Glorious Patriotism:by Priscilla Lowry-Gregor
The Britain in Pictures Series
Lowry-James Rare Prints & Books, ABAA
It was 1940, and the center of the book world in London had just been bombed. An estimated five to six million books and documents were destroyed by a single bomb alone, thus eroding vast records of British culture at large. Under the threat of cultural annihilation by the Nazis, the publishing house of Collins, with an editorial committee of Walter Turner, Hilda Matheson (posthumously honored) and Dorothy Wellesley, conceived and produced a series of small, affordable, finely illustrated color plate books which extolled the virtues of all subjects uniquely British. The intended effort not only encouraged patriotism, but promoted the importance of Britain’s unique contribution to the Arts, Literature, Education, History, Sport, Science and Industry, and equally important, the British way of life, to the colonies and the world. Thus the Britain in Pictures Series was born.
Although Hilda Matheson (1888 – 1940) is listed as one of the three members of the editorial committee for the first 10 volumes, her inclusion is honorary, as she must be credited with the initial concept for the series while employed by the Ministry of Information at the outbreak of the Second World War.
The concept appeared simple. Select the champions and finest British writers on a given subject, whether Cecil Beaton on British Photography (71), Vita Sackville-West on English Country Houses (15), John Russell on British Portrait Painters (76), Dame Edith Sitwell on English Women (29), George Orwell on The British People (100) or Lord David Cecil on The English Poets (1), illustrate the text with drawings, paintings, engravings and manuscript facsimiles, in both high quality four color and sepia , as well as black and white, then print the entire work on the wartime allotment of paper stock. Once produced, distribute the slender, colorful volumes to the people through booksellers throughout the cities and countryside of Britain, the British Empires and Commonwealth Nations, as well as allied nations worldwide, particularly the United States and Latin America.
The creation, publication and distribution of the Britain in Pictures series was not only the finest bit of wartime propaganda, it was a genius marketing ploy. And in simplest terms, it worked. The Britain in Pictures Series, 126 slender octavo sized volumes, each restricted to 12-14,000 words, approximately 48 pages, 4 to 8 color plates and 20 black and white illustrations per volume, is often referred to as the ‘little series that helped end the war’. Through the wide and varied titles; British Mountaineers (22), British Dramatists (32), English Cricket (93), British Universities (110), British Polar Explorers (53), British Railways (83), The English at the Seaside (112), British Theater (119), British Maps and Map Makers (73), English Printed Books (95) and British Music (3) to name a few, the reader was offered not only a fine introduction to a given subject, but also an empathetic view of the Britishers’ contribution to the topic. This was indeed a culture worth saving.
In his comprehensive bibliography on the Britain in Pictures series, (Werner Shaw Ltd. London, 1995), Michael Carney does an excellent job at quoting the facts and figures of publication of the various 126 titles of the series, encompassing three distinct series: Series I: 113 volumes of the British People in Pictures, heretofore referred to as (BIP), Series II: 7 volumes of the British Commonwealth in Pictures (BC) and Series III: 6 volumes of English Poets in Pictures, (EP) edited by Dorothy Wellesley. The emphasis of this article will concentrate on the artistry of the series, which was published in London between 1941 and 1950.
The first ten volumes were published for Penns in the Rocks Press by Williams Collins of London. The final 116 volumes listed either WILLIAM COLLINS OF LONDON or COLLINS. 14 ST. JAMES’S PLACE. LONDON as publisher on the title page. Penns in the Rocks was the estate owned by Dorothy Wellesley (1889-1956), who was the Duchess of Wellington. The estate was named for the Quaker, William Penn, who married an heiress to the property. Wellesley compiled and edited the six titles of the English Poets in Pictures; Shelley (7), Byron (8), Tennyson (19), Keats (20), Coleridge (43), and Wordsworth (44). There were editions on Children’s Verse, Robert Browning and Mathew Arnold in preparation as part of the EP Series, though never completed. Through her friendship and association with William Butler Yeats (Letters on Poetry from W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley by Yeats, W.B. Pub. 1940 Oxford University Press. London) Wellesley had firmly established her importance as a clarion of the poetic culture of the British Isles. In fact, the temple icon used as the publisher’s device on the majority of title pages throughout the entire series, with a few exceptions, was a drawing of the actual temple Wellesley had built on her estate, in honor of her friend W.B. Yeats. This publisher’s device changed to a fountain in three of the volumes toward the end of the publication of the BIP series: Children’s Illustrated Books (126) published in 1948, British Butterflies (125) published in 1949 and the final volume of the series published in 1950, British Farm Stock (132). It has been suggested that this emblem change may have occurred to honor the achievements of the major editor of the series Walter Turner, who died suddenly in 1946. But why the change occurred in only these three titles remains a mystery.
