Broadening the mind and uplifting the heart



Les modes se suivent et ne se ressemblent pas, 1926. Cover design for Harper’s Bazaar.

Erté – born Roman Petrovich Tyrtov in St. Petersburg in 1892 – was an artist and designer who applied himself across a range of disciplines from Parisian fashions to stage and film set designs and magazine illustration. He is now being celebrated in a selling exhibition at London’s Grosvenor Gallery, marking the 125th anniversary of his birth and exactly 50 years since a previous exhibition of his work there reawakened interest in him in Britain.

Erté with Barbra Streisand, early 1970s.

Erté perfected a style of his own which was immediately recognisable. Barbra Streisand, a collector and admirer, said, “you look at his art and you know that it’s his.” He epitomised Art Deco and became a stylistic reference point for that idiom. Brian Sewell wrote of him that “in his fantasies of elegant women and androgynous slaves, veiled and withdrawn, revealed and provocative, flaunting and arrogant, he was the heir of Beardsley and Botticelli, of the Persian miniaturist and the Byzantine painter of saints…”

Angel Harpist for Blues, 1926. George White’s Scandals, New York.

He could trace his ancestry to 16th century Tartar stock and his immediate family were steeped in military tradition, both his father and uncle being naval officers and it was natural for them to assume he too would enlist. However, his artistic temperament was evident from his very early years and when his aunt bought him a set of wooden toy soldiers he threw them out of the window in a fit of tears preferring to take some lace and make ballerina figures from his mother’s perfume bottles. Aged five he even designed an evening dress for her and persuaded the family to have it made up.

Home-schooled until the age of twelve, Erté was surrounded by elegant women, raised by a series of nannies and an English governess and spoke several languages from an early age. His outlook was international and he was determined to make a career abroad, leaving for Paris in 1912 having convinced his very reluctant father to sign the visa granting his departure as he himself was under age. He lived a typical artist’s life in Paris, eating one solid meal a week and sending drawings of the latest designs to a Russian women’s fashion magazine to help him survive as his father had cut off all financial assistance. In order to avoid family embarrassment, he took the name Erté, being the French pronunciation of his initials.

Ombre et Lumière, 1928. Cover design for Harper’s Bazaar.

His first break came in 1913 when he started work for one of the French capital’s top fashion houses, Paul Poiret. His 18 months there taught him a great deal about clothing style and line and in 1915 America’s top fashion magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, offered him an illustrator’s contract and his first cover followed soon after, one of 240 cover designs and 2,500 drawings he created in total for the publication over the next 20 years. He set the flowing, florid style of Art Deco with this work – the magazine’s publisher William Randolph Hearst said “what would Harper’s Bazaar have been if it wasn’t for Erté?” – which was reinforced in other areas such as his work for the cinema, already becoming a worldwide medium and thus spreading his ideas farther afield.

He designed the sets and costumes for some of the most famous silent movies of the day: Ben-Hur (1925) directed by Fred Niblo; La Bohème (1926) by King Vidor; Dance Madness (1926) by Robert Z. Leonard and The Mystic (1925) by Tod Browning, famous for his later cult film Freaks. “It was largely thanks to Erté’s work in films and Broadway shows that the ‘Hollywood style’ developed in America, which was to define the image of the Dream Factory for at least the next decade” writes Mikhail Dedinkin of the Hermitage in his excellent catalogue essay.

Carmel Myers with Erté wearing the Iris costume he designed for MGM’s Ben-Hur, 1925.

Erté was now successful on both sides of the Atlantic with set designs for the Folies Bergère and Alhambra cabarets and the Paris Opéra. He had moved back to France in 1923 in order to facilitate his work in Europe, living with his long-term partner Prince Nicolas Ourousoff in a large house in Sèvres, south-west Paris. When a French journalist visited him there that year he noted the elegant interior décor and sheer theatricality of the environment, unsurprising perhaps for such a famous theatre designer. He wrote: “He has an oriental feeling for colour and an imagination that leaves his imitators far behind. Erté showed me his immortal drawings like a man assembling a bouquet. The technique and flawless perfection of his gouaches made me think of the labours of the small white monks, working away in the radiance of their cells…”

Stage set, 1929. Design for Scheherazade scene in Aladdin, Folies Bergère, Paris.

But after a few more years of popularity, Erté found it more difficult to find a market for his work. The Depression had descended and aesthetic delights and extravagances such as his struggled in the harsh economic climate of the time. However, he continued to work on cabarets and set designs and spent the Second World War in Paris, commenting only on the emptiness of the streets under German occupation and the shortage of food. As Dedinkin points out, Erté’s problem was not only that he was growing older but so was his natural audience. Younger generations found his work old-fashioned and irrelevant and “after the last showing of his drawings in 1939, he had no more exhibitions for 25 years.”

