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Eric Fraser- the Goldsmiths Art Student who symbolised the age of modernist broadcasting

2022 is the 100th year of the BBC’s history.

For at least 50 years of that century it was Goldsmiths Art School graduate Eric Fraser who provided many of the illustrations imagining Broadcasting’s Radio Age and its journey and transition into the television world.

The cover for the ‘Radio Drama Number’ 1st March 1929 captures the sense of excitement in pioneering creative sound drama from seven different studios.

All the sources are mixed together using the new ‘Dramatic Control Panel’ live to air from the BBC’s then headquarters at Savoy Hill on the Embankment near Blackfriars Bridge.

It’s only a short walk away from the famous Savoy Hotel on the Strand and the hub of London’s West End theatreland.

There’s a sense of Art Deco futurism, cubism and the Machine Age all contributing to an imagined iconography of the culture and creativity of the BBC’s first ten years.

This special issue is devoted to radio drama for the first time.

At the top is the outline of the orchestrating, piloting, conducting radio producer flying or playing the control panel of sound feeds.

These feeds are panelled in seven parts around the titles of the main articles discussing the past, present and future of the microphone play.

Eric has drawn in pen and ink the pulsating rhythm of live band and symphony, sound atmospheres and spot effects, and actors performing singly and in ensemble.

There are tributes to ‘The Kaleidoscope’- a modernist experimental sound feature auteured by Lancelot De Giberne Sieveking, D.S.C , ‘The White Chateau’- the first anti-war play written by Reginald Berkeley M.C. for Armistice Night 1925 and the first British radio play ever published in book form, the dramatisation of Joseph Conrad’s novel ‘Lord Jim” by Cecil Lewis, and “Carnival” by the novelist Compton Mackenzie who performed the narration of his own book, and had plenty to say about ‘The Future of the Broadcast Play.’

The reference to ‘Speed’ was BBC Radio’s first and original foray into science fiction on the radio- written by its first Director of Productions R E Jeffrey under a pseudonym.

Goldsmiths’ Library has its own collection of most of the original issues of the Radio Times published during the 20th century.

The Goldsmiths History Project has also acquired two original invitation cards designed by Eric when a student in New Cross.

He illustrated the cards for the School of Art’s Fancy Dress Ball on 10th February 1923 and the Fancy Dress Ball for St Patrick’s Day 17th March of that year.

This online feature has been researched, written and published to coincide with an exhibition of Eric Fraser’s work and links to Goldsmiths in the Library’s Special Collections area from June 27th to 12th August 2022. (See more details at the end of this posting.)

The history project has also acquired a rare ‘League of Nations- Peace and Goodwill Towards All Men’ Christmas Card designed by Eric when he was a student.

The League of Nations was the body set up after the First World War to stop war and aggression between sovereign states.

It was so popular with British students during the 1920s and 30s, many colleges and Universities would have their own ‘League of Nations Unions.’

Sadly, the organisation based in Geneva was unable to prevent vicious and genocidal wars and invasions taking place during those decades- such as Japan’s invasion of Manchuria and China, Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, and the Spanish Civil War.

It would be dissolved by the outbreak of the Second World War to be succeeded by the United Nations.

In the 1920s, Eric Fraser like most of his generation had faith in the ideals of the League of Nations and hoped ‘Within the four seas’ all men were indeed brothers who shared the vision of world peace.

Eric Fraser was born in 1902 in Vincent Street, Westminster- not very far from the Houses of Parliament in artisan streets long since pulled down to make way for blocks of expensive mansion flats.

His father George was a solicitor’s clerk and mother Matilda head of infants at St Mary’s Elementary in nearby Hide Place.

Eric went to Westminster City grammar school in Palace Street, a short stroll from Buckingham Palace.

It was one of the most progressive and pioneering London state schools for arts and science.

WCS was the first London school given a radio licence by the Post Office with the call sign EMX and a range for wireless transmission of 1,000 miles.

The backdrop of Eric’s time at WCS between 1913 and 1919 was the First World War.

In the summer of 1914, the school was the mobilisation centre for the Queen’s Westminster Rifles from which its Officer Training Cadet (OTC) force had been constituted.

Eric was under the inspiration and tutelage of Art Master John Littlejohns and head teacher Dr. Ernest H Stevens.

