Isabelle Symons was one of the original staff from the time when BAA was founded after the War. We often saw her driving up by the Court in her extremely ugly little car. It was a horrible mauve colour; I think it was a Hillman or something and it reminded me of a bathtub on wheels. At the time when I got to know her, Isabelle was an elderly lady with a pile of rather dishevelled grey hair which was usually fixed up on the top her head with numerous pins and clips and things that looked like knitting needles. She dressed in an untidy fashion in clothes of nondescript colour, all sorts of shawls and things that made her look a bit like an unmade bed or the White Queen in Alice! But Isabelle was a very nice and friendly person with a pleasant manner that made her rather endearing. She taught us what I thought then was the most useless part of our curriculum. How to make paper! This went on at Monks Park and for those who never experienced paper making I will explain a bit about how it is done.
The basis of paper pulp is wood, mashed into a porridge-like consistency and boiled in an enormous cauldron to make it soft. You then have to add some sort of fibre to keep it from falling apart. And a dash of wallpaper paste doesn’t hurt to give better adhesion. This nasty stuff is interminably boiled and stirred, a sort of greyish sludge that doesn’t remind you of paper at all. Then you have to get hold of a sort of wire sieve to fish up a layer of the sludge which is next tipped onto a sheet of thick felt and pressed for drying. After pressing, the sheets are hung up to dry properly and then you have got something looking vaguely like coarse blotting paper with lumps in it. For effect rather than usefulness, you can boil down plant fibres, stems of hedgerow plants and that sort of thing, which are mixed into the witches’ brew. Anyway, this is basically what we did with Isabelle when we had to traipse once a week up to Monks. The results were pretty horrible and served no useful purpose except possibly as bin liners. And the bin was where most of my stuff went to. But Isabelle was somehow always pleased with what we did and enthused about “exquisite paper” in her rather breathy sort of way.
It was not until about twelve or thirteen years later that I discovered that my knowledge of paper making was not as useless as I had imagined. In the seventies inflation had been the bugbear of the Icelandic economy and the Icelandic króna had become a shadow of its former self. Far too many noughts on the banknotes, so a currency changeover was planned by the Central Bank for the first of January 1981. And I got the job of designing the new banknotes. Banknote design is a complicated business and requires a lot of technical expertise owing to the various printing methods and security features, which include the paper and the watermark. Although banknote paper is very different from the lumpy blotting paper that we used to make with Isabelle, the technique is the same, although obviously mechanized. And the watermark is basically done by denting the wire sieve so that the paper becomes thicker or thinner according to the depth and direction of the dents. I knew all about this and did all the technical drawings for the so-called mould covers that were to be used for denting the sieve. So it is really thanks to Isabelle Symons that the Icelandic banknotes look the way they do. I added to the first series from 1981 several times after that and we now have coins instead of some of the lower denomination notes, but the watermarks have remained unchanged!
A New Perspective.
Despite the unexpected usefulness of Izzy’s paper making, there was a strange and unexplained gap in the graphics course that I have never understood. Even before I started at Corsham I had learnt quite a lot about perspective techniques from my great-uncle, Harold Wyllie, who was a quite well-known marine artist. He used to mark out his lines with a length of cord rubbed with a chunk of charcoal. I often hung around in his studio in Scotland during my summer holidays and occasionally helped him with it. We used to put the canvas on the floor, hammer tacks into the floor at the vanishing points and then snap the cord so that it left black lines on the canvas.
Two-point perspective is a fairly simple affair and three-point perspective only slightly more bothersome once you understand what you’re doing. But wide-angle fisheye effects and that kind of thing are a bit beyond Renaissance geometry, so I was expecting some instruction at Corsham. The strange thing was that no-one on the staff was prepared to teach perspective drawing however much I searched. Typical responses were, “Why don't you just go to the library and read about it?”. Tried that – no decent books that I hadn't already read. Or “No-one needs to know anything about that sort of thing these days.” Complete and utter hogwash. I was amazed and suspected that it was because they didn't know how to do it themselves. I had imagined that perspective drawing was a pretty basic part of a graphic designer’s ammunition. And experience tells me rightly so. Even with modern 3D computer programmes a thorough knowledge of perspective is invaluable to anyone who claims to be able to do an accurate drawing and wants to avoid silly mistakes.
It was in 1983 or thereabouts that I was asked to design a new banknote for the Central Bank of Iceland. Inflation was still rampant and a 1000 króna note was urgently needed, the 500 króna note being the highest denomination in the original set. The main feature on the reverse was to be a drawing of the old wooden cathedral church at Skálholt which was built in 1650 using timber imported from Norway, damaged in a severe earthquake towards the end of the 18th century and finally demolished in 1802. I got hold of fairly detailed plan and elevation drawings of the old church but needed a good perspective. I did about half a dozen drawings from different viewpoints and needed to calculate the lighting from an almanac to be able to get the shadows in the right place. Everything was done the old way and no computers to help in those days. And no help on that one from Corsham either. Strange.