Ever the obsessive, however, Erté retained as much of his original artwork as he could, estimating that he had created more than 17,000 drawings during his lifetime and it was his energy in reclaiming his own work which enabled gallerists to display so much of it in later years, as witnessed currently at the Grosvenor.

The letter ‘M’ in Erté’s famous alphabet designs of 1927-67.

It was not until the mid-1960s that Erté found himself back in vogue again. After the 1950s and the constant tension of the Cold War, it was as if the Americans in particular needed to break out of their conformist present and many found in Erté’s works an optimism and sheer joie de vivre lacking in the consumer-driven/Mad Men -manipulated present.

The turning point came in 1965 when he met the art dealers Eric and Salome Estorick, the founders of Seven Arts Ltd. They actively promoted him and when they organised an exhibition of 170 of his works in New York in 1967, the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought the entire collection, an act which Erté himself described as without precedent for a living artist.

That same year “two exhibitions on either side of the Atlantic…put Erté back at the centre of public attention,” as Dedinkin explains. “The Year 1925 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris focused on the famous exhibition of 1925 (also in Paris) that had effectively announced the arrival of Art Deco, while in New York there was a celebration of the centenary of Harper’s Bazaar. Art Deco, having been drowned out by modernism and abstract art, was once more in demand.”

Erté was then taken up by celebrities and wealthy collectors. His androgynous work was mirrored in his own personal look, very similar to that of Quentin Crisp with blow-dried hair and flamboyant attire. In photos from this time, surrounded by the likes of Andy Warhol, Brooke Shields and Diana Ross, he looks like everyone’s favourite, very well groomed, babushka.

Erté with Diana Ross, New York, 1982.

Erté died in April 1990 aged 97. He had lived through numerous conflicts and seen his work go in and out of fashion but had never waivered in his approach. His style was entirely his own and created when the term Art Deco did not even exist, only bestowed upon it later by the critics. He would sit in his studio, his two cats Caramelle and Talia by his side, classical music playing in the background, carried away to his own private, creative dimension.

“I’m in a different world,” he wrote in 1988, “a dream world that invites oblivion. People take drugs to achieve such freedom from their daily cares. I’ve never taken drugs. I’ve never needed them.”

Barbra Streisand could be talking of herself when she said: “Erté’s beautiful work captures his essence, his character, his individuality – which is unique. That is what becomes a legend.”

All reproductions of Erté designs © 2017 Sevenarts Ltd.


A tea farmer tends leaves drying in the sun, Fudiang City, Fujian province, south -east China © Fanjing Lu, China, Shortlist, Open, Travel, 2017 Sony World Photography Awards

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Sony World Photography Awards and the standard, as ever, is very high although there is also a slight sense among the judges of, if not compassion fatigue, then a weariness with having to view so many photos of war, crime and political upheaval, and the subsequent toll these activities take on human beings.

A donkey gets up after rolling in the snow in the mountains of Albania. © Frederik Buyckx, Belgium, Photographer of the Year, Professional, Landscape, 2017 Sony World Photography Awards

There are a number of different categories on show including portraiture, documentary, architecture and wildlife, but with reference to Belgian Photographer of the Year Frederik Buyckx, Chair of Judges and exhibition curator Zelda Cheatle says of his work: “Landscape is often overlooked but it is central to our existence…I hope this award will inspire many more photographers to take pictures that do not simply encompass the terrible aspects of life in these troubled times but also capture some of the joys and loveliness in each and every environment.”

This sentiment is echoed by Scott Gray, CEO of the World Photography Organisation who stated: “I feel that in many cases it is easy to shock but it can be so tremendously difficult to capture a sophisticated elegance, that really is so beautiful it shows the medium of photography at its best.”

Spiral staircase in Vatican Museum, Vatican City. © Songquan Deng, China, Commended, Open, Architecture, 2017 Sony World Photography Awards

Buyckx has produced a series of photographs entitled ‘Whiteout’ which he shot in the Balkans, Scandinavia and Central Asia. He focused on remote areas where there are few inhabitants because of the harsh climate and the tough living conditions. Buyckx wanted to depict the struggle to exist in such locales as he shows a donkey pushing itself up from rolling in the snow in the mountains of Albania, the bags on its back testament to its role as beast of burden, no matter what the conditions.

China’s Songquan Deng, commended in the Open Architecture category, displays a high degree of Scott Gray’s “sophisticated elegance” in his sweepingly majestic shot of the spiral staircase in the Vatican Museum, taken with a wide angle lens to capture it in all its beauty.

Wilson Lee of Hong Kong was shortlisted in the Open Still Life category for his moody shot of night falling on Awaji Island in southern Japan. It is almost a photographic image of a Hopper painting, both enigmatic and a little eerie.

