2 November 2016

Small Designs

The Book of the "Daily Mirror's" House for Pip, Squeak and Wilfred
Grand designs on a miniature scale
Kevin McCloud’s amateur house builders are often berated for cutting corners and not getting professionals in to advise them. Well, he’d have been pleased as punch with Alexander Campbell, the Daily Mirror editor of the late 1920s, who conceived the idea of building a model house for three characters from a popular cartoon strip of the time.  Mirror Grange was to be a home for Pip,Squeak and Wilfred – a dog, a penguin and a rabbit – whose adventures ran every day in the paper, spawning all kinds of merchandise as they went.
To start with, the Mirror brought in leading architect Maxwell Ayrton FRIBA, best known for the famous twin towers of the old Wembley Stadium. As a one-time pupil of Edwin Lutyens, a lot of his work had that chunky, austere classicism that crops up in bank headquarters and civic halls of the era. So the Mirror’s brief was a little out of his line, as he was asked to produce something that appeared to date from the 1400s; a half-timbered fortified manor house with haunted tower. As this book explains, it was a job he agreed to do ‘without any financial reward, but wholly inspired by a high artistic purpose’.
In fact, Ayrton was an obvious choice because of his links with Lutyens, whose own foray into the miniature world set a precedent for Mirror Grange. Between 1921 and 1924 Lutyens created the opulent Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House that is still a major attraction of the Royal Collections at Windsor. No expense was spared for Queen Mary, and the Mirror was determined not to stint on costs for its fictional tenants. Alongside Ayrton, they recruited a number of well-known interior, stage and furniture designers and even a group of portrait painters that included Sir William Orpen.
This book of the house consists of contributions by Alexander Campbell and several of the other people involved, including Ayrton and Orpen. The flavour throughout is one of nostalgia and a jingoistic pride in British craftsmanship. The essays reinforce the house as representative of some apparently unassailable British values, particularly strength through continuity. As a paean to the security provided by a rich architectural heritage, it seems appropriate that Mirror Grange is sited not among rural lanes or a half-timbered High Street, but on a solid crag of rock. It may be that the techniques and challenges of making the brickwork and the timbers seem age-worn are described in some detail, but Mirror Grange is intended to be a place where time has stopped. As Campbell says of the meticulously detailed rooms, ‘the modern note has not been heard within the mellow walls of this sequestered domicile’.
And within these mellow walls are all the domestic spaces required to make up a middle-class home of the period. As well as lounge, master bedroom and kitchen, there are a lumber room, spare bedroom, nursery and maid’s room. Every one of them is furnished with precisely crafted miniature items making a complete little world. Some of these things border on the surreal in their diminished dimensions, such as the convex mirror which further shrinks its already shrunken surroundings, or the 28-page copy of the Daily Mirror that can be read in its entirety through a magnifying glass. This place is more Alice in Wonderland than Lilliput.
It isn’t really clear if the book has been written for children who follow the cartoon or adults entranced by miniature reflections of a nostalgic, full-size world. Tiny pots and pans and curtains that you can pull across windows draw gasps from children who may have their own doll’s houses at home, but the house is also stuffed with exact 1:12 scale reproductions of Chippendale pieces and copies of regency glassware. Mirror Grange is really a kind of comfort blanket for all ages – a structure that reflects that glossed English history whose traces in towns and villages across the country act as anchors of continuity in the always troubling present.

Mirror Grange was exhibited at the Grafton Galleries in Bond Street, London and a small charge for admission raised funds for the Heritage Craft Schools for Crippled Children at Chailey in Sussex. Its fate immediately after that is unclear. It seems to have spent a couple of decades being neglected and subject to a few real effects of passing time to add to those carefully crafted signs of decay it was originally made with. It was subsequently saved and restored by doll expert Faith Eton. In 1995, it appeared for sale at Bonhams auctioneers with an estimate of £10,000-15,000 where it was snapped up by a Japanese collector.

