A Transcontinental Metro and other dreams of the future – as illustrated in the past

I always love delving into the unusual here at the archive and from spooky spectres to spoon-bending we have it all, but one area I’m particularly fascinated with is the collection of imaginative illustrations dating pre-1960 which fantasise on what the future may hold in the year 2000 and beyond.  These popular images regularly appeared in scientific and general interest periodicals, children books, collectables and magazines.  Common illustrated themes included wonderful and complex infrastructure, high capacity and ultra hi-speed transport, space exploration and domestic living with machines for every chore you could think of.

Much of the ideas depicted were entirely plausible at the time, for example video calling, but equally some imaginations of the future were a good way off reality and really delved into the realm of fantasy;  ideas such as life on Mars in 50 years time and underwater bikes being used for the casual commute across the English Channel!

One particularly charming example in the archive is the promotional sticker book published c.1950 by Belgian chocolate company ‘Aiglon’, titled ‘L’An 2000 / ‘t Jaar 2000’ The album features many unique future scenarios such as the dredging and reclaiming of the Mediterranean sea between France, Spain, Italy and North Africa, aeroplanes the size of cruise ships and post sent by intercontinental rocket.  How I would have loved to collect each individual sticker with the purchase of a chocolate bar!  At Mary Evans we are lucky enough to hold the full completed album (images below).

As much as some of the ‘guesses at futurity’ are hard-to-swallow, the images offer a fantastic insight into the vivid, thought-out and often humorous imaginations of our forefathers at what our world may look like by the new millennium.  There are hundreds of images of the ‘future’ for your perusal on our website, which are available to license and you can find them here, but below you can see some favourites from a variety of sources – I do hope they delight!

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Cityscapes of the Future:
 

New York of the future

Left: Autogyros and other aircraft land on rooftops in the London of the future, by Henry Woolley in ‘The Wonder Book of Aircraft’, 1931.

Centre: Postcard showing the New York of the future, date unknown.

Right: A city street of the future by Henry Woolley in ‘The Wonder Book of Aircraft’, 1931.


Transport and Infrastructure:

TRANSATLANTIC TUNNEL

Left: Transatlantic tunnel, c. 1950 for the Biekens biscuit company, Belgium.

Right: Observation of the sea bed from transparent-bottomed boats, using atom-ray illumination, c. 1950 for the Biekens biscuit company, Belgium.

MEDITERRANEAN RECLAIMED

Left: Reclaiming the Mediterranean for agricultural use, c. 1950 for the Biekens biscuit company, Belgium.

Right: Transcontinental metro travelling underground beneath continents, c. 1950 for the Biekens biscuit company, Belgium.

 

SUPER-JUMBO AIRCRAFT

Left: Super-jumbo aircraft carrier, c. 1950 for the Biekens biscuit company, Belgium.

Right: Submarine motorbike, c. 1950 for the Biekens biscuit company, Belgium.

 

CHANNEL ROAD BRIDGE

Left: Channel road bridge between Calais and Dover c. 1950 for the Biekens biscuit company, Belgium.

Right: Jet-propelled snow mobile, c. 1950 for the Biekens biscuit company, Belgium.

 

FUTURE MONORAIL

Left: Traffic control centre, c. 1950 for the Biekens biscuit company, Belgium.

Right: Monorail proposal, March 1941.  Illustration by B und H Romer- Munchen, in Delhagen und Klafigs Monatshefte.

 

CIRCULAR AIRPORT PROJECT

Left: A prediction that aircraft will be guided to their destinations by beacons – vertical lights positioned beside motorways, indicating the route from town to town, c. 1935.  Collectors’ card by Byrrh, French aperitif.

Right: A suggested central London overhead airport at King’s Cross showing aeroplanes landing on the runways of a huge wheel-shaped structure. Illustration by Charles W Glover in the Illustrated London News, 6 June 1931.

 

TRAIN OF TOMORROW

Left: Prediction of what the railway train of tomorrow will look like.  Totally streamlined for greater speed and economy, c. 1935.  Collectors’ card by Byrrh, French aperitif.

