The Story of Empire Day

In 1890, Reginald Brabazon, 12th Earl of Meath, was invited by a clergyman acquaintance to address the young men of his congregation. The boys had been lured by the promise of “a half-crown spread for a penny” and the vicar was anxious to find a speaker who might be interesting enough to hold their attention. In an age before the phenomenon of the teenager was recognised, he was having trouble connecting with his youthful audience. After tea and cakes, the Earl decided he would entertain them with tales he had himself enjoyed, of the men who had been awarded the Victoria Cross during the Indian Mutiny. His choice of subject was spot on; the boys were enthralled but it soon became clear that, not only had they never heard about the Indian Mutiny, but nor did they know anything about India.

Meath, Empire map

Lord Meath was appalled. After enquiring with the local schoolmaster he discovered that most pupils’ knowledge of history did not extend beyond Henry VIII.  How, he queried, “could one expect to make patriotic citizens of boys whose knowledge of the Empire stopped four centuries and more before their own time? They knew nothing of Great Britain’s relations with India, with America, or the later swelling Imperial note which resounded through the world, to make Britain not only the greatest political fact but the greatest political fact in the farthest-flung Empire the world has ever seen.”

Meath, an ardent Imperialist wanted the nation’s youth to share his enthusiasm, and, after discovering the situation was similar around the country, made it his personal crusade to educate and disseminate the idea of Empire to a rising generation. Setting up an office in his home, funding his campaign with an annual budget of £5000 provided by his wealthy wife and working with two secretaries, he set to work, lobbying high profile M.Ps. By 1896, he was proposing an Empire Day, first adopted by the province of Ontario the following year.

Meath suggested May 24th, the birthday of Queen Victoria, as the most suitable day to celebrate. It would be a public holiday for all school children around Britain, “with the exception of a couple of hours in the morning, to be spent in exercises of a patriotic and agreeable nature and in listening to lectures and recitations on subjects of an Imperial nature.”

Sphere, Daily Graphic, Wonder Book of Empire

Sir Philip Game during his speech in the Martin Place in Sydney at the celebration of the Empire Day of Combined Patriotic Societies of N.S.W. Next to him in vestment, the Lord Mayor of Sydney, left in the background, the main post office building. Above the people there is a banner with the words 'Empire Day Demonstration'.

The official adoption of Empire Day around the world was gradual. In 1905, Australia recognised the May 24th celebration. In 1916, when Britain was in the tightest grip of war and a reinforcement of national patriotism was called for, King George V officially sanctioned the observance of Empire Day by ordering the Union Jack to be flown from public buildings on that day. Lord Meath however had been encouraging it far longer, though not everyone was as enthused about the idea as he was.  An opinion piece in The Bystander from 1913 had a cynical tone: “Empire Day is over and thousands of little Englanders have once more been reminded there is such an institution as the British Empire. Presumably it is with a view to blaring this fact into their ears that the excellent Lord Meath keeps the celebration so noisily going.” In 1922, the Government of India also officially adopted Empire Day though again, it had been celebrated in that country since 1907.

kneeling with flag, celebrationsOnce established in the mother country, Empire Day was a major event. In 1928, The Sphere magazine reported that 5,000,000 children took part, and in Hyde Park, 100,000 attended a celebration in Hyde Park where they were led in patriotic singing by Dame Clara Butt and the massed marching bands of the Guards played “appropriate songs”. Children in towns and villages around the country would enjoy their day off school, many dressing up in costume, sometimes to take part in a pageant of British history. Invariably, among the fancy dress costumes, there would always be at least one Britannia.

certificate, massed choir

fancy dress, buy empire

Through our eyes, looking back to over a hundred years ago, with the British Empire a dim and distant memory even for the older generation, Empire Day, with its meetings, songs and lectures sit uncomfortably with our current views and concerns over our Imperialist past and the growth of nationalism in the post-Brexit era. Subliminal brainwashing and patriotic jingoism? Or a celebration of the bonds between nations in an Empire where the sun never set? Lord Meath certainly believed it was the latter, and the movement’s motto; “Responsibility. Duty. Sympathy. Self-Sacrifice” indicated there were worthy motives behind the pomp and pageantry of Empire Day. Lord Meath died in October 1929, long before the Second World War and the final dismantling of the Empire he had done so much to promote. In its place, the Commonwealth, founded in 1949 and with King George VI, and now our present Queen as Head. With its programme of initiatives to promote peace, development and justice, the Commonwealth, currently with 53 member states, is a force for good. Commonwealth Day is held in the second week of March, and is therefore further disconnected from the Empire Day in which it is rooted. Nevertheless, pride and participation in the concept of Empire was an integral part of being British in the first half of the twentieth century and on this day a century ago, children across the world would have been looking forward to a day off school.

