The Art of Persuasion

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Abram Games in his studio, c1941

The only artist to ever earn the title “Official War Poster Artist”, Abram Games’ war posters have left a legacy that visual designers today are still trying to live up to. During the war, Games designed over 100 posters as a tool to recruit and educate soldiers and civilians, encouraging everyone to support the war effort. Until 24th November 2019, the National Army Museum, London, is celebrating his work in a special exhibition, The Art of Persuasion: War Time Posters by Abram Games. This retrospective of a major 20th-century artist displays 100 posters brought together for the very first time to explore how the art of persuasion helped mobilise a country at war.

“Maximum meaning, minimum means.”
– Abram Games’ motto

Abraham Gamse (1914-1996) was born in Whitechapel, East London, on 29th July 1914, the day after World War One was declared. His Jewish parents, Joseph Gamse, a Latvian photographer, and Sarah nee Rosenberg, a Polish seamstress, came to England as refugees in 1904. In 1926, Joseph Gamse officially anglicised their surname to Games and Abraham opted to change his first name to Abram. He joked that he had dropped the “ham” because it was not kosher.

As a child, Games attended Hackney Downs School, which he left when he was sixteen years old. Ironically, his school reports stated that his work was poor, careless and untidy and that his drawing skills were weak. In 1930, he enrolled at St Martin’s School of Art in London, however, was disillusioned by the teaching and left after two terms. Using the skills he had learnt during his brief time at college and the experience of helping his father develop photographs, Games worked for a short while as a “studio boy” for the commercial design firm Askew-Young, attended night classes in life drawing and entered a handful of poster design competitions. In 1935, Games came second in a competition to design a poster for the Health and Cleanliness Council and, the next year, won first prize in a poster competition for the London County Council.

From 1936 until 1939, Games worked as a freelance poster artist and had his work featured in an article in the journal Art and Industry. This led to several important commissions from companies, such as the General Post Office, London Transport and Shell. Unfortunately, the beginning of World War Two temporarily put an end to his design work.

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Private Abram Games (seated far right of middle row) with soldiers of The Royal Warwickshire Regiment, 1940

In May 1939, the Military Training Act coerced all men aged 20 or 21 years old to serve in the armed forces for a least six months. The following year, Games was called up for Army service and served as a private in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment for four months before being transferred to the Hertfordshire Regiment. In 1941, Games, who had been noticed for his artwork, was approached by the Public Relations Department of the War Office who offered him a job as a poster designer with the task of creating recruitment posters for the Royal Armoured Corps.

Games greatly admired the Surrealism art movement and opted to use combinations of silhouettes and abstract or geometric shapes in his designs to capture the viewer’s attention. Due to the restrictions on ink during the war, Games was often limited to a maximum of four colours but he was still able to produce vibrant posters.

Whilst conscription had already been introduced, only volunteers could serve in specialist units. Games’ task was to produce a poster to encourage soldiers to take on these roles that would, inevitably, expose them to greater danger. The Royal Armoured Corps had been founded on 4th April 1939 and, due to being fairly new, was lacking in volunteers. Later, Games designed the cap badge for the newly-created corps. The symbol of a fist represents the strength and power of the unit.

Due to the success of Games’ poster, he was commissioned to design a recruitment poster for the Auxiliary Territorial Army, which was the women’s branch of the British Army. The poster was aimed at young women who were needed to serve in a range of jobs, including, telephonists, drivers, bakers, postal workers, ammunition inspectors and military police. The first poster designer, however, was nicknamed the “blonde bombshell” on account of the hairstyle and red lipstick. The feminist Conservative Party politician Thelma Cazalet-Keir (1899-1989) objected to the design, stating, “Our girls should be attracted into the army through patriotism and not glamour.”

Games’ next poster for the ATS featured a smiling face, looking upward in enthusiasm, which was generally accepted by the war office, although, one critic complained that the colour red made the girl appear “slightly Russianed”. A later poster for the ATS featuring a sepia sketch was criticised for looking too much like an “English Rose”.

Throughout Games’ career as Official War Poster Artist, during which he was promoted lieutenant (1942) and then captain (1945), he produced a number of recruitment posters. Although people had been conscripted to the RAF, the Army needed to persuade officers and men to transfer to the Airborne Forces, which, of course, was more dangerous, however, parachute and glider-borne troops were promised higher pay.

In 1944, Games poster for the Royal Army Medical Corps Parachute units was displayed to encourage more people to join. Men were needed for Operation Market Garden, which was due to take place in September 1944. Of the 3082 men of the Parachute Regiment, only 462 avoided death or capture during the Battle of Arnhem.

Games’ poster for the Commando Medical Service asked medics to volunteer through their commanding officers after which they had to endure a rigorous selection process.

Usually, Games’ posters were printed using the lithography process, however, when he was commissioned to create awareness posters about bombs and weapons, he knew he needed to make the designs as realistic as possible; therefore, he resorted to photography. Titled “Danger Don’t Touch”, Games produced a couple of chromolithograph posters featuring photos of various bombs.

Games stated, “These ammunition posters could only have been produced after much study of statistics and hours in ordnance depots. Collaboration with technicians was essential.” The weapons needed to be as clear as possible especially as the posters were aimed at children to keep them safe. The lines at the bottom of the page say, “You may find one of these on the ground or half buried. Leave it alone and TELL THE POLICE AT ONCE. Do not touch it even with a stick and do not throw stones at it.”

As part of the weapon safety campaign, Games used shock tactics to reinforce the message that ammunition must be treated with care. One poster titled “This Child Found a Blind” was taken down by members of the public because the image of the girl in a coffin reminded them too much of their own children. This fictional child had found a “blind”, i.e. a bomb that had failed to go off, which inevitably went off when she picked it up.

Games’ weapon posters were not all aimed at civilians; some were targetted at members of the armed forces. Mass conscription at the beginning of the war meant that there were hundreds of new recruits but not enough time to educate them. These posters acted as infographics with instructions about how to store and use weapons. Ammunition needed to be stored carefully in a well-ventilated area. If the storage room was too hot, wooden items would expand and split, labels would peel off and liquids would leak. Likewise, a damp area would cause just as much damage: metals would rust or corrode, some items would rot and labels would become damaged. Both these conditions could also cause “blinds”.

Clumsy handling of weapons could also cause damage or, even worse, accidents. Throughout the war, Games only produced one poster that featured the enemy. With the heading “His rifle will fire, will mine?”, it encouraged soldiers to check their weapons were in full working order before entering combat. A faulty rifle, for example, would be useless in battle; not only would soldiers be unable to fire at the enemy, but they would not be able to protect themselves from enemy fire.

Throughout the war, soldiers and civilians alike were warned not to talk about army secrets or plans in case information got into the wrong hands. Letters to and from Army Head Quarters were to be sent via the Army Post Office and not with the General Post Office. The Army would deliver mail unmarked, whereas the public post office would stamp it with a postmark. If the letter got into the wrong hands, a rough location of the headquarters could be interpreted.

Most of Games’ war posters were serious, however, when the Ministry of Information launched their campaign about the dangers of revealing information about the war effort in public, Games added a tiny bit of humour into his work. The poster “Keep a Guard On What You Say” features a visual pun of a man whose mouth is guarded by a sentinel.

