A trip to London recently gave us the chance to check out the new House of Illustration gallery in the regenerated goods yards behind King’s Cross station featuring an exhibition of work by Mac Conner, one of New York’s original ‘Mad Men’ illustrators. In truth, the Mad Men epithet is an unfair one; although Conner spent much of his working life producing illustrations to order for magazine stories and advertisements, his story is one of consistent artistic integrity and hard work. A passionate artist from his youth, his early years (interrupted by service in the US Navy), saw him working very much in the Norman Rockwell style, depicting small town American life with a keen eye for detail and character. On his arrival in New York in 1950, this translated into his magazine work where, in one picture – often in only two colours – he would be required to capture the reader’s attention and lure them into the tale. Given that the target audience for many of these stories was female, his illustrations usually focussed on the women characters and he maintained a wide library of catalogues and other material to ensure that his characters sported appropriate clothing and accessories. Such details are, of course, fascinating contemporary records for those of us seeking to emulate the classic mid-century look. By contrast, many of his male figures tended to default to a small number of set ‘types’ – muscled manual worker, besuited office guy – but the essential ‘look’ is there throughout.
Equal prominence in the extensive collection on show went to Conner’s advertising work, hence the ‘Mad Men’ theme to much of the exhibition’s publicity. These were the kind of illustrations we pored over in old copies of National Geographic – one of the few American-origin magazines of the time published in the UK in their native form. Like the National Geographic, Conner’s work extended from the typically consumerist motoring ads to the more mundane but, for their time, extremely modern such as home air-conditioning units. Particularly interesting were the accompanying letters from the customers of his agency, listing their requirements not only for the original concepts but also for detail amendments to the proofs. In many cases, the work was completed by two artists: one for the car itself; the other, usually Conner, for the background and figures.
In an exhibition where there was nothing that didn’t make us stop and stare, one pair of illustrations stood out. Completed in 1956 for an article on juvenile delinquency, they depict New York teenagers of the time, based on visits Conner had made to local high schools. At first sight, we’d have placed them firmly at the tail end of the 1950s – one picture of a pair of hot rodders (which, unlike its companion shown here, I can’t find anywhere on line and wasn’t in the excellent exhibition book) has them in jeans with the 4-inch turn-ups now ubiquitous on the rockabilly scene, but with a very narrow belt-line and tightly cut around the waist and hips; similarly, the white shirts have button-down collars of a style I’d never have associated with 1956, yet the correspondence on display alongside fixes them firmly in that year. It serves to remind us that there isn’t a single ‘look’ for any specific point in the 1950s and 60s and that what might at first sight jar could be spot on accuracy.
Definitely worth a visit, and the refurbished goods transfer sheds in the vicinity offer a good selection of restaurants and cafes for a snack afterwards – you’ll even find some free ping pong tables in the hallway of nearby Central St Martin’s art college if you fancy some vintage 50s exercise! Full details of the exhibition, which runs until 28 June, are at the House of Illustration website.