FLEA MARKET PHOTOBOOKS: 05 / MAR / 2020
ENGLISH INNS ILLUSTRATED
by General Sir Colville Wemyss
Odhams Press: Watford, 1951
Reviewed by Annebella Pollen
Effectively a national survey of pubs for those who like their boozing to be historically legitimated, English Inns Illustrated was one of the Britain Illustrated series of books produced by Odhams Press in the early 1950s. The illustrated aspect of the publication was centrally important, and is demonstrated from the dust jacket onwards, which features two "large-scale camera studies", front and back, on its almost festive wrappers of red ground and white script. The flyleaf boasts that the book’s 128 pages contain 160 such "camera studies" - calling them photographs, it seems, would not do them justice - provided "by leading modern photographers".
Despite this claim only one photographic contributor is named - a Miss L. M. Halford - although a dozen premises and breweries are individually thanked in the small print for providing information and images for specific locations. The rest of the visual content is without credit. The Britain Illustrated series covered a range of themes, from Castles and Manor Houses to English Cathedrals and Abbeys. Some volumes were by celebrated photographic names with significant reputations then and now, such as Rural London in Pictures by E. O. Hoppe. Odhams had previous experience in photographic matters; the press had produced three volumes of the authoritatively titled The World’s Best Photographs in 1939, 1944 and 1947 respectively, which included full-page black-and-white bleeds of images by Wolf Suschitzky, Edith Tudor-Hart, Cecil Beaton and Yousuf Karsh among other names now forgotten. Most of these photographs were sourced from photographic and news agencies. Odhams had easy access to press photographers serving what was the world’s largest selling newspaper in the 1930s; they had bought out the Daily Herald in 1929.
English Inns is introduced by General Sir Colville Wemyss, Director of the Brewers’ Society, who provides a self-congratulatory narrative of the centrality of the inn to English history. A cautious note is offered on modern drinking establishments. "New ideas in pub architecture" are to be considered carefully. The "retty, gimcrack ornamentation of gin palaces" is singled out for criticism, and from these words onwards the tone of the volume is set. The emphasis, in both text and image, is on sites with claims to antiquity; ‘quaint’ thatched and half-timbered hostelries dominate. Individual inns of note receive extended captions alongside half- or three-quarter page views of exteriors and sometimes interiors. Many photographs are unpopulated, typical of postcard and tourist guides of the period, with strategic framing provided at times through stone archways or wooden gateways to emphasise the site’s historicity. For the most part, these aesthetic decisions conform to Pictorialist traditions, where to include elements of modern life, such as figures in modern dress, would disrupt the timeless aesthetic effect.
Despite this emphasis, many inn photographs inevitably show the encroachment of modernity, from the clutter of street furniture around them to the boxy interwar British cars parked outside. Visitors to the inn at the summit of Kirkstone Pass are earnest contemporary cyclists in open-necked shirts, shorts and spectacles, who arrive on lightweight touring bikes only to find a comically austere notice, "Nothing Left Come Friday". It is in the images that deviate from straight exteriors that the interest builds, especially in the cases of pub graffiti, topiary and folk customs, from the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance to superstitions about wishing chimneys. Images of ruddy-faced publications and flat-capped drinkers evoke the work of Humphrey Spender in the boozers of Bolton in 1937. While this is not a Mass Observation-style study of The Pub and the People, when the users of English inns enter the frame, they rowdily mess up the neatness of the celebration. These images echo the photography of Sir Benjamin Stone at the turn of the century and precede the particularly English optic of Tony Ray-Jones and Homer Sykes, but English Inns Illustrated also reminded of my favourite photobook of recent times, 2016’s Spoon’s Carpets, where Kit Caless comprehensively documented 950 different flooring designs of the Wetherspoon budget pub chain. The ‘modern photographers’ of English Inns Illustrated mostly promoted unchanging tradition. One aspect that doesn’t change is the effect of alcohol. Regardless of whether we are looking at historic hostelries or modern megapubs, inns filled with drinkers are easily disordered.