Night on Awaji Island. © Wilson Lee, Hong Kong, Shortlist, Open, Still Life (open), 2017 Sony World Photography Awards

Mastery of lighting is also demonstrated in Will Burrard-Lucas’s shot of a wild hyena in a Zambian national park. The UK photographer, who won first place in the Natural World professional category with this photo, used a camera ‘camouflage’ technique familiar from wildlife documentaries for close-up filming. “I wanted to photograph them at night. The stars in Africa are so beautiful that I also wanted to include them in my image. I used a remote-control “BeetleCam” to position my camera on the ground so that I could photograph the hyena with the beautiful starry sky behind.

Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta)
Liuwa Plain National Park, Zambia. © Will Burrard-Lucas, United Kingdom, 1st Place, Professional, Natural World, 2017 Sony World Photography Awards

“This is a single exposure. I lit the hyena with two wireless off-camera flashes and used a long shutter speed to expose the stars… My aim was to capture never-before-seen images of African wildlife at night and to show nocturnal animals such as lions and hyenas in their true element.”

This year the awards have made space – three rooms no less – for acclaimed British photographer Martin Parr, the recipient of the 2017 Outstanding Contribution to Photography prize. Among many of his famously sardonic, witty observations on human behaviour on show is a black and white series from the early 1980s called ‘Abandoned Morris Minors of the West of Ireland’. Unsurprisingly, the images show exactly that. Why so many Morrises? Why abandoned in this way? And why in the west of Ireland?

County Kerry. Dingle Penninsula. Abandoned Morris Minors. From ‘A Fair Day’. 1980-1983. © Martin Parr, Magnum Photos, Rocket Gallery

In an accompanying essay, Val Williams sums him up well. “Scratch the surface of Martin Parr and you can still find a trainspotter,” she writes, “a milk bottle collector, an accumulator, someone who operates on an obscure wavelength, pursuing a goal that, in the grand scheme of things, might seem to be a little obtuse…his quest is for sameness, the predictability of human behaviour, and the sheer comedy of it all.”

The show is currently at London’s Somerset House but only until May 7 when it starts a world tour. The awards themselves are open to professional and non-professional alike and there is no entry fee. The World Photography Organisation had to assess more than 227,000 entries from 183 countries for the 2017 awards and the pace is relentless as entries for next year will be accepted again from June 1.


Beyond the Infinite, 2016 Doug Foster

Doug Foster’s installation Beyond the Infinite for Daydreaming with Stanley Kubrick, inspired by the ‘Stargate’ sequence in 2001:A Space Odyssey

The Daydreaming With… series attempts to marry contemporary art, music, film and photography, amongst other disciplines, in one portmanteau show around a defined theme. Its latest incarnation is in London’s Somerset House and features exhibits from different artists, filmmakers and designers based on the life and work of Stanley Kubrick, the brilliant director of ground-breaking and visionary films.

The show’s curator is artist and musician James Lavelle who says “I discovered Stanley Kubrick at my local video store when I was a teenager. From the day I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, my life changed forever. His work became a guiding influence, a reference point and has remained so throughout my career.”

The Shining Carpet (WT) 2016 by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

The Shining Carpet (WT) by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin which transports the Overlook Hotel’s distinctive carpet pattern from The Shining to Somerset Houses’s West Wing

Five years in the making, the exhibition features 45 installations which are given the run of the famous building’s West Wing. The main corridor is laid with hexagonal-patterned tiles by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin which echo the carpet pattern of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.

Room 4 – sadly, not room 237 as in the Overlook itself – also references that film. Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s Requiem for 114 Radios plays a recording they made of 14 singer-songwriters including Jarvis Cocker and Beth Orton in a version of the classical piece Dies Irae which plays over the film’s opening credits. The music is broadcast via 114 vintage radios, itself another Kubrickian reference to a piece of radio kit in Dr Strangelove, the ‘CRM 114 Discriminator’.

Requiem for 114 Radios by Iain Forsyth and jane Pollard

Requiem for 114 Radios Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard

And as if that weren’t enough the artists have casually placed an old biography of Napoleon on the table, a reference to Kubrick’s abandoned project on the Emperor’s life which would have starred Jack Nicholson.

Like James Lavelle, I too had a revelatory experience on first seeing 2001, in my case in my local cinema. I had literally never seen a film like it and Kubrick made me realise the great potential of the cinema as an art form.

My first Kubrick film though was actually Dr Strangelove. My parents took me to see it on release (approximate age spoiler alert) in 1964 and two things struck me at the time: the genius of Peter Sellers and the shot of Slim Pickens riding his nuclear missile like a bucking bronco as it descends over the Soviet Union, yee-ha-ing with his Stetson as he goes. Doug Aitken takes inspiration from this movie with Twilight, a public glowing pay phone surrounded by mirrors offering multiple images. It refers to the scene in Strangelove when Sellers, as Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, attempts to make a reverse charge call to US President Muffley to warn him of the imminent nuclear holocaust. Here, twilight could refer to the end of the world and also the line in the American national anthem – “Twilight’s Last Gleaming”.

