Category Archives: London

The scissor-cuts of Lisl Hummel

This article was originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.239, 19th July 2019

Lisl Hummel’s cover illustration.

H.V. Morton’s first book, “The Heart of London” was published by Methuen & Co., of London, on 11 June 1925. It comprises forty-nine essays and sketches of London people and places compiled from a series of seventy-five articles published in the Daily Express newspaper early in 1925. By then HVM was already establishing himself as a creditable feature writer for the Daily Express and a favourite of the newspaper baron, Lord Beaverbrook.

The book ran to at least 25 editions or re-printings by 1949. In October 1926 the fourth edition was produced in a larger format with 24 scissor-cut (silhouette) illustrations by the Viennese artist Lisl Hummel.

St Paul’s Pigeons, Through the Columns of St Martin-in-the-Fields and At the Rag Fair, three of the scissor-cut illustrations from “The Heart of London

Recently I was lucky enough to be able to acquire a copy of the special scissor-cut edition and was able to see for myself these delightful additions to Morton’s observations of his beloved London. The silhouettes have a child-like innocence which complements Morton’s words, adding to them in a way that photographs couldn’t possibly do. They lend the work a slightly fantastical feel, as if we were not learning about actual places or events but rather reading a set of fables.

For this special edition, Morton wrote a special introduction:

LONDON has been pictured by countless pens and brushes, inspired and humdrum, but this is the first time that an artist has hunted the City with a pair of magic scissors. Miss Hummel is a young Viennese artist who has specialised in, or, as I prefer to call it, tamed, a most intractible material—black paper.
I think it will be generally agreed that the scissor-cuts in this volume are remarkable for their vitality, their beauty of line and their charm. Before I saw Miss Hummel at work with her magic scissors I had no idea that there could be so much to admire in a silhouette.

H.V.M.
London,
September 1926

Well, curiosity got the better of me and I thought I would do a little digging on the subject of Miss Hummel and find out why her illustrations seemed to resonate so strongly. It took me a while and, as is often the case when researching books, I was all too easily distracted while pursuing connections which, though enjoyable, had little to do with my original project. But eventually I built up a picture of the artist, albeit an incomplete one.

According to this source at AskArt.com (which references “Artists in California, 1786-1940” by Edan Hughes), Lisl Hummel was born in Austria on May 19, 1892 (the same year as HVM). During the 1920s Hummel was a student at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, CA. By 1930 she was married to Dr. Henry Barsook. She worked as a freelance artist in Pasadena into the 1940s and later moved to Oregon with artist Don Foth. She died in Santa Barbara, CA on May 30, 1990. Her works include landscapes with eucalypti and oaks.

This brief biography makes no mention of book illustrations, silhouettes or scissor cuts and suggests she was living in the US when she was involved in illustrating Morton’s work. Eventually however (information is sparse until you know where to look), I started to unearth a few other titles which she had been involved with and straight away the reason her illustrations seemed so evocative became clear. They are all children’s books, and I have a feeling there were a few battered copies around in my various family homes as I grew up. Although one at least is still in print, many seem quite rare these days but occasional copies can be found on the websites of second hand book sellers. Looking at the pictures of covers and illustrated pages to be found online there is a simplicity about them. Like the works of Morton they are unpretentious and accessible, there is no ‘side’ or hidden agenda about them and I could see why Morton’s “The Heart of London” seems to have been the only ‘adult’ work that Miss Hummel has collaborated on.

Some of the other covers and illustrations by Lisl Hummel.

For the record, the other volumes which I was able to find are as follows:

The Little Pagan Faun & Other Fancies” by Patrick R Chalmers (a collection of stories from Punch, the dustjacket of the 1914 edition is illustrated with five vignettes from the book). Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston and New York (circa 1914), also Jonathan Cape (1927).

Toy Ships: Poems for children” by Florence B Steiner (with 25 illustrations). Publisher: The Graphic Publishers, Ottawa (1926).

A Little Christmas Book” by Rose Fyleman (featuring ten scissor cut illustrations). Publisher: Methuen (1926) and George H. Doran Company, New York (1927).

Poems for Peter” by Lysbeth Borie (an author from Philadelphia, this book is still in print today). Publisher: J.B. Lippincott & Co. (1928).

The Four Young Kendalls” by Eliza Orne White. Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company (1932).

The Good Natured Bear” by Richard Henry Horne. Publisher: Macmillan, New York (1945).

I don’t own any of these books, yet I feel, from looking at their descriptions, I know them and that they have made an impression on me. Anyone who ever watched The Singing Ringing Tree on a tiny old black and white television set as a young child will know exactly what I am talking about!

If anyone knows any more about Miss Hummel and her scissor-cut illustrations I would be delighted to hear from them. In the meantime it is well worth looking out for this unique edition of “The Heart of London” which comes up for sale occasionally, it makes a charming addition to any collection of Mortoniana.

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

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Congratulations to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth

Congratulations to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on the occasion of her Platinum Jubilee.