Centre: Future Transatlantic passenger liners, which will be aerodynamically shaped for faster travel. This vessel is based on a project by American designer Norman Bel Geddes, c. 1935.  Collectors’ card by Byrrh, French aperitif.

Right: Landing spot for airplane, parking space for cars on every storey, France, circa 1930.


Domestic living:

future, vision In the year 2000, television-phone,

Above: Future vision un the year 2000, television-phone, colour lithograph, France, 1910.


future, household, automatic floor polisher with

Above:
Future vision in the year 2000, an electric scrubber, colour lithograph, France, 1910.

Futuristic home, with chores done automatically

Above: A futuristic home, with chores done automatically. The housewife’s life will be an easy one in which she can sit back, read the paper and listen to music.  Allers Familj Journal (Sweden), 24 May 1929.


Robot servant polishing shoes

Left: A futuristic device to help a gentleman get dressed in the automatic home of the future. At the press of a button, a mechanical arm holds out his suit, top hat and walking stick, while a platform on wheels delivers his shoes. Allers Familj Journal (Sweden), 24 May 1929.

Centre: The servant of the future – a robotic servant polishes a man’s shoes while he sits reading in his armchair. Le Petit Inventeur (France) c. 1929.

Right: A futuristic invention for the lazy person — no need to leave your seat when you need a drink, in the automatic home of the future. A man sits in his armchair, smoking a cigar, while a mechanical arm drops through the ceiling to offer him a tray of drinks. Allers Familj Journal (Sweden), 24 May 1929.

SUBURBAN HOME, ROCKET

Left: Suburban home with garage for family rocket, c. 1950 for the Biekens biscuit company, Belgium

Right: Kitchen of the future, c. 1950 for the Biekens biscuit company, Belgium

Wedding Lore

Married in month of roses – June- Life will be one long honeymoon”.

The month of June, and the mind meanders towards thoughts of summer; to exotic holidays, to chaotic family day trips, and frequently to weddings, and all that they entail.

I recently had the pleasure of perusing the pages of ‘Every Woman’s Encyclopedia’, c. 1912, a magazine very much of its time, when many considered that a woman’s place was in the home and her abiding concerns and interests were all things domestic. The articles within this volume are overflowing with information on, amongst other things, home furnishings, table decorations, cookery, embroidery, fashion, children, and last but certainly not least, marriage. The magazine contemplates all aspects of the lead up to matrimony, but principally focuses on wedding tradition and lore, which seemed an interesting subject for a blog.

A bride getting ready for her wedding day

The magazine is a wealth of information on how one can actively enhance one’s chances of a successful marriage, divulging all manner of scenarios which should either be sincerely welcomed or avoided at all costs by the bride-to be. Who knew that if the bride came across a spider in the folds of her wedding gown she would never lack for money, or that if she was awoken by a robin on the morning of her wedding, or saw swallows come to the eaves for the first time on the big day, she would be eternally blessed?

kitsch / souvenir, swallow with loveletter, Germany,

It was considered good practice for the bride to step over the Church threshold with her right foot to safeguard her future happiness.  Any jewellery could be worn except for pearls- which symbolise tears- and the wedding ring must not have been tried on prior to the ceremony. Orange blossom was a popular flower at weddings and had, since the time of the Crusades, been regarded as an emblem of prosperity (owing to the fact that in the East, the orange tree bears ripe fruit and blossoms simultaneously); the flower being white was also regarded as symbolic of innocence and chastity.

Citrus sinensis, orange tree
Bride Enters Church Followed by Bridesmaids

With regards to when to marry, June has always been considered the month for weddings, and Roman maidens preferred it to any other, because it was the name month of Juno, the goddess who took love matters, and all feminine interests especially, under her protection.