4 October 2016

Speak Up

J. Curwen & Sons 1898


We can tell a lot from the way people speak. The voice influences our perception of those who talk to us, and assumptions are established almost as soon as a mouth is opened. It would be nice to think that this is much less the case in our apparently classless times, but when this book was published, how you spoke was how you were judged.
The back end of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th gave birth to a number of health fads, from John Kellog’s diets of nuts and yoghurt enemas to CorneliusHarness’s electrical corsets and much else besides. Almost every function of the human body had some movement or guru offering to improve it. Vocal culture, with its incorporation of aspects of the physical culture movement, was obsessively concerned about the deterioration and neglect of the voice.
The Behnke family dedicated their lives to improving people’s voices and, by extension, their respiratory health. Emil Behnke was a singing teacher who lectured on vocal physiology at John Curwen’s Tonic Sol-fa College in Regent Street, London – where Sarah Ann Glover's Sol-fa singing system was developed into the Doh re me scale. He also distinguished himself by becoming the first (and perhaps only) person to photograph the larynx in action. His wife Kate was an actress who took a keen interest in voice training, which culminated in this book. And their daughter Kate Emil Behnke carried on the family interest and published several books for singers and public speakers well into the 1940s.
The basis of Mrs Behnke’s book is that even the dullest voice can be made more melodious by undertaking a course of physical exercises of the mouth, chest and whole body. The benefits of such an improvement were obvious to politicians, clergymen, actors and opera singers. But she was also convinced that her recommendations could have a civilizing effect on wider society. Like Professor Henry Higgins, she believed that even the most ragged slum dweller could learn to lose ‘the detestable vowel pronunciation of lower-class London’. Not only that, but whole nations could be improved in their speech by a few simple exercises; the ‘peculiar nasal accent’ of the American, for example, was due solely to the ‘wrong position of the tongue, lips and back of the mouth’.

Being a practical handbook for its contemporary readership, this is one of those pieces of ephemera that can’t help but offer vivid little immersions into its times. At one point urban Board school teachers are advised to try the exercises so that they can make themselves clearly understood above the noise of other classes being taught in the same room. They also have to compete against the din of the traffic outside their classrooms which ‘must be endured until the happy day when rubber-tyred motor-cars replace the clattering of horses’ hooves and the rattle of iron band wheels’.
But the Behnke’s methods clearly did have some genuinely beneficial effects; their books continued to sell well over the decades and changed hands frequently after they were out of print. Like so many secondhand books, this copy carries evidence of previous owners. After its appearance in the bookshops in 1898, it was owned by someone called Chas Smith in 1904. Either before or after that, a blind stamp on the endpaper shows that it was held at the Manse of Kildalton on the Isle of Islay. And, before I found it in a charity shop in Dalston, it was the property of an actor called Christopher Molloy at the King’s Theatre in Glasgow, who put his name to it in 1999.

23 June 2016

Alone in the World

Max O'Rell 1894

For those who will vote ‘leave’ today there is a Utopia within our grasp. Freed from the tyranny of the EU, we can look forward to a future as, in the words of the Sun, “a self-governing nation envied by all”. But this is a future that feels like the past.

Isn’t that what we once were – self-governing and envied? In our pomp, just before the First World War threw everything into the mixer, wasn't the whole world frantic with jealousy? All Europe coveted our power and our possessions; those pink places that we had acquired because we governed ourselves so well we thought nothing of governing others the same way, whether the locals agreed or not. Alone in the world and independent, yet at the heart of an Empire flowing across so many time zones that the sun never set.

This was the Britain that Max O’Rell saw through the eyes of a Frenchman at the back end of the 19th century. O’Rell was the pseudonym of Jean Pierre Blouet who moved from Paris to London to work initially as a school teacher. After several years among us, he had amassed a collection of anecdotes and observations on the peculiarities of the British, which he published in a book called John Bull and his Island.

That book was successful enough that he was able to leave his teaching post and embark on a career commentating on all things British, including John Bull’s women and John Bull’s ham-fisted attempts at cooking. Although he is largely forgotten now, O’Rell was a best-seller in his day and was in high demand as a lecturer in public halls up and down the country. This book came about after a two-year tour of the colonies, where British emigrants were also keen to have his unforgiving mirror held up to their motherland. 

