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Kasmin’s Postcards

The recent announcement of the closure of the postcard printer J Salmon, the country’s oldest, is a reminder that the golden age of the postcard is past. Blame social media, everyone said, and everyone (for once) would be right. Also blame shorter holidays, higher postage costs (in part due to falling volumes) and, of course, the whole damn internet in general. Always blame the internet, it makes for good, easy copy.

What this frankly bizarre collection does bring to our attention, though, is our grandparents’ appetite for the weird. There are five volumes in this release and they are devoted to Size, Scrub, Meat, Elders and Wreck. To elaborate: that’s big and little people, people doing their washing (often, but not exclusively, in primitive conditions), raw food, old people and disasters – ships, carts, conveyances of all kinds that have hit something or had a wheel come off. As if that wasn’t bad enough, some of the images have the publisher’s name on the front and are clearly part of a series.

So, I think we’ve established that our forebears were weird, really weird. They not only went out with heavy plate cameras that required a lot of setting up and quite long exposures and recorded these things, but they printed them as postcards for which there was a sustainable market. The books helpfully include some of the backs – they’ve been written, addressed and stamped. People sent them, for goodness sake. .

And that, gentle reader, brings us right back to the present day and the internet. Please tell me you haven’t at some point found and shared something not unlike this. You see, we’re not so different from our grandparents at all. All we’ve lost is the art of sticking on a stamp.

The more you look at this collection, the more it makes sense. John Kasmin, who has assembled a collection of some forty-five thousand postcards isn’t some modern-day freak. These are fascinating documents of social history. Yes, some of them, especially in the Size volume, are a freak show, but we haven’t really lost our appetite for that, we just have access to it in the privacy of our own homes, and sometimes even on the news channels.

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Vibrant Oils || Haidee-Jo Summers

This is really rather wonderful. The initial impression, picking it up, is that it’s more than usually substantial and, at 176 pages, it most certainly is. A quick flick through reveals a wealth of illustrations and an enormous variety of subjects. Haidee-Jo’s style is loose, relaxed and colourful and this doesn’t, on the surface, feel like an oil painting book, insofar as those are often rather lofty and worthy. The truth is that it’s not really a medium book at all, but rather a guide to the whole creative process that just happens to use oils as its vehicle. I’d even go so far as to suggest that you could find plenty to get from it even if you never had any intention of working in the medium at all.

Investigate further and the next thing you might notice is that, for all its size, there are only 4 step-by-step projects. This is entirely in keeping with the approach, which is to teach you about the subject, rather than simply to train you to emulate it. In the old analogy, it teaches you to fish and feeds you for life, rather than giving you a fish and feeding you for a day. Subject matter is catholic and includes landscapes, seascapes, still lifes, figures and flowers.

Along the way, Haidee-Jo considers composition, colours, light, cropping, the use of layers, tone and more. Some sections are quite short paragraphs, some are sidebars and others simple hints. Everything is accompanied by an example painting and the explanations are commendably clear.

The publisher is trying to sell this as suitable for all levels of ability. I have my doubts. If you were a complete beginner, I think you might find its comprehensiveness overwhelming. However, if you have some experience, or are new to oils, as opposed to painting, it has a great deal to tell you and won’t disappoint.

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The Essence of Watercolour || Hazel Soan

It’s a measure of the quality of Hazel’s work and, indeed, of the production of this book, that it looks as fresh today as it did when it first appeared in hardback in 2011. You can see what I said about it at the time here.

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The Drawings of Roger Hilton || Adrian Lewis

Not so long ago, I reviewed a retrospective account of Roger Hilton’s wife, Rose. The significance of this is that her life informs our opinion of her husband’s work. He was twenty years her senior and a dominant, perhaps domineering, figure who seems to have wanted more of a personal assistant, perhaps even a reflector of his own greatness, and forbade his talented bride from pursuing her own career. Knowing this, it is hard not to view Roger’s drawings of the human form – which form the bulk of what is included here – as belittling and maybe even abusive. There is no sense of beauty or respect.

