Mar 24 2012: Four Colour Illustrations Showing Circus Life By Edward Mortelmans (Girl Annual, 1958)

For the first of four galleries of images culled from two different editions of Girl Annual – dating from 1958 and 1961 respectively – it seemed appropriate to single out this particular sequence of colour illustrations looking at circus life for their intrinsic interest. There’s something in Edward Mortelmans’ paintigs that reminds me of similar fine art works by Laura Knight, whose own attraction to the backstage worlds of cirus, theatre, ballet and other performance arts is both well known and widely documented, with works like Elsie On Hassan, held in the permanent collection at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, sharing certain aesthetic and compositional traits with Mortelmans’ more commercially derived plates. It would be surprising, in fact, if Mortelmans hadn’t taken Knight’s images as a template for these, as they appeared in the 1958 Girl Annual, a publication that also shared other interests with Knight’s artworks, from horses to ballet, theatre and music. I suppose the overlaps show both how well-attuned to her particular moment Laura Knight was, and how influential that made her on a popular culture that still, at this stage, too much of its substance from the realms of fine art. That was changing fast in the years around the appearance of these plates, and it wouldn’t be too long before Knight was sidelined into a kind of genteel respectability, while fine artists and popular culture alike began taking cues from annuals like these instead of the more respectable sources artists like Knight had come to represent.

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