Edward McKnight Kauffer and the 38 bus

Edward McKnight Kauffer illustration

I know it looks as though I have expensive taste. And I do, I suppose. But a lot of things I write about here cost a few pence or a few pounds. They’re bona fide ephemera. Worth nothing much originally. Still worth nothing much.

But a few things I have cost rather more. A few books, that is. My first purchase proper was Elsie and the Child by Arnold Bennett, illustrated by Edward McKnight Kauffer. I bought it at a book fair in York a long time ago. At the time I was working at the Incline Press in Oldham, hand-binding books and tipping-in samples. I loved that work but there was, as they say, no money in it.

Anyway, working with the real thing gave me such a taste for ‘fine books’ – as they are known. Even though I wasn’t earning much at all. In particular, I hankered after those printed at the Curwen Press, like this one. Elsie and the Child was published in 1929, when Mr McKnight Kauffer was at the height of his artistic powers. Designing grand posters for London Transport, book jackets and even textile labels, he was all about commercial (not fine) art.

His drawings for this book were printed using the pochoir stencil method, which is exquisite when done properly. And this was done properly. The paper quality, the way it has soaked up the inks and the vibrancy of the result make these illustrations almost living things.

My favourite is this one on the last page. It shows the conductor on the number 38 London bus. In the story Elsie boards hoping it would take her up Rosebery Avenue. It did.

And the 38 still goes up Rosebery Avenue.