Brian Alderson is bidding farewell to his unique book collection as he donates it to the Seven Stories archive. Next to be packed up, two unusual books produced by Pleiades Books.
I must have bought Balbus round about 1964. It was on the outdoor shelves of the now famous 84 Charing Cross Road and probably cost a shilling (5p) and I was very taken with its slightly unusual design. There was something familiar about the phrase ‘Balbus was building a wall’ which I assumed referred to an ancient Roman senator but must surely have been a comic monologue written by Marriott Edgar for Stanley Holloway. (You can read it on Google.)
As a ‘picture book of buildings’ the book consists of twenty-four separate double-page spreads mostly with a text and prettily coloured initial on the left and drawings, by no means realistically coloured on the right. Progress follows an unsystematic history of European and near Eastern architectural styles interrupted by examples which the authors probably enjoyed introducing. Thus we start with snails who carry their houses on their backs, followed by movable dwellings like wigwams, caravans and barges. Babylon introduces fixed structures and the vital dependence of early builders on local materials. The standard history from Greece to skyscrapers and Scandinavian craftsmanship (Stockholm’s City Hall: ‘one of the most remarkable buildings of modern times’) has double spread interruptions on such varied matters as Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren and some single choice buildings like Angkor Wat and a Mexican temple. (The pages on the Great Wall of China regrettably fail to mention that Mr Edgar claims that Balbus was the architect of the whole 2,500 mile structure.) An air of levity is present in incidental sketches such as choir boys coming out of Salisbury cathedral along with joyous colouring throughout. The Parthenon of Athens or St Peter’s at Rome are transformed.
One would like to know more about the creation of this book whose publisher, Pleiades Books, was a subsidiary of the Cresset Press owned by Dennis Cohen who was devoted to forming a list of books distinguished by both their content and their appearance. I don’t think Cresset ever published a children’s book while Pleiades concentrated on the arts with only these two items for children along with three other picture books about natural history by Eileen Mayo: Shells and How they Live (1944), Little Animals of the Countryside (1945), and Larger Animals of the Countryside (1949). All lived up to Cresset standards being finely printed by chromolithography, the first three by M’Lagan and Cummin, the other two by the Baynard Press.
Exactly how Oliver Hill and Hans Tisdall fit into the picture is also a puzzle. The first was one of the finest British architects of his time, the second a notable book-jacket designer, especially for Jonathan Cape, and a painter and textile designer. In neither case were they professionally concerned with children’s books and the ‘written and devised’ of the Balbus title-page suggests a collaborative effort on both counts but probably with Hill mainly responsible for the texts and Tisdall for the artwork. It is significant though that the thirties saw advances in chromolithography of which both would have been aware while the arrival in 1940 of Puffin Picture Books edited by Noel Carrington introduced his editorial skills in getting artists to draw for lithographic reproduction ‘direct to the plate’, which could have provided a model for Hill and Tisdall. It certainly is found in Mayo’s Shells.
Balbus anyway had a belated successor in Wheels which followed a similar design and historical sequence but with more illustrations drifting across to the left-hand page. The subject though is more intricate than buildings which allow themselves to be drawn and described in the large. The wheels may occur here in forms that require more detailed explanation (axles…spinning wheels…watches and clocks etc) and the reader is left with a picture with insufficient explanation. More twentieth century wheels would have been welcome, not least say those on the Flying Scotsman, while the volume ends with rather down-beat ambiguity. Saint Catherine needed no wheels on her apotheosis since she had wings, but the Greek emperor Maximin had ordered her death by the torture of the spiked wheel.
Brian Alderson is a long-time and much-valued contributor to Books for Keeps, founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times. His most recent book The 100 Best Children’s Books is published by Galileo Publishing, 978-1903385982, £14.99 hbk.
Balbus; a picture book of buildings. Written and devized by Oliver Hill and Hans Tisdall. London: Pleiades Books Ltd. 1944
255x215mm.  1-48  pp. incl. free endpapers and 36 full-page full colour lithographs.grey cloth-backed pictorial glazed paper over boards, endpapers grey brickwork design
Wheels [as above] 1946. Yellow glazed pictorial paper over boards, grey endpapers with wheel design