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If you ever come across one of these in a charity shop – snap it up.

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Some of them are really collectable . They are, of course the famous Shell Guides, which were produced by the company to help the newly emerging motorist classes to get out of the cities and enjoy the countryside using their cars. Neither too serious nor too shallow, they hit the spot for people who took pleasure in the ordinary and peculiar culture of small town Britain. In the three decades after the Second World War the Shell Guides provided a surreptitiously subversive synthesis of the British countryside with illustrations by some of the best known artists of the era, who often designed covers which verged on the surreal.

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The series started in June 1934, with Betjeman’s Cornwall, and continued until 1984, by which time about half the country had been covered. A series of 48, cheaper, Shilling Guides, came out in the early sixties. These had only 20 pages with a full colour card cover, representing highlights of the county covered, and included a two colour map of the area, preceded by an essay on the history and landscape, and followed by a short gazetteer of main towns and tourist attractions. This illustration above, for Dorset, (which I think is fabulous) was by Paul Nash (wrongly attributed to his brother John for a while).

I also like this one by Barbara Jones.

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And this one of Wiltshire by Keith Grant.

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The original guides were published on a county-by-county basis, under the editorial control of the poet John Betjeman and (later) the artist John Piper (this image of Wiltshire below gives a flavour of his style).

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There were three publishers involved in the publication of the 13 pre-war titles : The Architectural Press, Batsford and finally, in 1939, Faber and Faber. In 1939 all the previous twelve titles were re-issued and one new one in the same format, David Verey’s Gloucestershire.

Every library had a well used set

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but today these practical, yet sometimes whimsical guides are worthy of the collectors shelf.

 

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