The format of the six volumes comprising the English Poet series differ from the rest of the BIP and BC series, and are easily overlooked by collectors seeking to complete the series. While all of the BIP and the BC volumes are octavo in size, measuring approximately 8 ¾ x 6 3/8 inches, the EP editions are demi-octavo measuring 7 x 4 3/8 inches. The cover and coordinating dust jackets are a single subtle shade of grey, sage or tan with the poet’s name above a laurel wreath encircling a lyre, with a French ruled border, all printed in a deeper tone of the paper stock. Each volume is limited to 80 pages, and includes four color plates and twenty black and white illustrations, including a fine color frontispiece of the featured poet. The rear panel of the dust jacket of the first two in the series: Shelley (7) and Byron (8) feature the only issued statement of intent and thus set the tone for the success of the remaining volumes:
The English have never been good at describing themselves or their ways, either for their own benefit or for the benefit of others. It is, therefore, not surprising that no comprehensive series of books, at a popular price, illustrating, in print and picture the life, art, institutions and achievements of the British people has ever been issued, either for the British or foreign readers.
At this time, when it has become essential for citizens throughout the Empire to take stock of themselves and their ideas and to express them to others, it is desirable to fill this gap. The books in these three series will be of permanent interest and, in spite of the small cost, should appeal to the book collector for the excellence of their production. It is hoped that they will contribute to the better understanding of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth.
Wartime Britain was clearly a civilization dealing with restraint, and the simplicity of the book design of the BIP series appealed to the public at large. Unlike other fine decorative color printed series like the King Penguin editions, the Britain in Picture Series evoked the understated elegance of the neoclassical design of the Georgian Period, as found in Josiah Wedgwood’s Jasper Ware. (English Pottery and China (77)). For the 113 (BIP) titles, the format was identical. The boards were printed in one of a multitude of saturated, yet sophisticated colors, with reverse lettering, French ruled lines and a detailed icon representing the given subject printed in Ivory. The only variation to this format occurred in four titles: British Cartoonists, Caricaturists and Comic Artists (25), British Romantic Artists (34), British Drawings (105) and Children’s Illustrated Books (126), where the expected graphic icon illustrated on the front board and dust jacket was replaced by an engraved illustration from the text. The rear board was solid, with ivory French rules lines. Any information pertaining to the monographs, both currently published and the works in progress, along with a brief biography of the author was printed solely on the dust jacket. The number of the particular work, thus (126) for Children’s Illustrated Books, was printed only on the spine of the dust jacket, never the boards. And to further complicate matters, the numbering system did not appear until 1945 with C. E. Vulliamy’s English Letter Writers (81). All printings after 1945, regardless of the edition, of which there were several, included the number on the jacket of the spine. The numbering system was important; as it was given by the publisher as the subject was conceived and aided in identification and cross reference of the series. Although there were 126 volumes completed and published, the numbering system for the complete Britain in Pictures series is 132, and reflects 6 titles announced, but never published. For complete details, please see the Checklist at the end of this article.
For the seven titles in the British Commonwealth (BC) Series, the appearance of the boards and dust jackets are decorative in nature and differ from restrained elegance of the BIP Series. The BC editions are printed in a two color pattern, reflective of the featured culture. Lady Tweedsmuir’s Canada (9) features a two-toned green maple leaf pattern, with the author and title in reverse lettering set in a green panel on ecru stock. Elspeth Huxley’s East Africa (6) displays a stylized sun pattern in red and gold, with author/title lettering set in a gold panel on ecru stock. Each of the seven titles in the BC series has a distinctive look, and once identified, they are easily recognized as part of the series.