O’Rell’s analogy of the British Empire as a business – John Bull & Co., with the colonies as so many branches scattered around the world – was very apt. From the East India Company to Hudson’s Bay, large chunks of the Empire were established primarily through a motivation to trade. It’s true that this was far from benign trade on equal terms, and that it was sometimes trade conducted at the point of a bayonet. But the analogy also holds in its implication that the British Empire was a brand that could be recognised wherever it set up shop.

Just as walking into a Sainsbury’s or PC World anywhere from Inverness to Basingstoke feels like walking into the same shop, so towns and cities from Australia to South Africa and beyond were unmistakably British in origin. There may have been tropical plants or vast deserts just down the road, but there were also the protestant church, the cricket field and, of course, the people.

O’Rell’s speciality was the British people, who seemed to enjoy his mocking observations about them delivered from the assured cultural superiority of a French man. And as he farted in their general direction, he regularly threw up sketches of how the continental European experienced the Briton. Finding an Australian town where he is due to speak full of drunken men, for example, he points out that “when a Frenchman is drunk, he is generally socialistic, anarchical, revolutionary, and he raves at the top of his voice ‘Down with all tyrants!’ When the Englishman is in his cups, he grows conservative and jingoistic.”

Later he contrasts the dedication and quality of French workers with their Anglo Saxon counterparts who, he says, “are bunglers and have not the least artistic instinct in them”. Before getting even half way through the book, a picture has emerged of a kind of 19th-century White Van Man, clobbering his way around the world, setting up colonies and inviting his oafish mates over for a taste of the good life. It is all caricature, driven by an innate snobbery that O’Rell’s largely middle-class audiences would have enjoyed, safe in the belief that he wasn’t really talking about them.

When he returned to London, O’Rell set about adapting the French comedy Le Voyage de M. Perrichon to appeal to a British audience. On the Continong featured a newly wealthy Englishman called John Perkins (played by O’Rell himself) travelling abroad to acquire some sophistication. The play toured the major northern cities and its tone – and presumably the source of its laughs – can be gauged from the comment of the reviewer for the Liverpool Mercury who pointed out that “the average Briton abroad does not enjoy with continental peoples the best of reputations for manners or education”.
By the end of the 19th century almost all of the colonies of the British Empire had some form of self-government, with parliament houses springing up everywhere. Like many others, O’Rell could see that the road for these places would inevitably lead to full independence and that entirely new countries were being spawned. In Britain itself, he finds a section of public opinion that proposes the Empire should become a confederation, with London at its centre; a prototype Commonwealth.

From his experience, though, the colonies would have none of it. By the time of his travels, each place had gone a long way towards perfecting its own distinctive culture. From the graft of their British roots, they were responding to irresistible forces of climate, geography and - where they had not been entirely eradicated - the ancient ways of indigenous populations. And, in parallel with similar movements across Europe, they were declaring their own strident brands of nationalism. At one point, O'Rell encounters a group of Australian workmen, most of whom "have gone to Australia at the expense of English emigration societies", who have lobbied their government to stop immigration - "There are no more wanted. Australia belongs to them."

But the reality was that these new countries, often occupying vast areas of land, needed new blood. For O'Rell, they are ultimately "nurseries of liberty" where people from anywhere in the world may go and "settle without having any formality to go through" and where they "may go on speaking their own language, practising their own religion". 

Over 120 years after this book was published, the sun has long since set on the British Empire. The new countries are now established and the UK faces uncertain times ahead. In a moment of homesickness for Europe, O'Rell comments that "no one can expect to find a country that has a future as interesting as one that has a past". Given that all countries have both, this aphorism doesn't stand too much scrutiny. But for those who imagine that a return to pre-EU days will give us the kind of self-governing freedom we apparently enjoyed in the 19th century, thriving on the back of newly boosted trade with our former colonial children, it is worth considering that we have a much longer history entwined with continental Europe.