Front cover from Britannia and Eve.
Mother-of-Pearl Fan Blessing of Juno

There is a paragraph on when not to marry too, which marks out May as the worst month of all: “So ancient is the dislike to May marriages that Ovid refers to it as the evil month of May”. The church forbade weddings between Rogation and Whit Sunday, pious and nervous folk originating the familiar adage, “Marry in May, and you’ll rue the day”. It was also considered indecorous to marry on a Sunday, the day of worship, and in England the prejudice against a Friday marriage may be traced to Good Friday, a most sorrowful and unfortunate day. And finally, spare a thought for those intending to marry in April, who would have had to live with the following ‘poetic’ line haunting them forever more: “An April bride will be inconstant, not very intelligent, but fairly good-looking”. Charming.

A few other bizarre rituals explored include the drawing of a piece of wedding cake through a ring (preferably a wedding ring) and placing it under the pillow three nights in succession, and the inquirer would then be rewarded by a vision of their future spouse. If no one appeared in their dream, they would need to resign themselves to life as a singleton. There was also an unusual custom in connection with the youngest daughter, which decreed that all her elder sisters must dance at her wedding without shoes in order to counteract the bad luck which would otherwise befall them if they married in “wrong order” of age. Another custom recounted was the throwing of a plate (full of bride-cake crumbs) down from an upper window as the bride alights from her carriage. If the plate reaches the ground unbroken, it was an unfavourable omen, but if it shattered in pieces (the more the better) good luck was sure to attend her.

DANCE IN A MEADOW
GIRL DREAMS OF WEDDING
The colour of one’s wedding attire was also under considerable scrutiny. Wearing red was frowned upon at this time, “Married in red, you will wish yourself dead”, whilst the traditional colour of white was very much the favourite, “Married in white, you’ll be alright”, though in fact, frugality meant that many brides would simply marry in their Sunday best frock.  It was Queen Victoria’s unusual choice of a white lace gown for her marriage to Prince Albert in 1839 that was to set a trend among Western brides that continues to this day.

VICTORIA MARRIES ALBERT
QUEEN VICTORIA
WEDDING DRESS 1926

The familiar saying, “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” is also mentioned and an explanation is given for each line: something old in order to retain the love and affection that was the bride’s in her old life; something new, for success in her new life; something borrowed so that friends may ever be helpful and faithful, and something blue, an emblem of loyalty and constancy.

It was considered unlucky for the bride to break anything on her wedding day; such an unfortunate act would almost certainly lead to a lifetime of discord with her in-laws. The magazine also underlines the importance of feeding one’s cat on the wedding day (should the bride have one of course); in addition, one must not read the marriage service prior to the wedding taking place, and if the bridal party should encounter a pig (or several) en route to the Church, they must turn back with immediate effect and begin their journey again.

kitsch / souvenir, balloon ride of a love couple,

On marriage etiquette and protocol, the magazine is also a rich source of information. When relating details of the man’s proposal, it suggests that for some, writing a note may be the best option, “When courage to speak is utterly lacking, a proposal by letter is a good way out of the difficulty. Even though much note-paper and brainwork may be wasted on the document, at least it may be counted on to do the business; and after several failures to manage it by speech, there is consolation in this reflection.” The female recipient of the proposal is given the following words of wisdom, “A girl does not wish to appear too ready with her “Yes”. She thinks that this may cheapen her in the eyes of the person whom she would like to value her more highly than anyone else in the world”.

Focus then turns to the wedding itself. The bridal bouquet should be small and elegant as “the huge bouquet with which brides in the end of last and the beginning of the present century were burdened was not at all a graceful adjunct, for several reasons. Its bulk obscured the outline of the figure. It interfered with the pretty folds of the wedding veil. It hid the front of the gown, often very charmingly trimmed with lace or embroidery, and its weight tired the arm of the bride, already quite tired enough with the arduous work of the previous weeks in connection with the trousseau, the correspondence with regards to presents, and other preparations”.

CRANE, A FLOWER WEDDING

The bride-to-be is offered advice on the cutting of the wedding cake, which at this time, was the sole duty of the woman: “There is occasionally a little difficulty in cutting through the sugar icing, but the bride should not let anyone help in her task. A straight, downward thrust, the knife held perpendicularly, will manage the business and the rest is easy”.