Princess Elizabeth, radiant on her wedding day

HV Morton was as patriotic as they come and a monarchist through and through. His profound sense of the history of his native land and of the monarchy shone from many of his books and articles.
As one of the most respected writers of the day he was present at the wedding of the the 21 year old Princess Elizabeth to Prince Phillip in November 1947. At the time he described the future monarch as “young and radiant”, comparing the young couple’s love-match to that of Queen Victoria and Albert in the previous century.

Later he was invited “by command of the Queen” to attend the Coronation at Westminster Abbey in 1953, reporting for a number of publications including Illustrated magazine and the National Geographic. By then Elizabeth had already been Queen for sixteen months and, against a background of a London still scarred by war yet already preparing for the possibility of another, Morton described her as a “Queen of Hearts”, a “beautiful young woman… crowned with universal acclaim”.

Morton was born in the twilight of the Victorian age. I wonder if, during his early years working as a cub-reporter at his father’s newspaper in Birmingham he could ever have imagined he would be there to witness the dawn of the new Elizabethan age and to record events for us in his timeless style.

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If you want to get ahead…

… get a hat!

HV Morton set great store by hats and was rarely photographed without one. In his 1951 “In Search of London” he made it clear that he considered hats a barometer of society. He wrote of “modern London” only a few years after he had reported there during the blitz that it was now a place “of jagged ruins and hatless crowds”, an altogether shabbier, graver and sadder place than it had been in previous times. To Morton London now felt “provincial”, a city where “it was no longer possible to distinguish a lord from a navvy, a poor man from a rich one”. A creature of a different age, Morton seemed to feel like a stranger in the city he had once been so familiar with.

A recent event however, somewhere in London, suggests the tide may be turning very slghtly, in a way Morton would have surely approved.

Hats 01

Michael Hagon, a member of the HV Morton Society, has a love of all things London and of HV Morton having acquired his first volume – Morton’s earliest book, “The Heart of London” – some years ago. He also happens to be the manager of one of the most venerated and historical shops in the world, Lock & Co Hatters of St James’s, which dates back to the 17th century.

Recently he wrote to me:

It may be of interest to you to know that we have just made a limited edition eight piece cap made from Escorial wool called “Morton”, the perfect cap to wear when exploring the “Heart of London”. I thought it was time HV was honoured at Locks!

I couldn’t agree more – the hat has a robust and stylish look and is a fitting tribute to one of the best known and best dressed interwar travel writers, Henry Canova Vollam Morton.

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

This post was previously circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.254

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Under Waterloo Bridge by Rob Jeffries

The floating police pier under Waterloo Bridge, complete with police launch.

Henry Vollam Morton is one of my favourite authors. He was a widely travelled journalist and from the 1920’s through to the 1960’s he recorded his wanderings in a series of beautifully written travel books. His style was simple and elegant. He wrote short descriptive chapters about anything that took his interest and his legacy is a fascinating insight into a society that was rapidly changing from the old ways to the world that we know today. His books on London in particular, written between the wars, shine a fascinating light on a city that we will never see again.

H.V. Morton’s “The Nights of London

Morton seems to have had a particular affinity for the River Thames and its police force proved to be a rich source of material for him. He wrote about them on more than one occasion. In his book “The Nights of London” he recalls a visit he paid in the 1920’s to the floating police pier under Waterloo Bridge (now Tower Pier RNLI Station – the busiest in the country) and the conversation he had with the sergeant on duty. As a retired Thames police officer myself who served for many years at Waterloo Pier, I can almost feel the ghosts of serving officers past looking over my shoulder as I read his words – and my, how times change.

“I know of few more dramatic places in London than the Suicide Room of this police raft; the bed ready, the bath ready, the cordials ready. The little dinghy with the rubber roller on the stern, its nose pointed to the dark arches.”

Waterloo Bridge in July 1937, as seen from Cleopatra’s Needle and complete with contemplative young lady (The floating pier can just be seen under the arch on the left).

The sergeant being interviewed recalled one particular rescue. “We heard a splash and we were there in a second. She was a good looking, nice spoken young girl but she did want to die. I have never seen anyone who wanted to die so much. She fought and told us to go away. What right have we got to come and interfere with her private affairs?” The sergeant went on to describe how the ensuing struggle almost led to the small boat being swamped by the river before they managed to land her at the pier at around 3am. This sad tale then took a twist that plainly amused Morton.

The floating pier with Somerset House in the background

The sergeant described how they needed to put this attractive young lady in the bath to warm her up and apparently in those days a police matron needed to be summoned from Bow Street police station to deal with female patients. But, on this occasion, she was not available to attend. This left the police crew with an awkward problem – after all, the officers on duty were all unmarried men and not used to such jobs as undressing young ladies. Morton queried the sergeant that surely it would have been ok to assist the woman in these exceptional circumstances but our shy and bashful young sergeant was adamant, “You can’t be too careful, how did we know that she would not turn nasty for having her life saved and complain that she had been treated disrespectfully?

Thames Police rescue someone from the river (not the young lady in question!)

Fortunately for all concerned this tricky problem was resolved. It seems that the police pier in those days employed a “Handy Man” called Sam, and Sam was quickly summoned and informed that because he was the only suitably qualified man present (in that he had at some point in his life been married) He would have to undress the patient – a task he apparently performed without question.