The enigmatic chief book designer was Walter Neurath, Jewish émigré from Austria, who in 1938 came to Britain to work with Wolfgang Foges at Adprint, the eventual printers for the BIP series. Neurath brought his expertise in book production and design from his years of employment at the firm of Frick Verlag in Vienna. Credit for the appealing and distinctive cover and jacket designs should be given to two young Austrian refugees, Elisabeth Friedlander, a designer and typographer and Elisabeth Ullman. For the design of the BIP series, both women along with Neurath, would have been familiar with and perhaps inspired by, the look of German series of ‘Blue Books’. These books featured solid covers, with a single graphic image and reverse lettering with French ruled lines and were popular throughout Germany in the early to mid twentieth century. An ironic twist of fate.
As previously stated, the true success of the BIP series was in the quality of the prose. Many of the contributors to the BIP series held reputations for literary excellence, and were engaged in complex relationships within the literary world of early twentieth century Britain. Both Vita Sackville-West and Dorothy Wellesley’s relationship to Virginia Woolf and The Hogarth Press is well documented in The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf. (Edited by DeSalvo and Leaska. William Morrow and Company, Inc. New York. 1985). Characteristically enough, Virginia Woolf was one of the very few literary figures of the day who, upon being approached to contribute a monograph the Britain in Pictures series, flat out refused to contribute to the efforts of Britain in Pictures:
She (Hilda Matheson) asked me to write some damned book for some damned series. It was to be patriotic: at the same time intellectual: also badly paid. (The Letters of Virginia Woolf, 1936-1941. Nigel Nicholson, The Hogarth Press. London. 1980.)
Graham Greene offers an excellent work on the British Dramatists (32) drawing from his years as a cinema critic. Here he quips:
Anyone who goes into a Roman Catholic Church during the Holy Week services, can see for himself the origin of our drama: on Palm Sunday the priest knocks on the door of the church and demands to be admitted, the palms are borne along the aisles; on Good Friday the shrill voices of Judas and the high Priest break into the narrative of the Gospel: the progress to Calvary is made more real by human actors.
In The English People (100) George Orwell offers his subtly satirical point of view as he sums up for the foreigner a preconceived stereotype of the ‘ordinary’ people of Britain:
Almost certainly he would find the salient characteristics of the English common people to be artistic insensibility, gentleness, respect for legality, suspicion of foreigners, sentimentality about animals, hypocrisy, exaggerated class distinctions, and an obsession with sport.
In her fine survey on the British Novelists (23), Elizabeth Bowen offers a cautionary word about over inspecting the novel, thus losing the pure joy of the prose:
Too much information about great novels may make us less spontaneous in our approach to them- though they were in the first place written to be enjoyed.
In her monograph on English Diaries and Journals (55) Kate O’Brien’s Irish wit prevails as she chides the reader:
Let me begin with the hard saying that the best English diaries have been written by bores. It will be the purpose of ensuring pages so to illustrate, explain and modify this statement as, I hope, to remove its sting; but for clarity’s sake I must start for it as set down above, for I believe it to be a basic truth about the great diarists. A bore has been excellently defined as ‘a person who mentions everything’.
In the third volume of the BIP series, Walter J. Turner offers a fine monograph on the history of English Music (3) which sets the tone for the excellence of the entire publication. In addition, Turner wrote the popular volume on English Ballet (80) in 1944, and was the General Editor of the series until his sudden death in 1946.
With very few exceptions, the reader is never given the impression that the esteemed author has condescended to write ‘this little book’ on a given subject. Rather, their patriotism shines through as though they appreciated the opportunity to share their knowledge on behalf of their country and countrymen.
