Monday, 8 November 2010

Tom Purvis ( British, 1888 - 1959) It's quicker by rail

Tom Purvis came from Bristol to study at Camberwell School or Art in south London. David Jones had also been a student there but their careers cannot have been more dissimilar. Whether or not he was taught by AS Hartrick (1864 - 1950) while he was there, I don't know. Hartrick was a painter and lithographer who had known Toulouse Lautrec and worked at the school from around 1908. After art school Purvis worked for the Mather & Crowther agency for 6 years before going freelance. Where he picked up his knowledge of the Beggarstaff Brothers advertising work of the mid nineties, I don't know (see below) but there's no doubt they were the starting point for his famous spare and simple style - and his signature. (And that's quite enough of the cliches).

His big break came when the British railways were re-organised in 1923 and he was taken on as a graphic designer by the London and North Eastern Railway who had a fair number of holiday resorts on their network along the eastern coast of England and Scotland. Their first advertising manager, William Teasdale, took his lead from the work of Frank Pick at the new London Underground where the designer Edward Johnston had been commissioned to produce a distinctive style for the whole operation in 1915.

The brief given to Purvis wasn't as comprehensive as Johnston's but he worked on everything from booklets to his celebrated posters, producing more than 100 by the time he left LNER in 1945. Facts and figures apart, Purvis' work is highly recognisable as was intended but the levels of intimacy and boldness vary. The East Coast Joys series are the most flagrant. Flat, colourful shapes pick out the human figure, often female and dressed in very little. The details are kept to minimum - sea-water, light. The message is equally straightforward: uncomplicated bliss is just a return ticket away. 'Harrogate' above is a good deal more sociable and subtle. The town is a well-heeled but old-fashioned Yorkshire spa but the appeal is to the young and active. The erotic range of pinks and the splash of orange are really quite something, Pimm's in poster form.

He could also do wholesome, as here. It's sometimes said he avoided trains and towns but the main idea here is to get across the fun of the journey. Everyone is framed and rather free of us. They are lucky. The boy's hand pressed against the window a true imaginative touch. The company's claim that it was quicker by rail was certainly true in their case. They ran the famous Flying Scotsman express to Edinburgh and their Mallard remains the fastest steam train on record. Below we have their class A4 locomotive designed in 1935. They even introduced two observation cars with a bar and deco trim. The stylishness follows through.

And, in case you didn't know, this is Purvis' superb version. LNER achievement is the modern message + all for your further comfort. A vanished age.

It did also surprise me to discover than you could hire a camping carriage (I think they should had Dorothy Burroughes on this one). The funny thing is the message here is contrary to almost all his other posters: cosy, even folksy. The carriage is very reminiscent of the ones people turned into weekend holiday homes. But the appeal of the outdoors runs right through the series as does the sense of sociability but freedom from restraint. (I think you have to turn to British comic postcards for mockery of this ideal).

Now here he is doing simplicity very well. I like the subtle shades of violet, pink and grey. He hits exactly the right note but it's one of the rare examples of him adding words to express the meaning. Like many other modernists, he tends to reject the literary.

Again, I think the poster for Cruden Bay is far better than his better known work. The addition of locals was common in both posters and postcards. It adds local colour for the modern visitor. Not often you get a caddie in a kilt and tam. This one just goes to show how good his figures were. Interesting, too, how many of the people look away from us towards something else. Placing figures both behind and in front of the letters is a typical device. The posters are not always quite as one dimensional as they are said to be.

And if you were wondering by now where all these fashionable people went when not on the beach or the links, I've included a couple of thirties buildings. First the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea in Sussex (1935, Mendelsohn and Chermayeff):

OK, it's not Miami but this villa at Frinton-on-Sea in Essex is no less moderne. Incidentally, quite alot of this architecture has been lost. I know of one example that has been re-vamped beyond recognition. I remember a glorious cafe cum sun lounge with a complete glass front that fell out of use during the war years than succumbed to the inevitable dereliction. It shows there was a market.

And I know some of you at least have only been waiting for the eighteen-year olds, so here they are:

It is certainly true that he very rarely gave men much prominence. This lifeguard looks like he's just escaped from the 1936 Olympics quite honestly. Lithography certainly lent itself to both broad strokes like the light along his arms but also subtle use of colour. I like the contrast of mauve and blue-green.

I assume this young woman is on the ferry from Harwich to Hook of Holland. Notable for its details - the perm, the pink shoes, etc. I don't think he was ever more outrageous than on this one. The shaded face is particularly stunning.

What is interesting is that this sense of individuality which is largely missing from the railway work comes to the fore in his work for the British outfitters, Austin Reed. I think this challenge to define at least a type of person brought about his best work. Nothing for me beats the young man at the head of the post, typically staring away from us, the relaxed hands a nice contrast to intent gaze. The blue coat casual beside him and redundant striped scarf are wonderful. (Tom Wesselman eat your heart out). In the poster below, the concentration around the hands - the tie, the violets - are equally clever, as is the coat suavely over his arm. They even have a narrative: he has bought violets for their scent, just come down Regent St in fact to a flower seller in Piccadilly.

And we have to save cheerio to Tom with this last image of a younger man actually buying a bunch of violets. We are back with William Nicholson's London Types updated for the twentieth century. It's as exactly placed in the centre of town as the stripe of the tie and the cane under his arm. For all the blather about boldness and simplicity in his work, it's this insouciance and understatement that makes his work such a joy.


  1. Great posting on a wonderful artist. I envy you Brits for having such a choice of quality artists in this medium. Waiting for the next one.

  2. I do worry about the grinning lady toppling over the side of the boat. She won't be smiling so brightly then. That precarious balance is one wrong wave away from a truly different bon voyage.

  3. Yes, she's asking for it. He had alot of fun with that one.