 

 

 

 

John Hassall – 150th anniversary of the Poster King

As a historical picture library, anniversaries frequently punctuate our working year, but there’s a significant anniversary this week which will probably pass most people by.  One hundred and fifty years ago, on the 21st May 1868, one of the most popular artists of the early 20th century was born – John Hassall. I’ve been a fan of Hassall’s work for some time and, having written a number of books and articles about illustrators, hope to make John Hassall’s life and career the subject of my next book. But mention of this to most people usually illicits the response, “Who? I don’t know him.” The penny drops when I ask if they know Hassall’s most famous work, his ‘Skegness is SO bracing poster’ featuring a carefree, jolly fisherman prancing along a beach and designed for the London North East Railway in 1908, but by and large, John Hassall’s name has disappeared from public consciousness.

skegness, liversalts, colmans

A century ago, every man and woman knew who John Hassall was; he was ‘The Poster King’ and, although he was an artist talented in many disciplines, it was the advertising hoarding that was his kingdom and which was to make him a household name. An article in Answers magazine from 1912, entitled, ‘The Poor Man’s Picture Gallery’ gives some indication of the impact of the picture poster in the early years of the twentieth century.

“The development of British poster art in the last few years has been altogether astounding. Not many years ago, the mention of the word ‘art’ in connection with the hoarding would have raised a smile. Poster advertising has gone on in leaps and bounds until today it has been fitly termed, “the poor man’s picture gallery”

Later in the article: “Probably no poster artist has enjoyed so great a success as John Hassall…The mistake that too many poster artists make is crowding too many figures into one picture. This is never a fault of Hassall. His faces are good-humoured and a feature of his work.”

Born in Walmer, Kent, John Hassall was educated in Worthing and then, as a young man, after failing to gain entry to Sandhurst tried his hand at farming, moving to the remote wilderness of Manitoba in Canada with his brother Owen. During that time, he began to draw, and on successfully entering several local art competitions, realised he had a talent. Returning to England in 1890, he befriended fellow artists Dudley Hardy and Cecil Aldin, both of whom would become lifelong friends, and travelled to Paris and Antwerp to study art, there becoming influenced by great poster masters such as Cheret and Mucha. His career took off in 1895 when he was engaged by the poster printing firm David Allen & Sons, a relationship that would last for most of Hassall’s lifetime. Aside from the ubiquitous Skegness poster, Hassall produced designs for well-known brands such as Bovril and Colman’s Mustard, countless posters for theatrical productions (600 alone between 1896 and 1899) and, intriguingly, a number of posters and postcards for the anti-suffrage campaign, including the famous, ‘A Suffragette’s Home’ in which a working class man returns home at the end of the day to find his home in disarray due to the activities of his politically enlightened (but apparently neglectful) wife. Developing an eye-catching and engaging style, Hassall’s designs used bold outlines, flat colour and made spatially confident decisions demonstrating not only the influence of Japanese art on British design at the end of the nineteenth century, but how this technique could translate into bold and effective advertisements.

suffragette, santa, snowballing

frys, shaws, vacuum cleanersleeping beauty

Aside from posters, Hassall, a prolific artist and lifelong workaholic, worked across a variety of media and disciplines, showing himself to be a designer of great versatility. He was a painter in oils in the traditional manner who exhibited at the Royal Academy; a book illustrator, and a humorous ‘black & white’ artist for magazines, particularly for The Sketch, which is held here as part of the Illustrated London News archive. In 1905, he founded the New Art School which could count H. M. Bateman and Annie Fish among its illustrious alumni. When war broke out, the school continued as a highly popular correspondence course. He was a designer of toys, figurines, pottery and nursery décor and ever the innovator, he was keen to push boundaries, working with the Animated Hoardings Company before the Great War to create mechanised advertising posters.

art course, Hassall himself

THE MARCH OF THE UNEMPLOYED Date: 1912

Journalists flocked to his studio, built in the garden of his home at 88, Kensington Park Road, to interview the poster king who was a generous and talkative host, full of stories and anecdotes about his life and working methods. Last year, I visited the University of Essex where the archives of John Hassall are held including his diaries, log books and photograph albums. With only a brief day to skim through the wealth of material, it nevertheless soon became clear that John Hassall was a man of great charm and energy with a wide circle of friends, acquaintances and admirers. A long-serving member of both the Savage and Sketch Club, he was at the very centre of London’s artistic community and his home was always busy and open.