He repeatedly won Arts and Crafts Club merit certificates and in 1919 won a scholarship to University of London, Goldsmiths’ College ‘with the object of taking up art as a profession.’

At morning assemblies Eric grew used to the sad ritual of ‘The Doctor’ as the headmaster was always referred to,  announcing the deaths and notices of old boys missing in action.

John Auguste Pouchot had been only three years older than Eric when he enlisted with the QWRs.

He became the youngest British soldier to be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery when only 15.

This is a postcard portrait of a Westminster City School OTC cadet in the Queen’s Westminster Rifles- quite possibly from the Great War. He is unnamed, but he is no different to how John August Pouchot would have looked when joining up and going to France aged only 15.

He died three years later as a lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps and a new building at the School has been recently named after him.

Eric’s art teacher designed the evocative wooden panel memorial commemorating the many schoolboys who died in the Great War.

He also encouraged Eric to attend life drawing classes at Westminster Art School in Vincent Square given by the renowned artist Walter Sickert– later and somewhat bizarrely accused of being the notorious London serial killer- ‘Jack the Ripper.’

Between 1919 and 1924 Eric Fraser studied at the Goldsmiths Art School, now part of the University of London, Goldsmiths’ College, but first established in the 1891 Goldsmiths Company’s Recreative and Technical Institute.

There were several key influential lecturers. Edmund J Sullivan specialised in line and illustration.

Pages 141 and 142 of Edmund J Sullivan’s 1921 seminal book on the Art of Illustration- the set text at Goldsmiths Art School when Eric Fraser was a student.

He would write two books The Art of Illustration (1921) and Line- An Art Study (1922) which became the standard texts in these subjects in most British art colleges for many decades to come.

Amor Fenn, a future Headmaster of the Art School, wrote Design and Tradition in 1920.

The portrait painter Harold Speed most likely taught Eric how to create at speed. For his famous Radio Times illustrations were usually commissioned on the Friday for delivery by deadline the following Monday morning.

Another significant influence was undoubtedly the young Clive Gardiner who first arrived as a visiting lecturer in 1918.

He introduced the modernist ideas in art gestating in Paris and Europe.

He would connect the younger generation of Goldsmiths art students such as Eric Fraser and Graham Sutherland with post-impressionism, cubism and surrealism and how these could inform commercial art and design.

Sylvia Backemeyer’s 1998 biography Eric Fraser: Designer & Illustrator includes a photograph of Eric as a young student in a Goldsmiths’ College art-room looking pensive and sitting by a skeleton.

In 1923 Clive Gardiner recruited Eric and other Goldsmiths’ students to help him with murals for the Malaya Rubber Pavilion at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley.

The Art School’s headmaster Francis Marriott taught etching, aquatint and mezzotint.

He was a traditionalist, but very much acknowledged Eric as ‘undoubtedly one of the most brilliant students I had in the school during the 34 years I was headmaster.’

He recommended Eric be taken up by R.P. Gossop’s advertising agency in 1924, the same year Eric exhibited his etching ‘Glasshouse’ in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition.

By 1926 he was regularly illustrating for the BBC’s Radio Times.

Eric’s popularity as an illustrator with Radio Times commissioners and readers soared because of his ability to bring gentle wit to his caricatures.

The cover design for 19th October 1928 reproduces Britain’s ‘War of the Worlds’ style radio panic of 1926.

Father Ronald Knox personally presented a self-dramatising entertainment from Edinburgh imagining revolution in London and the storming of the BBC’s headquarters.

Eric’s drawing conveys the ‘burlesque’ of Knox’s fictional news bulletin which ‘scared a nation’ and left England trembling.

He depicts Knox playfully creating mayhem in front of the microphone in the BBC studio in Scotland, the blowing up of the Savoy Hotel (‘This was the Savoy Hotel’), The Admiralty and National Gallery being stormed by the mob, government ministers such as Mr Popplebury and Sir Theophalus looking rather vulnerable vis-à-vis street lamp-posts, and an alarming vista of Lord Nelson no longer at the top of his column.

Too many listeners believed they were listening to the real thing- a media event predating Orson Welles’s skit with Mercury Theatre on the Air on CBS in the USA by 12 years.

Eric Fraser’s portfolio of work expanded to book illustrations, all kinds of graphic commercial art, and poster design.

