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Paul Bommer, illustrator & printmaker

May 19, 2010
by the gentle author

A mysterious tube arrived unexpectedly in the mail last week. Inside was a screenprint by illustrator Paul Bommer of the old nursery rhyme “Oranges & Lemons.” You may recall I wrote about Richard Ardagh and Graham Bignell’s version using nineteenth century wooden type, so I was fascinated to see Paul Bommer’s take on this venerable rhyme. Paul sent me a copy of the large print he has made in attractively gaudy colours of orange and blue with sixteen images in squares, reminiscent of a chapbook or a child’s alphabet chart, filling each square with clever notions. The work has a lively graphic texture with bold areas of flat colour and vigorous compositions of figures within squares that remind me of the Beggarstaff Brothers, only a lot funnier and more pop.

“I am passionate about London, especially the things that people don’t usually see, but which bring lost worlds to life. I love the fact that in Bishopsgate there are still old alleys like Rose Alley and Catherine Wheel Alley from Shakespeare’s time.” Paul declared to me, his eyes widening in delight, when we sat down for a quiet cup of tea in my garden yesterday. Now, he describes himself as “a London boy,” but says,“I didn’t feel I was in London,” speaking of when he grew up in Wembley. In those days, he recalled “coming into London,” when he was brought on trips, as a child, to the West End. Today, I think of Paul as a distinctive East London character, someone I am always delighted to greet in the street, always full of jokes and stories and good ideas.

As a busy and successful illustrator, with a jaunty bemused attitude, a pocket watch and a handsome flat cap, Paul is reliably clothed in a certain appealing mode of old school proletarian dapper. He is an artist who inhabits the universe of his pictures. Looking as if he has stepped from one of his drawings, or rather, as if his drawings record the world he has stepped from, where everyone dresses like Paul and his clothes and drawings are the evidence of it. Most importantly, Paul has the bravura to carry it off with ease. In fact, I could never imagine Paul dressed any other way.

Paul is a member of The Print Club in Dalston, a collective of artists for screenprinting. As part of Pick Me Up, the graphic art fair at Somerset House where I visited Rob Ryan, Paul was invited to design a print to be printed live at the event. He picked “Orange & Lemons,” reflecting his interest in London history and because St Clement Danes is next to Somerset House in the Strand. He chose to illustrate an earlier, more idiosyncratic, version than the one everybody knows. Suiting his purpose, this variant of 1830 has more arcane poetry, more verses – allowing more scope for pictures – and includes more East End churches too.

“Gay go up & gay go down to ring the bells of London Town

Bull’s eyes & targets say the bells of St Marg’rets

Brickbats & tiles say the bells of St Giles

Halfpence & farthings say the bells of St Martins

Oranges & lemons say the bells of St Clements

Pancakes & fritters say the bells of St Peters

Two sticks and an apple say the bells of Whitechapel

Old father bald pate say the slow bells of Aldgate

You owe me ten shillings say the bells of St Helens

Pokers & tongs say the bells of St Johns

Kettles & pans say the bells of St Annes

When will you pay me? say the bells of Old Bailey

When I grow rich say the bells of Shoreditch

Pray when will that be? say the bells of Stepney

I am sure I don’t know says the great bell of Bow

Here comes a candle to light you to bed

Here comes a chopper to chop off your head”

Illustrating each of the chimes, Paul referenced the history of the parish in each case, through exercising a cunning mixture of detective work and imagination. He discovered that “Old father bald pate, say the slow bells of Aldgate,” refers to images of a tonsured St Botolph, the patron saint of travellers. Churches were often dedicated to St Botolph at points of departure and arrival, which is why there are several in the City of London. “Pokers & tongs say the bells of St Johns,” St Johns is the chapel in the Tower of London, and the pokers and tongs refer to torture. “When will you pay me? say the bells of Old Bailey,” the Old Bailey was the debtor’s prison, Newgate. These chimes are each rooted in different historical realities of the City.

On a more personal note, Paul told me his mother’s aunt was born in a ship off India but was registered as being born in Stepney, as all British people born at sea were at that time. So, for “When will that be? say the bells of Stepney,” Paul has chosen to illustrate the sailor’s farewell, in accordance with the maritime association of that parish. To Paul, “When I grow rich say the bells of Shoreditch,” is an example of London irony, the wry pathos of poverty. A young illustrator looking at old London, he has producing an ingenious work that is fresh and new, yet done with affection and wit, and I shall enjoy having it on my wall now for a long time to come.

A few copies of Paul Bommer’s “Oranges & Lemons” are still available from The Print Club

Paul studies a copy of “The Cries of London”.

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