19 May 2016

Home Sweet Home

Accommodation Wanted


Jon Wynne-Tyson 1951

In the throes of a housing crisis, a little book like this opens a window onto a lost world. It was a world where ordinary people were far more likely to be paying a rent than a mortgage, where having somewhere to live was more important than acquiring an asset, and where a landlady was a woman in the basement with curlers and a mop rather than someone in a business suit building a buy-to-let portfolio. Back then, a significant part of the housing mix was the lodgings or digs.

Reading through Jon Wynne-Tyson's grimly humorous advice, I kept having recurring visions of Tony Hancock’s monumental modernist sculpture plunging through Mrs Crevatte’s floor in his film The Rebel. There is something about the prevalence of lodging houses ruled by martinet landladies and tenanted by a population of interesting but rootless people that seems to fit perfectly with the creative atmosphere of 1950s London. I’m sure I’m wrong, but I like to think that everyone who was anyone, from Frank Auerbach to John Osborne, lived in lodgings.

Partly it’s because they imply a certain degree of righteous poverty for the artistic and the maverick to kick against. They are the London equivalent of the Parisian garret. Accordingly, Wynne-Tyson paints a picture of a quite visceral existence. The great universal, daily threats to any individual’s life – cold, hunger, squalor – are barely mitigated by constant battles with bathroom geysers and metered gas fires. Even what he describes as "the place of absolute necessity", if it is not actually down the garden, involves barked knuckles as you perform the "essential gestures" in its cramped space, or constant interruption from briskly rattled door handles.

The Khazi is also the place where the landlady gives freest rein to her urge to display notices of instruction and moral improvement. As well as regulations governing what may or may not be flushed down the pan, "pleas for the most obvious sanitary behaviour" cover every wall along with lithographed texts from the Bible. In fact, as much as being a guide to getting, surviving and leaving accommodation, this is a book about how to get the better of landladies.

Initially, you will simply want the landlady to offer you a room, but every phone call replying to a small ad in the paper or shop window will get the terse reply "S’gone!" Several strategies are suggested to get round this. These include writing to a landlady about a current lodger in the hope of provoking a vacancy – "The person calling himself/herself Stooks is well known for carryings-on. You know what I mean. Have you ever thought what a nasty face he/she has got…I would lock your door if I were you." Or you could try wooing a landlady, so long as you "avoid anything under eighty-five and taller than 4 ft. 10 ins."

Once installed in your room, it quickly becomes apparent that a life of any richness can only be lived by subterfuge. Returning home after 11, receiving a phone call, having a girlfriend or boyfriend, owning a pet and even heating yourself in winter all require some kind of ingenious deception to get around the woman in the basement.

It may be that this constant need to break rules is what gives this era of lodging-house life its Bohemian feel. The landladies are pictured as representing a particular brand of British morality that found its expression in papers like the News of the World. Attempting to get on with their lives in the face of rigidly enforced respectability, and beneath a barrage of tutting and pursed lips, the tenants cannot help but be rebels.

Even Mrs. Collins, the landlady in Ken Russell’s short 1960 film A House in Bayswater, who seems to have had a far from insular life herself, takes the phone off the hook after 12pm and is not available to anyone after 11 – “even if they knocked the house down, I wouldn’t answer the door.” Accommodation Wanted has a couple of ways to deal with that particular situation, which include making an alliance with the landlady’s son or daughter if she has one, or using a ladder.

Among the tenants in the Bayswater house are a photographer (David Hurn, who went on to become a member of Magnum), a painter, a dance teacher and a couple who work in the wine trade. Wynne-Tyson includes a section on what kind of lodgers can be found in the different parts of the capital. In the northern districts of Hampstead and Highgate are the musical, literary and artistic types. Around Tooting and Clapham are the sporty ones, while Dalston, Stepney and other eastern outposts are "the land of cheaper lodgings and no nonsense".