Twilight by Doug Aitken. The phone glows in a luminous light, as if irradiated itself, a relic of the past. standing alone, an ironic survivor of a nuclear exchange

Twilight by Doug Aitken. The phone glows in a luminous light as if irradiated itself, a relic of the past. standing alone, an ironic survivor of a nuclear exchange. Courtesy the artist and 303 Gallery, New York

James Lavelle himself, along with John Isaacs and Azzi Glasser, presents In Consolus – Full of Hope and Full of Fear which offers Glasser’s perfume creation as an olfactory experience underlying what at first appears to be a playful, everyday experience of familiar objects such as packing boxes and teddy bears but which carries darker resonances.

In Consolus - Full of Hope and Full of Fear by James Lavelle and John Isaacs. © Peter Macdiarmid/Somerset House

In Consolus – Full of Hope and Full of Fear  James Lavelle and John Isaacs. © Peter Macdiarmid/Somerset House

As the exhibition guide explains: “Loss of innocence and abuse of power find expression through the over-scaled teddy bears and the banal food produce boxes reference the pantry scene in The Shining. Perfume designer Azzi Glasser’s scent ‘A Space Odyssey’ evokes Kubrick’s film whilst also alluding to his optioning of Patrick Susskind’s classic Perfume.”

One giant teddy adopts a Lolita pose in trademark shades and carries a lolly while confronted by another big bear adopting the stance and accoutrements of Alex the droog in A Clockwork Orange as he prepares to batter the Cat Lady to death with her own giant phallus.

The Corridor Toby Dye. © Peter Macdiarmid/Somerset House

The Corridor Toby Dye. © Peter Macdiarmid/Somerset House

Toby Dye presents The Corridor, a four-screen film on a continuous loop portraying different characters based on Kubrick’s films including Clockwork Orange, 2001 and Barry Lyndon. It features Joanna Lumley throwing a Georgian hissy fit and Aiden Gillen, both on the attack and running scared.

But perhaps one of the most intriguing displays is Unfolding the Aryan Papers by Jane and Louise Wilson. Unlike many of the other works, this was not created especially for the show but was made in 2009 after extensive research by the Wilson sisters in the Kubrick archive. The Aryan Papers, another Kubrick project that was never made, revolves around the character of Tania, a Polish Jewess trying to help her family escape from the Nazis. Although optioned by Kubrick in 1991, the film was finally scuppered by Spielberg going into full production on Schindler’s List the following year and the overwhelming accolades it received on worldwide release in 1994.

The Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege in a 1993 costume test for Kubrick's aborted project The Aryan Papers, taken from Unfolding the Aryan Papers by Jane and Louise Wilson

The Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege in a 1993 costume test for Kubrick’s aborted project The Aryan Papers, taken from Unfolding the Aryan Papers by Jane and Louise Wilson

Tania was to be played by the Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege and the Wilsons juxtapose costume tests she made for Kubrick in 1993 with her re-enacting planned scenes from the film fifteen years later. It offers valuable insights into Kubrick as a director as ter Steege describes him telling her how to stand and move even in the test shots.

Nothing can recreate the strange, alien, occasionally terrifying world of Stanley Kubrick, but Daydreaming gives it a good try and some of the experiences contained within it are thought-provoking and highly original. And just as Jack Torrance is frozen in time in the maze at the finale of The Shining, so London artist Paul Fryer gives us The Second Law, a wax effigy of Kubrick himself, dressed as he was when directing the film on a cold Elstree Studio lot and encased here in a glass-fronted upright freezer, covered in snow and ice, an homage to his eternal influence.

Paul Fryer's The Second Law - Kubrick frozen in time like Jack Torrance

Paul Fryer’s The Second Law – Kubrick frozen in time like Jack Torrance

Daydreaming with Stanley Kubrick runs at Somerset House, London until 24 August, 2016. For details of booking and associated events go to:


Great eggfly butterfly from S. Asia

Great eggfly butterfly from S. Asia.

As spring arrives, a blogger’s mind naturally turns to thoughts of lepidoptera – the order of insects that includes butterflies and moths. And London is particularly well-served at the moment by having two exhibitions which show these delicate and beautiful creatures in all their glory. See my review of Maria Merian’s Butterflies at the Queen’s Gallery and the Natural History Museum’s Sensational Butterflies show. A visit to either is an experience but a visit to both is doubly rewarding.


Horseman 1946, M C Escher. © The M C Eascher Company, The Netherlands and courtesy Collection Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag, The Netherlands.

Horseman 1946, M C Escher. © The M C Eascher Company, The Netherlands and courtesy Collection Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag, The Netherlands.

Every time that there is an exhibition featuring the strangely wonderful works of the artist M C Escher, it sells out. Crowds queue round blocks in towns as diverse as Rio and Edinburgh and the current exhibition at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery has introduced extended opening hours to cope with demand. Yet Escher has rarely found favour with art critics and museum curators who have found him unclassifiable and therefore not worth understanding. That blinkered approach is beginning to change and there is now a growing acceptance among art academics and gallerists that Escher was indeed a great and original artist and not just a quirky if highly-skilled illustrator. Read my review of the exhibition and if you haven’t yet been to see it hurry as the show closes in January 2016.


