
Somewhat ironically, despite reviving Christmas from the destitution caused by industrialisation, it was industrialised capitalism that took hold of its revival and ran with it. Toys became cheaply mass produced throughout the nineteenth century, confectionary moved out of the workshop-kitchen and into the mechanised factory - and Christmas became increasingly a commercial endeavour, seizing upon the market of its new popularity. And as Christmas remained popular, well, the market just got bigger and bigger. As late-stage capitalism ‘thrives’ and the world is, quite bluntly, falling apart - war, the climate emergency, an ever-growing global wealth gap - we are further driven into misery and exhaustion. It seems quite telling that the location of Scrooge’s apartments given in ‘A Christmas Carol’ is now inhabited by the Lloyds Building - one grey figure of cold, unfeeling wealth replaced by another. So, desperate for the break and a ‘return to the good old days’ over the Christmas Bank Holiday, we turn to what we see as the heyday of Christmas: its blossoming in the 1840s. Commercially and domestically, we perform a version of the Christmas Carol, waking up to a bright Victorian fantasy during the Christmas period, a magical respite from the drudgery of the rest of the year. The Neo-Victorianism of the visual culture of twenty-first century Christmas - although with its foundations in the impact of ‘A Christmas Carol’ - has become the ‘splendid joke: a glorious pageant’ that Dickens described.
So this last week or so before Christmas, whilst we wander through shopping streets, flanked on either side by mock-Victorian displays of Christmas cheer, this ‘glorious pageant’ of festivity, perhaps we should wonder on what else we could take from Christmas 1843? Or perhaps what will, in the future, be romanticised and revived from the material and visual culture of Christmas 2020?
Central Park, Winter – The Skating Pond, 1862
Driving Home for Christmas
A brief history of British Transport design
Thursday, December 3rd
With the beginning of the student travel window this week, many of us will be preparing to leave London, and anticipating the hours spent on motorways or trains filled with other students travelling home for Christmas. Amongst the end of term essay rush, booking train tickets, and organising a Covid test, somehow finding the time to take in the city’s artistic culture may be the last thing on your mind. But travel is steeped in design history, and has shaped the identity of British design - so rather, this isn’t Wondering on Wandering but Wondering on Travelling, which (I think you’ll agree) is decidedly less catchy.
Johnston Railway Type (credit: Crafts Study Centre)
Rail Alphabet 2 design in process 2020 (credit: Design Museum)
Somewhat unintentionally, I’m starting where I left off before, with Johnston Railway Type. Emerging from the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement, it has come to define the not only the metropolitan identity of London, but the feeling of British modernism - becoming one of the most recognisable typefaces in the world. When, in the early 20th century, it was decided that the Underground needed a unified approach to its branding and signage, Edward Johnston was tasked with creating a typeface that was simultaneously modernly practical, and identifiably British. Whilst embracing the readability of a sans-serif typeface, it slimmed down the extra-bold sans-serif fonts of the nineteenth century so as not to appear like gaudy advertising. This created a typeface that was simultaneously elegant and no-nonsense, encompassing the aspirations of the contemporary British mindset.
In the 1950s and 60s, Britain’s road signage was facing a dilemma similar to the Underground just 40 years prior: it was haphazard, confusing and heterogeneous. Most of all, it was in desperate need of a redesign - so it is unsurprising that when graphic designers Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir were tasked with the job, they took inspiration from Johnston Railway Type. In contrast to the ‘bluntness’ of European modernist design found on roadsigns on the continent, Calvert and Kinneir decided to take on the roundness and ‘quaint’ British modernism of Johnston Railway Type in their pioneering new road sign designs - believing it to be more appealing to a British audience. Whilst mainland Europe’s roadside typefaces were the designs of engineers, Britain’s became the work of a graphic design student in her 20s, and her print design tutor. This both bears the legacy of the idealisation of the craftsperson found within the Arts and Crafts movement, and also upholds an aspirational British ideal of self-determination, greenness, and quaintness- a lifestyle that wasn’t available to the majority. The redesign of British roadsigns was not only in the interests of safety during a period of increasingly high-speed travel, but of forging a national identity during the breakdown of the empire. Rather than a global power, Britain reinvented itself as a ‘green and pleasant’ island - and what better way to disseminate a new national identity than through one of the most widely viewed aspects of public design: road signs.
former School Children Sign (credit: BBC)
Calvert's updated school children sign 1965 (credit: British Road Sign Project)
Yet, the roadsigns also reflected the quickly changing social landscape of post-war Britain - especially through the eyes of the young and dynamic Calvert. Taking issue with the previous ‘schoolchildren nearby’ sign, which showed an older boy leading a young girl, Calvert flipped it around, showing a girl leading a younger boy. Unlike the former sign, which marked out the boy as a grammar school student by his cap and satchel, the new design did not specify uniforms - reflecting the widespread establishment of the comprehensive school in the 1960s, alongside the idea that everyone deserved access to a high quality education. Calvert modelled the image of the young girl for the new sign from a photo of herself as a child, wanting to inject personality into a new image of British schooling that she intended to seem more caring and universal. The anecdotal personality of Calvert’s illustrations is further present in the cow of the ‘farm animals’ sign - which she based on her recollection of a cow named Patience from her childhood.
