WITH the Centenary Illuminations Switch-On just five weeks away on Friday, we are catching up with Professor Vanessa Toulmin, director of the National Fairground Archives, for a progress report on the commemorative book commissioned by Blackpool Council.
Fresh from her recent lecture tour of the United States, which included a history of the Tower Circus, Vanessa, based at Sheffield University, is completing her research on the Lights and has uncovered some fascinating insights for the book.
With the help of Blackpool Central Library archivist Tony Sharkey, Vanessa has spent many weeks sorting out the absolute riches of artists’ drawings dating back to the 1920s, and revealed it had been a real detective hunt tracking down the designers behind the artwork.
She says: “When I started sorting out the archive, I soon realised one thing missing from other books on the Illuminations was the stories of the designers.
“It’s only from the 1970s onwards that the names of the designers were recorded.
“However, as ever, Arthur Elliott, a former Illuminations director, was invaluable, and once I had listed all the initials on the drawings, he helped by recalling some of their names.”
Perhaps the most thrilling was when Vanessa traced two of the iconic designers from the 1960s – Bob Bradshaw, who worked from 1960 to 1963, and Emilios Hatjoullis, 1963 to 1969.
Bob, who is now in his 80s, still works as an artist in Devon, and was found through his agent.
Emilios has had an important career as an artist and illustrator and also worked for the Beano, illustrating Baby Face Finlayson.
Vanessa continues: “We had an amazing day at Lightworks when Emilios returned to the Illuminations department for the first time since he left in the 1960s.
“We were also joined by Alan Cockcroft, designer from 1970 to 1988, and Graham Ogden, 1989 to 2006. So we had 50 years of designers in one room.”
Emilios was responsible for some of the groundbreaking designs from the 1960s, such as Comedy Cartoons, Blackpool Regeneration 2068, Dancing Years and many more, which it is hoped will feature in the book.
Vanessa says: “Meeting all the designers was inspiring, especially as they explained the inspiration for some of the features and how they worked with the technical staff.”
Vanessa has also made contact with Bob Bradshaw, who sent some fascinating behind-the-scenes photographs taken by Bob during his time with the Illuminations department, which will also feature in the book.
Vanessa also reveals that the tradition of producing panoramic concepts of upcoming features was as a result of Bob Bradshaw’s interview in 1960, and this tradition continued for almost 50 years.
A selection of these drawings will feature in the book and have never been published before.
One designer known to Vanessa Toulmin was Sid Howell.
But this was due to his non-Illuminations work as one of the foremost fairground designers and artists in the post-war period.
She says: “Sid Howell and his father, also A S Howell, were two of the most iconic fairground artists of the 20th century, and I was thrilled when I saw some of Sid’s original drawings for the Lights.”
Sid was responsible for the largest tableau produced on the Promenade when he designed the New York Skyline in 1950, and was also the first full-time designer employed by the Illuminations
department in 1950.
Vanessa says: “However, his designs were too beautiful in a way.
“The draughtsmanship of his original artwork is so beautiful but almost technically impossible and, when he left, Charlie Crowther’s designs were far
simpler in concept and execution.”
Vanessa has now identified all the designers from 1950 onwards, and they will be featured in a special section in the book, alongside their favourite designs, which they chose when they came to Lightworks earlier this year, and were joined by former Lights bosses Keith Hall and Arthur Elliott.
She says: “I asked Graham Ogden, Alan Cockcroft and Emilios Hatjoullis to choose their favourite pieces, and also Arthur and Keith to select the ones they remembered, as the process between the designers and the Illuminations manager has always been very important, from conception to execution, and these will be revealed in the book.”
All of the artists and former Illuminations heads have been invited by current Illuminations chief Richard Ryan to the Centenary Switch-On ceremony on the Tower Festival Headland on Friday, August 31.
Vanessa says: “Spending the day with the designers and former managers was fantastic, and I only hope that my book, published in October, will do justice to the amazing contribution they have all made over the last 60 years to the Lights.”