A red fox has attacked and killed its smaller relative, an Arctic fox, and is preparing to hide the remains under the ice to stop polar bears from finding them.

Tale of two foxes. © Dan Gutoski. Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015.

Every year around this time the media is full of astonishing pictures of wildlife. The reason is the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, a competition owned and administered by London’s Natural History Museum. This year is the 51st time it has been held and its prestige and scope attracted more than 42,000 entries from around the world. Over one hundred are currently on show at the museum before going on a UK and then international tour where they are expected to be seen by more than two million people.

The standard is very high and 18 category winners are chosen from which two winners are named as Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Don Gutoski, an A&E physician from Canada won the overall award for his image of two foxes on the sub-Arctic wastes, and 14-year-old Ondrej Pelánek from the Czech Republic won the Young Wildlife Photographer prize for his photo of fighting ruffs.

Fighting ruffs © Ondrej Pelánel. Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015.

Fighting ruffs © Ondrej Pelánel. Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015.

Dr Gutoski explained that his trip to Cape Churchill in the north of Manitoba province was made primarily to capture the polar bears which congregate there. He had heard that the red fox had been travelling further north for food due to warming weather and that there were stories of them fighting with their close relatives, the smaller Arctic fox, but no one had actually witnessed this.

“I had seen the red fox from a distance,” relates Dr Gutoski, “and realised that it was feeding on its prey, an Arctic fox. It did this for several hours then hid the remains under the ice so the polar bears would not find them.

“At the time I didn’t know what I had photographed and it wasn’t until that night when I went through the pictures on my laptop that I saw what a great shot it was. Nobody I knew had actually witnessed that before but it took close to 2,000 images to find that one. The ones before it and right after did not compare.”

A juvenile octopus rises off the coast of Tahiti in search of zooplankton to eat.

It came from the deep © Fabien Michenet. Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015.

The quality of the photos on display is so high that it must be extremely difficult to come to a final decision and we will all have our favourites. I especially liked Fabien Michenet’s It came from the deep which shows a young octopus, just two centimetres across, looking for a meal of zooplankton in the waters off Tahiti, French Polynesia. Transparent for protection in the ocean, its internal organs are nevertheless clearly visible against the dark water.

Another remarkable image was taken by the UK’s Charlie Hamilton James who was on assignment for National Geographic magazine in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park to record the decline in vulture numbers there. Charlie had set up a camouflaged camera in the carcasses of zebra and wildebeest and, as with so many wildlife shoots – “this was the only [picture] that worked.” Charlie aimed to capture the feeding frenzy of the birds from within the carcass but, as he explains, “vultures are incredibly wary of anything out of the ordinary” and the image took three weeks of patient work to obtain.

Inside job © Charlie hamilton Jones. Wildlife Photographer of the year 2015.

Inside job © Charlie Hamilton James. Wildlife Photographer of the year 2015.

Vultures are declining in the Serengeti due to pesticide which poisons them, loss of habitat, lack of carrion, hunting and persecution by man. This is certainly a highly original image and all part of an exhibition which will keep you enthralled for hours. The effort and ingenuity of the snappers to get their pictures is more than equalled by the range and beauty of the wildlife they have captured through the lens.


Road signs are so commonplace that we never think about them yet without a clear system of signage our roads would be chaotic and the risk of accident and injury would be much higher. This year marks the 50th anniversary of their current design on British roads and they were devised by Jock Kinneir and his assistant Margaret Calvert who had already designed the successful motorway signage seen below. They spent a great deal of time researching road signs in Britain and Europe before creating an original and clear form of signage which is still used today, here and in many other countries.

Kinneir and Calvert's motorway signage design from 1958 and still in use today

Kinneir and Calvert had originally designed Britain’s first motorway signage deployed on the Preston by-pass in 1958 and still in use on all UK motorways today

Roads were becoming choked by the late 1950s thanks to the greater availability of cheaper cars and the lack of motorways. The government of the day determined to modernise the country’s road network and follow the German example of country-wide autobahnen, which would also have the positive effect of increasing productivity and boosting the economy generally. Kinneir began working on the motorway signage in 1957 as the need for such routes was more urgent and moved on to primary route signage the following decade.

Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert

Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert

The European signs were mostly not fit for purpose being illegible and often in capital letters, produced as an after-thought by road engineers not designers, the experts on visual communication. Kinneir, a highly respected graphic designer who had recently developed the signage for Gatwick Airport, took his customary logical approach by posing the question: “What do I want to know, trying to read a sign at speed?” Calvert now says, “style never came into it. You were driving towards the absolute essence. How could we reduce the appearance to make the maximum sense and at minimum cost?”