There's a distinct feel that Wynne-Tyson had direct experience of what he was talking about, though it may have been recalled from his past as he was twenty-seven when this book was published and married to his first wife Joan Stanton, who did the neat little drawings. As a literary type - he founded the Centaur press in 1954 - he was certainly acquainted with plenty of bohemians. 

Among them was the poet John Gawsworth, who seems to have spent most of his life ensconced in the pubs of Bayswater and Notting Hill. Gawsworth was also known as King Juan I of Redonda - a tiny Caribbean island that emerged as a micronation in the 1880s under its first king, the fantasy writer M P Shiel. Gawsworth was renowned for bestowing dukedoms, earldoms and even, some say, the crown itself on anyone who would buy him a pint. So when he died in 1970, the succession became the subject of heated debate. One of the leading candidates, though, was John Wynne-Tyson who had acted as Gawsworth's literary executor and, somewhat reluctantly, took on the role of King Juan II.

In spite of the controversy and the disapproval of rival claimants, Wynne-Tyson actually visited the island in 1979 accompanied by a publisher of M P Shiel's works. Once there, he climbed the summit and raised a flag made from a pair of pyjamas. Perhaps, having tasted the life described in Accommodation Wanted, he felt right at home on an island characterised by its spartan environment, lack of fresh water and plentiful deposits of guano.

18 May 2016

Roll up for the Wonder Horse



Milbourne Christopher 1970

Mediums, dowsers, fire-walkers and clairvoyants all appear in Milbourne Christopher's 1970s look at the unexplained and fraudulent, along with a sagacious Goose, several learned pigs and this horse...
Anyone wanting to predict whether we are likely to see Donald Trump installed as leader of the free world could do worse than to seek out the services of a horse like the one called Lady, who amazed passing motorists in rural Virginia during the 1930s with her powers of prediction. Lady was able to answer questions and make predictions by using her nose to manipulate large cards with letters on them that were attached to a metal framework devised by her owner Claudia Fonda.
As well as giving advice in the form of answers to personal questions of love and marriage, Lady was also adept at predicting sporting results, including horse races. In 1932, she hit national headlines by predicting the success of Franklin D Roosevelt in the Presidential election even before he had won the Democratic nomination.
Fonda charged a modest fee for consultations with her precocious horse, which must have helped out in the days of the Great Depression and beyond. Lady lived to a grand old age and had one other nationwide hit in 1952, when she was credited with pinpointing the whereabouts of a missing 4-year old boy. The link between the words Lady nuzzled out and the place where the boy’s body was actually found was tenuous enough for sceptics to dismiss her talents. But believers insisted that Lady was a glowing example of an animal possessing Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP).
The story of the fortune-telling horse appears, along with many other tales of mediums, dowsers, poltergeists and the like in a book called Seers, Psychics and ESP that appeared in 1970. It was written by Milbourne Christopher who was himself a well-known illusionist and president of the Society of American Magicians.
In 1956, when Lady was 32 years old, Christopher was asked if he would accompany a reporter on the Saturday Evening Post who was going to do a story on the wonder horse. Christopher agreed on condition that he could go under an assumed name. When they got to Virginia, they were taken to see Lady in her barn with the contraption that she used for choosing letters all set up. Claudia Fonda stood to one side with a riding crop in her hand and invited them to ask questions.
Christopher asked the horse, ‘What is my name?’ Lady dutifully nudged at the relevant levers with her weary old nose to spell out the name ‘BANKS’ that Christopher had chosen for his pseudonym. He then asked ‘When will my brother come back from Europe’, to which Lady replied ‘SUMMER’. And this was strange because Milbourne Christopher had no brother.
As a historian of magic and illusion as well as a practitioner in his own right, it was clear to Christopher that Lady had been trained to respond to very subtle prompts from his owner. Fonda appeared to use tiny movements of the rod she was holding to get the horse to nudge the right letters and numbers on the contraption she had invented.
Christopher had come across this sort of thing many times before in his researches. The name he had chosen on his visit to Virginia was a reference to John Banks who, in the 17th century, exhibited a horse called Morocco, which had a remarkable ability to answer questions by stamping his hoof. And it wasn’t just horses. Down the centuries there have been talking cats and dogs, mathematically gifted mynah birds, a goose who could do card tricks and any number of learned pigs – including the one owned by a Mr. Nicholson who toured Scotland in 1787 accompanied also by a turtle that could fetch things on command, a hare that would beat on a drum and six turkey cocks who performed country dances.
All of them would have been given meticulous training to bring out their supposed talents. In 1805, WilliamFrederick Pinchbeck revealed some of the tricks of the trade after several years promoting his own psychic porker. In his book The Expositor; or Many Mysteries Unravelled he set out a series of lessons so that anyone could train up their own “Pig of Knowledge”. Perhaps because of guilt at his years of deception, he said that he wanted the book to “oppose the idea of any supernatural agency” in these phenomena. Which is all very well, but it doesn’t explain how Lady (or Claudia Fonda) managed to predict F D Roosevelt’s victory or the many sporting results they apparently got bang on.

