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Houses by Margaret and Alexander Potter

Houses by Margaret and Alexander Potter is a lovely book. The cover isn’t really a seller, too detailed and worthy in text and dull in colour to make you have to have it. But if you get past that, the super illustrations on the inside make it worth hanging around.

They must have printed a lot of copies this book. It’s still pretty cheap, cheaper than the Potter’s Puffin Picture book A History of the Countryside. Mine is a first edition from 1948. It smells divine and old bookish but has its dust wrapper ‘intact’ and is in nice condition overall, as the book sellers write.

It really is a bigger version of those Puffin books as far as content goes. Part of a series titled: The Changing Shape of Things, Houses is a ‘story told mainly in drawings…houses shown actively occupied, and a significant part of the commentary consists in what the occupants are doing, as well as the clothes they wear and the furniture that surrounds them.’

The book starts with ‘Early Mediaeval Homes of the Wealthy’ and ends on ‘A Borough Council Housing Estate 1947.’ And the earlier social‘commentary mutates into architectural technical writing by the end. Presumably because Alexander Potter was by now in his comfort zone and couldn’t resist.

The drawings are very dolls-house like. My favourite, detailed here, is the isometric cut away of ‘A Reinforced Concrete Framed House, 1939.’ The man of the house is seen in his bentwood chair reading (Architectural Review?), an artist scratching his chin in his roof top studio, the ladies serving dinner (surely on a Ravilious design?) in their dining area, alongside a windowsill chock-a-block with architecturally sanctioned cacti. It all reminds me of Ernő Goldfinger’s pad on Willow Road in Hampstead.

The husband and wife team of Margaret and Alexander Potter make for interesting reading, what reading there is about them. She the illustrator, he the architect, with some inevitable blurring of those boundaries as they lived and worked together.

Dress you up

Jean Paul Gaultier corset detail

Shelf Appeal finally got to the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition at the Barbican. Having heard all about the mannequins with the video faces, I found myself quickly lost in the stitches.

Gaultier has long been up near the top of my designer list. More imaginative garments have come out of that man’s head than many other designer’s outputs combined. Tasteful cuts and silhouettes have been covered off by many an Italian designer. But fabric and decoration remain best done in the French frock houses. And Gaultier, picking up the (embroidered) gauntlet laid down by Schiaparelli in Paris all those decades ago, manipulates both with an eye to the surreal, subtle and (sometimes) couture sacrilegious.

This exhibition strides through the Gaultier years with gusto. It is an understated exhibition design (for these days) but the frocks are fabulous and cleanly displayed. The latter, sadly, a design technique much underrated. Contextual information is given with a light touch, videos nicely placed above the frocks, not interfering with the main event as it were. The crowd-pleasing video heads are a really good photo op, which exhibitions ignore these days at their own peril. But best of all most of the frocks are not in glass cases, so you can peer up close and personal.

Such far and near sightings are essential – Gaultier frocks work on two levels, the first showy impact and then, if you can get close, the magnificent details. The sometimes seemingly random yet planned with precision pinks, sequins, pleats, cords, bows and buttons. His layering makes me want to weep; ethnographic fabrics, fringes, feathers, skins all piled one upon the other for urban Anime ladies to wrap themselves up in. And then the treatments of simple things like net and denim, corsets, sailor pants.. Sigh.

All in all this is an old fashioned frock exhibition. And let’s face it, if the frocks are good enough, you simply don’t need to dress things up any further.

The modern hostess

Herry Perry illustration from Entertaining with Elizabeth Craig

Entertaining with Elizabeth Craig was published by Collins in 1933 aimed at The Modern Hostess. You foodies will perk at the name Elizabeth Craig, writer of many cookery books. But Shelf Appeal perked at the name of the illustrator of this book, known as Herry-Perry but called Heather Perry.