This illustration for page 24 of Maurice Lane-Norcott’s 1933 book ‘Up the aerial; or, Ten million listeners must be wrong’ represents Eric Fraser’s much in demand genre for gentle and witty caricature.

Now lost to history, his caricature for the Gas industry’s Mr Therm was an iconic image in the history of British advertising.

Eric Fraser’s front cover designs and inside cover illustrations of all kinds of programmes and feature articles for the Radio Times would become an intrinsic part of the weekly magazine’s creative texture and brand.

In a 50 year period his style and work would blend and evolve with changes in and ideas about contemporary art.

The tormenting and tumultuous events of the 20th century also had their impact.

A selection of thumbnail images from the Radio Times archive Genome project and other library collections shows the changing styles, colours and subjects for Radio Times cover designs by Eric Fraser.

They range from illustrating Vaudeville radio in 1929, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius in 1931, dance music in 1936, Autumn News Number for 1938, Christmas in 1949 and 1958, Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 and four hundred years of Shakespeare in 1964.

Eric Fraser featured in the BBC Television documentary Arena programme on ‘The art of Radio Times’ in 1981.  He was described as ‘the legendary Eric Fraser – a regular contributor for 55 years.’

The programme can be seen via the Learning on Screen project listed in library databases as ‘Box of Broadcasts.’

He was filmed sketching in his studio smoking his pipe and explaining his technique and approach to completing Radio Times commissions.

He recalled that his early drawings were ‘quite light-hearted and often about broadcasting itself. For quite sometime my drawings were on the humorous side. In those days I had an easy technique of plain line and solid black.’

This enabled him to complete commissions quickly over the weekend.

He explained that it was some years before the BBC actually sent him the script of a radio play for illustration.

This would be Tyrone Guthrie’s serious play ‘Squirrel’s Cage’ in 1929.

He was asked to create the iconic treadmill design for the play’s broadcast on 12th September of that year.

He would go on to create powerful illustrative designs for most of the BBC’s landmark experimental plays and features including D.G. Bridson’s Aaron’s Field ‘a morality eve of war’ verse play of 1939.

He explained that he found the human form enabled him to give vibrancy and humanity to his drawings.

He particularly enjoyed illustrating productions of Greek classical stories: ‘They give one the opportunity of using the human form in a decorative classical way.’

Inevitably Eric’s drawings took on a dark and serious tone during the Second World War.

During the Blitz in London he served as an Air Raid Warden. The events of this period meant he was drawing what he had seen as much as what he was imagining.

He observed: ‘Practically all of my work since then has been more of a serious nature.’

The pressure of delivering such high quality work so quickly meant that he had to draw upon ‘hidden creative reserves’ since every Radio Times commission was in the nature of ‘an emergency.’

He passed away at his home in Penn’s Place, Hampton on 15th November 1983 and is buried in a local church.

There have been several books presenting biography and analysis of his work. These include Alec Davis, The Graphic Work of Eric Fraser (1985) and Sylvia Backemeyer, Eric Fraser Designer and Illustrator with an essay by Wendy Coates-Smith (1998).

His work is celebrated and critiqued in The Art of Radio Times: the first sixty years (1981).

There have also been significant exhibitions including ‘Eric Fraser, An illustrator of our time- a travelling exhibition sponsored by British Gas’ in 1991 which began at the Royal College of Art.

In 2013 there was a retrospective exhibition with a catalogue curated and written by David Wootton who has analysed Eric Fraser’s work in many other publications on illustration.

The writer Brian Sibley has also written about how he acquired the original colour illustration for the front cover of the Radio Times from 1981 which celebrated the production of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings which he had co-adapted.

All images of Eric Fraser’s illustration and design are included in this online feature strictly for the purposes of academic criticism and review.

Some images of Westminster City School courtesy of Westminster City School and Its Origins by R. Carrington 1983.

Library and Special Collections, Goldsmiths, University of London.

Exhibition at Goldsmiths

An exhibition featuring material related to Eric Fraser from the Goldsmiths Library’s collections can be seen in Special Collections & Archives from 27 June – 12 Aug 2022. Goldsmiths students and staff can drop in Mon-Fri 10-5. Visitors please contact special.collections( so that we can arrange access to the Library

Many thanks to Special Collections & Archives Manager Lesley Ruthven, Dr. Alex Du Toit and staff in Goldsmiths Library Special Collections.

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