As well as designing Britains new roadsigns, Calvert and Kinneir were simultaneously involved in the rebranding of British Railways to British Rail in 1965, designing ‘Rail Alphabet'. The rebranding of rail travel aimed to modernise its image in a way that would directly rival the modernism of Transport for London, moving away from a pre-nationalisation typeface directly based on Johnston Railway Type, towards a face that was incredibly current, inspired by the modern design projects in Johnston’s legacy. Although ‘Rail Alphabet’ fell out of use with the privatisation of the railways during the 1990s, Calvert’s involvement with the visual identity of British transport is not just a story of the past. In October this year, Network rail announced that it had commissioned Calvert to update and reissue Rail Alphabet for use. The ‘muddle of different fonts’ - as Network Rail chief, Peter Hendy called today’s transport visuals - caused by the fragmentation of a privatised railway, is confusing for users, putting brand identity before practicality. Therefore, Calvert’s new commission seems incredibly timely, as the current chaos of railways in Britain is leading to an increasingly likely future of full re-nationalisation. Calvert’s Rail Alphabet design is inevitably tied to the heyday of nationalised rail - a fact that she is well aware of, having expressed her hope in 2015 that a potential nationalisation of rail under a Labour government would bring back her designs.
Rail Alphabet in Use at Paddington Station (credit: RIBA Journal)
Gouache Maquette for road signage system (image credit: Design Museum)
If, however, you aren’t facing the Christmas travel rush, and have been saved from contemplating the design history of Britain’s road signs whilst stuck on the M25, or the ‘muddle of fonts’ whilst trying to find your way to the right platform at Kings Cross St Pancras, the Design Museum has a wonderful exhibition on currently about Margaret Calvert’s past and current work. Margaret Calvert: Woman at Work is on until 10 January - and is wonderfully digitised online, perfect for killing time on a long train journey home.
eat drink and be 'morris'
An Arts and Crafts Pub Crawl in Hammersmith
Thursday, November 5th
To my amusement, the Wetherspoons outside Hammersmith station is called ‘The William Morris’ - named, of course, after the political activist, poet and pioneer of Arts and Crafts design. I’m obsessed with him. Anyone who has spent more than a couple of minutes with me will have been subjected to long, rambling conversations about his wallpaper, his socialist design principles, and the intricacies of his life in general. So, it was never going to be long before I decided to write about him here, and, to be honest, a Wetherspoons outside a tube station feels like a pretty good place to start a William Morris-themed pub crawl across Hammersmith.
But now, with pubs shut until at least the start of December, I’m sorry to say that this will have to be an intellectual pub crawl, rather than an actual one. Staggering between a couple of pubs, a few riverside houses and a whole lot of drama surrounding a bridge, we will be feasting and drinking not on a £3.50 bowl of halloumi fries and a £3 pint, but on Hammersmith’s design history.
The Dove pub, Hammersmith, London, from the river jetty. 28 September 2005. Photographer: Fin Fahey
So, let's abandon ‘The William Morris' - I don’t think Morris would have appreciated having his name put on a pub chain with somewhat questionable ethical practices anyway - and walk to another nearby pub, The Dove. The Dove is fascinating for a number of reasons besides its association with the Arts and Crafts movement. Sitting on the river with a view of houseboats, sailing clubs and Hammersmith bridge, it feels a little more coastal, rather than only being a short walk from the hustle and bustle of West London. It is not surprising, therefore, that it has attracted some memorable people over time: the writers Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene and Dylan Thomas are all known to have spent time there - and allegedly ‘Rule Britannia’ was also penned over a pint within its tiny bar room, the smallest in the world! But most notably in the history of design, it was frequented by William Morris, Thomas Cobden-Sanderson and Emery Walker - all key figures in the Arts and Crafts movement - they allegedly coined the name ‘Arts and Crafts’ in the bar in 1887. Cobden-Sanderson and Walker, admittedly less well known than Morris today, were bookbinders and typographers at the centre of the Private Press Movement; an Arts and Crafts initiative that aimed to revive the art of bookmaking by taking it out of large company factories and putting in back in the workshop. The name of their press, The Doves Press, was directly taken from The Dove, the pub at the centre of their creative circle - and next door to Cobden-Sanderson’s house and studio. The Dove now houses a few copies of ‘Rule Britannia' printed by Doves Press - and the pair did publish and print a few beautifully designed limited edition runs of texts such as Paradise Lost and The English Bible before falling out over artistic differences.
