Now and again the internet brings surprises of the best possible kind. In an earlier blog post about pictorial maps of London I lamented that next to nothing had been written about the artist Kerry Lee, best known as a creator of pictorial, often gently comic maps of British towns and cities in the mid 20th century. His life and career had been summarized in rather unsatisfactory two-line entries like this one.
I guessed that the most likely candidate was Kerry Ernest Lee, born in Hackney in 1903; a trawl of institutional holdings revealed various works which were potentially attributable to the same artist, ranging from text-book illustrations to wartime cut-away drawings of German aircraft, but I had no immediate way of linking them. Then, out of the blue, I had an email from Kerry Lee’s son, John, telling me that Kerry Ernest Lee is indeed our man.
Many of Kerry Lee’s maps depict the artist sitting sketching in the corner, with his dog beside him. John writes: “if I remember right the first one was called ‘Jim’. He was a particular pal of mine and my confidant as a small boy. But over the years in the maps the dog by Dad’s side became symbolic rather than particular.”
John has been enormously generous already with his time and with images of material which remains in the family. What follows makes no claim to be definitive, either as a biography or as a catalogue raisonné, but I’m delighted to reveal a few things here, which I hope will lead to further research.
Lee spent some of his early years in Switzerland with his brother Don. He then attended Reading Schools of Arts and Science, the Slade, and the Sorbonne in Paris. For a time he assisted his step-father, Mr Harvey (an architect and builder), as a draughtsman for several large buildings in London, including one of the earliest to boast a roof garden. The 1929 Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression pulled the rug from under the business. Mr Harvey seems to have lost his fortune and emigrated.
Lee looked for an alternative source of income, and produced his first map of London. He established Blandford Studios off Baker Street with a small group of fellow independent commercial artists, known as ‘Associated Artists’.
His first pictorial map of London may have been produced for the Coronation of George VI in 1936. His well-known map of London produced for the Southern Railway in 1938 shows the royal coach at the foot of the map, attending the State Opening of Parliament.
Lee was attached to the Air Ministry during World War II. He was based in Hertfordshire making detailed cut-away drawings of German aircraft, apparently recovered from crash sites, to advise RAF pilots of new developments, for example in armour plating or firepower.
After the War Lee returned to Blandford Studios. His celebratory map London: the Bastion of Liberty was published for the Travel Association of Great Britain c. 1946-47. He designed numerous maps as posters for British Rail: Cheltenham Spa (1951), Bedford (1953), Carlisle (1953), Nottingham (1953), Londonderry (1953), London (c. 1954), Dublin (1954), Edinburgh (1955), Norwich (1955), Cambridge (1957), Lincoln (1962), ‘Come to Wales’ (c. 1965). John notes that his father made two maps of Cambridge: a large one for British Rail, and a smaller one for ‘Pictorial Maps’, to match similar sized maps of Oxford and Stratford-upon-Avon.
Other pictorial maps include Birmingham, Jersey, Huddersfield, Chester, Derby, Leeds and Liverpool. Some, such as Oxford, are truly pictorial maps:
Others (eg Norwich and Lincoln) are architectural composites:
John knows of designs for maps of Paris, Rome, and sketches of Venice and New York, but it is not clear if they were ever published. Similarly, a ‘Literary Map of Britain’ seems to have remained unpublished:
He produced at least three murals of London, for the City Bank of New York in Berkley Street, for the Yorkshire Building Society in the Strand (still in situ), and this one for the Cunard office in Lower Regent Street:
He illustrated (or, to use his term, ‘decorated’) a number of books early in his career: a text book on arithmetic (Trevelyan & Morley: Four Walls, 1938, in the ‘functional arithmetic through citizenship’ series); a book on teaching English (Palmer: Book III More Advanced Oral Exercises and Written Compositions, 1939); a revised edition of Frank Swinnerton’s Georgian Literary Scene, and J. Hampden Jackson’s Problems in Modern Europe – the Facts at a Glance (1941). He also seems to have provided a map for the June 1936 issue of Time and Tidemagazine: The Links & the Breaks in the chains encircling Nazi Germany & Sanctioned Italy.
One of Lee’s first maps was of Hampstead Garden Suburb, where the family lived during the war:
The following anecdote, recounted by John, is very telling, given Lee’s evident delight in weaving puns and references to history and folklore into his maps: “Dad was great company for children, full of games and stories. At an early age I was familiar with classical mythology and English history and folk lore because I had it all as bedtime stories. Anyway, one time home on leave during the war, Dad and I went for a walk on Hampstead Heath after a ginger beer in the Old Bull and Bush (Dad always described ginger beer as being “full of beg-pardons”). Now during the war Hampstead Heath was dotted with many bomb craters because sometimes piles of firewood were lighted during German night raids to make it look as though they had hit something interesting and so drop more bombs there instead of vulnerable built-up areas. Anyway, Dad and I were sitting on the edge of a bomb crater, when Dad reminds me about Dick Turpin. He says Hampstead Heath was one of his haunts, laying in wait for stage coaches labouring up Hampstead hill and then having robbed them, galloping off along the Spaniards Way jumping right over the toll gate to make his escape. But, he said, there might have been times when his pockets were full of coins and as he galloped along some might have fallen out – “so I wouldn’t be surprised if with all the disturbance of the ground here, an observant young man might find something.” So right on cue I started poking about and digging at the edge of the bomb crater – and would you believe it, in no time at all I found a cache of old coins! It was quite a while before I learned that Dad had previously visited an antique shop to buy some old coins as ammunition for his story.”
Read part 2 of our Kerry Lee special here