CUTTING WEDDING CAKE

The tossing of the bouquet, very familiar to us all, was already firmly entrenched in bridal ritual at this time: “The bride must not forget to distribute sprays of her bouquet among her bridesmaids and other girl friends. There is an idea that this may lead to other weddings”. It goes on to describe how the bride must toss the bouquet high above the heads of wedding guests and the one who caught hold of it was destined to marry within the year.

FATHER OF THE BRIDE

Amusingly, the best man’s prime duty is as follows: “If his friend should be nervous in anticipation of the coming ordeal, it is the business of the best man to inspire him with courage and to infuse into him that spirit of resignation which is his best armour against tribulation”.

GROOM & BEST MAN

In summary, if you had been hoping to get married in 1912, you would be wise to avoid marrying on a Friday or Sunday, especially in May; best not to wear red, and a good idea to keep one’s head down on the journey to Church so as not to chance upon a pig! The final paragraph on wedding lore in this volume concludes very eloquently indeed and  is a fitting end to this blog: “Let the cynics and pessimists sneer and declare what they will, they will never convince the world that Love is not the light of life, its crown and completion, and God’s highest gift to man”.

A vivid and eclectic lightbox of wedding imagery from our archive can be viewed here.

Looking back to the future – robots in the archive

Earlier this month The Science Museum in London opened their much-anticipated blockbuster exhibition ‘Robots’, the first of its kind in the world which charts a comprehensive history of robotics, from their early days right through to the robots of the future.

I wanted to pick out some visual highlights from our archive, which show the diverse nature of how robots have been celebrated in visual media throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Visions of the future

Robots, or ‘automated and mechanical machinery’ were often discussed in 19th century engineering and scientific periodicals, in speculation of how the future may look.  An early example in the archive appears in the ‘La Science Illustrée’, 1896 which shows unusual-looking ‘futuristic’, metallic, almost anthropomorphic machines working on a farm.  In La Nature, 1893 Canadian inventor George Moore’s ‘Steam Man’, a fully mobile robot automaton powered by an internal steam engine is featured.

Early robotics are also featured in an 1886 edition of the British comic ‘Funny Folks’ with a slightly humorous illustration showing a railway commuter in an an automatic shaving and boot polishing chair. ‘The Very Latest Development of the Automatic Mania’, ‘Drop a penny in the hole and take your seat’.

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Rise of the Robot

Robots were first introduced into popular culture by Karel Capek’s science fiction play of 1921, ‘R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)’. Capek was a Czech writer who, through theatrics, made the Czech word ‘robot’ popular in the English language and synonymous within the realms of science fiction. A much-loved highlight of the Mary Evans archive is the extensive collection of Pulp Science Fiction magazines, published between the 1920s and 1950s and acquired for the library by Hilary Evans. Whilst the stories inside were published in monochrome, the illustrated front covers were reproduced in vivid colour with imagined, utterly bizarre scenarios and many of the stories were based on, or featured robots. Sometimes they were friendly, sometimes not, some from other planets and some closer to home, but nevertheless certainly ‘amazing’ and ‘startling’ as the titles would suggest.

 

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Karel Capek and a programme for the first English production of the play, also known as R.U.R. and written by Karel Capek, when it was performed at St. Martin’s Theatre in London.

 

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Unusual news

Robots were also the focus of many non-fiction stories. Throughout the early half of 20th century, the Italian Sunday supplement, Illustrazione del Popolo (supplement of the Gazetta del Popolo), was well known for its vibrant, candid and overtly dramatic covers based on unusual events-of-the-week throughout the world. As well as coverage on subjects such as the paranormal, bizarre crimes and freak weather, robots were also a hugely popular feature of the news. The Illustrazione del Popolo flourished during the early advances of robotics at a time when they were still objects of wonder and fantasy and the newspaper played on this aspect, presenting robots in all sorts of curious situations and interactions with people.

