Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

High Street, by Ravilious and Richards.

Article by new guest reviewer, Rhoda Koenig, author of The New Devil’s Dictionary.

This is a book for good children, but if there are none on hand, it will be fine for you–you were good, weren’t you? And good or not, childish or not, anyone with the slightest susceptibility to  charm will want it for the illustrations by Eric Ravilious.

This reissue of High Street brings back a work that those who love British art between the wars have craved for decades. First published in 1938, it had a print run of only 2,000 copies, and the original lithographic plates were destroyed in the Blitz. Copies are much rarer than even that small printing would suggest, as most were torn up so the pictures could be sold separately–many years ago I paid four times the price of this reprint for one of them.

Some of the 24 shops–the butcher, the hardware store, the undertaker–can be seen on high streets to this day. But other establishments, such as the one selling diving gear, are surely as thin on the ground now as then. And what town countrified enough for a harness maker would also support a busy trade in theatrical props? No, this street caters to the enthusiasms of children: food, noise, and dressing up. There is a shop for confectionery and another for wedding cakes, a shop for fireworks and an amusement arcade (where pinball goes by the divine name of “Corinthian bagatelle”), a shop where one can buy a helmet of polished copper and one offering a hood of “scarlet cloth lined with pink and violet shot silk with loops of black cord.” The last item, of course, would show that you were a Doctor of Divinity of Cambridge.

You see why a serious, polite child is needed? That’s the type who will think it jolly useful to know the different types of clergymen by their rochets and birettas, and to learn that rye straw is best for stuffing horse collars, but, if you don’t have any, wheat straw will do. Such a child will not make silly faces when your voice falls into the cadences unavoidable on reading aloud that the chemist sells liniments, “which you rub on but must not drink.”

In 1938 shops on British high streets were fighting the chains and supermarkets that, with high rents and the internet, still make life hard for the individualist. Richards and Ravilious were nostalgic for establishments with beautifully carved signs and curious implements (wands for funeral mutes, fire bats for beating out burning heather).. But, like Richards’s obscure facts (“Chefs generally have small feet”), Ravilious’s pictures, at once modern and quaint, pay tribute to and gently tease Victorian ornament and amplitude. The curlicues are more fanciful than the real thing; the inventories have a slimmed-down elegance. Ravilious had no interest in drawing people, so his featureless clothespin dolls accentuate the slightly surreal air of the rows of hams or gloves or cloches. The composition of his designs is as exquisite as their details–the varieties of hatching and shading are as delightful to pore over as the different types of metalwork and lettering and wallpaper.

You might want to point out to the good child that the chance of getting an asbestos firefighting suit for Christmas is about as low as that of getting one’s beer served in a pewter tankard in the saloon bar. But, while British railways have become more democratic (I still remember my shock at being told that second-class passengers were not allowed in the first-class dining car), it is still true  that more money will buy you a better sort of travelling companion. While the cheap model-railway set comes with “ordinary people,” the posher kind will let your dolls enjoy the company of George Bernard Shaw, Charlie Chaplin, Amy Johnson, and Lloyd George. And when they return from their trip, won’t they have a story to tell!

Hardcover, 112 pages, V & A Publishing.

4 comments on “High Street, by Ravilious and Richards.

  1. Lisa
    April 24, 2012

    Welcome to Vulpes Libris, Rhoda, and thanks so much for this review of High Street. It’s gone on my Christmas list, along with an asbestos firefighting suit and a helmet of polished copper.

  2. Hilary
    April 24, 2012

    Welcome, Rhoda! I didn’t know about this book, but I love Eric Ravilious’ work, so this is an essential for me. Fascinated to hear about its (former) rarity value! I am so old – I remember Bagatelle, and finding out much later about pinball, thinking ‘Oh! Like Bagatelle, then.’

  3. Chris Harding
    April 25, 2012

    I know those who want don’t get, but I want this book….I want it, I want it, I want it, so I’m probably a bad child! Actually, like Hilary I am old enough to remember Bagatelle, and am now sitting here reflecting on the High Street of my childhood, which included a saddle-maker, where our school satchels were hand stitched from real leather…

  4. kateinbrussels
    April 26, 2012

    My parents still have Bagatelle, it still produces fierce cries of outage on playing. Personally i want the hood of scarlet and violet cloth and silk, but have no idea what I would do with it. Ravilious is also mentioned (a lot) in Alexandra Harris’ Romantic Moderns (2010), which is a fat read that drowns you in mid-20thC art and artists.

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This entry was posted on April 24, 2012 by in Non-fiction, Uncategorized.



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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