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Barnett Freedman: Art For All
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The ethos of ‘art for all’ – the notion that art should, and could, be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere, flourished in mid-century Britain.
Art on the side of a bus, art on trams and trains, art in schools, art in tearooms and pubs – art literally breaking down the gallery walls and escaping into the streets. ‘Art for all’ was a concept that was blind to any perceived difference between fine art and commercial art.
So how did this explosion of art for the people happen, and why was Barnett Freedman key?
Printmaking and lithography
His name appears time and time again, and his importance and influence are evident across the story of the popular print in modern British art and design.
Historically, printmaking has proved itself again and again to be the medium of the masses – from newspapers to propaganda, cartoons to affordable art. Rewind to mid-century Britain and once again printmaking, lithography in particular, became the key tool in bringing art to the people. As the popularity of good British design grew, so prints began popping up quite literally anywhere, for everyone to enjoy. Should art just be for the gallery-going elite, and the academics? Or should art be enjoyed alongside a cup of tea and a slice of cake, on your morning commute, or with a pint of Guinness amongst friends?
Barnett Freedman’s unrivalled skill as a lithographer combined with his experience working with commercial printers made him the ideal candidate for these increasingly numerous print-based projects. Lithography, a process in which the artist draws directly on to the surface with a greasy crayon, was one of the best printmaking methods for making commercial images – and Barnett was undoubtedly the master. Whether you were in need of an artist, a designer or even a project manager – Barnett was the man for the job. Judging by the number of projects and commissions he was involved in, he was not a man sat twiddling his thumbs…
Of course what really got the ball rolling for Barnett was a design he did in 1935 for postage stamps that commemorated the Silver Jubilee of George V. It’s hard to imagine a more visible, wide-spread design – in fact, over one million stamps featuring his design were sold across the world. So many people saw his design that the press proclaimed him ‘the world’s best-selling artist’. Now, if that’s not ‘art for all’ in action, we don’t know what is!
With his name now widely known, the commissions began rolling in – as the commissions continued a-pace, so the artist’s audience continue to expand.
So who was commissioning all this 'art for all'?
It would be naive to think that ‘art for all’ came about entirely from a place of selfless spontaneity – inevitably there were commercial, and corporate interests. London Transport and Shell, two of Barnett’s biggest clients, are both prime examples of the growing number of far-sighted and imaginative corporations who began sponsoring modern art in 1930s Britain. They were the first to cotton on to the benefits of commissioning artists, in place of their usual designers, to create the imagery for their advertising. Their thinking was less about selling a particular product, and more about selling the brand as a whole; associating with the right artists, and featuring the right art had the power to improve the perception of the brand and raise its profile.
Looking at Barnett Freedman makes me weep at the government’s dismal graphics.
Laura Freeman, The Spectator
It was something of a win-win situation – the general public got to enjoy art and graphics in advertising the likes of which would make you “weep” at today’s standards, whilst the corporations got to enjoy the benefits prestigious reputation brings.
Barnett Freedman’s designs for London Transport were dramatic, impactful and VERY popular. The ‘pair posters’ Theatre and Circus, shown below, were amongst his most successful. Designed with no less than nine colours – a singularly impressive feat at the time – the posters were printed in 1936 at the Curwen Press. This was art and design of the highest quality, and it did not go unnoticed by the innumerable patrons of London Transport. Smaller advertising posters and flyers were also commissioned and were a common sight for those riding buses, trams and trains. Interestingly, Barnett would work with London Transport for the rest of his life.
Over at Shell, their slogan ‘You Can Be Sure of Shell’ was soon cosying up, arm in arm with art designed by iconic British artists. We’re talking Paul Nash, John Piper, Graham Sutherland, and of course Barnett Freedman. There were few print-projects at the time it seems that did not, in some way cross Barnett’s path! For Shell, his designs extended far past posters to a wealth of advertising materials. One of our favourites, shown below, is a particularly innovative, somewhat unusual, concertina peepshow. If you were to peer through the eyeholes, you would see two beautifully illustrated scenes of London – one summer, the other winter. All an elaborate way to advertise the slogan ‘In Winter and in Summer You Can Be Sure of Shell’. In 1932, presented with a design of this quality, I’d be pretty well convinced that I could be ‘Sure of Shell’.
Was all 'art for all' corporate?
