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Visual re-education: the cover story

Alan Powers on the AR’s progressive relationship between cover and content

ANNOUNCEMENT: The Architectural Review is in future going to appear with a different cover every month. These covers will either be related to the contents of the numbers, or of independent visual appeal.

Most of the covers before this date were plain manila with a small black and white image in the centre, but now the outsides matched the visual creativity of the pages, creating a gallery of graphic art and photography that lasted into the 1970s, with works that are relatively unknown because the covers were usually thrown away when the monthly issues were bound up as volumes. An exhibition at WORK Gallery during June 2014, celebrating the republication of The Italian Townscape by Ivor de Wolfe, drew on a complete set of covers between 1944 and ’51, and simply pinning them up in sequence, offered a strange semiotic key to the minds of the magazine editors.

The relationship between cover and content was usually made, but it was often a long-distance one. In the years of optimistic post-war reconstruction, special issues on themes such as Electricity or Industry and Education were prepared with the Association for Planning and Regional Reconstruction with the only worthy but predictable covers of the time. It was in other areas that the interest lay, the realities of the present usually being secondary to the pleasures of the past. New buildings, which might be considered the staple content, were astonishingly few, with only two, both South American and shown in the form of models, featured until April 1950 when the modest Imhof House at Kingston by Tayler and Green appeared, printed in negative to make it strange and surprising, in the same way that photographs or engravings are often rotated 90 degrees and need a double-take before recognition.


The Imhof House at Kingston by Tayler and Green was one of the first new buildings to appear on an AR cover. Even so, it was made strange and surprising by a negative print

You can hardly avoid the conclusion that whoever was choosing the covers (which was probably a collective decision) thought new buildings too dull for the purpose, so that if the imagery was new it did not show architecture, or if buildings were to be shown, they would never be anything new or in such an obvious form as a photograph. On reaching the 50-year mark in January 1947, the newly appointed editorial board (Pevsner, Hugh Casson, Osbert Lancaster, JM Richards and the elusive figure of Hubert de Cronin Hastings, alias Ivor de Wolfe) broke cover to explain, among other things, ‘what to the hostile critic must seem the REVIEW’S excessive preoccupation with frivolous subjects; with Victorian merry-go-rounds and rustic railway stations, lighthouses, gin-palaces and non-conformist chapels, exotic villadom, cemeteries and monkey-puzzles.’ They explained this as a campaign of ‘visual re-education’, a shock tactic to revive a greater awareness of design and environment, avoiding the simplistic formulae of pre-war functionalism in the belief that the subject was capable of more profound social and spiritual revelations.

As we might expect from the AR’s reputation during these years, we find English artists with a graphic talent: John Piper (drawing and photography); Graham Sutherland (wallpaper design); Edward Bawden (an evocation of Hail, the desert city in Saudi Arabia); Barbara Jones (fairground horses, picturesque cottages), Osbert Lancaster (Irish and Greek themes) and Kenneth Rowntree (ruins of bombed churches in a photomontage with the Paimio Sanatorium). By 1951, names with different associations had also featured – Charles Eames, Nigel Henderson and Alexander Calder – all similarly engaged in opening people’s eyes.

Townscape December 1949

The famous December 1949 Townscape issue’s cover opted for a dry exploration of visually ambiguous figures

The AR’s resident art editor, Gordon Cullen, appears less frequently you one might expect. To complement his article ‘A Square for every Taste’ in October 1947, Cullen imagined ‘Grosvenor Square re-landscaped as a corner of America in London’, a great deal jollier than the security desert it later became, but his cover for the famous December 1949 issue in which the Townscape campaign was launched is not a celebration of bollards or cobbles, but a rather dry exploration of visually ambiguous figures.

As frequent as new artwork, and no doubt cheaper to use, were reprints of 17th- or 18th-century engravings, for which Pevsner’s art historical training was surely responsible. In the category of ‘independent visual appeal’, these often have little direct connection to the articles in the related issues, but the anatomical studies of Vesalius occur more than once, as do city views and cutaway perspectives from a book about Turin of 1726. The results are often poised between the Surrealist collages of Max Ernst and the decorated furniture of Enrico Fornasetti. The past was often juxtaposed with the present to point up a lesson, such as a Baroque ruin painting by Monsù Desiderio with a Paul Klee in 1949.


February 1949, contrasting a dramatic Baroque ruin painting by Monsù Desiderio with a drawing by Paul Klee

By the 1940s, Victorian things were still seen as amusing, but could take on new significance. William Holman Hunt’s painting, The Awakened Conscience, showing a ‘kept woman’ in a St John’s Wood parlour, wittily heralded an article on the conservation of this endangered suburban enclave. It was a balancing act to keep a semblance of Modernism in the mix. For the Gothic Revival number in December 1945 (how else to celebrate the return of peace?), a Pugin self-portrait engraving carried a warning that ‘only by the unchallenged establishment of the modern movement as the style of our own century’ was it safe to look at the Gothic Revival afresh.

Even this census of the covers leaves out several other categories, notably an interest in African art and anthropology. ‘Without contraries is no progression’ wrote William Blake. On this basis, the AR could hardly have been more progressive.

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