Monday 06 June 2022
Paul Nash (1889–1946) often claimed that design work was on a par with fine art. However, he held some harsh opinions on the great and the good, comments which are repeated in James King’s workmanlike account of Nash as an illustrator and book designer.
Illustration ran throughout Nash’s life. While a student at the Slade, he was producing designs for bookplates to pay his fees. Illustrations around the time of the First World War show the neo-Georgian imagery then in vogue, but it would not last long. War deeply affected his visual vocabulary, best seen in designs which come close to the work of the Vorticist C.R.W. Nevinson.
The 1920s saw a resurgence of interest in wood engraving, typified by Nash’s illustrations to the Nonesuch Press Genesis; the bold simplification of form and deep black ink work well for the subject matter. In the later 1920s, Nash introduced greater colour to his book designs, coinciding with his rising acquaintance with surrealism. Nash’s last phase of book designs, the Dorset volume of Shell Guides to English counties (1935), employs photographic illustrations, but the surrealist spirit still inhabits this book.
King devotes one chapter to Nash’s more overtly commercial work, including his advertising posters. His most important client was Shell, whose posters and advertisements are the subject of a comprehensive analysis in Shell Art and Advertising by Scott Anthony, Oliver Green and Margaret Timmers.
This initially appears to be a coffee table book, and it is well illustrated in full colour throughout. But it is much more than that. The authors are fully aware of issues of commercial business policy, company management structures, and commissioning procedures, as well as the prevailing debates about art and advertising in inter-war Britain. While showcasing the design work of some leading British artists and poster designers, this book also brings out a larger corporate policy.
The key role of Jack Beddington is highlighted; Shell’s publicity director was responsible for the advertising strategy and the specific campaigns, as well as for the commissioning of individual artist-designers. The result is a book that is delightful to the eye, but which also explores the ‘unique relationship that developed in the UK between a successful energy company, a generation of artists and designers, and the emerging world of advertising communication and new media’.
Paul Nash: Designer and Illustrator
James King, Lund Humphries, 2022, £35 hb
Shell Art & Advertising
Scott Anthony, Oliver Green & Margaret Timmers, Lund Humphries, 2021, £39.95 hb
Condensed from a review by Paul Stirton in DAS Newsletter No. 125