Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The art of the shop front

High Street (pictured, top) is a beautiful children's book from 1938 illustrated with lithographs by Eric Ravillious with text by architectural historian J. M. Richards. Even back then, Richards bemoans the homogeneity of the high street with its bland chain stores taking over, and goods being factory-produced.

Ravillious' shops were actual London shops (and amazingly, two are actually still around) – not all found on the same street but dotted around the capital. Some were already obsolete when the book was published: Coach Builder, Harness Maker, Naturalist and Submarine Engineer are unfortunately no longer found on the extremely boring British high street (shops in foreign cities seem to have retained some individuality). Ravillious made his shops look as enticing and exotic as possible with lovely architectural features, dramatic lighting, quirky details and rich patterns and textures.

The 1950s were a heyday for British illustration, with the talents of teachers and students from the Royal College of Art largely leading the way. High Street sort of set the template for how shop illustrations should look. Barbara Jones (Croydon opticians, middle) and John Griffiths (deli, bottom) both drew shop fronts in the 1950s and they both studied at the RCA; Jones was taught by Ravillious. The influence is obvious but both have their own wonderful style. Jones' opticians picture was included in her 1951 book, The Unsophisticated Arts, which chronicled the vernacular of British life, from fairgrounds and tattoo parlours to seaside piers and high street shops. In 1959, issue three of the art magazine Motif carried Griffith's illustrations of quirky shopfronts.

And the tradition continues: last year illustrator Eleanor Crow (who also, incidentally, illustrated Pebbles on the Beach, which I read last year) released her book Shopfronts of London, which beautifully records London's cafes and food shops. Her criteria for a good shopfront wouldn't be that different from Ravillious' some eighty years ago: “great typography and signage, striking colours, nice tiles, lots of good architectural detail.” Unfortunately yet typically, many of the businesses have closed down in the decade Crow has worked on the project.

(I've written about the death of the high street previously, so won't dwell on it here. Interestingly, though, there's been a revival of the art of the hand-painted shop sign. Unsurprisingly, it seems to be mainly in London's East End, where hipster types love all things authentic, traditional and handmade. Nevertheless, I take it as a good sign. Both The Guardian and Eye magazine had features on handpainted signs in 2015.)

Further reading / looking
• Blog Quad Royal has posts about both John Griffiths and several about Barbara Jones.
The Unsophisticated Genius of Barbara Jones is at James Russell's blog.
Motif magazine: The World Made Visible by Rick Poymor in Design Observer.
• The always excellent Spitalfields Life has photos of boarded-up East End shop fronts from 1988 here and here, and also featured Eleanor Crow's pictures of cafes back in 2013.

Previously on Barnflakes
Verve magazine, 1937-1960
Illustrated children's books (for parents)
Not for all the tea in China
Death of the High Street
Proud to Serve

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