It was not only in public that people had to be careful; soldiers recuperating in hospitals were warned not to speak about their missions to the other patients and nurses. In Games’ design, the hospital bed forms the shape of a German soldier, implying that spies could be anywhere, even where you least expect it.

A more serious poster was designed to resemble an official notice. Printed during the run-up to the Allied Liberation of Europe, Games’ poster warned troops that talking about the mission would not only put themselves at risk but their comrades as well. Amazingly, considering the scale of the operation, no information was leaked and the Germans were taken completely by surprise on D-Day.

Bombs and armed combat were not the only killers during the Second World War, lack of hygiene played a huge part too. As a result, Games was commissioned to produce medically approved posters to be hung in Army barracks and communal washing areas. Soldiers were warned about the dangers of failing to clean various parts of the bodies, such as their feet, to keep dirt and disease at bay. Dental health was also encouraged in order to prevent tooth decay and infection. Advice about diet was also provided. The medical journal The Lancet praised Games’ designs, saying, “There is every reason to hope that education in hygiene so ably presented will have its reward in a rising standard of health and personal pride among the men.”

Men were encouraged to keep their quarters well ventilated and their bedding free from lice and flies in order to prevent conditions such as scabies. They were also urged to kill flies and, for those in hotter areas, mosquitos that may be carrying diseases such as malaria.

Whilst the men were out fighting, those back home were encouraged to do what they could to help the soldiers. A campaign called “Plasma for Britain” called for blood donations. Inevitably, countless people died during the war, but a transfusion of blood was a lifeline for many of the injured.

“Please Knit Now” posters encouraged women in the forces and at home to knit socks for soldiers, particularly those fighting in the “jungle” or the Far East. This poster was printed in 1945, which was the same year Games married Marianne Salfeld. Showing his love for his soon-to-be wife, Games secretly added the words “To Marianne” on one of the loops of wool in the poster.

Other posters urged people to think about waste and unnecessary items that could be avoided for the duration of the war. Using petrol to go for a joy ride, for example, was using up petrol that could have been used to power one of the army’s vehicles. Buying produce and items from abroad meant that additional ships were needed, which, again, took resources away from the troops. Rationing had been introduced in order to limit the number of products shipped from abroad and homeowners were inspired to grow their own vegetables in their back gardens.

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In 1944, the National Savings Committee (NCS) organised a “Salute the Soldier” week during which people were urged to save and donate money to help finance the war effort. Games helped by designing posters, pamphlets and banners to advertise various local fundraising events. These events included fetes, talks, exhibitions, pageants and concerts. Each town involved had a target to reach. Oldbury, a market town in Sandwell, West Midlands aimed to raise £500,000. Smaller communities were given lower targets, for instance, £50,000.

Being Jewish and a passionate Zionist, Games was particularly interested in supporting the Jewish Relief Unit, which worked in conjunction with the British Red Cross, the Salvation Army and Quakers to deliver food, clothing and comfort to the victims of Nazi cruelty. His posters encouraged donations from the people of Britain plus created awareness of the scheme to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. Due to his personal affiliation, Games designed these posters free of charge.

In 1941, the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA) had been set up by the War Office to boost morale and educate British service personnel. The ABCA considered current affairs to be an essential part of Army training and provided a number of activities, including lectures and films, to equip soldiers with this knowledge. They also produced a number of pamphlets and informative posters, which Abram Games designed. A series of prints titled “Your Britain. Fight For It Now” aimed to remind soldiers what they were fighting for. Combining images of derelict, bombed-out houses with future, modern constructions, the posters suggested that if the soldiers persevered, they could achieve a better quality of life back home.

Unfortunately, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was anti-ABCA claiming the posters were a “disgraceful libel on the conditions prevailing in Great Britain before the war… It is a very wrong thing that the War Office should be responsible for such exaggerated and distorted propaganda. The soldiers know their homes are not like that.”

Nonetheless, the ABCA’s ideas were generally adopted and many officers took up the challenge to educate their troops. This led to the Army Education Scheme (AES) that optimistically claimed education would open up a world of opportunities for the soldiers.

“Officers must provide creative ideas from which a positive faith can be generated. To get the best out of men it is not enough to tell them that they must be ready to die in the last ditch. They must be given a new vision of the future and a new hope.”
– Military theorist Captain Basil Liddell-Hart, 1940

The ABCA and AES also aimed to boost the morale of the soldiers. As some troops began to return home, many found themselves facing unemployment and the inability to reintegrate themselves into civilisation. Games’ posters advertised various resources for these soldiers, for instance, the Civil Resettlement Units. These units were particularly aimed at soldiers who had been held as prisoners of war. The rehabilitation process involved helping the men find work, providing training and advice, and giving general assistance to aid their readjustment to their freedom.

There was a political side to the ABCA, which encouraged soldiers to register to vote in the general election held at the end of the war. Once again, Churchill was displeased about this because their left-wing bias painted the Conservatives as responsible for the economic depression of the 1930s and the cause of the mass unemployment at the end of the First World War. Afraid of returning to a lack of jobs and homelessness, the Labour vote in the 1945 General Election was higher among service personnel than civilians.

“Churchill may have been a great wartime leader, but he never visited a slum.”
– Abram Games

After the war, Abram Games resumed his freelance work, designing for clients including London Transport, the Financial Times, Guinness, British Airways and El Al Israel Airlines Ltd. He also continued to design for the Army, for example, the Household Cavalry, which combined the Life Guards (who wear red) and the Blues and Royals (who wear blue).

Two years after he had been demobilised, Games entered the competition to design the emblem for the Festival of Britain, which he won. The Festival of Britain was a national exhibition to celebrate the centenary of the Great Exhibition held in 1851, which was organised by Prince Albert (1891-61). It was also considered to be a post-war “tonic for the nation”. Games’ design comprises a star in the colours of the Union Flag, the head of Britannia and a string of bunting.

“I am not an artist, I am a graphic thinker.”
– Abram Games

Games continued to practice his “graphic thinking” for the rest of his life. He designed the stamp for the 1948 Olympic Games, becoming the first designer to have his name on a British stamp. Between 1946 and 1953 he took up the role of visiting lecturer in Graphic Design at the Royal College of Art, then in 1956, he was appointed Art Director of coloured covers for Penguin Books. His successful design for the Festival of Britain led to several more commissions, including the designs for the BBC Television’s first animated ident.

In 1957, Games was awarded an OBE for his services to graphic design and two years later was appointed Royal Designer for Industry. He travelled to the USA to speak at the Ninth International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado plus wrote a book titled Over My Shoulder.

Although still under the design umbrella, Games turned his hand to other enterprises, for example, designing machinery. In 1959, he designed a coffee maker and patented an imagic photocopier. Later, he invented “Boil in the Bag” coffee, which he patented in 1963.

For the Muswell Hill Synagogue in North London, Games designed a memorial window for the victims of the Holocaust. Then, in 1970, he designed the “Stockwell Swan” tiled memorial for London Transport’s Victoria Line.

Throughout his career, Games was involved in a number of organisations. In 1962, he presented a paper about poster advertising to the Royal Society of Arts, winning him the RSA Silver Medal. In 1965, he was made a member of the Stamp Advisory Committee and in 1968, he was appointed the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation Consultant on Graphic Design at Bezalel School of Art in Israel.

