Thursday, 13 April 2017

Postcard of the Day No. 88 - Cox’s Walk, Sydenham Hill Woods

Back in 2012 we posted about a footbridge in Merton – this is another South London footbridge with a story attached. In 1870-71 Camille Pissarro lived in the Norwood/Crystal Palace area to escape the horrors of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. Pissarro found plenty of subjects for painting within a few miles of his temporary home and his easel was set up on this footbridge on Cox’s Walk for the painting of Lordship Lane Station in the collection of the Courtauld Institute. The Courtauld painting is misleadingly titled Penge Station, Upper Norwood and dated 1871. Given that Pissarro returned to Paris in June 1871 we can assume the painting was done in the Spring of that year. Railway subjects were attractive to Pissarro, who, like his colleague Monet, had an interest in reflecting contemporary life in his work. It was the Crystal Palace and South London Junction railway, opened in 1865 that ran through Cox’s Woods. Known as the high-level railway to Crystal Palace, it closed in 1954.

A few miles away on Denmark Hill, John Ruskin was preoccupied with his doomed and protracted courtship of Rose La Touche and the plans for the Ruskin School of Drawing shortly to open in Oxford. Ruskin professed undying hatred of the modern world and placed railways near the top of his long list of most-abominated. From his study he wrote wistfully of the pleasing woodland vistas and pastoral strolls forever ruined by the intrusion of the London to Folkestone railway line. It was his misfortune to live through the decades when the Great South Woods that once stretched from Deptford to Selhurst largely disappeared under suburban sprawl. Sydenham Hill Woods is the largest remaining area of this lost woodland. But even Ruskin was not entirely unmoved by the power of engineering technology and once confessed the “amazed awe and crushed humility” he experienced at the sight of a locomotive “taking its breath at a railway station”.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Crossing the Border – England to Scotland

With every day we hear more and more about the importance of borders and the need for control, security and defence. This postcard re-enacts a moment of history when the leaders of two great nations shake hands across the border. Nicola and Theresa have embarked upon an epic power struggle that could in the future be resolved by the imposition of a ‘hard border’ where today there is none. Below is a nondescript view of another location along the same frontier, helpfully annotated to show where it’s safe to place your feet.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Easter – a time for fury

Easter is a season with little in the way of comedy to mark its passing although the confectionery industry has always done its best to trivialise the occasion. The Passion and Resurrection may express an alternation of extreme darkness and light – a place for awe and wonder and redemption, but none for humour. So we should all be grateful to our Prime Minister for supplying some inadvertent light relief with her thoughts on the importance of the word “Easter”. Especially amusing in the context of her declared highest priority – bringing the nation together. For someone with no discernible sense of humour, Mrs. May has made a promising start as an entertainer, if nothing else.

On the very day that many were expressing their anger at the harsh and vindictive cuts in benefits for bereaved families the Mother of the Nation was herself roused to fury by the news that the National Trust has omitted the word “Easter” from what is now to be known, unforgivably, as a mere “Egg Hunt”. Earlier in the day she had rejected criticism of the bereavement benefit cuts, defending it as a ‘fair deal for taxpayers’. Nobody has asked her to provide examples of taxpayer grievance at the level of bereavement benefits. Where were the campaigns calling for lower benefits for the victims of bereavement? Who demanded deliverance from the outrageous financial burden imposed on us all by a selfish minority of our fellow citizens who insist on dying prematurely from incurable diseases? Back to the eggs – Mrs. May felt uniquely qualified to pass judgement on this vitally important issue as the offspring of a vicar and a member of the National Trust. Now is the time to take a stand against the tyranny of political correctness and its endless assault on our national religion. Mrs. May was visiting the Middle East to ‘bang the drum for Britain’ and sell even more consignments of lethal weaponry for the purpose of killing and maiming anyone incurring the displeasure of the purchaser. It would be interesting to hear Mrs. May explain what part of the Church’s Easter Message endorses this traffic in human slaughter.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

The Leas Cliff Lift Folkestone

The Leas Cliff Lift has been mothballed since the end of January. The operator, a non-profit Community Interest Company lacks the funds to replace the braking system to comply with HSE demands. Shepway District Council divested themselves of all responsibility in 2009 and have no part to play in what, if anything, happens next. The passenger cabins have been locked in a mid-way position and the keys handed over to the legal owner, the Folkestone Estate. It would be a great shame if some way to keep it going cannot be found - it's been in existence since 1885. The sum involved is £67,000, which in the grand scheme of things is minuscule. The last photo is taken from the summit in 2015 when the lift was in full operation. My efforts to ride the lift that day came to naught – when the lift reached the top, the operator exited at great speed, padlocked the cabin and marched away with the air of someone who wouldn’t be back in a hurry.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Street life 1900

