LONDON.- This exhibition explores the creative forces that created the Shell County Guides. It considers their widespread cultural influence on our shared understanding of Britain and British-ness.
From the 1930s to the 1980s, innovative writers, artists, designers and academics combined their efforts to produce that most ordinary of books, a guide. In the 1930s, the editor of the guides, John Betjeman, gathered together an odd mixture of young artists and authors like Paul and John Nash, Robert Byron and John Piper. These artists represented some of the best of British creative talent of the mid twentieth century.
The first of these, The Shell Guide to Cornwall, was published in 1934, followed in rapid succession by guides to Devon, Dorset, Derbyshire, Oban and The Western Isles. Publication of The Shell Guide ceased in the 1980s as Britain went abroad, but they remain the most Modern and comprehensive guide to Britain, a powerful but understated synthesis of good writing, good imagery and good design.
This exhibition draws on MoDAs JMRichards collection, which includes many of the Shell Guides plus, examples of other works by key contributors.
Shaping an understanding of Britains landscape
The Shell Guides were aimed at a new breed of car-driving metropolitan tourists. They were for those who sought guides that were neither too serious nor to shallow and who took pleasure in the ordinary and peculiar culture of small town Britain. In the three decades after the Second World War the Shell Guides provided a surreptitiously subversive synthesis of the British countryside.
They revelled in the unconventional, the surreal and the mystical which - through the seemingly public-library ordinariness of the guides - became ingrained in the British middle class imagination. The Shell Guide Britain is the Britain of ancient landscapes and barely-covered paganism that informed our post war view of ourselves from Stig of the Dump to The Wicker Man via Quatermass.
A creative force in twentieth century art and design
The guides were illustrated using the most modern and often surrealist photographs, small intimate sketches by the authors and reproductions of English romantic and popular prints.
This incongruous mix of old and new was combined with a graphic layout that blended the contemporary style of the Architectural Review with arcane nineteenth century typefaces. By the end of the 1930s the Shell Guides were among the most avant-garde publications in Europe - though devoted to a subject that was almost the cultural opposite.
Today as new generations re-discover Britain there are new guides in print and on the web. The best of them owe a clear debt to the Shell Guides understanding of non-metropolitan Britain.