As well as the awards already mentioned, Games won the Design and Art Direction President’s Award in 1991. His last achievement occurred in 1992 when he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Art. Four years later on 27th August 1996, Abram Games passed away. He was buried in the Bushey Jewish Cemetery in Hertfordshire.

The Art of Persuasion certainly earns the caption “special exhibition”. With around 100 posters, it is a larger than expected display of work by an artist – sorry, graphic thinker – whose contributions during the Second World War deserve to be honoured for time immemorial. The National Army Museum has made the exhibition suitable for all the family. For children, there is an activity page in the back of the free exhibition guide, which challenges visitors to think about the poster designs and what life during the war may have been like. Activities range from discussing what your favourite poster is to standing on one leg for 30 seconds or attempting to say “Maximum meaning, minimum means” ten times without getting tongue-tied.

For people of all ages, an interactive screen allows visitors to design their own poster using elements from some of the original designs by Abram Games. These can be emailed to personal addresses so that everyone can keep their artwork.

Not only does the exhibition introduce the graphic designer Abram Games, but it also creates awareness of the intricacies of war. Most history lessons focus on the physical fighting, the politics and the outcomes of the war, however, little is said about the effects on the individuals living through it, the concerns about hygiene and the amount of encouragement needed to persuade people to support the war effort. As the title states, art can indeed be persuasive.

The Art of Persuasion: Wartime Posters by Abram Games costs £6 per person, although there are various concessions. Tickets can be purchased on site or booked in advance online. The rest of the National Army Museum can be visited for free.

Designer of Dreams

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Christian Dior with model Sylvie, circa 1948

Despite being extended until 1st September 2019, tickets for the Victoria and Albert Museum‘s exhibition Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams – the largest Dior show ever staged in the UK – have sold out and those lucky enough to attend are still made to queue while they wait for the crowd to abate. So, what is it about the man that has caused the entirety of London to flock to the museum? Spanning from 1947 until the present day, the exhibition explores the history and impact of one of the leading fashion designers and fashion houses of the 20th century. Most importantly, perhaps, the V&A focuses on Dior’s relationship with Britain.

“I adore the English, dressed not only in the tweeds which suit them so well but also in those flowing dresses, in subtle colours, which they have worn inimitably since the days of Gainsborough.” – Christian Dior, 1957

The exhibition opens with a brief biography of Dior’s life before delving into his extensive wardrobe. Christian Dior was born on 21st January 1905 to a wealthy fertilizer manufacturer and owner of the firm Dior Frères, Maurice Dior (1872-1946) and his wife Madeleine Martin (1879-1931). For the first five years of his life, Christian lived in the seaside town of Granville on the coast of Normandy, France, until the family relocated to Paris. Here, he grew up with his four siblings; an older brother Raymond, and three younger siblings, Jacqueline, Bernard and Ginette, who changed her name to Catherine. Catherine Dior (1917-2008) was Christian’s closest sibling who helped to preserve her brother’s legacy after his death. She was also a member of the Polish intelligence unit based in France during World War II and survived capture, torture and a year in the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp.

Despite his wish to study art and architecture at the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Dior’s parents insisted he enrolled at the School of Political Science in Paris, in the hopes that he would become a diplomat. Dior withdrew from the school after three years and completed his military conscription. In 1928, his parents relented and provided money for their son to open an art gallery with his friend Jacques Bonjean (1899-1990). Unfortunately, this business venture was short lived as the Great Depression, the loss of the family business and the death of Dior’s mother, meant the gallery had to close.

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This failure did not put Dior off pursuing an art career and he soon found himself working for the Paris-based fashion designer Robert Piguet (1898-1953). From 1937 until he was called up for military service, Dior worked as a modéliste (in-house designer) and was given the opportunity to design for three Piguet collections. Although the Second World War disrupted his career, these few years with Piguet set him up for the future. “Robert Piguet taught me the virtues of simplicity through which true elegance must come.”

After leaving the army in 1942, Dior began working for the fashion house of Lucien Lelong (1889-1958) as one of the primary designers. Although the fashion house aimed to preserve the French fashion industry, Dior spent the remainder of the war designing dresses for the wives of Nazi officers and French collaborators.

When the war was over, Dior received a job offer from Marcel Boussac (1889-1908), the richest man in France, to design for the Paris couture house Philippe et Gaston. Dior, however, had dreams of opening his own fashion house and turned the offer down. On 8th December 1946, with financial help from Boussac, Dior founded his fashion house, presenting his first collection on 12th February the following year at 30 Avenue Montaigne in Paris.

“I have never seen such a crowd at a dress-show. Both showrooms were crowded and smart women were sitting all the way up the stairs, where they could only get a short glimpse of the manequins as they passed.”
– Betty Kenward, Tatler and Bystander, 1947

Originally named Corelle (which means circlet of flower patterns in English), the line was renamed New Look after the editor of Harper’s Bazaar Carmel Snow (1887-1961) declared, “It’s quite a revolution, dear Christian. Your dresses have such a new look!” This new look was more extravagant than the clothing worn during the war years, which had been restricted by rations on fabric. The skirts were also much longer, which initially received criticism from women who had grown used to showing their legs.

Dior introduced boned, bustier bodices and wasp-waisted corsets, combined with petticoats to make the skirts flare out, giving the women’s bodies more shape. One of the most famous designs from the collection, the Bar suit, was inspired by the bar at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris. It comprised a sculpted jacket and a pleated, full skirt, which quickly became the emblem for the New Look.

“I think of my work as ephemeral architecture, dedicated to the beauty of the female body.”
– Christian Dior, 1957

In his lifetime, Dior designed and launched 22 collections, which comprised more than 150 different looks. Each line had a title that reflected the type of style Dior had been inspired by or invented, for example, Zig-Zag, Verticale, Sinueuse, Tulipe and Flèche (arrow). Each one complemented the curves of the female figure and the movement of the human body. Each season was hotly debated in the fashion media, however, Dior’s designs continued to awe and inspire the public.

Dior’s first fashion show in Britain took place at London’s Savoy Hotel in 1950, which was so popular he began touring the country, showing his collection at various grand locations, including Blenheim Palace. Many of these events were held in aid of charity and attracted huge crowds of guests. The funds raised from his first show went towards creating the Museum of Costume (now the Fashion Museum, Bath). Another show raised money for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).

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Princess Margaret on her 21st birthday

Only four years after opening his own fashion house, Christian Dior received his most prestigious commission. “Does Your Highness feel like a gold person or a silver one?” is what Dior asked Princess Margaret (1930-2002), the younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926) when asked to design a dress for Margaret to wear on her 21st birthday. As immortalised in the photograph by Cecil Beaton (1904-80), Princess Margaret opted for gold, which was the colour used for the golden straw embroidery and sequins that embellished the skirt of the dress.

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The dress, which is worn by a pale-faced mannequin at the V&A’s exhibition, was an adaptation of one of Dior’s recent designs Matinée poétique. The asymmetric shoulder line, buttoned bodice and full skirt were made to suit small-waisted women, such as the princess.

