A Vision of England
The decade after World War II was a golden age of illustrated topographical books on Britain. Among the finest were those published by Paul Elek.
Tuesday, 1st April 2008
There is nothing like destruction – or the threat of it – to make people value things. The loss of so many historic and beautiful buildings after World War ii resulted in legislation designed to protect those that were left: the Town & Country Planning Act of 1946, which first introduced the statutory ‘listing’ of buildings. It also stimulated the publication of a wide range of guide and travel books about the architectural riches of Britain. The decade that saw the intense flourishing of a native neo-romantic art – often concentrating on buildings and landscape (as with the work of Eric Ravilious, John Piper, Edward Bawden and others) – also produced several series of guides intended to extol and to catalogue the towns, villages and buildings of England (and Wales and Scotland).
The 1940s and early 1950s can now be seen as one of the golden ages of British publishing, particularly for illustrated books. There were the King Penguins and so much else from the firm established by Allen Lane. There were the many Batsford books that continued the firm’s pre-war coverage of Britain’s buildings, places, landscapes and customs. And then there were the Shell Guides. These had been begun before the war, in 1934, by John Betjeman, soon afterwards helped by John Piper. With each county volume written by an interesting author, with their imaginative use of typography, photography, old prints and photomontage, together with a witty quirkiness that reflected Betjeman’s involvement, the early volumes are highly sought after by those of us suffering that form of mental illness that results in the compulsive buying and collecting of books.
The Shell Guides faltered after the war, however, before they were resumed. So Betjeman and Piper, no doubt mindful of the old red-bound Murray’s Handbooks, persuaded John Murray to fill the breach and start publishing similar county architectural guides. Berkshire and Buckinghamshire appeared in the late 1940s (and Lancashire a few years later) before the project came to a halt and the Shell Guides resumed under Betjeman’s editorship. Because of the tiresomely over-emphasised antipathy between Betjeman and Nikolaus Pevsner, these are sometimes seen as a rival to the latter’s Buildings of England volumes, published by Penguin. In truth, Pevsner was trying to do something rather different. Beginning with Cornwall, in 1951, his wonderful, essential books were intended to give ‘full particulars of the architectural features of all ecclesiastical, public and domestic buildings of interest in each town and village of the county concerned’.
Much has been written about the Shell Guides and the Buildings of England. But another interesting contemporary series of architectural guides has been unaccountably ignored: this is the Vision of England series (Figs 3 and 5) published by Paul Elek between 1946 and 1950. This is odd, as the general editors were well known: Clough and Amabel Williams-Ellis. Clough Williams-Ellis was, of course, the Welsh country-house architect whose 1928 book, England
and the Octopus, railed against the despoliation of the countryside and towns by advertisements, bungalows and the motor car (the sense that England was under threat well predates the intervention of the Luftwaffe).
The Vision of England books were clearly inspired by the pre-war Shell Guides and, like the Murray’s Architectural Guides, were intended to fill the void left by their (temporary) cessation. As with the Shell Guides, each was written by a different author and the books were illustrated by well-chosen photographs. They did not, however, contain an alphabetical gazetteer of places listing buildings of interest. ‘Well-known authors here give their own impressions of – and their personal associations with – particular parts of England in a series of books which are intimate and discursive in style rather than formally descriptive’. But what makes these books so covetable is that each was illustrated by a different artist. Line drawings, or, occasionally, wood engravings, of buildings, village scenes and architectural details relieve the text, and most also contain colour plates. The results vary in style and quality. Some of the artists may now seem obscure – I know nothing of Malvina Cheek (Fig. 4), Sven Berlin or Dorrit Deck – but their work has considerable charm. But some are now well known: Michael Rothenstein, Humphrey Spender, Kenneth Rowntree and – above all – Barbara Jones.
Jones illustrated two of the books with her decorative and evocative drawings: Aubrey de Sélincourt’s Dorset (Fig. 1) and G.S. Fraser’s Vision of Scotland (Fig. 4). There was also a Vision of Wales volume on South Wales and Monmouthshire by Tom Richards. Not all the volumes were devoted to particular counties. Oddly enough, the first to appear was a guide that explored the Black Country, that seldom-visited industrial landscape (actually full of interest) between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. Individual volumes followed on the Cotswolds, the Chilterns, the Isle of Wight and the Scilly Isles. And then it all came to an end. Further titles were promised – on Devon, Lancashire, Cambridgeshire and the East and North Ridings of Yorkshire – but they never appeared.
No doubt the reason was financial. There are stories that royalty cheques from the publisher some- times failed to materialise, but his heart was in the right place. Paul Elek was one of those many émigrés from continental Europe who did so much to enrich and stimulate the cultural life of staid, provincial Britain in the mid-20th century. Hungarian-Jewish, he was the son of a Budapest printer and first went to London
in 1929 as a student, then settled there nine years later with his wife, Elizabeth. He set up as a printer during the war and then managed to establish a publishing company in Hatton Garden. Over the following three decades he published over 1,000 books, many on the visual arts.
A highly-cultured man, and a collector, Elek cared about the appearance of his books and wished to emulate the production of Faber & Faber. In the late 1940s, in addition to the Vision of England books, he published two books by Clough Williams-Ellis on the National Trust entitled On Trust for the Nation. The first, illustrated by Barbara Jones, is dedicated by the author: ‘to all the beauty of my country, natural and other, in gratitude and grief. The grief is for all the destruction of lovely buildings and for the spoiling by war of beautiful places almost throughout the world.’One of the last books published by Elek before his death in 1976 was The Rape of Britain by Colin Amery and Dan Cruickshank. This depressing little volume catalogued the despoliation of city after city in Britain by local authorities, commercial developers, town planners and architects. It makes a poignant contrast with the Vision of England series, which – like so
many of the handsome books of that now-distant era – celebrated the beautiful buildings and landscape of Britain that, after six years of war, seemed so precious.
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