Let's take a stroll past the Plumassiers, the Submarine Engineers and the old Knife Grinder in HIGH STREET
What's this then, Mr Backpage Classicist?
High Street? Never heard of it. Is there some backpage barrel-scraping going on here among all the knife-grinding and the selling of feathers for hats?
If there is
then please don't blame High Street. Your never having heard of this children's book is hardly the fault of Eric Ravilious who has put on this display of twenty-four shop-fronts and the like for your delectation, or of Jim (later Sir James) Richards who has supplied the descriptions. The two of them produced this small masterpiece for Noel Carrington at Country Life in 1938, but a couple of years later Adolf Hitler dropped a bomb on their printers, the Curwen Press at Plaistow, destroying all Ravilious's lithographic plates, without which further printing of the book became impossible. It became a classic cut off in its prime.
it was by no means the first book to latch on to the idea that children like shopping. Way back in 1805 the bookseller Benjamin Tabart puffed his wares in a story for children called Visits to the Juvenile Library which included some very fetching plates of what the shop looked like. A bit later, Mrs Sherwood portrayed a steely-eyed mama taking her vain daughter on A Journey by Coach through the Streets of London. ‘You may buy what you choose’, says Mama, ‘so long as you purchase something from the last shop we visit’ – which is, of course, a coffin-makers. (No such ominous threat surrounds Mr Thrave the Undertaker in High Street.) And, almost matching High Street itself in terms of the wit and variety of its studies in retail therapy is E.V.Lucas and F.D.Bedford's versified picture book, The Book of Shops of 1899. The two have at least half a dozen scenes in common, but Ravilious doesn't run to a picture of ‘Pa's Bank’.
There are admittedly some oddities
among the traders who inhabit his high street – not just the plumassier and the Submarine Engineers who sell kit for deep-sea divers, but a Coach Builder with Daimlers in the downstairs showroom and a Clerical Outfitter with an array of cassocks and surplices on show. Nevertheless, the choice was made with child readers in mind (the book had originally been conceived as an alphabet book) and the presence of these unexpected emporia alongside the more conventional Butchers and Bakers turns the commercial travelogue into a species of urban exploration.
The loved and the unexpected –
‘Fireworks’...’Oyster Bar’, ‘Model Ships and Railways’...’Second Hand Furniture and Effects’ have an attraction in themselves, but it is, of course, their portraiture by the lithographer that is the glory of the street. In 1938 Eric Ravilious (along with his friend Edward Bawden) was emergent as one of the most versatile of a new generation of designers. Draughtsman, painter, muralist, wood engraver, lithographer, he had skills enough to choose from for the commissions that came his way and the variety of work that he undertook was carried through with a bonny mix of grace and levity. The observation and the handling of design and colour in High Street turn the shopping trip into a visual adventure – how spooky the Pharmaceutical Chemist under the moon, and – good Lord –isn't that Queen Mary eyeing a rococo wedding-cake in Mr Buszard's cakeshop?
was indeed made up of an eclectic bunch of shopkeepers, but in almost every instance their premises were drawn or adapted from reality. (James Russell in a recently published study: The Story of 'High Street', [The Mainstone Press, 2008] has sought out their varied locations and often appends doleful accounts of their flourishing and decay. Two have heroically survived into the present: Wipple's the Clerical Outfitters and the ever-glorious cheesemongers, Paxton & Whitfield of Jermyn Street.) It may seem difficult to present such an heterogeneous array to children, but Jim Richards is helped in the job by the very weirdnesses found among the twenty-four neighbours. He is informative without being mechanical or predictable and for readers who read there is a dry, offbeat humour under the surface.
sets off the gaiety of Ravilious's lithographs which have been admirably reproduced by the V&A's Chinese printers, and it’s easy to think that this successful collaboration between artist and author helped trigger Noel Carrington's ideas for the first Puffin Picture Books that would arrive in 1940. Indeed, Ravilious was to be a Puffin illustrator for a volume on 'Downland Man', but the War, having destroyed his artwork, destroyed him too, he being lost somewhere over the North Atlantic while working as an Official War Artist.
High Street by J M Richards, ill. Eric Ravilious (978-1851776894) is published by V & A Publishing at £20 hbk.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times.