If Dior was not already an international sensation, he was known worldwide after designing what would become Princess Margaret’s favourite dress. The following year, he began producing ready-to-wear versions of his haute couture garments to be sold at prestigious department stores, such as Harrods in London and Kendal Milne in Manchester. To do this successfully, Dior established the business C. D. Models, which was renamed Christian Dior London Ltd in 1954. Through this company, Dior established licensing deals with a range of British manufacturers, allowing him to use certain fabrics, such as Ascher and the Cumberland Mills.

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Princess Margaret was not the only famous person Dior designed for, although she was probably the most important. When the novelist Emma Tennant (1937-2017) became a debutant, she ordered a red strapless gown. Nancy Mitford (1904-73), the author of Love in a Cold Climate, ordered the Daisy wool ensemble to wear when she had her portrait painted by Mogens Tvede (1897-1977). Prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn (1919-1991) ordered a number of Dior dresses, including her wedding dress, and Dior also designed a muslin embroidered wedding dress for a nineteen-year-old Jane Stoddart.

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Dior experimented with a huge range of styles, however, he continually returned to historic periods in his designs, particularly the Belle Époque from the late 1800s. He particularly liked the tight-waisted styles and elegant silks worn by people such as the French Empress Eugénie (1826-1920), the wife of Napoleon III (1808-1873). Dior was also inspired by the neo-classical architecture of buildings such as Marie-Antoinette’s Estate, Petit Trianon, and his own premises on Avenue Montaigne.

The V&A carefully replicated Dior’s favoured architectural style to create an 18th-century scene in which to display these historical dresses. The outfits would not look out of place in the royal court at Versailles despite being made during the twentieth and twenty-first century. Although Dior is no longer alive, his fashion house continues to draw on his original ideas and preferences.

Dior also took inspiration from places he had visited around the world. In the 1920s, as a young man, he travelled to London, Athens, Leningrad, Istanbul and the Balearic Islands. Some of his first designs were based on the architecture and fashion he saw on his trips. As his fame grew, Dior’s fashion house expanded to other countries, spanning from the Americas to Japan, which gave him several more styles to play with. The V&A focuses on five of the countries that inspired Dior: China, Egypt, India, Japan and Mexico.

“After women, flowers are the most divine of creations.”
– Christian Dior, 1954

Growing up in Normandy and Paris, Dior was always fascinated by plants and gardens. His mother was proud of the family garden and the young Christian enjoyed studying all the flowers. It was only natural that flowers would become a stimulus for his designs. The shapes of the dresses in his New Look collection were influenced by the shape of an inverted flower, however, they were not what people would call “flowery”.

Dresses in his later collections had stronger floral themes, often involving embroidery and colour to make the shapes of petals. If the dress was not decorated with flowers, it resembled a flower itself. After Dior’s death, the successive designers at House of Dior continued to return to Dior’s garden theme.

Clothing was not the only thing that Christian Dior focused on. Even before he had set up his fashion business, Dior was determined to launch a perfume. In 1947, he and his childhood friend Serge Heftler-Louiche released their first scent Miss Dior, named after his youngest sister. It is said that while Dior was thinking of potential names for the perfume, Catherine walked into the room and his colleague announced: “Ah, here’s Miss Dior!”

“Perfume is the finishing touch to any dress.”
– Christian Dior, 1954

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Miss Dior flacons

Miss Dior was released in several different formats: travel sets, vaporisers, and a variety of shaped flacons, including one in the shape of a dog. Dior did not stop there, however, and released more perfumes, such as, Diorissimo, which is scented with lily-of-the-valley. In more recent years, The House of Dior has issued Eau Sauvage, Poison and J’adore.

Sadly, Christian Dior died from a heart attack on 24th October 1957 at the age of 52 while on holiday in Montecatini, Italy. His death being totally unexpected has led to a number of rumours about the cause of the heart attack. Some claim the attack was brought on after choking on a fishbone, whereas the Time’s obituary stated he died while playing a game of cards. Another source spreads the rumour that the heart attack was caused by a strenuous sexual encounter. To this day, the true circumstances remain undisclosed.

Despite dying at the height of his career, his fashion house did not suffer. The running of the company fell to Dior’s apprentice Yves Saint Laurent (1936-2008), who would eventually go on to found his own fashion label. Over the years there have been a number of other worthy designers who have kept the House of Dior at the top of the fashion leaderboard.

As part of the exhibition, the V&A explores the works of the six creative directors that have led the House of Dior since 1957. Each designer brought new ideas to the table whilst also retaining the renowned visions of Christian Dior.

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Yves Saint Laurent working for Christian Dior, 1950s

Yves Mathieu Saint Laurent was appointed creative director at the House of Dior when he was only twenty-one years old. Before Dior’s death, he had worked as the designer’s assistant, however, his new role meant he could design his own line of clothes. His first collection in 1958 was a great success, which was followed in 1960 with the Silhouette de demain (Silhouette of tomorrow) line. Saint Laurent introduced the concept of skirts worn over trousers and geometric style cuts. Unlike Dior, who emphasised thin waistlines, Saint Laurent’s waists were elongated and were matched with turtle necks, hats and coats. His time as creative director, however, was short-lived, being called up for national army service in 1960.

Following Saint Laurent was Marc Bohan (b.1926) who was the House of Dior’s longest serving creative director from 1960 until 1989. Bohan had worked for a number of other fashion houses, such as Piguet where Dior had worked earlier in his career, before joining the House of Dior in 1958. As creative director, one of his most successful collections was the Slim Look, which was considered to be “a complete triumph” according to the New York Times. The Hollywood star Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011) was so taken with the design, she ordered twelve dresses.

Bohan’s aim was to design dresses that women loved to wear. He famously remarked, “N’oubliez pas la femme,” which means, “Don’t forget the woman.” He stuck to this ethos throughout his time at the House of Dior, believing that it was important to make a woman feel good and comfortable in what she wore as well as be aesthetically pleasing. Bohan eventually left the company to become the director of the London house of Norman Hartnell.

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Dior by Gianfranco Ferré

Despite being a leading fashion designer in Milan with his own fashion line, the next creative director Gianfranco Ferré (1944-2007) joined the House of Dior in 1989. Ferré was very proud to be chosen to work for Dior and helped to breathe new life into Parisian haute couture. Although he experimented with fine fabrics and embellishments, he tried to retain some of the original features of Christian Dior’s designs, such as the tight waits and full skirts. His first collection at Dior, Ascot-Cecil Beaton, won him the Dé d’Or (Gold Thimble) award.

Gibraltar-born John Galliano (b.1960) was the next person to take the reins as creative director. During his 15-year stint, Galliano pushed the boundaries of haute couture, creating eclectic designs based on extensive research throughout the world. Rather than merely creating clothes for women to wear, Galliano designed imaginative sets for fashion shows, which transported the audience to other worlds complete with imaginary characters that complimented his extraordinary designs.

Galliano brought the House of Dior into the twenty-first century, mixing in elements of subversive social themes with fashion. Simultaneously, John Galliano was the head of his own eponymous fashion company, which he left in 2011 at the same time he left Dior. He is currently the creative director of Paris-based fashion house Maison Margiela.

