Thursday, 2 February 2012

A Picture History of Britain

If you like books as beautiful objects rather than just texts (and I think most people who like children's books particularly would fall into that category) then I am confident you will like the book I am considering today.

Originally published in 1945; Clarke Hutton's 'A Picture History of Britain' is a perfectly coherent first primer account of the last 2000 years on this island condensed into 60 odd pages. It is also in itself a piece of history, both artistic and social; and as such a lovely thing to own.

An introduction at the beginning of this reissue introduces Hutton as one of the pioneers of autolithography for illustration. Not really knowing what that was I discovered this film here which demonstrates it rather beautifully if a little lengthily. He studied and then taught at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London and also produced a series of educational prints which apparently adorned many classrooms in the 1950s. I'd like to see them. His work is beautiful; a slightly sombre, muted palate pays proper respect to the subject matter of capital H History, but there is also a playful expressiveness- particularly in the later illustrations in the book where more social history is introduced. I love the picture of people going hiking for pleasure as leisure time increased (a swarthy gentleman with a pipe may be goosing the cross looking youth in front). The picture of rioting Blackshirt Fascists has real menace I think.

The text is surprisingly useful. The boys dip into it regularly to get a fix on something of interest to them. To start with that was just identifying every King 'Bill' and every King 'Eddie' but it's also seen us through explorations into Knights, The Great Fire, Florence Nightingale and the Blitz amongst others so far. I like the hotchpotch of  political and social history; facts and 'story'- for example-

"Sir Walter Raleigh sent men to explore the east coast of America. The land they found they called Virginia. There they found tobacco growing and sent some back to England. More and more people began to enjoy smoking a pipe."
The chronological approach has also proved illuminating to Bill and Eddie when the term 'history' just means everything that happened before they were born. 

There is a poignant post war optimism which pervades the book. To write a History of Britain in 1945 must have felt a bit like putting a full stop on time; 'and now we will all live happily ever after- ish'. History complete.

"This brings us to the end of our history, and the hopes of men and women all over the world that the folly of war, and the dreadful misery it brings, may at last be understood, and never repeated. That such a Peace shall be made that, as the Atlantic Charter declares: 'all men in all lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want'."

sniff. and sigh.

'A Picture History of Britain' Clarke Hutton, pub.OUP isbn 978-0-19-911571-6


  1. Oh dear...your blog is really going to be dangerous! Another one to add to the heap!