Robots as a feature of disguise were often reported, one cover of the Illustrazione del Popolo, 18 August 1935 edition; shows Zorinna, president of a naturist club in San Diego, California, carried off by a humanoid robot – much to the horror of her fellow club members. The paper reports that this robot is actually a man in disguise, who thought it would be a crafty way to enter the camp, for what we can imagine would certainly be lewd activities (men were barred from entering)!

Another ‘deception by robot’, in the 6 January edition of the same year, we see a robot or a ‘Man from the year 2000’ has been the subject of an arrest in the Italian city of Pavia on the suspicion that it is actually not a robot, but an imposter – merely a man in disguise. The paper reports that the imposter had been disguised as a ‘Mechanical Marvel’  which had been touring around several Italian cities on an extended tour of Europe.

A few more examples include an anthropomorphic robot, which appears in a 1929 edition of the ‘Illustrazione del Popolo’ – in the form of a robotic guard dog, which had been invented by a French engineer. The illustration seems to show the robot in action, having deterred a gang of burglars – very innovative! Another quirky illustrated scene sees a New York impresario replace his chorus girls with electrically powered robots, however his ingenuity is not well received by the audience (!) in the Illustrazione del Popolo, 16 December 1928.

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Eric the robot

Eric the Robot was Britain’s first robot, designed by Captain William Richards and engineer and inventor Alan Reffell (pictured below) Eric was originally built to inaugurate the Model Engineering Exhibition at the Royal Horticultural Hall in London, 1928, in place of the Duke of York who could not attend, but Eric proved so popular he subsequently toured the world and drew in the thousands. They would flock to see this new mechanical man rise, bow, make a ‘speech’ and stare in wonder at his flashing eyes and teeth!

Shortly after his world tour however and with the continued advance of technology, Eric sadly disappeared from the world stage and was long forgotten about, until recently. As of last year the Science Museum had successfully funded via Kickstarter a campaign to rebuild an exact replica of the famous Eric, (what happened to the original Eric remains a mystery) and is now one of the stars of the Science Museum’s ‘Robots’ exhibition.

A notable example of Eric’s news coverage appeared in the Illustrated London News,15th September edition 1928, in the form of a diagrammatic illustration by artist George Horace David (G.H. Davis) who worked for the Illustrated London News for 40 years up until his death in 1963. The illustration gives a unique cross section showing how, concealed in his body there is an electric motor and a system of pulleys and cables. Eric also featured on the cover of French periodical ‘Le Petit Inventeur’, a wonderful illustration with Eric giving a shoe polish, a caption accompanies the illustration. ‘This scene is not a fantasy, the future will bring us even more surprises’.

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Pictured above right – Mr. Refell, inventor and engineer from Surrey with Eric the robot.

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The servant of the future -- a robotic servant polishes a man's shoes while he sits reading in his armchair. Date: 1929

A greater selection of archive imagery on robots can be viewed here.

The Brothers Robinson

The William Heath Robinson Museum opened in Pinner in October last year, the culmination of many years’ fundraising by the West House and Heath Robinson Trust.  Regardless of how familiar you are with the work of the so-called, ‘Gadget King’, this lovely museum is well worth the trip to the further reaches of the Metropolitan line.  Located just five minutes or so from Pinner station, the museum’s graceful modern building sits within the picturesque Pinner Memorial Park. Divided into three main spaces, one room is devoted to its rolling programme of exhibitions,  another tells the story of Heath Robinson’s career as an illustrator with a third dedicated to workshops and education.

WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON Artist and illustrator, shown working in his studio. Heath Robinson's prolific career spanned five decades. During this time, he produced countless illustrations for The Sketch and The Bystander as well as other ILN magazines. He is quoted as saying, 'I was fairly launched on my career' of Bruce Ingram's decision to publish his illustrations in The Sketch in March 1906. He is best-known for his ingenious contraptions but his work extended to the themes of golf, cricket, war, gardening and more. Date: 1872 - 1944

WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON Artist and illustrator, shown working in his studio. Heath Robinson’s prolific career spanned five decades. During this time, he produced countless illustrations for The Sketch and The Bystander as well as other ILN magazines. He is quoted as saying, ‘I was fairly launched on my career’ of Bruce Ingram’s decision to publish his illustrations in The Sketch in March 1906. He is best-known for his ingenious contraptions but his work extended to the themes of golf, cricket, war, gardening and more. Date: 1872 – 1944

The area’s connection with Heath Robinson is deeply felt.  Though he was born in Stroud Green, North London, he moved to Hatch End, near the country village of Pinner with his young family in 1908, an area where his older brother Tom – also an illustrator – was already living.  In 1918, Will, as he was known, moved to a larger house in Cranleigh, Surrey, but his decade spent in Pinner saw him flourish and find permanent fame as an illustrator, and where, arguably, he produced some of his finest work.

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Pinner is no longer the rural idyll it was when Will moved there almost 110 years ago, but it retains a village-like air of tranquility and order, and despite the plethora of chain restaurants now occupying the quaint buildings, the delightfully ancient Queen’s Head pub on the high street, where Will and his friends would regularly congregate for a drink, continues to do a roaring trade.  In fact, Will and his two elder brothers Tom and Charles, would form part of a group jovially entitled the Loyal Federation of Frothfinders.  Together they would go on long walks around the Middlesex countryside with convivial breaks along the way at convenient hostelries, a sort of glorified, bucolic pub crawl.  It seems fitting therefore, that as part of the museum’s latest exhibition, ‘The Brothers Robinson’ which explores the shared and separate talents of Tom, Charles and William Heath Robinson, Paradigm Brewery of Hertfordshire have brewed and bottled a special Frothfinders beer, a move that would most certainly have pleased these ale-loving brethren.

A rather lovely illustration by Charles Robinson, showing a bride and groom arm in arm among an arcadian landscape. Date: 1933
A rather lovely illustration by Charles Robinson, showing a bride and groom arm in arm among an arcadian landscape. Date: 1933

Here at the library, we also have strong connections with William Heath Robinson and his equally talented brothers.  Mary and Hilary collected many children’s books from the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of British publishing when lavish gift books were gloriously illustrated and expensively bound.  Tom, Charles and Will worked both separately and collaboratively on numerous titles we hold here including volumes of Hans Anderson’s Fairy Tales (Will), Old-Time Stories by Charles Perrault (Will) and A Child’s Christmas (Charles).

Children crowd round the window of a Toy Shop to look at the sale bargains within. Date: circa 1908
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Beyond book illustration, it was as a cartoonist that Will found true fame, admitting in his autobiography, ‘My Line of Life’ (also owned by the library), “I was fairly launched on my career as a humorous artist” of Bruce Ingram’s decision to publish him in The Sketch.  The Sketch forms part of the Illustrated London News archive housed and managed here at the library.  His series of First World War cartoons in the magazine, as well as the Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News, also part of the archive, were hugely popular, prompting soldiers to write to him with suggestions for further absurd contraptions with which to foil the dishonourable machinations of the Germans.  Many of Will’s Great War cartoons for The Sketch featured in the museum’s first exhibition, ‘Heath Robinson at War’, together with examples of his work from the Second World War when he was still contributing illustrations to The Sketch, underlining his long association with the title.  The ILN’s run of The Bystander is also a great source for his cartoons during the 1920s, as is The Strand while his advertising work for brands such as Hovis, Ransome’s Lawnmowers and Mackintosh Toffees, appears frequently.

Perhaps most surprising are many of the exquisite illustrations Charles Robinson contributed to the ILN magazines during the 1920s and 30s; his themes, oozing fantasy, are far more adult and sophisticated than the children’s books he is best known for, but retain his trademark romantic watercolour style.

Beautiful illustration by Charles Robinson showiong a sailor and a lady friend peering over the edge of a ship to see a bevy of beautiful mermaids in the sea below. Date: 1939

Beautiful illustration by Charles Robinson showiong a sailor and a lady friend peering over the edge of a ship to see a bevy of beautiful mermaids in the sea below. Date: 1939

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This new exhibition in Pinner promises to display more than sixty pieces of work by the brothers, many of them not previously seen.  We pulled together our own selection for you to enjoy here, with a reminder that images by William Heath Robinson and Charles Robinson are available for licensing through Mary Evans.  In the meantime, if you’re looking for something to do one weekend soon, why not make a trip to Pinner?