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Christian Dior by Raf Simons (b.1968), wool coat, Haute Couture, Autumn/Winter 2012

Raf Simons (b.1968), a graduate of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, joined the House of Dior as the next creative director in 2012. In stark contrast to his predecessor Galliano, Simons was a minimalist, focusing on the cut and line of his garments. His aim was to produce modern, practical clothes for contemporary women. He was obsessed with detail and gave ateliers precise instructions about tailoring. His clothes attracted a younger, newer generation to the works of Dior and the House received many more clients.

After Simons left to work on his own brand in 2016, the House of Dior employed its first female creative director: Maria Grazia Chiuri (b.1964). Her first ready-to-wear collection of t-shirts featuring slogans, such as “We Should All Be Feminists,” caused debates amongst the fashion world. Chiuri believes the role of a designer has changed in the past decade; rather than only creating pretty dresses, the designer is responsible for allowing the public to have a voice.

“I strive to be attentive and open to the world, and to create fashion that resembles the women of today.”
– Maria Grazia Chiuri

Although Chiuri draws on the designs from across the history of the House of Dior, she aims to put the needs of contemporary women first, focusing on both feminity and feminism. She has been inspired by many women of the past, such as the author Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), who are the faces of early feminism.

“The ballgown is your dream, and it must make you a dream.”
– Christian Dior, 1954

The exhibition ends with The Dior Ball, which shows off dozens of evening dresses and ballgowns produced by the House of Dior over the years. Christian Dior loved designing clothes for balls and parties because he could be as imaginative as he wished without the restraint of the practicalities of everyday-wear. The gowns took finery and excess to the extreme, which has been replicated by the successive creative directors.

Set out on revolving platforms in a room with changing lights and enchanting music, walking into the final room of the exhibition is like stepping into a fairytale. Many of these stunning dresses have graced the red carpets at film events over the past seventy years and it looks like stars will be continuing to chose Christian Dior for numerous years to come.

The V&A has provided a once in a lifetime opportunity to see 200-or-so of Dior dresses up close, which, unless you can afford to buy one, is as close as you are ever likely to get – that is if you have managed to secure a ticket. Extra tickets for Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams will be released monthly, for the month ahead. Very limited tickets are available to purchase daily at 10am from the Grand Entrance on a first-come-first-served basis.

Smoke and Mirrors

The Psychology of Magic

“Magic is the only honest profession. A magician promises to deceive you and he does.”
– Karl Garmain (1878-1959)

The psychology of the human mind, sleight of hand, misdirection and (occasionally) a gullible audience, are key parts of a magician or conjurer’s act. Knowing how the mind works is an important skill for those in the magic business – a vital element for all astonishing feats of trickery. This year, the Wellcome Collection explores the worlds of psychology and entertainment to discover the truth about deception. In a free exhibition, Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic, visitors are given the opportunity to see magic props up close, including spirit photographs, Derren Brown’s gorilla suit, Tommy Cooper’s fez and Paul Daniels’ sawing-in-half box.

For centuries, magicians have stunned audiences with extraordinary acts that leave people believing in magic. In recent years, scientists have begun to understand how they utilise the gap between what spectators think they perceive and what they actually see. The exhibition is split into three parts: The Medium, Misdirection, and Mentalism, which have all been or are undergoing examination by psychologists and neuropsychologists.

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Witchcraft – Arthur Boyd Houghton, 1871

The wars of the 18th and 19th centuries led to a rise in the belief in spiritualism. Thousands of people lost loved ones through warfare or disease and the practices of the Occult, mystics, mediums, theosophers and magicians became appealing as a result. In the hopes that they could connect with the dead, people flocked to séances and latched on to anyone who claimed to be able to speak to spirits.

Often, people created or bought their own ouija board made up of numbers, letters and a variety of other symbols, through which they hoped to receive messages directly from spirits without the help of a medium. Participants would place their fingers upon a planchette on top of a board and let the spirit guide them to the correct letters or numbers to spell out the answers to questions they asked. Inevitably, someone would be deliberately pushing the planchette to make it appear as though a spirit was present.

Séances were particularly popular during the Victorian era. Due to people’s desperation to contact the spirits of loved ones, it was easy for mediums to make them believe they had been successful with clever tricks involving moving objects and levitating furniture. Usually occurring in the dark, magicians and mediums used a number of tricks to convince vulnerable minds that someone was trying to contact them.

In the early 1900s, William S. Marriott, also known by the stage name Dr Wilmar, was a British magician who became well known for exposing fraudulent spiritualist mediums. Pearson’s magazine, which specialised in speculative literature, politics and the arts, commissioned Marriott to write a series of illustrated articles investigating mediums so that readers could “judge for themselves the pros and cons of this tremendously important subject.”

Alongside Marriott’s articles, he posted photographs of himself demonstrating several effects commonly produced during séances. Levitating tables were often raised by the medium’s foot to make it appear as though they were floating. Marriott also discovered the methods used to create ghostly shapes and movements in the dark. Often, mediums were tied to their chairs to convince participants that they could have no possible involvement with the paranormal activity. In the dark, however, the restrained medium still had access to poles attached to objects, which he or she could move surreptitiously. An example of this is “spirit hands” that appear to surround the medium, however, with the lights on, it is possible to see the dummy arms attached to sticks and poles, which are being controlled by the medium’s hands, almost like puppets.

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Spirit Photography

In his exposé, Marriott also debunked spirit photographs. Some photographers claimed to have captured evidence of a ghost on film, which materialised during the development processes. Sitters claimed no one else was present and yet a ghostly figure could clearly be seen in the background of portraits, family photos and so forth. Whilst many believed these were the result of a psychic force, sceptics suggested there may have been fluid on the plate of the camera, which produced the ghostly appearance. Marriott, however, discovered the truth about this fraudulent trickery.

At the same time that society was lapping up paranormal activities and psychic experiments, others set up the Society for Psychical Research in Cambridge to investigate and try to understand these events and abilities. In 1893, the world-renowned author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) joined their ranks and paid witness to William Marriott’s demonstration and explanation about spirit photography.

Marriott produced his own spirit photographs, all the while explaining to Doyle how he had manipulated the images to make it appear as though a spirit was present. Publically, Doyle stated, “Mr Marriott has clearly proved one point, which is that a trained conjurer can, under the close inspection of three pairs of critical eyes, put a false image upon a plate. We must unreservedly admit it.”

Unlike today where smartphones and digital cameras take a photo instantly, the oldest cameras involved using plates, special papers, development fluid and many more elements. If, for example, a plate was to be used more than once, it would pick up two different images, creating a double exposure. This way, photographers could take a photo of a “ghost” and combine it with another (ghost-free) photograph.

During the 19th century, Ira Erastus Davenport (1839-1911) and William Henry Davenport (1841-1877), known as the Davenport Brothers, were famous for presenting illusions and other supposedly supernatural acts. Time and again, the brothers were proved to be frauds, and yet they continued to be a popular act in both the United States and England. Their most famous act was the cabinet box illusion during which the brothers were tied up and placed in a box full of musical instruments. The members of the audience, who believed neither brother was able to move, were amazed when they heard the musical instruments being played. On opening the box, the brothers remained tied up in the positions in which they had been left.

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Maskelyne and Cook Poster

In 1865, John Nevil Maskelyne (1839-1917), an English stage magician and, interestingly, the inventor of the pay toilet, attended a performance of the Davenport Brothers’ Public Cabinet Séance in Cheltenham Town Hall. During the show, a faulty piece of equipment meant Maskelyne was witness to Ira Davenport throwing musical instruments by hand inside the cabinet, despite being tied up.

