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Shell Guides, Art, and Our Environment
Dr. Lydia Miller
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Assistant curator Dr. Lydia Miller explores the Shell Guides, currently on display in our exhibition Undercover: The Art of the Book Jacket.
The Shell Guides began in 1934 with John Betjeman’s Cornwall and continued to be published for 50 years until 1984. These guides, as the name suggests, were sponsored by the oil company Shell and were produced to encourage the metropolitan tourist to fill up their car with Shell petrol, drive out of the city, and explore the countryside, towns, and villages of Britain.
Although travel guides are publications that are very familiar to us – I certainly have an outdated Lonely Planet guide or two on my bookcase at home – a travel guide sponsored by an oil company is something that now feels quite alien to us. We live in a world that is becoming increasingly aware of the global environmental crisis, in no small part due to our continued consumption of fossil fuels like petrol. Flash flooding, melting glaciers, and forest fires are just three of the major results of climate change that we have been experiencing internationally over the last few years, and we know that our changing environment and weather will become increasingly extreme unless we make changes now.
The Shell Guides are not the only project where art and oil have collided in a questionable relationship. Several public art galleries and museums have a history of sponsorship from some of the biggest oil companies in the world. Tate publicly ended their 26-year sponsorship with BP in 2016, the National Gallery ended its partnership with Shell in 2018, and the National Portrait Gallery (after years of public backlash) are finally ending the BP Portrait Award at the end of 2022.
By writing this blog I am also giving Shell a platform, and yet in this world of ‘cancel culture’ I think it is important to highlight these historical texts as a reminder of our growing dependence on crude oil throughout the 20th century and up until today. Things are changing, however, and we are slowly moving away from filling up our cars with petrol as more and more electric cars become available to us.
The Artists of the Shell Guides
In 1928, after returning to London from his job at the Asiatic Petroleum Company in Shanghai, Jack Beddington was made the publicity director of Shell after complaining about the poor standard of advertising in Britain. Throughout the 1930s, Beddington grew Shell’s brand and linked the company to both the individuality of Modern British art and the great outdoors of the British countryside. Shell became well-known for its seventy-one posters depicting the British countryside that were introduced by Beddington and could be seen on the sides and backs of Shell lorries. These posters were accessible and popular with the public.
In 1932 Beddington commissioned the British artist Graham Sutherland to produce a poster of two Kent oast houses with the caption ‘Everywhere you go, you can be sure of Shell,’ a copy of which is in the collection at Pallant House Gallery.
Sutherland is an artist that is well-represented in our collection at Pallant House Gallery. He produced several artworks for Walter Hussey, the Dean of Chichester Cathedral between 1955 and 1977 and the man responsible for our founding collection at the Gallery. These artworks include the preliminary sketches for Entrance to a Lane, Thorn Head, and Noli me Tangere which is currently on loan to San Domenico Museums in Forlì, Italy for their recent exhibition Magdalene. The Mystery and the Image.
Beddington commissioned a number of artists to produce artwork for Shell’s advertising including Paul Nash, Rex Whistler, John Piper and Ben Nicholson, and after being approached by the poet John Betjeman, the idea of the Shell Guides, illustrated and photographed by artists, was born. These guides aimed to challenge the stuffy and elitist travel guides of the period and were targeted as affordable guides for the masses. The first guide of the series on the county of Cornwall, and published by the Architectural Press in June 1934, has an uncharacteristically long title in order to mock traditional topographical guides of the 19th century: Cornwall Illustrated in a series of views of Castles, Seats of the Nobility, Mines, Picturesque Scenery, Towns, Public Buildings, Antiquities, etc.
Paul Nash was the artist responsible for the Dorset Shell Guide. This guide included lists of villages to visit, along with their local churches, and also included sports that you could play in the county with sections on hunting, fishing and golf. It even has a section on the nuances of the Dorset language!
Nash had begun using his camera from 1931 in order to record ideas for his art that he could later work up into finished compositions. His skill in photography meant that he was able to produce a number of photographs for the Dorset guide. Nash was living in Swanage in Dorset at the time he was working on the Shell Guide. He moved there as he was suffering from increasingly bad asthma and it was thought that the sea air and being away from London would help improve his health. It was during this period that Nash became increasingly interested in Surrealism – a genre that almost certainly influenced the cover of the Dorset guide, with its stylised photograph of two huge natural rocks rising out of the sea.
Nash was not the only artist to photograph landmarks for his guide; John Piper was another artist skilled in photography. Piper wrote the Oxfordshire (not including the City of Oxford) guide in 1938 and then A Guide to Shropshire with John Betjeman in 1951. Shropshire was supposed to be published before the Second World War but was understandably delayed. In Piper’s guide to Oxfordshire, his wife Myfanwy writes an article on the county’s deserted places – ‘Oxfordshire is the place for vanished magnificence’ – this is very different to the largely affluent commuter county that we think of today. Myfanwy who was a writer and librettist (a writer of opera) wrote that in Oxfordshire,
‘…New deserts have been made; the wide, flat, exhausted runways of now abandoned aerodromes, the rusting sheds, the stumps of trees that once sheltered neighbouring houses – and the houses themselves, their walls, gardens and copses encroached upon, their familiar surroundings too hastily destroyed. Oxfordshire has this in common with most counties. It also has in common with them signs of new rural life: crumbling walls patched, farmyards concreted, ancient, sleepy farms waking up to the efficient buzz of tractors and the lowing of pedigree herds. The manor houses are bearing new fruit.’
In 1967 Betjeman’s relationship with Shell disintegrated after he made several derogatory remarks in the Northamptonshire guide. These remarks were taken out and Betjeman resigned from his post. His close friend John Piper took over and continued to edit the Shell Guides until the 1980s.
The Dorset Shell Guide is on display in the Print Room as part of Undercover: The Art of the Book Jacket. The guides to Oxfordshire and Shropshire can be viewed in the library and archive at Pallant House Gallery which can be visited by appointment only.