Not at all. The concept of ‘art for all’ is simply that there is no difference between fine art and commercial art, no difference between an oil painting in a gallery for example, and a lithographic print on the bus. All is equal, all is art, and all should be able to be enjoyed by anyone, anywhere. Barnett considered himself a man of the people, he was humble and never eschewed his working class roots. Generous, wise and witty is how those around him described him; his nickname ‘Soc’ was a reference to Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher. As far as Barnett was concerned, art and design were one and the same, and he saw no reason why art couldn’t extend to commercial projects. To work commercially was not to ‘sell out’. Corporations such as Shell were quick to embrace working with artists like Barnett, but they were not the only ones to see the potential.
Educators at the time were quick to understand the value of having art and design in non-commercial settings, most notably in schools. Educationalist Henry Morris believed that schools, from the architecture to the art on the walls, should be a top-to-toe aesthetic experience. I’m inclined to agree – my school was far from an ‘aesthetic experience’, and some art on the walls wouldn’t have gone amiss!
In 1937, Contemporary Lithographs Ltd, founded by gallery owner Robert Wellington and artist John Piper, set about making Morris’ vision a reality. A set of lithographs designed to be displayed in schools and enjoyed by children was printed, followed quickly by a second set in 1938. They weren’t messing about either, and John Piper called in the big guns – Edward Bawden, Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious, Edward Ardizzone, and – you guessed it – Barnett Freedman! Barnett’s contribution included the lithographic masterpiece, Charade, seen above.
Freedman was at the centre of things: he knew everyone and everyone knew him.
Many, many more popular print schemes would follow in their footsteps – similar in their preference for lithography, their commitment to producing ‘art for all’, and the artists that worked on them. Unsurprisingly, Barnett was involved in nearly all of them – he had become the go-to artist for commercial design work. Following the Second World War, the medium of print was embraced with a new enthusiasm. At a time when resources were in short supply, prints were an accessible, affordable type of art that could be made widely available. Print reflected the optimism of the time, and as print publishing enjoyed its time in the limelight, so too did Barnett Freedman.
The Lyons tea shops and the Guinness Lithographs
Some of the best examples of ‘art for all’ in situ, are unquestionably Barnett’s Lyons Lithographs and Guinness Lithographs. After the war, Lyons teashops had seen better days – once a popular destination, they were now in dire need of a lick of paint and some TLC.
But this is post-war Britain – paint is scarce and Lyons have to get imaginative. How do you cover up whopping great patches of peeling paint without redecorating? Well, you commission a series of lithographs from the leading artists of the day – that’s how! Barnett was appointed Technical Director of the project and he roped in his fellow war artists to help him – L. S. Lowry, John Minton, John Piper, Edward Ardizzone, and Edward Bawden – you know, the usual crowd. From 1947 – 1955, 40 lithographs were designed and printed, and hung with pride on the walls of Lyons tea shops everywhere. The prints were nostalgic, comforting and unthreatening – the scenes of everyday life celebrated the best of Britain and fed in to the wave of post-war optimism. In short, they were the perfect, saccharine accompaniment to one’s terribly British cuppa – they were likely seen and enjoyed by millions!
The last of the popular post-war print schemes was the Guinness Lithographs (1956 and 1962). Barnett was once again back in the driving seat, advising the Guinness team on all the technical aspects of the print-run as well as creating his own designs, the most famous of which is The Darts Champion above. Commissioned by the Guinness Brewery to promote their new book The Guinness Book of Records, the prints were destined for the walls of pubs and working men’s clubs everywhere. For Guinness, Barnett was invaluable – he was a man of the people and he had never lost touch with public opinion and taste. He was their guide to ‘the world of Arts and Letters’.
In 1962, the second series of Guinness Lithographs was printed without their man of ‘Arts and Letters’ – sadly, Barnett had suffered a heart attack in 1958 and passed away aged only 56. Barnett’s commitment to producing ‘art for all’ was lifelong, and it was an ambition that he shared with many of his fellow artists. Through writing letters, taking the tube, having a pint, or making a brew – through these everyday activities, Barnett’s art was enjoyed by all.
Find out more about the man behind ‘art for all’ in our blog Why you should know about Barnett Freedman.
You can read more about ‘art for all’, Barnett’s work as a war artist, his contribution to lithography and much more in our exhibition catalogue Barnett Freedman: Designs for Modern Britain. The catalogue is now available from the Pallant House Gallery Bookshop.
Our current exhibition Barnett Freedman: Designs for Modern Britain runs until 1 November 2020.