After exposing the Davenport Brothers, Maskelyne and his friend George Alfred Cooke (1825-1905) put on a magic show at the Egyptian Hall in Picadilly where they not only performed impressive illusions but revealed how public séances were conducted. Video clips of similar exposés are played on screen throughout the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition.

Maskelyne and Cook inspired other magicians to publically investigate mediums who were suspected frauds. These “anti-spiritualist” shows were extremely successful and proved as popular as the original séances and magic shows. Magicians such as Harry Price (1881-1947) and Harry Houdini (1874-1926) exposed many mediums including Margery Crandon (1888-1941) and Leonora Piper (1857-1950).

Through watching and debunking mediums, magicians and conjurors, psychical researchers laid the foundations for important discoveries about the human mind, perception and belief. Today, psychologists at the Mind Attention & General Illusory Cognition (MAGIC) Lab at Goldsmiths University of London, are examining the act of misdirection in performances of magic tricks. Dr Gustav Kuhn, the director of the MAGIC Lab and president of the Science of Magic Association explains during the exhibition via a series of videos the misdirection of perpetual reasoning using footage from his 2006 study There’s more to magic than meets the eye.

With the aid of eye-tracking technology, Kuhn and his contemporaries have shown that magicians are very good at distracting their audience and making them look elsewhere, thus missing the moment the trick takes place. Kuhn also reveals that people often fail to see what is in front of their very eyes. The Vanishing Ball Illusion, shown in one of Kuhn’s short films, demonstrates this phenomenon. The magician repeatedly throws a ball up into the air and catches it, however, on the final throw he pretends to throw it, making it look like the ball has vanished into thin air. Many spectators claim to have seen the ball leave the magicians hand, whereas, in reality, the ball remains concealed in the magician’s fist.

By repeatedly throwing the ball, the magician convinces the spectator’s brain that it knows what will happen next. The movement of the hand on the final throw makes the brain believe that it will see the ball go up in the air. The brain registers something a tenth of a second after the eyes have seen it, therefore, by the time the brain has caught up, it appears as though the ball has disappeared.

The art of misdirection is a skill that all conjurors must learn. It involves making the audience relax their focus at a key moment and being able to guide them to look in the wrong (or right) place at the right time. Magic shows remain popular today and involve all sorts of simple tricks that when executed perfectly appear to be pure magic. With the invention of television, conjurors have been able to broadcast their stage shows to the nation (and further afield), resulting in an increasing number of people wanting to perform tricks too.

The Wellcome Collection displays seven examples of “do-it-yourself” magic sets through the ages, beginning as far back as 1843 with Box of Tricks. Magicians have earnt money by producing their own boxes of magic tricks to sell to consumers. Ernest Sewell (1889-1965), who was often in great demand to perform in front of the Royal Family, was one of the first entertainers to introduce conjuring to British children in the late 1920s. In the 1950s, boxes were produced under the title Maskelyne’s Mysteries, hoping the reference to the long-dead magician would garner sales. The magician and mentalist David Berglas (b.1926), David Nixon (1919-1978) and the late Paul Daniels (1938-2016) also jumped on the bandwagon, selling magic box sets at various points in their career. Most recently (2015) Steven Frayne (b.1982), better known by his stage name Dynamo, has released his own Magic Kit. Most of these boxes include a pack of cards, rope, plastic objects and a magic wand.

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Fez belonging to Tommy Cooper

Performing in front of a large crowd is a much harder feat than doing a few tricks in the living room at family parties. Thomas Frederick “Tommy” Cooper (1921-84), the fez-wearing British prop comedian and member of the Magic Circle, knew the importance of engaging the entire audience’s attention in order to make a trick work. Tommy Cooper’s acts relied on non-stop chatter and comedy to relax the audience; whilst the audience was concentrating on what he was saying or laughing at his jokes, he would make his sleight-of-hand move. Tommy was also known for deliberately botching tricks and whilst the audience was laughing perform the real trick, much to their amazement. This is known as a “sucker trick”, where the audience is led to believe they know how the trick is done, only to be proved wrong.

Unfortunately, Tommy Cooper’s reputation meant that when he collapsed on stage during Live from Her Majesty’s variety show, the audience and backstage assistants thought it was part of his act. Tommy Cooper had suffered a heart attack and was pronounced dead on arrival at Westminster Hospital. It is unlikely Tommy could have been saved if his collapse had been realised sooner – the heart defibrillator that would have saved his life arrived thirty years too late.

The final part of the exhibition moves on to mentalism. A mentalist is a magician who performs mind reading and mind control amongst other psychological stunts. Similarly to the Victorian mystics, some mentalists claim to have real powers, however, others rely on being able to read other people’s body language, understanding the human mind and performing illusions. Often, these sorts of acts create the impression that members of the audience also have psychic potential and, even though this cannot possibly be true, it is very easy to be seduced by this deception.

Recent psychological studies suggest that the human mind can be tricked into believing false explanations even though it is clear that the performer is a conjurer. Mentalist performances are less flamboyant than the typical magic shows of the 20th century. It requires concentration, often silent, to allow the mentalist to read the behaviour of their audience, which enables them to create powerful illusions.

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Derren Brown Mind Reader, 2007

Whilst researchers were keen to expose the ruses of Victorian mystics, psychologists are less concerned about how the mentalist performs the act but rather the ethical boundaries of such a deception. Derren Brown (b.1971), the English mentalist and illusionist who has produced several award-winning shows, openly admits that he has no supernatural abilities. He connects his success to the ability to exploit his audience’s psychological traits.

In 2016, Derren Brown’s television series The Push demonstrated how easy it can be to manipulate another person. The show explored whether it was possible to psychologically coerce someone into justifying the killing of another human being. It explored human desire to please and obey, even when faced with actions that are morally wrong.

The exhibition explores the performance techniques of other mentalists, including The Amazing Dunninger, Raymond the Enchantress and Alexander “The Man Who Knows All”.

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Telepatha Cards

Generally, the claims that some performers have psychic powers has been rejected by audiences and science alike. Nonetheless, it continues to be the basis of a lot of contemporary magic shows. In the 1930s, the founder of parapsychology Joseph Banks Rhine (1895-1980) coined the term Extrasensory perception (ESP) to describe psychic abilities such as clairvoyance and telepathy. Initially a serious form of research with the potential for military use, the tools used in laboratories became popular with the general public after they were released in the form of board games. These games claimed to reveal hidden ESP powers in its players.

One of these so-called games was called Telepatha Cards, designed by the well-known Harry Price. One participant would select a card from a shuffled pack and attempt to transmit the symbol shown through the power of thought to a second participant who would then guess the card.

The final method of “magic” explored in the exhibition is the power of suggestion. Whilst this may sound like harmless fun, an experiment at McGill University in Canada revealed the dangers of misleading participants. In 2016, psychologists tricked a handful of people into believing a brain scanner could both read and influence their thoughts. The results showed that participants felt they had less control over their decisions when the scanner was supposedly influencing their thoughts than when the machine was only reading their mind. In reality, however, the brain scanner was doing neither.

