Oswell Blakeston (1907-1985), was born Henry Joseph Hasslacher, and created his nom de plume by condensing ‘Osbert Sitwell’, whom he admired, into ‘Oswell’ and adding his mother’s maiden name. He was a British writer and artist with wide interests, and one of his passions was follies; his role in bringing the genre to a wider audience deserves to be better known.
In a letter of 1953 Barbara Jones thanked Blakeston for the loan of his ‘folly suitcase’, which she had used as a major resource when writing the first edition of Follies & Grottoes. Her book was published in that same year, with special thanks to Blakeston in the acknowledgements.
The pair had probably been introduced by John Betjeman, who had known of Blakeston’s interest in follies since the 1930s. Betjeman had been working as a copywriter for Jack Beddington, Shell’s Publicity Manager, at the time that Beddington was commissioning young artists to produce artwork for advertising. This included the series of posters which promoted motoring (and therefore sales of petrol) and adorned the sides of lorries as they sedately travelled the roads of Britain.
It was Blakeston who suggested follies as a subject for a series of posters, shortly before his report on ‘Architectural Follies’ was broadcast on the wireless in October 1936. Blakeston’s idea came to fruition as the ‘To Visit Britain’s Landmarks You Can Be Sure of Shell’ campaign, which ran throughout 1936 and 1937 with 27 posters produced, each by a different artist.*
The contents of the mysterious ‘folly suitcase’ were assumed lost, but in fact they are in the collection of the RIBA and can be consulted in the Architecture Study Room at the V&A Museum. The valise is long gone, but Blakeston’s county-by-county files of notes and clippings on follies are there alongside transcripts of his radio broadcasts and his unpublished text ‘English Follies’. His correspondence shows that other writers and photographers of the period relied on his help. The ‘folly files’ were also borrowed by husband and wife team Edwin Smith and Olive Cook when they were researching the Gothic Revival.
Looking at Blakeston’s output as a writer it is easy to see why he didn’t find time to publish his folly research himself. He wrote on film theory, on photography (Cruising with a Camera) and on travel, and also wrote 15 novels, 10 volumes of poetry and the occasional one-act play. Three books on food included the rather niche Cooking with Nuts. His long term partner, the artist Max Chapman, contributed illustrations to many of these works. Long before Morph or Aardman studios animated the technique, Chapman modelled figures in clay and then photographed them to illustrate a book for older boys, Jim’s Gun; ‘unusual and attractive’ said a reviewer. Blakeston’s art didn’t achieve wide acclaim in his lifetime, and is largely forgotten today. His work was considered avant garde, or as one establishment critic preferred to call it ‘the childish fumblings of a youthful dilettante.’
As well as the folly files in the RIBA Architecture Study Room there is a large deposit of Blakeston’s papers at the University of Texas at Austin https://norman.hrc.utexas.edu/fasearch/findingaid.cfm?eadid=00014
Thanks to the Shell Heritage Art Collection for permission to reproduce the two posters. The collection is based at the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, Hampshire and items from the large collection are always on display. Watch out for an exciting new touring exhibition in 2020 https://nationalmotormuseum.org.uk/collections/shell-heritage-art-collection/news/
* For a fully illustrated account see ‘Visit Britain’s Landmarks: Follies on Shell Advertising Posters in the 1930s’ in The Follies Journal Vol 5 http://follies.org.uk/index.php/journal/