More street life (Strassenleben) from Germany. These cards were issued in 1900 by Palmin, manufacturers of coconut oil based cooking products – a product that is still available in Germany today. It’s a very different world from the one portrayed in the Liebig cards. These streets are strewn with hazards – a horse rider struggles to control his mount when it’s panicked by a passing tram, mischievous street urchins spray water over a a fashionably dressed, unescorted lady, a stylishly dressed gentleman is upended by a dog lead that wraps around his ankle, a young man suffers great misfortune involving a basket of eggs and two more street urchins play a trick on an elderly man in spats – tempting him to pick up a wallet they are controlling with a piece of string. These unlikely events are described in a sachplakat style, familiar to readers of Simplicissimus (Munich-based satirical magazine). And even after almost 120 years the clarity of colour is not entirely diminished.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Postcard of the Day No. 87 – Ramesses II

Today’s postcards feature the statue of Ramesses II in repose in Memphis. Two superior gents of Western appearance have taken possession of the reclining form – their proprietorial stares directed downward from their elevation. At ground level we have an assortment of local worthies with their beasts of burden. The shattered statue was excavated in Memphis in 1820 where it remained until 1955 when its six fragments of red granite were transported to Cairo on the orders of President Nasser. There, it was raised to the vertical, clamped together by internal scaffolding and installed on a roundabout in the city centre. The square in which it stood was renamed Ramesses Square and there it remained for just over half a century of slow decay and disintegration. In 2006 it was dismantled by the authorities and moved to Giza for repair and restoration. This work is scheduled for completion next year when it will be erected at the entrance to the new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) which has been under construction since 2012 to a design by architects Heneghan Peng of Dublin.

In the last 10 days there’s been much excitement in Cairo with the discovery of giant fragments of what was initially thought to be another statue of Ramesses II – found in a drainage ditch between two apartment blocks in Matariya, Heliopolis. On further inspection the subject turned out to be Psamtek I, still a major discovery and a new exhibit for the GEM. The other two postcards are less populated – in one a bearded figure squats in solitary contemplation while the other is animated by the presence of a small group of traders in fruit.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Album Victorianum 1951

A gift from Guinness to the nation’s General Practitioners in the year of the Festival of Britain, 1951. Album Victorianum is a visual snapshot of Victoriana gently parodied through a mid-century prism. The layout and presentation is typical of publications like The Saturday Book in the whimsical combination of period fonts, steel engravings and toy theatres. The Guinness advertising agency, S H Benson conceived the theme, provided the text and commissioned the illustrations. Three artists contributed illustrations, Ronald Ferns, Eric Hobbs and Eric Fraser.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Pacific Electric in Los Angeles

In April last year the Guardian retold the story of the Great American Streetcar Scandal. It’s a depressing tale of unregulated capitalism triumphing over the interests of the consumer and the public realm. A syndicate involving Detroit motor manufacturers, major oil companies and the makers of auto tires assumed ownership of urban streetcar systems across the USA in the immediate post-war years and began the business of eliminating the electric powered streetcar in favour of bus lines with diesel engines running on rubber tyres. By the early 1960s all but a handful of streetcar mass transit systems had been converted to buses much to the satisfaction of the auto industry. This accelerated the trend towards individual vehicle ownership leading to massive congestion on urban roads and rapid deterioration in air quality. Local taxpayers had to fork out for grandiose freeway projects while federal taxes funded a new interstate highway network that had the effect of killing off the last vestiges of long distance rail travel. It remains a textbook case of corporate expansion funded largely by the public purse. The social costs – health impact of atmospheric pollution, limited mobility on the part of low-paid workers, the financial cost of chronic traffic congestion – all passed on to third parties.