They decided that a combination of upper and lower case would be more legible at speed than all upper and came up with a new typeface which became known as Transport. The new signage was tested in London and then introduced on the first stretch of motorway in Britain, the Preston by-pass in 1958. The government approved the system and their success won Kinneir and Calvert – by then partners in their eponymous design company – the contract to design signage for all other roads in the UK. The signs conformed to the 1949 Geneva Protocol by using triangular shapes to warn, circles for commands and rectangles to give information.

Primary route signage

Kinneir and Calvert’s primary route signage which celebrates its 50th anniversary on Britain’s roads in 2015

Yes, this is a genuine road sign imparting information. It means: 'All vehicles prohibited except bicycles being pushed by pedestrians.'

Yes, this is a genuine road sign imparting information. It means: ‘All vehicles prohibited except bicycles being pushed by pedestrians.’

The motorway signs had used white lettering on a blue background. Now Kinneir and Calvert employed white lettering for place names and yellow for road numbers set against a green background for primary roads with black letters on a white background for secondary routes.

A new reflective material was used on the motorway lettering to enable drivers to see the sign information clearly at night but when used on white background signs on less important roads the letters became indistinct. The problem was solved by using a bolder font and Transport Heavy was developed. Today, three different densities of reflective lettering are used on Britain’s roads, depending on the need and location.

Kinneir and Calvert also designed a system of lettering which could be adapted to different traffic speeds and the level of information which needed to be imparted to the driver. Spacing and layout is an essential part of any road sign and this resulted in a formula based on stroke widths taken from the letter ‘I’ on their own Transport Medium font.

Children crossing pictogram road sign

Children crossing. Margaret Calvert based the design of the girl leading the boy on herself.

It was decided to adopt the European style of pictograms on street road signs rather than wording and Calvert drew most of these herself, basing some of them on her own personal experiences. For example, she thought the previous sign for ‘children crossing’ ill-suited to the modern age and, instead of a boy in school cap leading a girl, reversed the sexes and had a small boy holding his big sister’s hand, the girl being modelled on Calvert herself. She felt that the old sign was “quite archaic, almost like an illustration from Enid Blyton…I wanted to make it more inclusive because comprehensives were starting up.” Likewise the sign for cattle was based on a cow called Patience owned by Calvert’s relatives on their Warwickshire farm.

Cattle road sign pictogram based on a cow called Patience

Cattle a.k.a. ‘Patience’

The Sheffield-based design initiative Made North has curated an exhibition at London’s Design Museum of some of the original road signs and modern variants on them created by leading artists and designers of today including Sir Peter Blake, Aubery Powell of Hipgnosis and Jock Kinneir’s son, Ross. Details below but last word here goes to Jock Kinneir himself, speaking in 1965.

“It is sad but true to say that most of us take our surroundings for granted. Direction signs and street names, for instance, are as vital as a drop of oil in an engine, without which the moving parts would seize up; one can picture the effect of the removal of this category of information on drivers in a busy city…It is a need which has bred a sub-division of graphic design with more influence on the appearance of our surroundings than any other.”



Ladybird books have charmed and informed for years and kept generations of children engrossed by their clear texts and wonderful colour illustrations and 2015 marks their centenary. What started as a kitchen-table project in the Midlands has now grown to a multi-million selling imprint. Their inspiration was Douglas Keen, an advertising man who really knew how to sell an idea. He only employed top illustrators such as Charles Tunnicliffe, a graduate of the Royal College of Art and John Berry, who turned down a scholarship at the Royal Academy in order to join the RAF at the outbreak of the Second World War. The texts were researched in depth by their authors, often leading teachers and academics, who aimed to follow the Reithian principle – to inform and entertain. The centenary is being marked by a major exhibition at London’s House of Illustration and a book – Ladybird by Design – which charts the history of the series from a few cheap children’s publications to keep printing presses busy to the phenomenally successful Key Words series which alone will rack up more than 100 million sales this year. For more on the book and a link to the exhibition read the post in the Books section.


'Srictly Respectable' - an illustration by Mac Conner for Redbook magazine, August 1953.

‘Strictly Respectable’ – an illustration by Mac Conner for Redbook magazine, August 1953. Courtesy McCauley Conner.

McCauley ‘Mac’ Conner survived the mad world of the ‘Mad Men’, working for the big advertising agencies as an illustrator on their campaigns and also for magazine fiction and books. He says he has had a very good life, which must be true as he is now 101 years old and is only too happy to regale his fans with tales of the agency life he lived. London’s House of Illustration has mounted an excellent exhibition of his work (originally seen last year at the Museum of the City of New York) which accurately conveys post-war America, where dreams were marketed and desire created for the products which drove the booming US economy. You’ll find my review of the show in the Museums and Galleries section of the site where there is also a link to an earlier piece I wrote about one of Mac Conner’s greatest influences, Norman Rockwell.