This experiment also revealed the potential dangers of using misinformation to make people compliant, suggestible and vulnerable. Psychologists are continuing to explore how this knowledge could potentially help to challenge negative thoughts and behaviour patterns.

What began as an exhibition about a form of entertainment, Smoke and Mirrors leaves visitors contemplating the unethical practices of contemporary magic. How far can magic go before it becomes a cruel scientific experiment and stops being an enjoyable, awe-inspiring performance? This leads to a deeper question, is the idea of free will – the ability to choose our own actions – merely an illusion?

Free admission to Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic is available at The Wellcome Collection until 15th September 2019. Live performances in the gallery take place throughout the week. Performance times are listed on the website.

Making Your Mark

There are many worries and concerns about the increasingly digital world. Already, fairly new inventions are becoming obsolete, for instance, tape recorders and VHS, and it will not be long before the latest technology is considered old-fashioned. Local shops are closing as they fail to live up to the successes of online retailers and some shops have gone cash-less, only allowing payments by debit or credit card. Before long, society may not be able to cope without digital intervention, which leads to questions such as “what would happen during a power cut?” or “what if there was a signal failure?”

The British Library has picked up on a question that many people will not have considered. What is the future for writing? Will we abandon pens and pencils in favour of keyboards or voice recording? Will we no longer learn how to write by hand? In their current exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, the Library charts the evolution of writing through 5000 years of human discovery from hieroglyphs to emojis.

Writing can achieve what speech cannot: it communicates across space and time and has left evidence of the development of language and communication from all areas of the world. The exhibition begins by exploring the earliest evidence of writing, which is generally believed to date back 5,000 years. As archaeologists discover more ancient relics, the very earliest form of writing becomes more debatable, however, scholars generally believe the first writing-system developed in Mesopotamia around 3400 BCE. Of course, this was nothing like the systems we are familiar with today; initially, people used pictorial signs to communicate but these eventually developed into complex characters, each representing a different sound in the Sumerian (southern Mesopotamian) language.

These marks became known as cuneiform and have been preserved in clay tablets. With a reed stylus, writers scratched the characters into wet clay, as evidenced in a preserved 4000-year-old tablet that records an account of workers’ wages. This example of cuneiform had not yet lost the look of pictograms, however, over the next few centuries, the characters were simplified making it both easier to read and write.

Although cuneiform was originally used by Sumerians, their empire was invaded by the Akkadians in 2340 BCE, who began to adopt the form of writing in their own language. In total, an estimated fifteen languages used cuneiform inspired letters, many of which were still being used long into the Common Era.

Cuneiform was not used worldwide, however, and other areas developed their own method of writing. In Egypt, evidence of hieroglyphics date back to 3250 BCE and have been found on rocks, stone and ivory tablets. Later, people began using brush and ink to produce these characters, although it is believed this method had specific purposes. Hieroglyphs mean sacred carvings and are found in the remains of ancient temples and ceremonial places. The written version is known as hieratic or “priestly” script and is thought to have been used in the service of royal or temple administration.

The hieroglyphs or hieratics were made up of a range of different characters; some represented sounds and syllables, whereas others had particular meanings. An example of this form of writing can be seen on a limestone stela from around 1600 BCE that contains a hymn to Osiris, the king of the netherworld. This is on display at the exhibition and is the oldest artefact belonging to the British Library.

Another example of ancient writing came from the late Shang dynasty (1300–1050 BCE) in China. Shards of bone have been discovered with characters carved into the surface, many of which remain undeciphered. It is believed these bones came from the shoulder blades of oxen and the shells of turtles and have been identified as “oracle” bones containing questions about a variety of topics from crop rotation to childbirth. Thousands of these bones have been discovered, and from them over 4,500 different symbols have been recorded.

The British Library displays an Oracle bone from the Couling-Chalfant collection that has been dated between 1300 BCE and 1050 BCE. The inscription on the bone records that there would be no bad luck in the next ten days and carries a record of a lunar eclipse.

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Whilst Chinese characters today look similar to the ancient version, they have evolved considerably. Unlike cuneiform, which simplified over time, Chinese symbols gradually became more abstract and new compound forms developed. Today, many written Chinese words are a combination of two components: one reflects the meaning and the other the pronunciation. Take the word “mother” for example; the first symbol means “woman” and the other represents the sound “ma”. Combined together, the symbols create the word “mother”.

In Mesoamerica, there was a broad range of languages and recent discoveries have confirmed that many of these had systems of writing. These include Maya, Mixtecs, Aztecs, Olmecs and Zapotecs. Some of these languages focused on symbols to represent different words or ideas, whereas, others developed characters based on sound and grammar. An example of the latter is the Mayan glyphs as found on a Limestone stela at Pusilhá in Belize. These have been translated as information about the ruler K’ak’ U’ Ti’ Chan and praise of his father.

Whilst the oldest form of writing is commonly believed to have stemmed from Mesopotamia, there have been discoveries in other areas of symbols that might have once been a form of language. Societies dating back as far as 7000 BCE occupied areas in the Indus River valley of Pakistan and northwest India. At least 5000 inscribed artefacts have been unearthed from the region, however, they are usually only three or four signs long. The longest “sentence” discovered is twenty-six characters long but it is not certain what it says if anything at all. In total, 400 different symbols have been identified, which suggests it may not be a form of writing style as we understand them today.

On Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Polynesia, glyphs have been discovered on Rongorongo – wooden tablets inscribed with animal and plant motifs amongst other things. Unfortunately, no one knows how to read these tablets and, although 120 characters have been identified, the meanings of the lengthy texts remain hidden.

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One of the oldest examples of writing, found in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt

So, how did writing develop from these form of writing styles to the alphabet we are familiar with today? As can be seen on the Serabit sphinx on display at the British Library, the Proto-Sinaitic inscription looks nothing like the words written today. However, it contains a symbol that eventually developed into the letter A.

It is possible to chart the evolution of writing systems from Ancient Egypt to today. Usually, the contemporary method of writing is known as the alphabet, however, other cultures use alternative systems. An alphabet contains letters that represent different sounds, both vowels and consonants; abjads, however, only stand for consonants, as in the Arabic and Hebrew languages. The third type of characters are abugidas, which represent combinations of a consonant attached to a vowel sound. This is most commonly associated with the Indian script Devanāgarī.

Non-native Egyptian speakers began to adopt hieroglyphs in their own language. A wavy line, which meant water, was used as the first letter of their word for water (pronounced Mayim). Over the centuries, this symbol developed into our letter M. The Phonecians adopted this method of writing, which was then passed on to other cultures, such as Aramaic, Hebrew and Syriac. Via Aramaic, the Indian scripts developed, and via Syriac, the writing system spread to northern Asia.

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By travelling south, scripts including Arabian and Arabic were formed, and to the west Punic script developed, eventually leading to the Greek Alphabet. The Phoenician script only used consonants, however, the Greeks began to add signs for vowels. From Greek, the Etruscan alphabet was produced, and from that, the Romans created the alphabet that is still used today.

The Roman alphabet was introduced to other countries via the spread of the Roman Empire. As with all the writing styles of the past, the original alphabet has developed and altered over time. Letters began to take on slightly different shapes to help people write faster and capitals and lowercase letters helped make the script easier to read.

