The Britain in Pictures books (BIP) published by Collins are a familiar staple of the second-hand book trade in the UK. Most shops will have a selection on their shelves, with-or- without dust wraps. In general, and with very few exceptions, the titles can be purchased for £10 or less. The modest value of the books has tended to belie their status within British publishing and the story of which they are part.
The books were the idea of Hilda Matheson and the series, which eventually ran to 126 titles, began in March 1941 and ran until 1950. The books were conceived as a form of soft-power, “cultural propaganda,” to promote British values and to accurately describe aspects of British life. The series was a modest counter-measure to the stream of anti-British propaganda emerging from Germany as part of the Axis war effort. The impact of the series was especially significant in the USA where German cultural propaganda was considered to have been effective in delaying American entry into the war.
The books deserve to be recognised, within the immediate context of war, as a remarkable achievement and as part of a much larger cultural phenomenon that gave expression to the hopes and ideals of post-war reconstruction. I have already written about the emergence, during the 1940s, of mass-market colour illustrated books for children. Here, I want to offer a complimentary introduction to illustrated books aimed at grown- ups.
The Britain in Pictures series were a brave attempt at producing mass-market books with colour illustrations. The books were designed as short essay texts with a selection of black and white and colour illustrations. The books were 48 pages maximum, inclusive of illustrations, and were priced at 3 shillings and 6 pence (17.5p). The result was a library of authoritative texts, superbly written and beautifully illustrated, whose propagandising was intelligent, sensible, quiet, and ironic. The price-point and availability of the books gave them a widespread cultural and international influence. My father’s small collection, for example, had been awarded as school prizes.
These qualities were derived from the founding spirit of the enterprise and its guiding intelligence; Hilda Matheson. Matheson had been a pioneer of radio talks at the BBC and a close colleague of John Reith. She was instrumental in developing an authoritative, yet informal, mode-of-address for the fledgling service. Her support of new ideas, and the informality of their expression, was eventually seen, within the institution, as subversive and she was forced to resign her post.
A full analysis of the books, its authors and of the artists selected is beyond the scope of our current survey. The artists John Piper, Michael Ayrton, Thomas Hennell, Cecil Beaton and David Low were all published as authors. George Orwell, John Betjeman, Edith Sitwell, Vita Sackville-West and Elizabeth Bowen were amongst the literary contributors to the series. Eric Ravilious was included with conspicuous frequency amongst the selected artists.
The printers of Britain in Pictures were Adprint. Wolfgang Foges and Walter Neurath, a émigré printer and publisher combination from Vienna, had established the firm. Adprint were pioneers of inexpensive, but high quality, colour printing. The Viennese origins of the firm were in what, nowadays, would be recognised as marketing publishing. Foges had pioneered a colour illustrated free-of-charge fashion magazine financed by textile manufactures.
Adprint had a material interest in the Britain in Pictures series and seem to have been present at negotiations between Matheson and the publisher, Sir William Collins. Matheson’s extensive contacts amongst the elite class ranged from members of aristocracy to “Bloomsbury” literary and intellectual types. Hilda Matheson was hugely effective in bringing together members of the émigré community and the British Establishment class and mobilising support for political intervention in a popular cultural form.
The Adprint name also appears on the King Penguin series of illustrated books published by Allen Lane. The King Penguins were pocket-sized hardback books with a brief text followed by full page and coloured illustrations. These small picture books were designed to provide a brief introduction to a subject. Some of the titles have recognisably artistic associations; Romney Marsh and John Piper (1950), The Isle of Wight and Barbara Jones (1950) or Kenneth Rowntree and A Prospect of Wales (1948).
It is worth noting that the circumstances of war had introduced a wide variety of detailed visual material to a much wider public. Plans, maps, diagrams, photographs, charts and even cartoons all became a staple material of military effort and planning. It is difficult to imagine, from our contemporary perspective, how limited an experience of visual print- culture ordinary people had during the 1930s.
Roy Porter has written about the British context of the 18th century enlightenment and print-culture. He has identified the impact of widely available printed texts as contributing to a transformation in reading. At the beginning of the century few people had any books and their reading was generally limited to the intensive study of relatively few texts. By the end of the century, the literary or scientific sensibility was reading widely and extensively. This, in turn, promoted a radically altered world-view as evidenced by the spread of political radicalism in the last decades of the 18th century.
The transition from an intensive reading of visual material to an extensive relationship with visual culture is much more recent. It is worth noting that the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) was the first war in which photographic reporting of military action was possible. It was also the first time that such photographs could find wide circulation through the existence of a mass-circulation popular illustrated press. Robert Capa may claim, within the context of the Spanish Civil War, to have invented the role of independent war photographer.
The Spanish Civil War made a powerful impact on popular political consciousness in Britain. The war was the first ideological war of modern times and ranged the forces of reaction, allied to European Fascists, against the progressive and democratically elected forces of the international left. The written testimony, by George Orwell and others (along with the photographic and newsreel images, the destruction of Guernica, the plight of the Basque orphans, and the political betrayals of the conflict) conspired to increase political awareness amongst ordinary people. The increased level of popular political activity was disruptive to the political elite, the Establishment cadre, and the status quo. The advent of WW2 simply increased the level of these disruptions.
The advent of WW2 transformed the elite print economy of the 1930s. The urgent needs of national survival required an increased level of communication and speed. This disrupted the balance of supply, demand, capital, labour and craft that had defined the industry before WW2. A significant factor in the evolution of the industry up to WW2 had been a widespread scepticism in its address to the mass-market. The advent of universal suffrage and the political radicalisation of the popular experiences of WW1, economic decline in Britain and the Spanish Civil War had created a voracious public appetite for information.
Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books, was amongst the first to capitalise on the political, social and technological disruptions of the late 1930s. His sensitivity to the contemporary zeitgeist convinced him that a mass-market for serious writing existed amongst the newly politicised and upwardly mobile classes in Britain. Victor Gollancz served the same market with his Left Book Club. Neither Gollancz, nor Lane, were at the forefront of illustrated publishing at this time.
After May 1940, and the retreat from Dunkirk, it was clear that every material, economic and political resource would be required for the defensive efforts of “Total War.” It therefore became a matter of military and political necessity that these groups, hitherto overlooked, should be addressed. Furthermore, by the beginning of 1941 consumer capitalism in Britain had, more-or-less, collapsed along with its supporting structures of media endorsement and advertising. Normal channels of communication had, therefore, been suspended for the duration.
The new processes of mechanical reproduction, required by the war effort, increased the capacity of the print economy by an order of magnitude. The extra capacity created an opportunity for new products, within the context of war, that were cultural and political as well as commercial. These products were characterised by the integration of image and text made possible by process block, half-tone and offset lithography.
The illustrated books of the 1940s are a significant element in the visual culture of the time. The circumstances of war and reconstruction created an environment where the normal considerations of consumer capitalism and commercial publishing were suspended. The resulting products, produced to serve a wider agenda of politics and social change, offer the chance to collect modestly priced and culturally significant objects. Art, literature, design and politics have rarely been so successfully combined as in the illustrated books of the 1940s.
The economic and political re-ordering of Britain during the 1940’s was powerfully expressed in the print-culture of that decade. The technological transformation of the British print economy, required to serve the demands of war, created an opportunity for the visual expression of those ideas. The successful expression of those radical ideas through visual print-culture literally opened a new vista on the world.
This is a cut-down version of something I wrote, back in 2005….you can find the complete text at
There are also texts about chidren’s books, cookery books and illustrated guide books.