Kelmscott House, credit 'The William Morris society'
Moving on, just a couple of yards up Hammersmith’s idyllic Thames-side Upper Mall, is Kelmscott House - William Morris’ home from 1878 until his death in 1896. Alongside being a family home for him and his wife, Jane Morris - the textile artist and Pre-Raphaelite model - it served a variety of other purposes, from housing his carpet looms, to hosting socialist lectures and meetings frequented by George Bernard Shaw, Peter Kropotkin and Oscar Wilde. Also prominent in the Private Press movement, Morris’ similarly named Kelmscott Press was situated just opposite the Dove, and next door to Kelmscott House. There, he designed and printed highly decorative versions of the Canterbury Tales, the works of Shakespeare and anthologies by various Romantic poets, alongside his own writings and poetry - drawing upon the craftsmanship and design of medieval manuscripts and fifteenth century printed books.
A short walk westward up the river brings us to the houses of May Morris and Emery Walker, at 8 and 7 Hammersmith Terrace. May Morris was, like her father, was an influential figure in the Arts and Crafts movement. She worked in embroidery and textile design, jewellery design, and design reform, whilst also being an outspoken socialist and women’s rights activist. Aiming to combat sexism within the Arts and Crafts circle, whilst living at 8 Hammersmith Terrace, she established the Women’s Guild of Arts as a rival to the Art Worker’s Guild which refused to admit women. She was close friends with Dorothy Walker, the daughter of Emery Walker - and in 1903, the Walkers moved next door. 7 Hammersmith Terrace remains one of the best-preserved Arts and Crafts homes, and I highly encourage you to visit once it is able to reopen. Filled with Morris & co. textiles and wallpapers, ceramics by the de Morgans, and glasswork by Phillip Webb; it typifies the ideals of Arts and Crafts design reform, favouring the hand crafted over the mass produced, the useful over the frivolous, and a curiosity towards the beauty of the natural.
Kelmscott Press printer's mark, Epistola de Contemptu Mundi, 1894.
Credit: University of Maryland
But Hammersmith’s Arts and Crafts circle was not an idyll of socialist design and innovation. With ambition, perfectionism and artistic collaboration between some of the most influential design reformers, came conflict. This played out on Hammersmith Bridge, on the walk back towards the tube station from the Thames-side residences of the Arts and Crafts pioneers. A contentious dispute broadly revolving around who could use the Doves type, and the financial value it would bring to the press, broke up the cooperation between Walker and Cobden-Sanderson in 1909, and resulted in long term bitterness between the pair. Over health fears, war scares and the dissolution of the Doves Press, between 1913 and 1917, Cobden-Sanderson dramatically threw all of the type, punches and matrices over Hammersmith Bridge so that Walker would never gain its rights. He then issued a statement in the final Doves Press publication at its dissolution in 1917, that he had ‘bequeathed [the Doves Type] to the River Thames’ - essentially hammering the nail in the coffin of what had been one of the most important collaborations of the Arts and Crafts and Private Press movements. And with that end of an era, our walk along the Thames path comes to an end too.
Returning to the station - there’s one bit of Arts and Crafts design indebted to Hammersmith that you probably see every day- the Underground roundel and Transport for London font. Well, technically it’s Johnston Railway Type, formerly just called ‘Underground’, but it was designed by the typographer and calligrapher Edward Johnston who began studying medieval manuscripts on the recommendation of William Morris and moving within the Arts and Crafts circle. He later became a teacher of calligraphy at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, and worked with Emery Walker on the Doves Press. Inspired by William Morris’ mantra that ‘you should have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’, he adopted his own mantra that typography and calligraphy should be ‘the making of useful things legibly beautiful’ - which has been widely credited to have begun the modern calligraphic revival. He lived in Hammersmith - just a couple of doors down from Emery Walker and May Morris - so next time you take a tube, or read a TfL sign, remember that you’ve got William Morris, the Dove pub, and the Arts and Crafts circle in Hammersmith to thank for such an iconic piece of London’s design.
Eleanor Cross… or not?
Searching for medieval stone crosses in North London
Thursday, October 22nd
Westminster, Lincoln, St Albans –. Soaring cathedrals, ecclesiastic palaces and libraries of beautifully illuminated manuscripts set the scene for a rich trove of medieval finds. But North London? Well, amongst the residential streets, Overground lines, and (quite frankly confusing) hail-and-ride bus services, medieval artworks may seem unlikely to come across..