‘The Brothers Robinson’ runs from 21 January 2017 to 26 March 2017 www.heathrobinsonmuseum.org

Designing the Jazz Age – Gordon Conway & Mary Evans at the Fashion & Textile Museum

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The Fashion and Textile Museum, a flamboyant landmark on London’s achingly hip Bermondsey Street, has been a mecca for fans of fashion history ever since it was opened by designer Zandra Rhodes in 2003. Now part of Newham College of Further Education, the hot pink and orange building, a former warehouse, does not own a permanent collection, nor is it particularly large compared to behemoths like the V&A, but it packs a punch with continually crowd-pleasing exhibitions complemented by a creative and engaging programme of talks and workshops. In the last couple of years, exhibitions have celebrated the history of swimwear, Liberty of London and Italian knitwear brand Missoni. This autumn, the museum has turned its attention to the glittering, glamorous Jazz Age combining exquisite original garments from the collection of Mark and Cleo Butterfield with photographs of the era’s icons by American photographer James Abbé, curated by Terence Pepper.

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Not only that, we were delighted to be invited to curate a display of fashion illustrations for the exhibition, bringing an important facet of the 1920s fashion industry into focus. The pictures selected were all full-colour illustrations by American designer, Gordon Conway, who was commissioned by The Tatler and Britannia & Eve in the late 1920s to produce a series of designs, most of which were published under the simple title of ‘A Tatler Fashion’. Both magazines now form part of The Illustrated London News archive housed and managed here at Mary Evans, and are an authentic reflection of the tastes and aspirations of a widening class of consumers who were keen to try new fashions and sample modern freedoms that had previously been beyond the reach of their mothers and grandmothers. Conway herself was the epitome of the stylish, modern girl – very much practising what she preached.

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Born 18 December 1894 in Cleburne, Texas, USA, Gordon Conway (1894-1956) was the only child of John Catlett Conway and Tommie Johnson. Educated in America and at finishing school in Switzerland, she showed a special talent for drawing and it was at a dinner party in 1915 that her doodles on a menu card impressed the writer Rufus Gilmore, who recommended her to Hepworth Campbell, art director of Vanity Fair. Though she lacked any prolonged formal art training, Campbell was struck by the fresh and modern linearity of her drawings. Fearing that further art lessons might dilute her distinctive style, he commissioned her to provide artwork for the magazine, where her designs, drawn from imagination, led her to be described as, ‘the artist who draws by ear.’

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Having launched her career in America, by 1921, she had travelled to Europe with her new husband, businessman, Blake Ozias, where she divided her time between London and Paris, keeping studios in both cities. Tall, red-haired, sophisticated and stylish, Gordon Conway personified the svelte flappers she drew, and courted publicity – alongside her famous pet cat, ‘Mr Fing’ – as part of an effective marketing drive that was to lead to multiple commissions during the 1920s period. She provided designs for theatre posters and programmes for productions in London and Paris; sketched for a number of well-known couturiers and, championed by Edward Huskinson, editor of The Tatler, contributed original designs to his own magazine and other titles in the same ‘Great Eight’ publishing group – Eve: The Ladies’ Pictorial and The Bystander. She also excelled in costume design for cabaret and theatre, dressing performers The Dolly Sisters, Gladys Cooper and her good friend, Dorothy Dickson among others. Towards the end of the decade she became more heavily involved in costume design for the British film industry, establishing the first autonomous in-house costume department at the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation studios where, as executive dress designer she produced costumes for a succession of pictures including the futuristic ‘High Treason’ and ‘There Goes the Bride’, starring Jessie Matthews.