The history of writing encompasses far more than the development of the alphabet. Included in the exhibition are displays of ancient and modern writing materials and technologies. As already mentioned, the earliest material used to write on was clay, which was readily available in Mesopotamia. Damp clay could easily be moulded into a tablet then, with a stylus made from dried reeds, the cuneiform marks could be etched into the material. The clay tablet could also be wiped clean and used again if needed.

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2,000-year-old homework book

Evidence remains of writing carved into stone and bone, which would have been produced using chisels or other sharp objects, however, anything written using this method was permanent and could not be erased. Approximately 2000 years ago in Greek and Roman cultures, inscribing words into materials was still the main method of writing but they had developed new forms of tablets that could be used again and again. These were made from wooden frames filled with beeswax, which could easily be scratched with a stylus. The wax could be melted and used again when needed.

The British Library owns a wax tablet dating from the second century CE that contains the writing practice of a young Egyptian endeavouring to learn Greek. The top two lines were written by the tutor or schoolmaster and read: “Accept advice from someone wise / it is not right to believe every friend of yours.” The child’s attempt to copy the phrase is on the lines toward the bottom of the tablet. It appears he has missed out the first letter of the sentence and, toward the end, run out of space, scratching the final letter into the frame.

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Writing with ink is almost as old as the incised hieroglyphs from ancient Egypt (approx. 3200 BC). Ink has been made from various dyes and pigments over the years but it is the method of applying it to materials that is the most interesting. The earliest writing implements were made from reeds, which were easily obtainable in Asia and Europe. The reed is prepared by cutting a nib shape with a sharp knife. The angle determined the thickness of the lines and they were trimmed in different directions depending on the script. The nib was cut to the right for Roman and Greek scripts but left for scripts such as Arabic, Urdu and Persian, which are written from right to left.

It was not until the middle ages that quill pens were introduced. Similar to the reed, the point of a feather quill was cut to form a nib, which could then be dipped into ink and applied to various parchment. A damaged quill belonging to the British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) is on display as part of the exhibition. The nib has been bent and is, therefore, not fit for use.

The downside about using quills or reeds was the constant need to replenish the ink on the nib. It was not until the industrial revolution that metal pens became widely available and revolutionised the process of writing. In 1819, the Manchester firm James Perry & Co began producing metal nibs and from this, the fountain pen was developed.

In the 1940s, the ballpoint pen was introduced, which, yet again, revolutionised writing. Baron Marcel Bich (1914-94) bought the patent for ballpoint pens from László Bíró (1899-1985) who had begun producing such pens in Argentina in 1943. Bich was the co-founder of BIC Cristal, which quickly became the world’s leading producer of ballpoint pens.

Without a doubt, the printing press was the most revolutionary invention in the history of writing. In the 8th century, the Chinese discovered the method of woodblock printing (xylography), which involved carving letters into a piece of wood, covering it with ink, and pressing the wood onto a thin sheet of paper. Whilst this was effective, it was also time-consuming. In the West, scribes continued to hand write important texts, a feat that also took an extremely long time. The printing press changed all this.

Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg (1400-68), a German goldsmith from Mainz, was the first person to print with moveable type. Letters from the Roman alphabet were produced on tiny, individual metal blocks that could be carefully positioned and inked in a printing press to transfer passages of text to paper. The first book to be printed in this manner was the Bible, now known as the Gutenberg Bible.

In 1476, William Caxton (1422-91), an English merchant and writer, introduced the printing press to England. It is believed the first significant book to be printed in Britain was The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1342–1400).

Unfortunately, the printing press was limited to the Roman type and was of no use to scripts that were made up of abjads or abugidas. An alternative printing method called Lithography was developed in the 1790s by the German actor Aloys Senefelder (1771–1834). This involved using a greasy or waxy substance to write on a smooth stone surface that was then dampened and covered with ink. The ink would not stick to the greasy areas, therefore, when the stone was applied to paper, the greasy areas remained blank.

Based on the printing press, the next significant development was the typewriter. In 1872, the Remington typewriter was released in the USA and quickly became the model for typewriters all over the world. In English speaking countries, the QWERTY keyboard was developed, which is still used today, to prevent keys jamming by spreading the most common letters across the keyboard. Pressing a key sent an individual hammer, carved with a letter, onto an inked ribbon, which would leave a mark on the paper that was being fed through line by line. The average typist could manage to write 150 words per minute in contrast to 30 words by hand.

Once again, the typewriter alienated languages that used different scripts, for instance, Chinese. During the 20th century, the Double Pigeon Chinese typewriter became iconic in the East. Based on the western typewriter, it could accommodate almost 2,450 loose pieces of type, which are individually picked up using a selector tool and applied to the paper.

The 1960s and 70s saw another major leap forward in technology when computers were invented. Originally, computers were considered to be giant calculating machines but the potential to be used as a new writing tool was soon realised. The Apple Macintosh II was one of the first computers to be produced, however, they already look ancient in comparison to the computers used today. In the past few decades, technology has developed at an exceedingly rapid pace. Now, not only can I type this on my computer, I can share it with the world on my blog. I can post a link to it on Facebook or Whatsapp then chat with various people on Messenger and other apps.

It is these latest developments that have led the British Library to question the future of writing, particularly handwriting. How often do people write by hand per day? How many people write letters rather than emails? How often do people write a note on a piece of paper rather than on their phone? Questions like these are bound to make people worry that the chances of handwriting surviving are remote.

Nonetheless, schools are still keen for children to write more by hand than on a computer. Studies have proved than handwritten notes are easier to recall than digital ones. Learning to write also helps children learn to read as well as develop other cognitive behaviours across many disciplines.

The British Library reveals how writing by hand has benefitted people in the past. With examples from Florence Nightingale‘s (1820-1910) journals and notes by Alexander Flemming (1881-1955), it is clear that being able to jot down thoughts with a pen or pencil can be a good way of remembering things at a later date. (You should see the notes I wrote on the exhibition guide as I viewed the displays!) Irish novelist James Joyce (1882-1941) not only found writing notes useful when working on books, such as Ulysses, he constantly went back to them and added more notes or colours to help him piece together his narrative. The famous composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) wrote notes on his manuscripts about how to play certain notes and so forth. The latter in particular is much easier to do by hand than digitally.

Before concluding, the exhibition takes a look at modern developments in typography, including work by graphic artists, for instance, El Lissitzky (1890-1941), and the graffiti artist eL Seed (b.1981). None of these things would be possible without the development of writing styles dating back to the Mesopotamian and other ancient eras and whatever the future holds, it will always be possible to trace the history of writing and communication back to them.

There is no answer to the question “What is the future of writing?” No one knows, no one can predict the way technology will develop and the impact this will have on the way we write. The exhibition ends by asking visitors what they think writing will be like in the future. Some people said they think voice recognition devices that type what you say will be the way forward. Others think that handwriting will continue to be a skill taught and used in schools.

Whatever happens, I know that I will continue writing both by hand and digitally (how else would you read my blog?).

Writing: Making Your Mark can be viewed in the PACCAR 1 gallery at The British Library until Tuesday 27th August 2019. Tickets are £14 for adults, £12 for over 60s and £7 for children and students over 11 years old. Members of the British Library can visit free of charge.