But not all hope is lost – well, at least that’s what I thought. Like many of us in a hurry to the train station, out of the rain, or to drinks with a friend, I often rush past public art. In a city where we are bombarded by visuals – shop fronts, advertisements and the people around us – it is easy to let these public sculptures fade into the background of our lives, no matter how historically or artistically interesting they are. I’ve walked down Tottenham High Road towards Bruce Grove station countless times – but only recently stopped to look.
When I did stop to look, I was struck by what appeared to be a Gothic stone cross. Of course, ‘stone crosses’ don’t actually bear crosses anymore but are rather the decorative stone bases - the wooden crosses that would have topped them have fallen away with time. The pointed arches, crockets and quatrefoils raised my hopes that this may be an Eleanor Cross – one of the stone monuments erected in the 13th Century to mark the procession of Eleanor of Castile’s body from Lincoln to Westminster. Unlike most arranged marriages throughout history, Eleanor of Castile and Edward I are widely reported to have been deeply in love and, after Eleanor’s death in 1290, Edward commissioned 12 stone crosses to profess his undying love for Eleanor, and preserve her memory. On a route from Lincoln to Westminster, the procession must have passed through North London, so I got excited at the thought that here, in the centre of Tottenham (home to the 2011 London Riots and a football club that I know absolutely nothing about), perhaps stood a testament to one of history’s most famous love stories.
I was wrong.
Illustration by Kitty Bate
An Eleanor cross- this stone monument was not. After a quick google search and another close look, I discovered that it was actually an early 17th Century reconstruction of a medieval wayside cross for the then village of Tottenham, which had been covered in a Gothic-style stucco in 1809. In hindsight then, this was not an Eleanor Cross, a work of the patronage of the heartbroken medieval king. Despite how incongruous the ornate Gothic style may look amongst the London brick buildings that line the A10, this particular cross was nowhere near grand enough to be an expression of everlasting royal love, powerful enough to transform Eleanor’s image from generally disliked to the darling of the medieval world. But I was certain that the procession must have passed through North London, and therefore that there must be an Eleanor Cross, or at least the site of one, nearby.
Sure enough, only a 20-minute train-ride away was one of only 3 surviving original crosses out of the 12 initially built – Waltham Cross.
Situated in the centre of a pedestrianised shopping street just north of the M25 and on the border between London and Hertfordshire, this beautifully ornate, hexagonal celebration of Gothic arts, and Eleanor herself, stands out from surrounding cafes, banks and newsagents – yet no one seems to glance at it as they go about their day-to-day lives. Eleanor and Edward’s joint enthusiasm for patronage of the arts is incredibly present throughout its design, celebrating their life together. The repetitive quatrefoil flower pattern carved in low relief over the bottom third mimics (in an anglicised way) the Spanish carpets that Eleanor collected and made fashionable. Moreover, the crockets lining the pinnacles and buttresses are sculpted in the fashionable ball-flower style which was popular amongst the foliate style of the Decorative Gothic, to which Eleanor was a devoted patron in both architecture and manuscripts – perhaps also referencing her influence on and interest in garden and landscape design. Through its design and the 3 - now replica - sculptures of Eleanor which sit within it, gazing upon the people of Waltham Cross, you begin to get a sense of the person Eleanor was – or at least, the person Edward saw her as, or wanted her to be seen as. In the knowledge that this is only 1 of 3 Eleanor crosses which survived the iconoclasm of the English Civil War, this expression feels more intimate than ever, despite being in an incredibly public space.
But going back to my original confusion between the Eleanor Cross and Tottenham High Cross – perhaps there was an intent to confuse, a pride in the speculative idea that such an important, romanticised moment from medieval English history passed through this area of North London. After many monuments commemorating medieval royal love were destroyed during a short period of anti-monarchist feeling in the 17th Century, rising nostalgia for old England was strong in the 19th Century. Alongside a period of increasing imperialism, but also civil unrest, the ‘good old days’ of an all-powerful, all English monarchy was romanticised – pushing for the reinstatement of a visual medieval past, where the Church and Monarchy reigned supreme. This is evident in the rebuilding of Westminster Palace in the 1840s, and – in fact - the imaginative replica of an Eleanor Cross in the forecourt of Charing Cross station, close by to where the original, and final, Eleanor Cross would have been.
Therefore, I don’t find it unreasonable to imagine that my misidentified stone cross, sitting at a junction in central Tottenham, was a refashioning of an older monument in order to embrace these rising feelings of a romanticised medieval past. It is interesting to note that some vague legend seems to be present about some connection between the Eleanor of Castile procession and Tottenham, with a now outdated walkers route ‘Queen Eleanor Way’ including Tottenham High Road as a point on the route from Nottinghamshire to Westminster, following the Eleanor Crosses.
At a point in history when the city of London, and the world itself, was swiftly changing, people turned - whether for better or for worse - towards the past in order to look for surety. I wonder now, in a similar period of change and uncertainty, whether we will find any comfort in turning towards the past too.