High Street by Eric Ravilious

'High Street is a book on Shops. All children love the shopping game and this book sets a new game for curious minds, adults as well as children. Eric Ravilious spent a year sketching these shops of London town or country villages. Jim Richards spent another year finding out what happened behind the counter. Together with the printer's help, they have made a work of art.' Promotional copy from High Street (1938).

A collectors item since the original plates were destroyed during a bombing raid in 1942, High Street was finally reissued this year by the good people of the V&A. I won't say it was worth the wait, as somebody should have resurrected this lost classic decades ago, but as soon as I got my copy it was clear that we'd been missing something special for a very long time.

High Street was conceived as an alphabet of shops, but in the end ran to 24 separate illustrations by the artist Eric Ravilious. It was a mammoth undertaking for the artist, as he spent several years researching, sketching and then using the highly technical process of lithography, which he considered 'a damn tricky medium'. Rarely has so much care and attention been lavished on a book for children.
Viewed today the book appears to be a snapshot of a lost world in which you could walk down to your local high street and find a specialist shopekeeper selling whatever you wanted; whether that be a nice ham, a pound of Oysters, or a deep sea divers outfit.
In fact it is something of a paean to an already vanishing world. As Jim Richards says in his introduction:

'To-day there are very few shops where the things that are offered for sale are actually made by the shop-keeper… the saddler still makes harness in his shop, the country butcher makes his own sausages and the baker his bread; but many more things are made in factories, and the shopkeeper earns his living by selling the factory-made goods to the public.'

He goes on to lament the loss of such individuality to the 'big multiple stores.' And Ravilious seems to have gone out of his way to find some extraordinary examples that celebrated their individuality through the most amazing window displays. One of his great talents was an amazing use of light, and it's combined here with the natural theatricality of the shop front to great effect, creating scenes that are highly stylised, but are still believably real businesses.

Every last one of these shops is a place you'd want to spend time and money; whether it's on the slot machines at the Amusement Arcade; the wedding cake shop with its fantastical creations kept pristine under bell jars; or browsing rows of theatrical properties ('all the movable things that are needed on a theatre stage').

One of the most intriguing is a Submarine shop, selling diving gear. The window display 'shows a diver working at the bottom of the sea, and several different kinds of helmet. The window is lined with oyster shells to show that pearl fishing is one of the most important uses of diving apparatus.' Ravilious thought the shop 'almost frightening'.

Ravilious experts James Russell and Alan Powers have identified the shop as Siebe Gorman & Co. of Westminster Bridge Road, London. Powers says that it's likely that this was the shop that supplied 'the diving suit worn by Salvador Dali at the opening of the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in the summer of 1936.' Maybe Ravilious was right to be nervous about the shop. Dali had to be extracted from the apparatus with pliers after nearly suffocating.

Happily Russell also discovered that two of the businesses are still trading from their original premises. Should you be in the market for a clerical outfit why not pop down to J. Wippell & Co. at Tufton Street, London. Or if cheese is your thing, Paxton & Whitfield can be found in Jermyn Street London, with shop front and display still remarkably unchanged.

Much praise should be reserved to Jim Richards for his illuminating and highly detailed descriptions. There can't be many children's books that explain exactly how to get served in the pub. 'If you want ordinary beer you ask for “bitter”. Usually there are also two kinds of ale, mild ale and old ale (which also called Burton), and you can order a mixture of any two, such as “old and mild” or “bitter and Burton”.' Got that kids? Mine's a Burton and Red Bull.

Ravilious died a few years after the publication of High Street while working as a war artist. As a result he's not quite as well known as his friends and contemporaries Paul Nash and Edward Bawden, but his cult status is rapidly turning into full blown 'major important artist' status.


An exhibition at the RWA gallery in Bristol over the summer certainly justified this. Although it mainly featured his watercolour landscapes, the highlight for me was seeing a set of lithographs created during the war, showing life and work aboard a submarine.

James Russell is about to publish his latest Ravilious book showcasing the ten plates. I wouldn't be surprised if Eric Ravilious is also responsible for my picture book of 2013.


2 thoughts on “High Street by Eric Ravilious

  1. Look out for ‘Ravilious: Submarine’, my new book devoted to the submarine lithographs and early 20th century auto-lithography – stunning pictures of Russian and French children’s books… You might also enjoy ‘The Story of High Street’, which should be in the British Library and London art libraries; it’s the book Alan and I did the research for, and it is also a visual treat…


  2. A lesser known illustrator, John Griffiths created a series of equally stunning illustrations of shop fronts for Motif magazine, with a definite nod to Ravilious’s work. Sadly there’s not much information out there on his work but it’s most definitely worth a look!


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