The Shell Guides: a very British surrealism

Front cover of the Shell County Guide to Rutland by WG Hoskins, 1963
The Shell County Guides to England and Wales were, in their own unique way, part of the British avant garde. Dedicated to a subject matter that was quite the reverse, the Guides in fact became a platform for new forms of photographic expression and surrealism. A new exhibition that opens at the University of Middlesex’s Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture on March 4 aims to show just how supportive of the graphic arts these rather stuffy sounding guides to the jewels of the British countryside actually were.

Shell cover
Front cover of the Shell County Guide to Rutland by WG Hoskins, 1963

The Shell County Guides to England and Wales were, in their own unique way, part of the British avant garde. Dedicated to a subject matter that was quite the reverse, the Guides in fact became a platform for new forms of photographic expression and surrealism. A new exhibition that opens at the University of Middlesex’s Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture on March 4 aims to show just how supportive of the graphic arts these rather stuffy sounding guides to the jewels of the British countryside actually were.

Aimed at the new car-owning, metropolitan tourist – keen to enjoy their increased mobility and explore the British Isles – the Guides guaranteed a wider geographical focus than their predecessors: until that point travel guides had mainly focussed on destinations accessible by train and then by foot. While the typical 1930s guidebook would invariably look like it had come straight from the reference section of the local public library, the creators of the Shell Guides were drawn to the unconventional – the series (which ran from the 1930s until the 1980s) was regularly illustrated using modern, often surrealist, photography techniques.

Wiltshire cover
Front cover of Wiltshire County Guide, 1935

Shell Cornwall
Front cover of Cornwall County Guide (edited by John Betjeman), 1934.

The Guides’ founding editor was John Betjeman. While his standing as a poet is well acknowledged, his passion for architecture is perhaps less so. Indeed, his initial ideas for a series of guidebooks to the British Isles took shape while he was working as a junior editor at the Architectural Review. For his new project he gathered artists like Paul and John Nash, Robert Byron and John Piper together and, along with the invaluable help of Shell’s PR guru, Jack Beddington, published the first Shell Guide to Cornwall in 1934. 

Shell Cornwall
Advert for Shell petrol, by Edward Bawden, from Cornwall County Guide, 1934

Modernist in appearance, the Cornwall Guide included photomontages and even images printed on coloured papers. Paul Nash’s later guide to Dorset was also a fairly surrealist excercise, as was his brother John’s one on Buckinghamshire.

Shell Cornwall back
Advice on what to bring “When you go for a picnic”, from the Cornwall County Guide, 1934.
Note that between ensuring your sandwiches are wrapped and you’ve got the lavender oil, a
packet of cigarettes are, of course, essential

Rollbright illustration
“Rollright Stones” illustration by John Piper, from Oxon County Guide, edited by John Piper, 1930s

After the war the Guides reappeared in 1951 and were even more radical. Maps were included as were illustrated indexes that featured black and white imagery of interesting architectural details one might spot on a particular trip – guttering, window frames etc.

While Betjeman ensured the written style of the Guides varied with each editor it was Piper, says curator David Heathcote in his Introduction to the exhibition catalogue, who kept the design of the Guides at the highest level. He brought in, says Heathcote “increasingly subtle modernist layouts [that] gave the guides a distinctively British Graphics modernism”. Heathcote talks of Piper’s “styleless style” when it came to generating layouts for each book’s varied selection of photography.

The Guides, now long out of print, can still be found in second hand bookshops and on the internet, going for anything between £30 and £800 (for a rare 1939 Faber edition, hardcover with Spiro-bound interior). “My favourite guides are those that maintain the surrealist tradition of the 1930s editions,” says Heathcote. “Indeed, it was the special gift of the Shell Guides to represent as an everyday fact the elegiac oddness of the British landscape and to imply that this is part of the national identity.”

The Shell Guides: Surrealism, Modernism, Tourism
March 4 – November 2

Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture
Middlesex University
Cat Hill
Barnet
Herts EN4 8HT
+44 (0)20 8411 5344

www.moda.mdx.ac.uk

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