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Gordon Conway worked hard, refusing to ever miss deadlines set by her demanding clients, while also maintaining a hectic social life. Overwhelmed by such a schedule she suffered a heart attack in late 1933 which was to curtail her output. Plagued by ill-health, she divorced her husband and retired in 1937, returning to the USA to live with her beloved mother Tommie at Mount Sion in Caroline County, Virginia, an eighteenth century property inherited from her father’s family.

We were able to see the Gordon Conway display in place for the first time at the opening night of the exhibition, which also allowed us a sneak preview of the breath-taking clothes on display. Jazz Age is a pure delight, its disparate elements pulled together with such a deft touch by curator Dennis Nothdruft and exhibition designer, Bethan Ojari that it feels cohesive and thoroughly steeped in 1920s atmosphere. Themed around the silent screen, this common thread is reflected in two opening tableaux – a cinema (complete with usherette uniform), flanked by a coven of twinkling black flapper dresses. Following this, the first display in the main area offers a mouth-watering array of evening coats and opera cloaks mirroring an illustration on the wall of theatre crowds in London’s West End, painted, coincidentally, by Fortunino Matania for The Sphere, another magazine held in the ILN archive. A set of wispy pastel coloured dresses and tennis costumes, contrast with the sexy frivolity of boudoir fashions and the sophistication of beaded and embroidered evening dresses on the upper level, while a wedding party in delicious, soft, orchard colours surround a shimmering Medieval style bridal gown. The most heavily sequinned dresses were displayed flat in glass cabinets to ward against the inevitable stretch and sagging that would occur should they be hung from a mannequin. Other than that, all clothes, which are in astoundingly good condition, are shown unconfined by glass cabinets, with each vignette scene, ranging from cocktail hour to Chinatown after dark, quietly enhanced by superb background paintings (the work of Paul Stagg and his team, carried out in Sanderson paints and strongly reminiscent of A. E. Marty or Georges Barbier in Gazette du Bon Ton). A display of occasional and dressing tables covered with period objects and artefacts provide a nostalgic narrative to the rapid social change undergone from the closing of the First World War to the dawn of the Second. Who knew Mum deodorant was already a thing in the 1920s? And presiding over all these fabric treasures is a chorus girl swinging from a suspended, glittering crescent moon. Should one’s mind wander back to the present day, a large screen playing a flickering 1920s dance routine on an endless loop reels us back in.

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The photographic element of the exhibition includes a wall of female icons from the era most captured by equally famous snappers from Cecil Beaton to Man Ray. The James Abbé exhibition in an adjoining upstairs room, brings together some of the most glamorous stars of the period from the Dolly Sisters to Dolores, Mary Pickford to Rudolf Valentino. Abbe’s carefully constructed images convey the iconic status of his sitters, and the bold, sexually-charged confidence of this new age. To browse this gallery is akin to walking into a temple of assembled gods and goddesses.

The following day, with the exhibition officially open, I went back to the museum to take part in a panel discussion alongside the other contributors, Cleo & Mark Butterfield, Terence Pepper, Jenny Abbé, and curator Dennis Nothdruft . Talking about the genesis of the library, I also explained how fashion, as a barometer of social change, was a real strength of the library and that seeing the beautiful dresses and clothes on display brought the magazines and other fashion ephemera in our archive to life. There seems to be much cross-pollination and synergy in this collaboration. Pictures by James Abbé for instance, were frequently published in The Tatler, and Mary Evans contributor Gary Chapman, expert on the Dolly Sisters, assisted with the exhibition and will giving talks as part of its accompanying lecture series. With so many connections, we are proud to be associated with the museum’s 1920s Jazz Age. Furthermore, we feel our involvement would have delighted our founders Mary and Hilary Evans, who were always keen to share their passion for history with others. We hope Gordon Conway too would have been pleased to have been part of an exhibition that celebrates this dazzling period in fashion history – and the part she played in it.

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Jazz Age at the Fashion & Textile Museum runs until 15 January 2017 http://www.ftmlondon.org/
Prints and cards featuring Gordon Conway illustrations are available to buy in the museum’s shop.

To see more Gordon Conway images click here