Half a century after his untimely death at 57, what do we know of Barnett Freedman? Little, I’d hazard, given the new exhibition of his work at Pallant House Gallery is his first since 1958.
What an oversight. Because, bar a limp early work or two, the exhibition is remarkable – a blow-your-socks-off type of show, which is just what the doctor ordered as we shake off the blear of lockdown.
Freedman was actually very well known in his lifetime (1901–1958), not least because his commercial designs were braided into the everyday visual landscape: on the sides of buses, on book covers and chocolate bars, in Lyons Corner Houses, and on the stamps that were licked and stuck to every letter posted in Thirties Britain.
He took extraordinary care with these pieces (like many artists who came of age in the Twenties, he believed in the credo “art for all”). Even today, the effect of their jewel-bright colour, inventive shadow play and elegant lettering is joyous. Oh, to have lived in such visually-invigorating times.
Consider his work for the oil company Shell, illustrated here by a 1952 poster signalling the end of petrol rationing, and by a concertina paper peepshow (1932) that conjures scenes of London in winter and a woodland in summer (“In Winter or Summer You Can be Sure of Shell”). You spy the poster the moment you walk in – a vibrating blaze of sunny yellow, crisp red and looping, radar-esque lines. As for those peepshows (be sure to crouch down and experience them in full), I’d sell almost anything I own to have one.
Nearby are plenteous examples of Freedman’s Thirties-era book covers – for Anna Karenina and War & Peace, for Oliver Twist, Shakespeare and Siegfried Sassoon. They are each so zesty: strong shadows, expressive faces, whiskery dashes and hatchings. No wonder Faber’s entire roster of authors clamoured to have him assigned to their books.