Magazine article The Spectator

The Fascination of the Banal

Magazine article The Spectator

The Fascination of the Banal

Article excerpt

nothing on our latterday fixation with health and public services. But this is not a history textbook, nor does it pretend to be. It is, rather, an era seen by an artist through the most mundane of media. Its capacity to intrigue and astonish is limitless. No one who reads it will ever view a postcard again with glancing inattention.

The fascination of the banal

Nonnan Lebrecht

THE POSTCARD CENTURY

by Tom Phillips

Thames & Hudson, 29.95, 19.95, pp. 452

The time has come to confess to a dirty little habit, before the tabloids get hold of it and I am totally ruined. Deep breath: I collect postcards. Not coins or stamps or Old Masters or fine wines, all of which are perfectly admissible in polite society, but 6x4 scraps of primal e-mails with pictures on one side and banalities on the rear, often indecipherably scrawled.

Why postcards? Because there is no more vivid or cheaper form of ephemera by which an author can tap into the way people lived at any time in the past 120 years. Everybody used to write postcards, kings and concert pianists, cads and spinsters. So nice of you to have us for tea; sorry to hear Ethel's poorly again; can't get you out of my mind; did you ever see one like this?

The images range from everyday street scenes, frozen in time, to dimpled young dancers, poised on the pointe of success. You will find tat art, kitsch cats and soppy souvenirs crammed in old shoe-boxes among paparazzi shots of historic personalities and natural disasters, not to mention seaside comics, that peculiarly British aberration. And on the blank side, ordinary lives running along amid extraordinary events.

I treasure a gloomy-coloured portrait of Gustav Mahler, sent home by a German frontline soldier and disfigured by heavy stamps of a military censor. Somehow, in the thick of the first world war, a homesick corporal found time to reflect on symphonic masters.

What are such objects worth? Everything to the historian, and next to nothing to the collector, if you know where to find them. Postcards are mostly traded at fairs, a term loaded with lascivious mediaeval connotations but actually as dull and proper as a family outing to the Festival of Britain. The postcard world is almost self-parodic in its sedateness. Many dealers and collectors (often one and the same) resemble trainspotters on Librium. They tend to look askance on extraterrestrial visitors from the lively arts.

So when I spotted Tom Phillips one morning at the biggest monthly fair, it was with a sense of relief bordering on brotherhood. Phillips, who is not only an artist of international renown but an accomplished composer, has collected postcards for as long as he can remember and has used them as a source for various of his works - `Benches', at the Tate, for instance. Where my collecting interests are specifically cultural and socio-political, his are omnivorous. Phillips, I noticed, buys a card not so much for the quality or novelty of its frontal image as for a combination of factors which may include its postal date (if historic), its message, its addressee and some imperceptible irregularity of angle.

What I did not appreciate until his book turned up was the chronological method behind his collecting madness, or perhaps the chronological madness. …

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