Exhibition: The Golden Age of Laurence Fish, Sept 18 & 19, 2021
Katie B Morgan
- Credit: Jean Bray
The Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway is staging a spectacular exhibition at its Winchcombe station, celebrating the work of the last of the great railway poster artists, Laurence Fish
Laurence Fish (1919-2009) was one of those brilliant artists whose name should be far more famous than it is. His wife Jean Bray is making sure that everyone will know of him and connect both his names – Laurence and Fish – to the same man. This extremely versatile artist, created a wide variety of work, from pen and ink technical drawings to bright, colourful and well-known railway advertising posters.
Over the weekend of July 10 & 11, the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway will have a major exhibition of his work, in the new Tim Mitchell building on Platform 1 at Winchcombe station. Accompanying Posters from the Steam Age will be three new short films by the Gloucestershire cinematographer Richard Suckling, each showing the different art directions that Laurence took: railways, aviation and fine art. Under the company name of Cave Bear Films, Richard produces a wide variety of beautiful films, both his own and commissioned, including the three for Jean. If you can't come to see the exhibition – though I would urge you to do so – his films can be seen on YouTube. Jean will also be there signing her book Pick up a Pencil celebrating Laurence’s life of art and design. Laurence used to say that sooner or later someone has to pick up a pencil.
Laurence was mainly self taught but initially trained in the 1930s at the Carlton Carriage Company, working under Mark Young, designing for Alvis cars in Mayfair, London. Other commercial work was designing coachwork for MG, Bentley and Delahaye. As a boy he used to draw cars in showroom windows and redesign them, remembering family giving him pennies to draw around for wheels. He thought about going to college, but when he went for an interview they told him that they couldn't teach him anything!
In January 1939, he must have shown that he was a gifted artist, getting a job working for the Iliffe Press. The studio was run by Max Millar (1890-1973), the leading motoring technical illustrator of the time. There Laurence specialised in illustrating technical subjects and cutaways of machines, motor cars, yachts and aircraft. As a meticulous draughtsman, he later worked for magazines and book publications such as Yachting World and Autocar.
Just as he was climbing the ladder and reaching the top of his trade, the war started, which made him have to change direction. He already had a private pilot’s licence and was a member of the RAF volunteer reserve, so was devastated when he couldn’t be a pilot due to his eyesight.
His commanding officer said, ‘Fish, I want a Spitfire, you want a Spitfire, but neither of us are going to have one.’
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His artistry led him to work for Vickers-Armstrongs Supermarine Works, Ministry of Aircraft production, and then Lord Rothschild seconded him to join his counter-sabotage unit in MI5. One of his jobs was producing sectional drawings of the internal workings of explosive devices and booby traps, to enable them to be safely detected and defused. Doing this sort of work had to be exact and precise because lives were at risk if anything was drawn incorrectly. The exploding chocolate bar – featured in the TV series David Jason’s Secret Service – and others will also be on display. His superb mechanical draughtsmanship can be seen in these hand-drawn works; no computers then. Jean told me that one evening he brought one of the devices home to draw and put it under their bed overnight. It was only when he took it back to work the following day that he found that the bomb was live!
‘Only Laurence could make a bomb into a work of art,’ she smiled.
After the war, everything changed again when he was invited to be a founder member of the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers, leading him to produce vibrant colour illustrations for Shell, BP, Dunlop, Bristol Aeroplane Company, Hawker Siddeley, BOAC, MG Cars, British Rail and the Indian Air Force. There was only black and white photography for commercial graphics, so his brilliant sense of colour enhanced his subjects, making even the most grey industrial scene into an exciting vibrant work of art, good enough to be framed on a wall in a gallery.
He had not been a student of art, but every direction that his work took brought to the fore his technical skills and creative eye, always appearing to go above and beyond what was initially asked of him. Unfortunately for him just as he would be getting to the top of the tree in each artistic department he would have to change direction. He said that someone always took the ladder away when he neared the top, and he’d have to start at the bottom again.
In 1957, his illustrations led him to become a railway artist for mainly the southern region, in what's now known as the ‘Golden Age’ of railway art. One of his posters won the 1960 National Poster and Advertising Award.
He signed his posters ‘Laurence’ to distinguish and avoid conflict with his other commercial technological work, and some are not signed at all. One poster ‘Hello Sailor’ was snapped up by Portsmouth and Southsea and before he had a chance to sign it. The design was jokingly showing the sailors in Portsmouth and the girls in Southsea. As Jean says, you might not get away with some of the ideas now, but they are vintage and wonderful.
While working with George Eckett, head of marketing and publicity, he dreamed up the beautiful pin-up girls giving English seaside resorts the look of glamour and sunny days. People were beginning to own cars, so the posters needed to promote seaside towns, to get tourists and holidaymakers onto the trains. On one of my visits to relatives up north, I saw his railway poster ‘Life is Gay in Whitley Bay’ everywhere. Jean owns the copyright on all of his work, but it’s hard keeping tabs on all the unofficial reproductions.
Again, his career shifted and he moved onto editorial magazine Illustration. He met Jean, a writer and journalist when she was working for Save the Children and they needed an illustrator. Jean said that once he stood in Waterloo Station, and his posters were on the walls, his illustrations were in the magazines, and his illustrated book covers were in the stands.
Starting up the ladder again, he became a graphic designer, advertising art director and lecturer at Southampton Art College.
It was only in his later years, after they moved to Winchcombe, that he was able to spend time creating his own art, mixing his own colours and filling empty paint tubes that he bought from the manufacturers. He made his own paint colour charts so that his paintings followed ‘chords’, much more thoughtful and in tune than using colours straight out of a shop. Still experimenting, he worked on wood instead of canvas and used polyfilla to create more texture. Some of his original pieces can be bought from the Priory Gallery in Broadway.
At last he was able to reach the top of his ladder, exhibiting his paintings at the Royal Academy, The Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour, The Royal Society of Marine Artists, and at many other London and provincial galleries.
Jean worked at Sudeley Castle as the archivist, writing books and working with Lady Ashcombe, curating new exhibitions and articles. I first met her in the late 1980s when I had a workshop at the castle, and really, she is much better at writing than me, but it is a privilege to write an article about her husband. Even during lockdown, Jean has completed a new book. It's great to have his posters back at a railway station, where they were meant to be; maybe the time is right for a new blue plaque. The railway has resumed services with online booking for round trips. The old-fashioned compartment coaches are being used, creating perfect social bubbles.
I was lucky to have known him, but wish that I had fully appreciated quite what an exceptional artist he was. So, from me, thank you, Jean, for showing us all what an exceptional illustrator, designer and artist he was.
I’ll leave the last words to Jean:
‘Laurence was a romantic with an eager, inquiring mind which really translated into his art. Nevertheless, he was also quite a modest and private man which is perhaps why he isn’t as well-known as he should be.’
Posters From the Steam Age is at the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway’s Winchcombe station on September 18 & 19, 10.30am-5pm. Free entry. Visit gwsr.com for more information.
*Please note: Due to the extension of Covid restrictions, the exhibition was moved from July to September. However, there is to be a 'taster exhibition' on Saturday, July 10 at Winchcombe Museum.