The postcard history of Pacific Electric shows the downtown ten storey office block and streetcar terminal that served as the hub of the system and survived to the very end in 1961. The Pacific Electric Building was opened in 1905 to a design by Thornton Fitzhugh. Among the first tenants was the architectural practice Greene and Greene, noted Arts and Crafts designers responsible for the famous Gamble House in Pasadena. Until its closure in 1914, Arcade Depot was the principle station for Los Angeles – Pacific Electric streetcars wait in front. Santa Monica was just under 17 miles from the Pacific Electric Building at the end of what became known as the Santa Monica Air Line. The last two cards are real estate promotional cards issued by Pacific Electric to encourage homebuyers to settle along their routes in the verdant surroundings of Brentwood Park and Beverley Hills. These images offer a distinctly bleak prospect to a potential customer but that didn’t stop them becoming some of the most affluent neighbourhoods in Los Angeles. Beverly Hills had the dubious distinction of being planned as a white-only development, a situation that remained unchallenged until the 1940s when a group of black screen actors mounted a successful legal action.

It would be misleading to leave the impression that Pacific Electric was a philanthropic enterprise. The leading promoter was Henry E Huntington, a businessman of impeccably capitalist instincts. For him, the transport networks were entirely subordinate to his interests in the real estate developments they existed to serve. Profitability declined in the 1930s as the supply of development opportunities dried up. In the absence of any public sector transport authority, the unregulated network was fully exposed to a predatory assault from the auto industry. Indeed the switch from electric traction to diesel engined buses began in the Pacific Electric era. For light relief, watch Harold Lloyd’s efforts to control a Pacific Electric streetcar in the 1924 movie, Girl Shy.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Street-life 1901

This is a chance to experience street-life around the world as beguilingly portrayed in 1901 by artists in the Liebig studio. For almost 30 years, since 1872, they had been picturing an ever expanding series of visual curiosities which were then reproduced by chromo-litho on to pocket-size collectors’ cards. The streets of 1901 appear remarkably well swept and animated by happy and prosperous citizens served by good humoured, industrious tradespeople – motor vehicles are nowhere to be seen. Most locations are bathed in warm sunshine except for St. Petersburg where horse-drawn sleighs charge through the snow and ice. Exotic national costumes and the presence of camels and elephants all add to the general air of wonderment. These cards were not designed for children – rather they were aimed at adults with an instinct for collecting and Liebig produced expensive looking albums in which the collector’s treasures could be displayed.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Virtue Signalling for Beginners

It’s my view that the private lives of politicians should be respected as such. But when they choose to disclose details of their private lives we have the right to pay close attention. Almost 9 months have passed since my last comments on the world of current affairs in which time we’ve been introduced to Remoaners, Enemies of the People, Snowflakes, the new Party of Working People, Fake-news, Fake-Potus and Flotus, even Fake-lies, all of which I’ve let pass without comment, having nothing really to add to what has been much better expressed elsewhere. But yesterday’s news that the Prime Minister is abstaining from the consumption of crisps for the period of Lent has roused me from my torpor. 

There are many levels on which this is disturbing. Beginning with the scale of Mrs. May’s act of self-denial – we are told she is especially fond of salt and vinegar flavour so the inference is that this is a heroic sacrifice on her part. Withdrawal symptoms cannot be ruled out. If she plans to donate the money saved to charity it would over a period of 40 days be unlikely to exceed £10 unless she is given to uncontrollable bingeing (not a pleasant image). I would have been no less impressed if she had given up beetroot or chewing-gum or avocado or nail varnish. No less effective in drawing oneself closer to God. Who would dare to describe this behaviour as virtue-signalling? 

We might ask whether Mrs. May’s choice was designed to make a good impression on all those former Labour voters she is keen to embrace. Perhaps there’s a picture in her mind of the typical Labour voting family gathered in front of the TV on a saggy sofa, sustaining themselves exclusively on a diet of potato snack products. We must accept that between the fashion shoots for Vogue and the turkey-shoots with the Leader of the Opposition, there’s not much time for keeping in touch with ordinary people. So hats off to the May family for all the Happy Meals, Quiz Nights at the local, trips to the Tanning Salon and Car Boot sales where they keep the faith with their social inferiors. 

As the daughter of an Anglican clergyman Mrs. May stands firm in her Christian faith even if it takes a form not universally recognisable as such. She will insist on taking positions on refugees and immigration that fly in the face of the Church’s teaching on the value of charitable impulses and the relief of distress. And though the rich man may yet struggle to enter the kingdom of heaven, he can rest assured that Mrs. May’s first duty as Prime Minister is to defend his prosperity on earth. 