Home, Parker


The titled first lady of the Swinging 60s bows out 

For all the swirling paisley, the drugs and occasional nudity, there was something essentially conservative about the Swinging 60s. Its true that the Beatles were four ordinary Scouse lads, the Mods were working-class kids who just wanted to show they were as good as anyone else and Hendrix was a drifter from the deep waters of black American music washed up in London. But the core iconography – the clothes, the look, the product – was generated by children of the aristocracy rebelling against the tedium of their own privileged backgrounds.
Tracing their lineage back to Bazaar, the shop opened by Mary Quant and Alexander Plunket Greene on the King’s Road in Chelsea back in the 50s, young aristocrats featured prominently in the decade of Sergeant Pepper and David Bailey. Partying along with Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong Jones were a whole tribe of public schoolboys and debutantes just emerging into young adult life with their independent means and agreeably expectant titles.
If anything, the tales of rebellion and high-profile outrage that fed the tabloids and the society journals alike only served to pick out the sons and daughters of the wealthy as key movers of the decade’s swing. Even the murderous satire of films like If did nothing to undermine a classic 1960s type that began to find expression in fiction and TV drama with characters like Emma Peel and the supermarionette, Lady Penelope.

Sylvia Anderson, who died last week, created her upper-class protagonist because she was trying to help build the appeal of Thunderbirds for a potential American audience. As far as she could see, the Americans thought of the English as “either cockneys or posh ladies in stately homes”. As it turned out, TV boss Lew Grade was unable to secure a deal that would put the show onto American networks, but Anderson’s attempt to chime with that audience left us with a classic 60s icon.
Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward was educated at Rodean and a Swiss finishing school. She lives in the family mansion with her governess and dodgy cockney chauffeur Parker for company. She dresses in the latest styles from Carnaby Street and the King’s Road and she owns a sheep farm in Bonga Bonga, Australia. Bored by the social life expected of one in her station, she did not trip out on hallucinogens or strip off for a bit of body painting. Instead, she became a secret agent with an organisation dedicated to protecting humankind from evil megalomaniacs.

Although Thunderbirds ceased production in 1966 and the supermarionation puppeteers turned their attention to Joe 90 and Captain Scarlet, Lady Penelope lived on in various guises, including a weekly comic that gave rise to this annual from 1969. The photo-leather cover design gives it the feel of a royal wedding album, but that is about as classy as it gets. Inside, it’s a confused mix of comic strips, stills from the shows and features aimed at a teenage girl audience. There are pieces on cooking and unusual jobs for young ladies, a half-hearted puzzles page and a generous serving of pop with appearances from the Beatles, the Bee Gees and the Monkees (who get their own comic strip adventure). 

The annual has a rather tired, end-of-decade feel, as if it is marking time while the aristocratic zest of the 60s waits to hand over to the horrors of glam rock and tank tops. Lady Penelope has a couple of adventures where she unmasks a concert pianist as a thief and nearly gets run over by a caterpillar truck, but really, there's a sense of the tail lights of a pink Rolls Royce diminishing as a cockney voice asks 'where to m'Lady?'