As a series which featured images, it was entitled Britain in Pictures after all, one of the greatest challenges the authors and editors experienced during the production was success at locating appropriate images to illustrate the text. During the war many of the prominent collections in England were entombed in vaults and caves as a protective measure so as not to be destroyed or confiscated by the Nazis and become spoils of war. Walter Turner and his dutiful assistant Shelia Shannon spent a considerable amount of their time locating and photographing the suitable drawings, paintings, engravings and manuscripts to be used for the illustrations. A quick survey through the volumes offers insight into the source of the many illustrations throughout the series: the private collections of the authors and the private county estates and collections of the British People. In essence, the very people for whom the series was intended were contributing to the success of the work by sharing the holdings from their private galleries and libraries. In Guy Paget’s Sporting Pictures of England (87), the credit for the color plates are given to either the author, or to a Captain Taylor, or Captain and the Honorable Mrs. Macdonald-Buchanan. A fine example of one of the many private collections made public as a classic wartime effort.
A few of the volumes featured original artwork rendered exclusively for the Britain in Pictures Series. Vere Temple painted the insects for her British Butterflies (125), and Peter Bicknell painted the fine landscapes for his work on British Hills and Mountains (116).
Some of the most appealing illustrations throughout the series occur in the volumes on natural history. The original illustrations were superbly hand-colored copperplate engravings and lithographs which were produced for the grand color plate volumes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Here we find images perfectly suited to the color-printed methods utilized in this series. The works of the classic natural history artists, J.J. Audubon, J. Gould, P.J. Redoute, R. J. Thornton, A. Thorburn, were here illustrated as high quality reproductions for the benefit of all who would not have had access to the large, lavish and showy hand-colored plate volumes of the period. Some of the finest examples are found in James Fisher’s monograph on The Birds of Britain (36), George M Taylor’s British Garden Flowers (103), E. G. Boulenger’s British Angler’s Natural History (109), C. M Yonge’s British Marine Life (70) and F. Fraser Darling’s Wildlife of Britain (52). In addition, these volumes proved to be some of the
most popular in the series.
There were nine distinct categories for the 113 titles in the BIP series, which included: Art and Craftsmanship, Social Life and Character, History and Achievement, Natural History, Literature and Belles Letters, Education and Religion, Topographical History, Country Life and Sport, Science, Medicine and Engineering.
In addition to the 126 slender volumes of the BIP series, the publisher Collins produced 7 volumes of related writings, which are known as the Omnibus Volumes, sometimes referred to as the ‘Britain in Pictures Guinea Volumes’. Each volume, edited by Walter J. Turner, was a compilation of the finest writings and illustrations, minus the bibliographies, drawn from the 126 monographs. Organized thematically, the Omnibus Volumes offered an all-inclusive view of the featured topic. The seven (OV) titles were: The British Commonwealth and Empire (133), Impressions of English Literature (134), Then Englishman’s Country (135), Nature in Britain (136), British Adventure (137), Aspects of British Art (138) and British Craftsmanship (139). The format of the Omnibus Volumes was again distinctive. Unlike the monographs, which were produced with paper boards, the OV editions were produced in cloth with gilt lettering and emblem to the spine. As with the BC Series, the stylistic dust jackets were more decorative than the monographs, and were printed with four-color designs and bold, elegant lettering which reflected the featured subject matter. The outcome was an attractive presentation and made a fine and tidy option for one interested on a particular theme. Instead of collecting all six to seven separate titles of a given category, a single volume now offered the information en-suite. A complete listing of the contents of each of the OV editions is included in the enclosed Checklist.
Given all, if one were to have collected the entire Britain in Pictures series it would have offered a comprehensive analysis of the Britisher and his unique way of life. Upon review of the complete work, there are a few titles, which upon first glance may be challenged as to the merit of their inclusion in the series. How indeed can one culture claim providence over weather, as in Stephen Bone’s British Weather (97), or the game of Chess, which is Persian in origin, as offered up in Kenneth Mathews’ British Chess (172)? However, upon closer inspection of any given work, the author’s case is usually made as to the validity of their claim, thus the enduring charm, and success, of this coveted series.
**This article first appeared in December 2009 in Firsts Magazine. It has been reprinted here with the permission of that publication and the author.