Saturday, March 28, 2009

Street View abecedary: J is for John, but which John?

Strange how, at least if you're as word-obsessed as me, a view can rearrange itself around a piece of lettering. This stretch of Stockwell Road is in many respects rather generically contemporary, for a long-timescale, fairly cynical value of contemporary: some boxy 60s or 70s flats, a boarded-up shop and a fried-chicken francise - which might be very good, for all I know; there's a branch of the same microchain in Sydenham, but I haven't tried it. And then there are the fading painted advertisements on the gable end, which suddenly anchor the picture in the 40s or 50s:

And in Googlecontext:

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The first product advertised is easy to identify: everyone knows Picture Post. Its photography was famous, and its publication dates place these advertisements somewhere between 1938 and 1957. The second, broken panel is trickier. John who? If it's another magazine, then the obvious answer is John Bull, a popular weekly that seems to have been known at different times for rabble-rousing patriotism and nice illustrations. (The two aren't mutually exclusive, of course.)

Wikipedia is entertainingly vague about John Bull, noting a scatter of dates when it definitely existed and concluding that it "may have closed in 1962". You can do much better with the British Library newspaper catalogue, which traces the main 20th-century carrier of the name - the magazine that was famously edited by Horatio Bottomley - from 1906 to 1958, then through a flurry of minor rebranding as it swallows a couple of other magazines, and then to a relaunch in February 1960 as something called Today, which itself comes to an end without any word of continuation in 1964. John Bull clocks up the best part of 2,800 issues in 54 years, which suggests more or less continuous weekly publication over that span. It's easy to imagine it being advertised alongside Picture Post.

That would have been a nice neat story, and I wish I could fully believe it. I had thought the two magazines shared an ownership, but it looks like that's wrong - Wiki does have Hulton, which owned Picture Post, selling out to Odhams, which owned John Bull, but only after Picture Post had closed. Another piece of evidence is a selection of John Bull covers on sale at the Advertising Archive. These have good, consistent branding, in a series of different serif styles that have little in common with the punchy, jauntily arranged sans on this wall. I suppose it could be a John Bull look from before the Advertising Archives' holdings - those seem to start in 1946 - but it could easily be another John altogether.

You'd need street directories and old photographs to get the full story, I suspect - Google, even with Street View, has its limits. This series will continue to explore them on Wednesday, when my alphabetical hopscotch will land on the letter B.

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