London’s Courtauld Gallery has mounted a small wonder of an exhibition which, for the first time ever, has brought together all the known drawings of one of Francisco’s Goya’s eight albums, in their original sequence. It has taken the curatorial team four years of painstaking work but the result is unmissable for any art lover. The only problem: the show ends on 25 May 2015 so time is short to see this unique display. However, if you can’t make it you can read my review which I hope will give you some flavour of the show and I recommend the highly lucid catalogue which explains in detail just what the great Master was up to when he drew these weird, mysterious images.

Nightmare (Pesadilla), c. 1819-23, Francisco Goya, Album D, page 20, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Nightmare (Pesadilla), c. 1819-23, Francisco Goya, Album D, page 20, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Professor Simon Schama at the National Portrait Gallery, London. © Oxford Film and Television Ltd.

Professor Simon Schama at the National Portrait Gallery, London. © Oxford Film and Television Ltd.

Simon Schama, Professor of Art and History at Columbia University, has been working with the National Portrait Gallery’s Chief Curator, Dr. Tarnya Cooper, to create five new displays for the gallery which reflect his personal view of British portraiture through the ages.

Explaining that his motivation came from Rembrandt and British history itself, he said at the preview – The Face of Britain opens on 16 September, 2015 – that he thought that visual sense was paramount. “Hogarth said that it was the only organ of the body which was fully-formed at birth and we now know early recognition by new-born babies is almost instant.”

William Shakespeare associated with John Taylor, c. 1610 and believed to be the truest likeness of the Bard in existence. © NPG,London.

William Shakespeare associated with John Taylor, c. 1610 and believed to be the truest likeness of the Bard in existence, will feature in the display. © NPG,London.

Although the eye’s rods and cones still take some time to form after birth, for example, the professor has a point and his displays will attempt to let the viewer see the works, all taken from the NPG’s Collection, in a new light by grouping them in themes rather than the usual chronological approach.

This will mean that Power will, not unsurprisingly, feature Churchill and Thatcher but alongside Elizabeth I, normally separated by a whole floor in the gallery, her portraits hanging in the Tudor rooms. Likewise in Fame, the austere intellectual Thomas Carlyle will be in close proximity to Amy Winehouse, strange neighbours whose juxtaposition could prove fruitful.

Amy Winehouse ('Amy-Blue') by Marlene Dumas, 2011 © Marlene Dumas; courtesy of the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

Amy Winehouse (‘Amy-Blue’) by Marlene Dumas, 2011 © Marlene
Dumas; courtesy of the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

Schama also related the story behind the portrait by Graham Sutherland of Winston Churchill and its unveiling in the Great Hall at Westminster in 1954. Commissioned to commemorate the then Prime Minster’s 80th birthday, Churchill, almost through gritted teeth, described it as “a remarkable example of modern art” at which point the distinguished guests dissolved into laughter, Churchill grinned with his best cheeky ‘baby face’ look and poor Graham Sutherland appeared increasingly distraught, clasping his hands to his face and obviously wishing Parliament’s cellars could open beneath him.

Churchill hated the painting describing it later as ‘filthy’ and ‘malignant’ and Lady Churchill felt it made him look like a ‘gross and cruel monster’ and it disappeared from view soon after its unveiling. In fact, it was only in 1979 that it was revealed that Lady Churchill had had it burned.

However, a colour transparency did survive and will be projected in the display with other Churchilliana such as the famous Karsh photo of 1941.

Winston Churchill by Yousuf Karsh, 1941 (c) Karsh / Camera Press

Winston Churchill by Yousuf Karsh, 1941
(c) Karsh / Camera Press

The Face of Britain displays will be accompanied by a book and a BBC2 television series. The displays open to the public at the National Portrait Gallery, London on 16 September, 2015. More information can be found at this link:


John Lewis on Oxford Street, London, a composite shot. © John Lewis

John Lewis on Oxford Street, London, a historic composite shot. © John Lewis

When Henry Ford marketed the Model T in the early years of the last century, he famously said that the customer could have any colour as long as it was black. His early production lines only used that colour as it had a quick drying time and the cars could be pushed rapidly out of the factory  and into the showrooms. Nearly fifty years earlier, in 1864, John Spedan Lewis had opened his draper’s shop on London’s Oxford Street and, although he did have a full range of colours, he too favoured black, stocking it in more than fifty different types of fabric. In his case the reason was the Victorian way of death with high infant and adult mortality rates and a very regulated range of mourning attire. Yet from that humble shop has grown a vast and successful retail empire stocking more than 350,000 separate lines in its stores across fashion, home and technology. The company is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year and London’s Design Museum has a pop-up exhibition showcasing many of the products sold by John Lewis and the design stories behind them. Read my review then rush along as there’s not much time left to see this small but perfectly-curated show.