Politicians are notorious for evading responsibility for their actions by defining the terms of debate in the most restrictive and legalistic form. So if we should discover Mrs. May in the act of scoffing a tube of Pringles or cheerfully chomping her way through a jumbo-size bag of Doritos with a clear conscience, she would be ready with a reply. These products clearly do not meet any plausible definition of ‘crisps’, being triangular or parabolic aggregations of corn-starch. Mrs. May will take no lectures from those who would force the public to eat nothing but crisps for Lent. Still less from those who never eat crisps. 

The portrait was photographed on a building in Whitecross Street, Finsbury last September.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Crossing the Border – Herbesthal

There was a time when border disputes were a frequent trigger for international conflict. But things move on and we now live in a time where borderline enforcement is the highest priority. To mark the new era of immigration control and wall-building we present a series of vintage postcard views of frontiers beginning with the highly contested border between Belgium and Germany. In 1843 Herbesthal, then in Prussia, became the world’s first international border crossing station when the railway connecting Aachen and Liège opened to traffic. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert passed through in 1845 on a visit to their relatives. For over a century the business of examining documentation, collecting customs duties, changing locomotives and crews kept the station active and local people in employment. Station facilities expanded rapidly to cope with the growth of passenger and freight traffic and in 1890 one of Europe’s major mail sorting centres was opened in a new 5 storey building alongside the station. Herbesthal had become what we now call a communication hub. 

On the eve of the First World War, Stefan Zweig was travelling from Oostende, after one of his many holidays there, on the last train from Belgium to Germany. It was standing room only and German officials came on board at Verviers, the last Belgian station. The next station would be Herbesthal but Zweig’s train was held up while an almost continuous wave of freight trains passed in the opposite direction. Even in the darkness it was easy to see beneath the tarpaulins, the sinister forms of artillery and military vehicles. On arrival at Herbesthal, Zweig wandered the platform in search of news and discovered it to be completely occupied by German troops. By this time he was in no doubt that he was an eye-witness to a German invasion of Belgium “in defiance of the statutes of international law.” On his return to Vienna, Zweig succumbed to a brief efflorescence of pan-Germanic patriotism, attempting to enlist without success and writing in praise of the Belgian invasion he had observed for himself. By 1917 he was in temporary exile in Zurich, energetically campaigning for the pacifist road to peace.

In the post-war settlement in 1920, Herbesthal became a Belgian town until it was forcibly reabsorbed into the Reich in 1939. In 1945 it reverted to Belgium where its former importance as a border crossing was soon to disappear with the railway being re-routed some 200m. south via Welkenraedt when the line was electrified in 1966. Despite their proximity, Welkenraedt is a Francophone town while Herbesthal remains a German speaking community. This is a link to an image of all that remains of the station at Herbesthal. Previous posts on this subject can be seen by following this link.

Thursday, 23 February 2017


In the 1950s and 1960s Olivetti promoted itself in Italy and beyond with a dazzling range of publicity. Lead by Giovanni Pintori and Marcello Nizzoli, the company created a unique reputation for excellence in graphic and product design and a powerful brand identity. Half a century later the advertising and poster designs look as fresh as when they were new. It remains astonishing to observe the ingenuity with which the intractable form of the typewriter was so fluently transmuted into a vast portfolio of modernist graphics. Every visual element that could be derived from the paraphernalia of typing, including numerals and letterforms, was put to work in an impressive sequence of designs that placed Olivetti products at the forefront of contemporary design around the world.

The manufacturing base was at Ivrea, a small town in Piedmont 35 miles north of Turin. Founded in 1908, the company quickly expanded to the point that Ivrea became a company town of 14,000 employees at its peak, complete with modernist styled worker housing and factory buildings. It survives to the present as a product badge in the ownership of Telecom Italia, a business that mopped up the last of Olivetti in 2003. In 2014 there were 580 staff employed in Ivrea – the current product offer comprises colour copiers, cash registers and a 3D printer. Olivetti’s demise was gradual but irrevocable. A range of electronic typewriters, desk-top calculators and basic word-processors was overwhelmed by the competition from a new wave of IT suppliers in the 80s and 90s and a transition to digital competence proved impossible. But with its design-lead philosophy, obsessive attention to detail and presentation plus the innovative use of coloured finishes, Olivetti in its prime was a blueprint for the future success of Apple.

In New York the Museum of Modern Art was the first institution to collect Olivetti products as exemplars of the modern movement in 1952. This modest selection of Olivetti graphics is supported by a feature from Graphis magazine 59 (1955) and some pages from a book published in 1996 by Somogy in France (“Et aussi des crayons”).