Behind the Lines 1

Philippa Lewis

Rex Savidge (1932), Entrance vestibule to civic building, Newcastle, 1957. Photomontage, ink and black and white photographs on Whatman 1956 paper, 585 × 800 mm. DMC 2907.

I look at this drawing and imagine the following scenario: Rex Savidge, architect, is running short of time. He must submit his plan for a commercial development in Newcastle the following day. Giving it a last look over, he is generally pleased with it: he has taken particular care with the lettering, (though he now wishes he had made the LIFT letters smaller), the perspective works – emphasised by the foyer’s lovely chequered ceiling, (he would suggest Kingfisher Blue and white), and he is very satisfied with the figures inhabiting the building, their heads floating lightly above their bodies – rather Corb, he thinks. Blank plate glass windows humanised by those planters filled with trailing ivy. Nice touch.

Young Nick Harbottle, trailing his duffle coat, comes into his office and looks over Savidge’s shoulder. ‘They’ll be lucky if that cheese plant survives a winter outside,’ he murmurs. Rex Savidge doesn’t answer but smooths his knitted tie. Worse is to come: ‘Bit empty, that pedestrian precinct. Looks like the public is giving it the cold shoulder. Needs a few people, real people.’

Critical blighter. Rex Savidge sees himself as an aesthete, a bit of a lily, but is aware that Harbottle has an acute eye for the popular. He is right. Damn him. No time to draw new figures. Collage. He calls in his secretary. ‘Miss Armstrong, you are very keen on illustrated magazines; can you can find me a few photographs of some smart people that I can paste onto the foreground for the presentation drawing of that Office job. Rather urgent: tomorrow morning?’

‘Horrockses Fashions in Fine Cotton’. Advertisement in Shopping Magazine.

Monica Armstrong goes home to her parents’ terraced house in Jesmond. She has only a vague idea of what sort of people Mr Savidge had in mind, but, after tea, starts leafing through the summer issue of Women’s Journal. She has already noted the advertisements for Horrockses summer frocks; something she might be able to afford now that she is out of the typing pool and a personal secretary. What could be smarter that those? And there is a man looking very admiringly at them – a suave David Niven type, not like that scruffy Harbottle. She pulls out a couple of pages. Perhaps old Savidge wants some men too. She finds a couple in her dad’s copy of Sphere, illustrating some dull story about the City of London.

The following morning, with only a couple of hours in hand, Savidge receives Monica’s tributes with some anxiety. What on earth will the client think of City of London stock jobbers milling around in Newcastle, or for that matter maidens cavorting in crisp cotton? Too late now. He painstakingly pastes them onto his pristine drawing and delicately pencils in the merest shadow at their feet, trying to make them look as if they might possibly belong. Well, that’s ruined it, he mutters to himself – still if that’s what it takes…

At 9 Bemersyde Drive a male voice shouts out, ‘Who’s cut up my bloomin’ magazine?’