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Frocks, fireworks and 1950s femmes fatales

Already Summer feels like it was months ago and here we are: new term, new season and long evenings ahead for filling with cake, soup and lying under a blanket watching re-runs of Inspector Morse (practically vintage in itself these days).

So what have I been up to? Well, before the schools broke up (so while the weather was still nice) I made a concerted effort to visit some of the many brilliant exhibitions that were on in London this summer. First up was Mac Conner at the House of Illustration in Kings Cross. Now, I hadn’t heard of him before but I soon realised that I’d unknowingly come across his amazing work whilst engaged in one of my favourite pastimes, browsing vintage magazines. He is/was a phenomenally prolific illustrator of short stories, magazine articles and advertising in - arguably - the heyday and place of these things, 1940s and 50s America. He is now 101 years of age and there is a great interview with him in the Telegraph magazine here

The exhibition was fascinating not only for the images, which were superb, but for the insight into the technical aspect of magazine production in that era. I went to college and started work just as physical (as opposed to digital) cut and paste was coming to an end so for me it was a lovely trip down memory lane, but I would have loved to have heard the observations of today’s 20-somethings: they probably look upon the use of scalpel, Rotring and tracing paper like I do the Spinning Jenny…

Next up was the Ravilious at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. There was a lot of publicity surrounding this exhibition and I was very much looking forward to it despite a rather snotty review on Radio 4’s Saturday Review (the critics lambasted it for being too pale, static and English, and, well, watercolour-y and made me wonder whether they’d been expecting something along the lines of Goya). I decided - ambitiously - to cycle there (Dulwich is about 9 miles from my home in North London) although because it was due to be the hottest day of the year I allowed myself to take the train back. So I arrived at the gallery feeling very virtuous and, to be honest, a bit knackered, and was relieved to find it very calm and not too busy. And the exhibition was lovely and yes on the surface the work is very polite and English, but also a bit eerie too in places. A case of still waters running deep. I think it is fashionable to dismiss British 20th century art unless it is violently disturbing like Francis Bacon ot Lucian Freud, but personally I love that British neo-romantic school; I find it intensely melancholy underneath the lyrical imagery and my personal theory is that it was hugely influential on the graphic arts of the time (not hindered by the fact that artists such as Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious were themselves prolific designers as well as painters). One of my favourite pieces from the exhibition isn’t an obvious one (although I was able to buy a print) but is a good exmaple of that eeriness. It also reminds me of one of my most prized possessions, a John Piper lithograph from the 1930s.

Eric Ravilious November 5th, 1933

John Piper Nursery Frieze II, 1936

My last cul

tural foray of the season was the Fashion on the Ration exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. Before I get into that, may I say (and I run the risk of appearing to be a terrible fuddy-duddy here) that I really do not like the revamp of the museum. I hadn’t been for some time - although my sons used to enjoy going when they were younger - and I find it is now cramped and very difficult to navigate. The main hall where there used to be lots of planes and tanks and vehicles is now surrounded on all sides by walkways and the sole bit of machinery is a plane suspended from the roof, and it seems squished in somehow. To get anywhere you have to go up stairs and down stairs and it is very hard to work out what there is to see. I’m presuming they have kept their fantastic WW1 trench, and WW2 blitz experiences (please tell me they have) but it is impossible to ascertain this from looking at the floor plan. And it probably cost gazillions to do, grrr. Now, breathe…

The FOTR exhibition was great though. I went with my mother, who lived through it all, albeit as a child, and we both loved it. There were loads of immaculately preserved outfits that had been lent by individuals and a fascinating display of Utility clothing which didn’t look ‘utilitarian’ at all (I have a CC41, or utility, suit jacket and it has lovely detailing pictured below left).

So there you go, my Summer of Culture. I missed the Sonia Delaunay at the Tate which I could kick myself for. I have managed to see Shirley Baker at the Photographers' Gallery, of which more next time.

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