Struggling to suppress his amusement that London’s finest, so often accused of callousness, could be so demure in its behaviour Morton completed his interview with a last few questions:

“And is that the end of the story?”

“Yes”

“Did she complain?”

“No, she didn’t”

“And why did she jump?”

“I think it was love”

As Morton left and walked along Victoria Embankment he wrote “I glanced back from the Embankment and saw the Thames heavy with the secrets it has carried to the sea these thousand years; and in the sky was a remote half moon lying on the curve in a ridiculous and careless attitude, as if London did not mean anything.

This article was originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.170 on 1st August, 2014

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“Ghosts of London”, by HV Morton, a review.

Ghosts of London small

Ghosts of London”, by HV Morton, First published by Methuen, London, 16th November 1939

This little known work of Morton’s comprises 30 chapters including the explanatory introduction and twelve gravure plates illustrating some of the subjects. Each chapter is an essay in its own right (although two sets of two chapters are conjoined by closely related subjects) describing the Ghosts of the title, namely the ancient customs and rituals of London which even at the time of writing were well on their way to becoming endangered species that Morton felt moved to preserve in print before they disappeared altogether.

According to the introduction, they were compiled in 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, having been written some time in the late twenties and thirties, presumably as Daily Express articles. The theme, according to the author is ‘the continuity of London’s existence’ and to ‘remind us of certain permanent values’ which even at that time Morton seems to have realised were changing and slipping away from the country, and from him.

img427 Yeomen with the Royal Maundy, Westminster Abbey GoL smallYeomen with the Royal Maundy, Westminster Abbey

This work is a testament to what London and by extension Britain stood to lose in the coming conflict, particularly (and remarkably prophetically) with the new threat of war in the air and the mass aerial bombardments which had already seen Madrid, Barcelona and Warsaw brought low. This book is a rallying cry not to arms but to the past, an invocation of the nation’s ‘spiritual reserves’ at a time of dire need.

After an introduction stark with contemporary intrusions as the capital prepares for war – gas masks and barrage balloons, empty streets and sandbagged buildings – the reader is plunged as it were into ‘deep-time’ in a series of chapters which invoke a reassuring sense of solidity, permanence and order. Even though the reason for their existence may be obscure or even, in some cases, non-existent, at least the Ghosts endure.

The reader gets the distinct impression of Morton in his element as he describes his various chosen topics. Chapter one opens with an account of ‘Charlie’s day’ where the restoration of Charles II after the fall of the English commonwealth is celebrated by schoolboys wielding oak apples and attacking one another with bunches of stinging nettles, something which would in all likelihood be an arrestable offence these days!

Later Ghosts are even older. The traditional horn-blowers of the temple, for example, keep alive a tradition dating back to the crusades while the curfew bell may date as far back as Alfred the Great. The shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostella, Maundy Money and the Lambeth dole where elderly ladies receive half a crown from an ex-quartermaster-sergeant by virtue of an act of generosity by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 13th century are all discussed in lively detail while en route Morton stops off to celebrate snuff and herbs, leeches and eye lotion and narrowly avoids an encounter with a red dragon.

Harking back to his account of the history of Mayfair which appeared in a detailed pamphlet in 1927 to celebrate the building of the Hotel of the same name, Morton casts a new light on Shepherd Market, the last surviving remnant of the original May Fair before it was hemmed in by houses and eventually banned.

The Tower of London features in several chapters and, in a modern twist on an ancient tradition, Morton gives an account of the Ceremony of the Keys from the point of view of the radio broadcasts which he himself gave to the nation every year for several years at the request of the broadcaster 2LO, later known as the more familiar British Broadcasting Corporation.

He shares a beer with the bell ringers of St Paul’s after hearing how Big Ben had to be recast following a disastrous trip down from York and lends a sympathetic ear to Hansom Cab drivers, night-watchmen and some of the few remaining lamplighters of London, who he refers to as ‘leeries’, from the Robert Louis Stevenson poem ‘The Lamplighter’.

img428 The Lamplighter GoL mod small ‘There’s not many of us stick lighters left… but here and there a few of us still muster for the evening

By the end of the account the reader is left with an insight, not only into some of the ancient history of London but also into HV Morton’s mindset too. In selecting his subject matter he has given us a tantalising glimpse into the mental world he inhabited and the things he valued, many of which were destined to be swept away not just by the aerial bombardment he predicted but afterwards too, by misguided urban planners and a changing political and social landscape.

Whether Morton liked it or not society was evolving, in many ways for the better, becoming more inclusive, more egalitarian, but also more centralised, and committee led. Old-fashioned respect came to count for little and the ‘ruling classes’ were obliged to find new roles for themselves in a weakened, post-war Britain as the nation itself adjusted to a new, more subordinate role in a post-imperial world.

It is sad to consider that less than ten years after publication of “Ghosts of London”, as the old ways gave way to the new, Morton, finding it impossible to reconcile his views with what was happening around him in his native country, had left it for good, finally settling with his family in South Africa.

Niall Taylor

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