I first came across Perry whilst working at the London Transport Museum. She designed some of the prettiest underground posters of the 1930s. Perry also gave good map – several of her underground posters were maps and she drew them for other books. And she produced an extremely frothy greetings telegram. There is, as with so many commercial artists of this period, nothing much more to be found out about Ms Perry.

I still wanted a Perry of mine own. The transport museum shop is quite indefatigable in slapping historic graphics on anything small and consumable – sometimes they do it well, sometimes they do it in a really cringey manner – but a set of cropped images on coasters wasn’t going to do it for me.

Entertaining with Elizabeth Craig is a big fat book, ripped throughout with Perry’s bright and humorous illustrations. The Picnic Party seen here, came with copious instructions for packing and what to pack it in: ‘Your basket may be the latest model from Bond Street, or just a long wicker hamper, neatly packed with all the appliances you need for an enjoyable meal. It may be only a tea basket for two, fitted with a stove, stand and kettle with a screw lid for carrying water, a spirit tin, provision box, tea and sugar box, cream flask, butter or preserve jar, and china cups and saucers and polished spoons.’

Polished spoons..all that before you even started to plan the actual food.

Strike a pose

Pierre Imans mannequin 1956

Shelf Appeal has long had a bit of a thing for shop mannequins. An undergrad dissertation on the things way back when didn’t finish off the obsession. Neither did an MPhil on inter-war shop display. Shop windows are still a trip hazard.

All along, whilst trying not collect an archive for a future museum of mannequins – a few things have remained on the shelf. Including a small set of B&W press photos, of which this is one. They’re from an old shop fitters up north, found in a plastic carrier bag of bits going into a skip.

The Parisian firm of Pierre Imans was one of the mannequin manufacturers. If you didn’t buy Siegel Stockman Mannequins then you certainly should have bought Imans. No others were remotely up to shop window snuff.

Imans’ ladies (Stockman’s too) were all tied up (sometimes literally) in the surrealist obsession for mannequins. They came in all sorts of different finishes and poses for solo effect or tableau settings. Lush catalogues presented them in couture dresses, often named, always elegant. The designers who knew how to model mannequins worked for Imans or Stockmans. External commercial artists were sometimes bought in to add excitement. Fashion illustrator Erte dabbled to effect at Imans.

This sparky swimwear model is from 1956. She is a more sophisticated manufacture than many of her contemporaries – no joints visible and probably quite difficult to dress and pose. She would have come with a face painted a la mode. And this was the year of Funny Face after all.

Clever and amusing

William Bullock’s Egyptian Hall, 1815

I have become a little obsessed with this image. Mind you, I have been obsessed long time with museums and the history of museum-like spaces and collections. This sort of historic museological catnip makes me extremely happy.

Shown is Interior of the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly by William Benjamin Sarsfield, 1815. What a crammed room and what a wonderful room. The giraffe holds pride of place on his central podium, flanked by a couple of unhappy looking sharks, with a perkier kangaroo perched in the fireplace. There seem to be oodles of cases of things, undoubtedly wonders of the natural world-type things, keeping the many punters happy.

And the punters do look happy. Families, militia, ladies resplendent in their later Georgian frocks and shawls and bonnets, oddly old-looking children and a chap, presumably a scholar or in the church, bottom left and sober in black with a matching tassled hat. There is even an example of that ubiquitous museum visitor – the one lecturing his friends, loudly – in front of the cabinet on the left. And what pray tell is the chap bottom right in green examining with his large eye glass? A mermaid mayhap?

The Egyptian Hall opened in 1812, in a grand Egyptian looking building that bought a little bit of exotic to the neighbourhood of Piccadilly. So when this bustling image was etched and tinted the whole Hall was still fresh and dusted. Originally the Hall had been built to house one William Bullock’s ethnographic and natural history collection. But by 1825 all that tat had been auctioned off. The Hall became a venue for art exhibitions, panoramas, séances and spectaculars. The latter including, of course, people floating out over the hall.

‘The whole forming the most Clever and Amusing Entertainment ever presented to the public.’

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