Hassall Archive

He was someone who was generous with his time and took delight in his family. Hassall was married twice with three children by his first wife (Isabel Dingwall who died in childbirth in 1900), and two by his second, Maud Webb. The daughter of his second wife was the renowned book illustrator and engraver, Joan Hassall; his son by that marriage was Christopher Hassall, actor, poet, lyricist and dramatist. The family would spend each summer at a holiday cottage at Walton-on-the-Naze on the Essex coast where he took a keen interest in finding and accumulating a world-class collection of prehistoric flints.

When war broke out in 1914, Hassall was approaching 50 and too old to join up. Instead he served as a special constable and increasingly gave his time for free producing countless sketches and drawings at the request of stage stars such as George Robey to promote or sell at charity auctions, matinees and shows. His log books from this period are something to behold – full to the brim with commissions, at least half of which he carried out without charge. Although Hassall’s style would begin to fall out of fashion, in 1939 he was granted a civil-list pension for services to poster art and he continued to work until shortly before his death in 1948.

soldier, VAD, hippodrome

Here at the library, John Hassall’s work crops up frequently, either in illustrated magazines, in children’s books and, more recently, in the numerous theatrical posters making up the Michael Diamond Collection. This week, to mark the 150th anniversary of Hassall’s birth, it seems like a timely moment to share and celebrate the work of an artist whose talent gave so much pleasure to so many. It’s time for the Poster King to return to his throne.

A group of children in fancy dress standing in a line Date: circa 1900

 

 

Top Ten Royal Wedding Dresses

What do the names Reville & Rossiter, Handley Seymour, Molyneux and Maureen Baker all have in common?  It’s a quiz question that might stump the most ardent of royal enthusiasts, but add a couple more names – Norman Hartnell, David & Elizabeth Emmanuel or Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen – and the penny might drop.  They have all had the honour of designing a royal wedding dress and, in some cases, such as Reville and Hartnell, they have answered the royal call more than once.  The name of the designer of Meghan Markle’s wedding dress for her marriage to Prince Harry this coming Saturday remains very firmly under wraps though a shortlist of possible candidates has been drawn up to include the Australian-born but London-based duo Ralph & Russo (designers of the gown Meghan wore for her engagement photos), to stalwarts of British fashion, Stella McCartney or Dame Vivienne Westwood.

All will be revealed on Saturday, but in the meantime, here is our top ten royal wedding dresses from history:

  1. Lady Pamela Mountbatten in Worth, 1960.  Not strictly royal, but not far off, the younger daughter of Earl Mountbatten married David Hicks in a snow storm, the ideal backdrop for her fur-trimmed show-stopping satin gown by Worth.
Lady Pamela Mountbatten, younger daughter of Earl Mountbatten, pictured in her superb wedding dress designed by Worth, for her marriage to interior designer, David Hicks at Romsey Abbey, Hampshire in January 1960. Date: 1960
Lady Pamela Mountbatten, younger daughter of Earl Mountbatten, pictured in her superb wedding dress designed by Worth, for her marriage to interior designer, David Hicks at Romsey Abbey, Hampshire in January 1960. Date: 1960
  1. Princess Elizabeth (Queen Elizabeth II), Norman Hartnell, 1947.  Britain was still in the grip of rationing, but Hartnell’s design, embellished with seed pearls & symbolism, lifted spirits.  James Laver of the V&A declared, “The occasion demanded a poet, and Mr Hartnell has not failed to string his lyre and to ring in tune.”
Group photograph following the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh showing the newlyweds with their best man, bridesmaids and page boys. Date: 1947
Group photograph following the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh showing the newlyweds with their best man, bridesmaids and page boys. Date: 1947
  1. Princess Alexandra in Mrs James, 1863.  Arriving in England with a gift of fine Brussels lace, the Danish princess was firmly steered towards a gown of English silk and Honiton lace.  The future Queen Alexandra would in time become a style icon, but as a fresh-faced fashion ingénue, she looked perfectly ravishing in this frothy crinoline confection.
The Wedding' Bride in white with six bridesmaids, Groom in blue military costume, two Beefeaters (Yeomen Warders) standing guard
The Wedding’ Bride in white with six bridesmaids, Groom in blue military costume, two Beefeaters (Yeomen Warders) standing guard
  1. Edwina Mountbatten in Reville, 1922  Ticking all the 1920s boxes, Edwina wore the era well.  With those mitten sleeves and the minimal bouquet of lilies, this society girl injected more than a dash of chic into royal weddings.
Lord Louis Mountbatten and Edwina Ashley after their wedding in the church of St. Margaret's in Westminster, pass through the wedding trellis. Date: 1922
Lord Louis Mountbatten and Edwina Ashley after their wedding in the church of St. Margaret’s in Westminster, pass through the wedding trellis. Date: 1922
  1. Princess Anne in Maureen Baker.  Magnificent modesty with a cool 1970s vibe, Princess Anne’s dress, with its high neck and trumpet sleeves echoed the medieval splendour of Westminster Abbey, but its modernity allowed her to shine.
Princess Anne, the Princess Royal seen smiling and waving from the balcony of Buckingham Palace following her marriage to Captain Mark Phillips at Westminster Abbey on 14 November 1973. Prince Edward, now the Duke of Wessex, who served as a pageboy can be seen beside the couple. Date: 1973
Princess Anne, the Princess Royal seen smiling and waving from the balcony of Buckingham Palace following her marriage to Captain Mark Phillips at Westminster Abbey on 14 November 1973. Prince Edward, now the Duke of Wessex, who served as a pageboy can be seen beside the couple. Date: 1973
  1. Lady Diana Spencer in Emmanuel, 1981.  Some say meringue, some say romance, everyone says creased, but “Shy Di’s” gown was the fairytale dream every girl wanted.  Shelve your fashion prejudices for a moment: you’ve got to admit that this was an iconic – and unforgettable – dress.
A photograph of Lady Diana Spencer arriving at St Paul's Cathedral in the City of London for her marriage to Prince Charles, Prince of Wales. Her dress and train, designed by David and Elizabeth Emmanuel is being arranged by her bridesmaids. Crowds of 60000 people lined the streets of London to watch the ceremony on 29th July 1981. Date: 29th July 1981
A photograph of Lady Diana Spencer arriving at St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London for her marriage to Prince Charles, Prince of Wales. Her dress and train, designed by David and Elizabeth Emmanuel is being arranged by her bridesmaids. Crowds of 60000 people lined the streets of London to watch the ceremony on 29th July 1981. Date: 29th July 1981
  1. Catherine Middleton (Duchess of Cambridge) in Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, 2011. Sarah Burton’s take on the precision engineering of the house of McQueen saw it meld effortlessly with the bride’s taste and style: a self-assured, graceful, feminine statement.
Princess Catherine Middleton and Prince William after their wedding ceremony on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with bridesmaids Grace van Cutsem and Margarita Armstrong-Jones, page boys William Lowther-Pinkerton and Tom Pettifer, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, Pippa Middleton and Prince Harry. Date: 2011
Princess Catherine Middleton and Prince William after their wedding ceremony on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with bridesmaids Grace van Cutsem and Margarita Armstrong-Jones, page boys William Lowther-Pinkerton and Tom Pettifer, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, Pippa Middleton and Prince Harry. Date: 2011
  1.  Princess Grace of Monaco in Helen Rose, 1956. A gift from her film studio, Grace Kelly’s exquisite, lace gown was a carefully structured and modestly feminine creation that showcased her cool, classic beauty.  A style classic, many saw echoes of Helen Rose’s design in the Duchess of Cambridge’s 2011 McQueen gown.
WEDDING IN MONACO, Grace Kelly, Prince Rainier, 1956 Date: 1956
WEDDING IN MONACO, Grace Kelly, Prince Rainier, 1956 Date: 1956
  1. Princess Marina (Duchess of Kent) in Molyneux, 1934.  A chic fashion icon, the Duchess of Kent did not put a sartorial foot wrong.  Molyneux could have dressed Marina in a bin bag and she’d looked stunning.  But she didn’t have to:  this dress was an elegant 1930s affair with a definite regal aura.
A photograph of the royal wedding between Prince George, Duke of Kent and Princess Marina of Greece. Date: 29th November 1934
A photograph of the royal wedding between Prince George, Duke of Kent and Princess Marina of Greece. Date: 29th November 1934

1.Princess Margaret in Norman Hartnell, 1960.  Breathtakingly simple, a strong silhouette, acres of fabric moulded into shapely discipline.  She’s truly the bridal belle of the ball.

The marriage of HRH The Princess Margaret (1930-2002) to Anthony Armstrong-Jones (1930-). The couple pictured on the balcony of Buckingham Palace acknowledging the cheering crowds after their wedding ceremony on 6th May 1960. Date: 1960
The marriage of HRH The Princess Margaret (1930-2002) to Anthony Armstrong-Jones (1930-). The couple pictured on the balcony of Buckingham Palace acknowledging the cheering crowds after their wedding ceremony on 6th May 1960. Date: 1960

Do you agree with our top ten?  Do let us know your opinions – and enjoy the royal wedding celebrations this weekend.

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