What there is, however, is a strong sense of line and of form. Get past the initially dismissive quality of the drawings and there is a clear indication that their maker understands the techniques and processes of drawing as well as the use of space on paper. Hilton’s biographies tend to gloss over his teaching career, but he was at Central St Martins in the late 1950s and it becomes easy to imagine him as a charismatic instructor – which, indeed, could be how he acquired a bride twenty years younger than himself.

This is not, however, a book about psychology, interesting though that is, but about the life and work, particularly the drawings, of an important member of the St Ives School whose reputation was international. Influenced by Matisse, Picasso and Klee, Hilton was a master of the balance between abstraction and figurative drawing. Adrian Lewis also looks at how Hilton’s personal life and sexual desire became integrated in his visual expression (something hinted at above). The book is comprehensive and analytical and does much to enhance the reputation of Hilton as a draughtsman. It is perhaps a shame that some of the illustrations appear to have been reproduced from less than perfect transparencies, but sometimes you have to go with what’s available and the results are by no means unacceptable, and better included than not.

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Take Three Colours: Watercolour Seascapes || Geoff Kersey

This is the second outing for a promising new series that breaks popular subjects down into manageable form. The idea of using just three colours (red, blue and yellow) is that there’s a minimum of fussing about with mixing. What’s impressive, though, is the range of tints and hues that Geoff manages to achieve and there’s no hint of the extremely limited palette.

These books are, as you might have guessed, aimed at the beginner and the instruction and hand-holding are comprehensive; you’re never left feeling that something has been missed out, that there was another stage in there somewhere. Handy jargon busters deal with any technical terms that may be unfamiliar.

The pictures you’ll work on are not complex images, but that’s not what you’d want. The tone and detail are nicely judged.

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Take Three Colours: Watercolour Flowers || Julie King

Flower painting being the tricky subject that it is, anything that simplifies the painting process has to be a good thing, just as long as it doesn’t over-simplify and trivialise. It’s therefore something of a relief to be able to say that Julie manages her task with considerable success.

You will, I’m sure, be amazed by the variety of tints and hues she manages to achieve with just three base colours (the same ones throughout). Yes, if you look closely, the results lack some of the subtlety that could be achieved with more, but you wouldn’t feel dissatisfied with the results, for all that. I also have a feeling that the reproduction may not be as sharp as it could be, and that what you see on paper might be better that it is on the pages of the book. I also wouldn’t have chosen that sunflower as the cover illustration as it really doesn’t convey the variety of what you can achieve. Please don’t let it put you off.

In keeping with the series style, there are plenty of generously-sized stage illustrations, short captions telling you what’s going on and sidebars that include a variety of tips and jargon busters.

With 9 projects and clear instruction, this is the ideal place to start on a rewarding subject. You might also find it useful if you’ve already had a go, but are struggling.

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Stanhope Forbes – Father of the Newlyn School || Elizabeth Knowles

Victorian painting included a style that one might describe as “sanitised reality”. That is to say, scenes from the life of working people who, when you look at them more closely, live in houses that are in slightly too good repair and wear clothes that are suspiciously clean and unworn. It was a romanticisation of labour that led, amongst other things, to the Arts and Crafts Movement and the impossible futurology of William Morris’s novel News From Nowhere.

Stanhope Forbes is best known for his plein air foreshore paintings of Cornish fisherfolk, and there are plenty of these here. However, there is also a good selection of the artist’s other work that shows him capable of tackling a wide variety of subjects, from rural landscapes to portraiture and industry. In these, he seems more comfortable with the true reality of his subjects – the portraits in particular are sensitive and insightful. Only once does harsh reality creep in, in the very last painting in the book: Their Ever Changing Home, where a traveller family are on the move, the mother’s expression suggesting that this is not, perhaps, entirely voluntary.

Stanhope Forbes was an important figure in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and this book, published to accompany an exhibition at Penlee House Gallery and Museum, includes 50 well-reproduced illustrations that cover all periods of the artist’s life and aspects of his work.

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