Aug 23 2011: Plates from Popular English Art by Noel Carrington and Clarke Hutton (King Penguin, 1945)

As an example of commercial book design approaching the quality of fine art, this 1945 King Penguin edition of Noel Carrington’s brief study in English popular and folk art is a thing of beauty, alternating monochrome drawings with the hand-coloured effect of the various illustrations by Clarke Hutton seen in the gallery below. It’s also interesting for its nostalgic tone, as the text writes about these traditions – from barge painting to Punch & Judy, hand-made Valentine cards to fairground horses, porcelain highwaymen to bottled ships – in a tone that tends to assume all these things are fading into the past.

Long before pop art and mass production overtook these artisanal crafts (before becoming objects of nostalgia on their own account in turn) the idea that native traditions were in decline was already strongly established, and that sense can be seen in every era, even the ones we’re prone to idealise. The communal values instilled during the Blitz might have been real, but those warnings against looting seen in so many photographs of bombed streets wouldn’t be there if that era hadn’t shared our own feelings about moral breakdown: in a 1941 newspaper, I once found an article by a churchman wondering if the war wasn’t God’s punishment for the moral waywardness of England, so it’s very much a case of plus ca change.

None of which ought to be very surprising, considering the backward gaze of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History. After all, if we look backwards we can comprehend our origins better, and perhaps learn something from past mistakes, and there are certainly a few lessons learned during the 1930s that seem currently subject to widespread amnesia among public and politicians alike. The trick in looking backwards is to resist our own myths, to seek out and learn from the details that don’t fit our cherished assumptions. Whatever we might think we’re looking at as we back ourselves slowly into our collective future, it’s neither as wonderful nor as bad as we tend to imagine.

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