by Linda Nead. Yale University Press, November 2017. vii, 407 p. ill. ISBN 9780300214604 (h/c), $45.00.

Reviewed May 2018
Stephen J. Bury, Andrew W. Mellon Chief Librarian, Frick Art Reference Library, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

neadLynda Nead’s study of 1950s British (in fact English) visual culture takes its title from Margery Allingham’s detective novel published in 1952 and made into film in 1956. “The Smoke” references, of course, the Great Smog of December 1952 which paralyzed London, killing 4000.

In the first part, “The Grain of the 1950s,” Nead, the Pevsner Chair of History of Art, Birkbeck College, University of London, argues for a pervasive greyscale, a Dickensian noir, throughout post-war English culture. She connects the smog with bombsites, a common sight after the Blitz, but another ambiguous space, ubiquitous but dangerous physically and morally.

The next section, "The Question of Colour,” establishes an interesting hypothesis about the impact of migration on England. The evidence examined includes: three-filter Technicolor film; the color advertisements in Picture Post; racist color names in the British Colour Council’s standards; a close reading of the film Sapphire (1959) about the murder of a mixed-race girl but which includes dramatic color/black-and-white transitions; Picture Post photographs of Caribbean immigrants arriving at Victoria Station; immigrant fashion; and the seeming absence of colored immigrants at the Festival of Britain – but present in the frames of a documentary film, after slowing the film, using a technique which Laura Mulvey has called “delaying cinema.”

“Kitchen Sinks and Other Domestic Dramas” is the last section and discusses the impact on family life of the displacement of the coal fire by the TV as the focal point of the family, and the “stopped” English Sunday afternoon. It examines conjugal relations through a close reading of Kitchen Sink School paintings, the Robert Hamer film It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), and Ted Willis’ Television Playhouse Woman in a Dressing Gown (1956), made into a film in 1957.

The author employs a close-looking approach to a wide range of media – whether it is the paintings of Frank Auerbach, John Minton, or John Bratby, black-and-white (David Lean’s Great Expectations) and color (Basil Dearden’s Sapphire) film, film posters, Bill Brandt and Bert Hardy photographs, Picture Post (1938-1957), novels (such as Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-Longue), fashion items (such as the dressing gown and house-coat), Ringelmann’s air pollution charts, or marriage guidance manuals.

What is interesting about Nead’s approach is her use of the theory of the time – in particular the object relations theory of British psychologists Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott, and others.

At a time when many monographs are just aggregations of discrete academic papers, this book has a strong, continuous argument. It also has high quality illustrations that form part of that argument.

This book is highly recommended for students of post-war English culture, film studies, interior design, fashion, architecture and spatial design, as well as painting and mass medi