Simple yet elegant

Dust jacket based on Wyndham Payne design for Christmas wrapping paper

Design: Wyndham Payne
by William Connelly and Paul Payne.
ACC Art Books, 2020.

A designer of dust jackets for crime fiction by Agatha Christie, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and novels by Vera Brittain and Richmal Compton; an illustrator for books and magazines like Punch and Vogue; a designer of advertisements, greetings cards and calendars; a printmaker and model maker. Who am I referring to?

I must admit Wyndham Payne was not a name I’d ever heard of let alone rated till this book came into my hands. With a biographical essay by William Connelly (which first appeared 2005-6) and additional material by one of the artist’s grandsons, this well-illustrated retrospective gives an excellent introduction to a largely self-taught artist who deserves to be better known and appreciated.

He also was an avid collector of bric-a-brac and bargains from junk shops – what he called ‘gubbins shops’ – resulting in the purchase of what appeared to be a later copy but was in fact an original 15th-century painting of the Crucifixion on vellum by Herman Scheerre, now in the British Library. And a watercolour copy of a Rembrandt painting he purchased at auction later turned out to be by Constable.

Illustration by Wyndham Payne for ‘The Wonderful Journey’ by Cyril William Beaumont, 1927

Berkshire-born Albert Wyndham Payne (1888-1974) grew up in a house filled with antiques, curios, furniture and objets trouvés, so it’s unsurprising that the youngster developed an idiosyncratic aesthetic that stood him in good stead later in life. Experience in a biscuit factory and with the Royal Flying Corps (maintaining planes in the Great War) scarcely hinted at the direction his career would go, but they hint at the determination and sense of purpose that would lead him towards the creative and moderately successful life of the artist.

A fruitful partnership with Charing Cross Road bookseller and publisher Cyril W Beaumont (who was also an eminent dance historian) led to many commissions elsewhere. Beaumont’s motto was Horace’s Simplex munditiis – “simple in its elegance” – and this characterised much of Payne’s work too. With strong outlines typical of woodcut and linocut designs, Payne’s hand-coloured images offer a distinct whiff of nostalgia in effect and subject. Toys and crafted objects are frequent subjects, along with interiors and figures that are almost caricatures: there is a kind of naīvité that is, I suspect, not entirely faux.

Perspective was not a strength with Payne; instead there is a sureness in his two-dimensional design, demonstrating a skill in handling spaces between discrete objects and figures which may relate to his three-dimensional work with, for example, working models and silhouettes painted on glass, and his habit of arranging purchased ‘gubbins’ in his workroom as if in a Cabinet of Curiosities or a shop window display.

For a man born as a late Victorian but surviving until the birth of punk music Payne comes across as a survivor from much earlier times. His preference for bold primary colours, plus style and subject matter that hark back to the early Victorian and even Georgian eras, speak of someone at ease with past delights that are both child-like and, as Horace wrote, simplex munditiis. What a joy this illustrated selection of his work has turned out to be, allowing us to appreciate, despite the glaucoma that affected him in later life, his talent for creating unique visions.

The ‘Wyndham Payne Crucifixionby Herman Scheerre

Received from the artist’s grandson Paul Payne for the favour of a review; opinions however are my own. The publisher’s webpage (with several illustrations from this book) is here: while the purchase of the Scheerre Crucifixion is noted here:

9 thoughts on “Simple yet elegant

  1. I haven’t come across Payne earlier either, so I’m glad you reviewed this one. My eyes went straight to the illustration from The Wonderful Journey which is also a book I didn’t know. So two on the TBR from your post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t read (nor previously heard of) The Wonderful Journey but the illustration which is reproduced here has a definite nostalgic feel to it! I shall be looking out for the name in future for sure.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. What amazed me was, him not being a household name, that he illustrated dust jackets for early editions of Christie novels and even did inside illustrations for The Wind in the Willows which I’d always associated only with Sheppard and Rackham. I have to admit the Rackham version is my favourite while Payne’s is competent if not as appealing.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, those on your link are obviously all in this book! Many of the full page illustrations are from the title with the horseback boy in his pyjamas, written by his first publisher, and they’re so fabulously retro, even for the time!


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