Thursday, 23 September 2010

London Biblio-Geography: A Personal A-Z by Rachel Hazell, ‘The Travelling Bookbinder' (Few and Far, 242 Brompton Road, London SW3 2BB)

On your next visit to the V&A during the London Design Festival (LDF), be sure to build into your day a visit to Few and Far, for two very good reasons.

The first is the shop itself – an eclectic mix of fashion, furniture and fair. Few and Far was set up by the buying force behind Habitat and the Conran Shop, Priscilla Carluccio. Priscilla is the sister of Sir Terence Conran, a passionate supporter of UK craft and a photographer in her own right. Part of the shop is given over to exhibitions, and this brings us to the second reason to visit.

For the duration of the LDF, Few and Far’s exhibition space is taken over by Rachel Hazell, known as the ‘Travelling Bookbinder’. Her artworks are both cartographic and typographic. Using both the current and found maps Rachel creates exquisite artworks that are steadily being sold off the wall.

Over a coffee we talked about how she got here. The answer was as far from what I expected as was possible.

Rachel studied English at Edinburgh University, followed by a HND in Bookbinding at London College of Printing and then went onto an MA in Book Art at Camberwell College. So far, straightforward enough, but it is what happens next that beggars belief.

Rachel was artist in residence on an Antarctic-bound cruise ship in 2004. She then set sail South with the Royal Navy on HMS Endurance – observing the surveyor’s as they redrew the map of Antarctica in 2006. This was followed by five months as Assistant Postmistress and Penguin Monitor at Port Lockroy, Britain’s Southernmost public post office in 2007/08, her ‘favourite job title so far’.

But it was a reading of Mrs Ps Journey (by Sarah Hartley) that inspired Rachel onto existing ground. ‘Mrs P’ was Phyllis Pearsall, a true English design hero. Pearsall, so the story goes, using the 1919 ordinance survey map to get to a party, got lost and through this experience conceived the idea of mapping London. She walked 3000 miles, including 23,000 London streets, wrting and drawing as she went.

The result was the first London A-Z. On the insistence of her father, an accomplished cartographer himself, Pearsall set up her own company, the Geographers’ A to Z Map Company. The A-Z Atlas and Guide to London and Suburbs was published in 1936.

Talking to Rachel it is easy to see how important this story is to her and her work. She talks passionately and knowledgably about Pearsall and about maps and mapping in general. Her artworks also show the depth of this passion from the hand at work with fine stitching, cut out letterforms to an adherence to strict structures and grids. The works are mounted in box frames giving them a feeling of historic paramountcy.

While the art itself is important, for me so is the idea behind it: the celebration of a figure we should ensure is part of the design cannon. Phyllis Pearsall should take her place alongside some of her contemporaries like Henry Beck and his revolutionary London Underground Map (1933) and Alfred Wainwright’s Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells (1952).

As Pearsall often said, ‘on we go’.

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