I had very little time last weekend but still found myself rearranging bookshelves, a typical procrastination tactic. Yet more time disappeared when I started opening up the slim volumes of the Britain in Pictures series, published by Collins (the forerunner of HarperCollins) in the 1940s when Great Britain was facing the imminent threat of German invasion. Over 100 volumes were issued from 1941, each one covering a basic and essential aspect of British civilization, ostensibly in case it disappeared. The volumes feature a colorful cover with standardized type, lots of illustrations to record the institutions, places and customs that were threatened with annihilation, and equally illustrious authors: Cecil Beaton on English Photographers, Edith Sitwell on English Women, John Betjeman on English Cities & Small Towns, and (the most amazing pairing of all), George Orwell on The English People.
Much to my shame, I have to admit that I first bought a few of these books when I was looking for PINK and RED books to decorate the bookcases in my double parlor: you will notice the preponderance of pink below. This is a mortifying admission, as an English historian, as an Anglophile, as a reader. I just loved the way these books looked, never mind the content. But after they went on the shelf, I started (occasionally) pulling them off and reading them, and then I wanted more, never mind the cover color. They are written in the most accessible way, almost blog-like, and definitely with the mission of capturing the essence of every single topic, whether it is British fashion, clubs or trade unions. So now I have quite a few titles, most of which I bought from a used book store in Concord, Massachusetts owned by a woman who always seemed to be able to get more. No longer; I notice they are fetching higher and higher prices on Ebay and AbeBooks, and there is even a book on collecting them: Michael Carney’s Britain in Pictures: A History and Bibliography (1995).
The categories of the series are on the back of each volume, encouraging collection in the 1940s and today: Art and Craftsmanship, including both the visual and performing arts, History and Achievement (lots of military topics, like the book above, but also books on mountaineering and polar exploration), Social Life and Character (including my three favorite books, British Rebels and Reformers by Harry Roberts, Life among the English by Rose Macaulay, and The English at Table by John Hampson), Natural History, Education and Religion, Literature and Belles Lettres, Topographical History, Science, Medicine and Engineering, and Country Life and Sport (lots of lords and ladies made contributions here). The back cover of one of the first books to be published also describes the rationale for the entire series: The English have never been good at describing themselves or their ways, either for their own benefit or for the benefit of others. It is, therefore, not surprising that no comprehensive series of books, at a popular price, illustrating, in print and picture, the life, art, institutions and achievements of the British people has ever been issued, either for British or for foreign readers. At this time, when it has become essential for citizens throughout the Empire to take stock of themselves and their ideas and to express them to others, it is desirable to fill this gap.
A few observations about the series title: Britain in Pictures. You can tell from the quote above that while the goal was to capture British civilization, an English bias would emerge. The majority of the titles focus on English life, although there are volumes on Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Commonwealth countries. All of these books are illustrated histories in every sense of the word: images were culled from libraries and museums but also commissioned from contemporary artists. The past and the present come together in these little British books, just in time.
Random illustrations from British Historians by E.L. Woodward, The English at Table by John Hampson, British Clubs by Bernard Darwin, and British Garden Flowers by George M. Taylor.