The stairs on the RM 1453 Routemaster

The stairs on the RM 1453 Routemaster © The National Trust

I recently spent the weekend taking in all things Routemaster, the famous London bus officially withdrawn from the capital’s streets in 2005 but still going strong in various guises. The Saturday was spent being entertainingly guided through the East End on a National Trust tour by the well-known television presenter and architectural historian Dan Cruickshank. On Sunday I joined hundreds of people in Finsbury Park to celebrate the bus’s 60th anniversary with more than 130 of the vintage vehicles on show. As it was built by Londoners for Londoners it’s only fitting you’ll find my post on this site’s London page.


The Italian actor Franco Nero assaults photographer Rino Barillari at the Trevi Fountain in Rome, 1965.

The Italian actor Franco Nero assaults photographer Rino Barillari at the Trevi Fountain in Rome, 1965. Marcello Geppetti. MGMC & Solares Fondazione delle Arti.

The Estorick Collection in London usually specialises in exhibitions of modern Italian art, yet its current show contains 80 photographs portraying the period of la dolce vita, literally the sweet life, and the title of Federico Fellini’s famous 1960 film, shot in and around Rome. Almost all the images come from the archives of one of the most famous Italian paparazzi, Marcello Geppetti, who cut his photographic teeth in serious photojournalism and who American Photo magazine called ‘the most undervalued photographer in history’. You can judge for yourself and read my review of the show The Years of la Dolce Vita on at the Estorick Collection until 29 June, 2014.


Last week I returned to Central Foundation, my old grammar school off Old Street in London for the first time in 43 years. It really hadn’t changed that much but the hall where we used to go every morning for assembly to be read the riot act by the prefects was now the venue for the School Supper Society. Produced by entertainment company Jack Arts, it’s an evening of fun and frolics with an excellent three-course meal included in the price.

The old school crest. Excuse me for a moment but I'm filling up.

The old school crest. Excuse me for a moment but I’m filling up.

I was last on stage there in 1971 performing in what was judged to be, myself apart, a very funny sixth-form show which we leavers put on. Most of the sketches were lovingly ripped off from Monty Python and At Last the 1948 Show. Sadly, I died a death with what was meant to be a deliberately poor impersonation of Sinatra which was so terrible that the audience thought I was just a lousy singer. Too post modern, perhaps. However, on this occasion, ably directed by Headmistress Miss Chastity Butterworth (Gemma Whelan from Game of Thrones), I did not disgrace myself on this occasion, I believe.

Me and Yara Greyjoy - actually Gemma Whelan - performing our now-legendary act on stage at Central Foiundation

Me and Yara Greyjoy – actually Gemma Whelan – performing our now-legendary act on stage at Central Foundation School

Also on the bill were ‘French’ stand-up Marcel Lucont (geddit?), actually a wryly amusing Englishman by the name of Alexis Dubus who sends up Gallic arrogance a treat – “It is an honour for you to ’ave me ’ere” – and wonderful harpist Anne Denholm. Also on the bill were the 50-strong Chaps Choir (does what it says on the tin) whose repertoire includes a magnificent rendering of a traditional Finnish reindeer calling song and who were followed by resident tap teacher and bundle of naughty energy, Jenny Fawcett.

The Chaps Choir lure unsuspecting reindeer to EC1

The Chaps Choir lure unsuspecting reindeer to EC1

The next School Supper Society will take place on May 10 2014 and I urge you to attend. Acts will include Mr Bingo who specialises in sending customised hate mail on old post cards to anyone of your choice, Jenny Fawcett dancing madly again (I guarantee you won’t be able to stay seated) and the kind but firm Miss Butterworth who will keep a disciplined hand on proceedings. There’s also the possibility of a 28-piece orchestra. And if the organisers need to clear the hall quickly they say I can sing all seven verses of the old school hymn – Spe, labore, fide. What larks!


The Shard 2-pinnacle

The pinnacle of The Shard © The View from The Shard

The View from The Shard near London Bridge offers a 360-degree panorama of the city from just below the summit of the tallest building in Western Europe. Rienzo Piano’s skyscraper, owing its inspiration not just to shards of glass but also the old crane derricks which used to line the nearby Pool of London, is a breathtaking sight. But, as my post here says, the entrance fee is pretty breathtaking as well. I’m biased and am a fan; then again, I didn’t have to pay. Londoners like to say ‘yer pays yer money and makes yer choice’, but this is probably a case of doing the reverse. I hope my post helps you decide. CHAMPAGNE ET FROMAGE We had a great time recently at a wonderful shop-cum-bistro in London’s Covent Garden which, unsurprisingly given its name, specialises in combining champagne with a vast array of French cheeses in different tasting combinations. Champagne et Fromage sources its wines from five independent growers and there are tasting evenings you can attend to try some of them out.

Fun at Champagne et Fromage,Covent Garden.

Fun at Champagne et Fromage,Covent Garden.

As you can see from our visit there, a good time was had by all and you can read more about Champagne et Fromage here in the Food and Drink section.

Mark Ackerman. All material © Mark Ackerman unless otherwise stated. Mark Ackerman is not responsible for the content of external links.

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