Saturday, 6 August 2011
Charles Paine: Edinburgh connections
The British designer Charles Paine (1895 - 1967) is my lead-in to the next post on the work of staff and students at Blackheath art school in the 1930s. Alot like F Gregory Brown, Paine began work as the arts and crafts movement was coming to an end. Apprenticed as a stained glass designer in his home town of Salford, Lancashire, he went on to train in Manchester, followed by the RCA in London. As studies were interrupted by service in the armed forces, he didn't finally graduate untill 1919. I wonder if he was astute enough by then to recognise the opportunities that work in Edinburgh was to offer him. I suspect that he was.
Edinburgh College of Art already had two of the best British printmakers at work. Not only was its director Frank Morley Fletcher but Mabel Royds also returned to work there about the same time Paine took up his post in the department of applied arts. This field of work was dear to Morley Fletcher's heart and it was not long before he appointed yet another important printmaker to be Charles Paine's immediate boss. This was John Platt. Paine could not have known just how useful this was all to prove. He left Edinburgh fairly soon afterwards (I'm not sure exactly when) to work in stained glass for the Glasgow firm of Guthrie and Wells. But Edinburgh hadn't left him. As early as 1921, he received his first breakthrough commission to design posters for London Underground.
It's impossible to say whether it was Platt who put him onto Frank Pick at the Underground. Platt was noted for his genorosity towards people and my hunch is that it was Platt who made the introduction. As it happens, 1922 also saw Platt designing his one-and-only poster for the Tube - his chamaeleon design, too clever and too complicated. Unlike Platt and Gregory Brown, Paine wasn't a painter and was rarely tempted into picture-making when he designed. Paine's training in stained glass led him to concentrate on strong colours and simplified images. In his most effective work, he did exactly that.
But he also made a move that we would now take for granted in advertising but which must have been alot less obvious at the time. Instead of relating his imagery to the subject in a literal way, he often chose an image for what it suggested. What have fish in a river to do with Uxbridge? Very little other than suggest the countryside that lies just beyond the end of the line. Even bolder was his poster for the 1921 boat race - nothing more than a stylised wake and the ripples left by the oars. He understands that he only has to attract attention, that he doesn't have to represent anything to get a message across.
And looking at this end-paper above and his advertising for Sundour fabrics, no one could accuse Paine and sticking to a formula. One of the remarkable things about him is his ability to match his manner to the job. Whether this meant falling back on historical pastiche or picking up the latest design trend, didn't matter. (Nor do I want to suggest he was only involved in graphics from the twenties onwards but I've been unable to turn up a single textile or stained glass design by him).
I don't know when Paine made his move to California, but in 1924 Morley Fletcher was appointed first director of the new Santa Barbara School of Arts. I am pretty sure it must have been his old boss at Edinburgh who motivated him but I don't know whether his job as head of applied arts at the Community Arts School was under Morley Fletcher's supervision. But he didn't stay, anyway. It's clear that artists like Fletcher recognised his ability but it strikes me that teaching wasn't something he felt committed to - unlike Fletcher and Platt.
But one thing that does remain constant during the period was his use of animal imagery, specially where no animals are really called for. Their appeal to children is strong, their appeal to adults through children even stronger. Around 1930 he was living in Welwyn Garden City, a new garden suburb in rural Hertfordshire, where he was commissioned by the development company to design posters for use on London underground. The choice of the four seasons as their subject emphasised its all-year-round appeal. Not that Paine went for the obvious option. No charming houses and lovely countryside for him. Instead he produced four remarkably modern animal images: a lamb and snowdrops for spring (which frankly was pushing it) insects round what looks like a daffodill for summer, hares in the snow and a chaffinch for winter, and this tremendous red squirrel for the autumn. Yes, they are standard ideas but the execution implies an educated audience. The appeal is both muted, up-to-date and subtle. (Unfortunately, some misguided individual at Welwyn Hatfield borough council has chosen to bung SAMPLE across the other three images - the only ones available to a world-wide audience. I only hope the culprit reads this.) And what else was Paine doing while designing posters for the Welwyn estate? Well, he was back to teaching, this time at Blackheath school of art in London. And who was he working for now? It was John Platt, of course.