Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Queer Looks: Documentary on Photographer John Deakin

John Deakin (1912-1972) is a photographer who first started his career as a dresser of shop-windows which explains his obsession with shop window in his work. The newly published British Art Studies Journal by the Paul Mellon Centre commissioned the film-maker Jonathan Law for a movie about John Deakin's life and career. The first episode focused on his double-exposure images in relation to the history of photography, available here.

The second episode is what I am particularly interested in because it focused on two aspects of Deakin's work: queer and glances/glaze. Two terms which have always been correlated with each other. Deakin took pictures of shop-windows but is not only interested in what was in the window but also about who is looking at it. This technique is called in the documentary "queer cruising", which about re-using cisgender everyday codes, like shop window, and adding an extra meaning to this activity, looking for a lover/partner. These photographes illustrate how queers could meet in the streets without others realising. Window-glazing becomes suddenly a parallel activity, you add meaning to a rather common activity, it is subversive while being totally meaningless to most passers-by. 

A dummy in a shop window wearing Greek sailor's uniform, Greece, circa 1953.
A dummy in a shop window wearing Greek sailor's uniform, Greece, circa 1953.

The technique is described in the movie, you would stare at the window and someone would come near you and start a conversation while starring at the window reflection to try recognise the person next to you. This window is now your safe space, you are playing a game that you control and can give, or not, information about yourself. This double identity, yourself and your reflection, is a common feature in queer art, expressing how society alienates people's own persona and how you have to create several images of yourself. But it is also a way to explore your different personalities and to play with your identity. Finding spaces in which you can glance and be glanced as a queer or homosexual at Deakin's time was a rarity but not an impossible task, you just needed to know the codes and how to use them.  

Religious statuettes in the window of a church reliquary shop in Rome, Italy 1947. The church of Santa Maria in Vallicella (aka the Chiesa Nuova) is reflected in the window.
Religious statuettes in the window of a church reliquary shop in Rome, Italy 1947. The church of Santa Maria in Vallicella (aka the Chiesa Nuova) is reflected in the window.
He also took a lot of pictures of George Dyer, Francis Bacon's lover! But that's another story... 
Portrait of George Dyer, petty criminal and gangster, model and boyfriend of Francis Bacon, Soho, London, mid 1960's.
Portrait of George Dyer, petty criminal and gangster, model and boyfriend of Francis Bacon, Soho, London, mid 1960's.

More info: 

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Herbert Cole and his design principles applied to Heraldry in "Heraldry and its Use in Decoration" (1922)

Frontispice of Heraldry and Floral Forms
used in Decoration

by Herbert Cole (1922)

In 1922, Herbert Cole published Heraldry and Floral Forms used in Decoration with his own drawings. The book focuses on Heraldry and its ancient and modern use in decoration. The aims of the book are to educate the decorators and to help then understand the iconography of the Middle-Ages. Cole talks about design, history and principles for his time, not a mere history of heraldry. He emphasises how often you can see heraldry in "modern" (non medieval) building. 

Herbert Cole (1867-1930) was a draughtsman, engraver and illustrator. He taught Costume illustration at Camberwell School of art and was a close friend of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Nowadays, he is mainly remembered for his illustrations of medieval myths and his portrait of Sylvia Pankhurst (1925) at the National Gallery in London. 

In "Heraldry and its use in Decoration", Cole asserts that the role of decorators, this new profession which emerged at the end of the 19th century, is, by the 1920s, an established profession with which artists have to work with. Cole seems unimpressed by decorators and would like them to study closely medieval examples in order to learn design principles. This emphasis on principles and "good" and "bad" taste has been at the heart of the art debate in Britain since the 1830s and the first reports on art and industry in the country. Henry Cole was the key figure of the movement and wanted to teach professionals and the public what was good and bad design. It obtained mixed results, some victories like the creation of the South Kensington Museum, now Victoria and Albert Museum, and some defeats especially in relation to manufactured goods. 

Portion of a two mantel-pieces in carved stone
Tattersall Castle - Lincolnshire 15th century

In the 1920s, these questions are still alive and Cole is trying to connect decorators, who are now controlling the trade, with art history. His choice of heraldry is mainly dictated by his past as a Pre-Raphaelite.  

Mermaid, Herbert Cole (1915) 

He starts his argument with the history of heraldry and how it has been abused by some artists:

“with the rise of purely pictural art the decay set in. The herald began to imitate the picture painter, and forgot that his duty was to appeal to the eye by expressive symbols, designed to serve a special purpose’’p.8

This quote is a perfect example of the rivalry between decorative arts/craftsmen and fine arts. For Cole, fine arts has perverted heraldry to make it pretty without meanings.  


“In searching for examples of heraldry in decoration it is astonishing how widely it has been used and how great the range of material in which it has been employed. Carving in wood and stone, weaving and embroidery, enamelling on metal, painting on glass, ironwork, cast and wrought, printed and painted book decoration are only some of the various ways designers and decorators have used in its expression.”p.64

Heraldry is not only used on shields and on the battle fields, even if according to Cole it was its first use, but is also present inside the house, as a common and domestic iconography. Heraldry is a multi-purpose decoration which if used correctly can help us to remember the past, real or fantasised. 


"In days gone by heraldry came more into the domain of the craftsman and the decorator than into that of the pictorial artist, but much could be brought forward in the way of evidence to show that it was well understood by all workers in the arts. Experts have shown that in modern times many easily avoidable mistakes have been made through the lack of little knowledge of the subject." 

When reading Cole it is hard not to compare his work with another artist, Augustus W.N. Pugin who also advocates for the return of heraldry in modern houses and did it in his own house. In La Grange, Pugin painted his heraldry and motto everywhere, from the walls to the ceiling to his plates. Pugin was living his medieval dream. Cole follows Pugin's path but he modernised it by allowing decorators, and not artists, to use heraldry on different media. For Pugin, the support was as important as the iconography but Cole seemed to allow people more freedom with medieval historicity.


Herbert Cole. Heraldry and Floral Forms as Used in Decoration; London & Toronto, J. M. Dent & Sons ltd.; New York, E. P. Dutton & co., 1922. http://archive.org/details/heraldryfloralfo00colerich