There aren’t many artists who enjoy success in the notoriously opposed worlds of Fine and Commercial Art. But it was Bow boy William Larkins’ unrivalled draughtsmanship that made him as comfortable designing the Black Magic box as producing exquisite etchings of his native East End.
He was born in 1901 into a Bow family of steeplejacks. It was a family skill that came into its own when he began studying at Goldsmiths College of Art. His fellow students were stunned by his contribution to a student rag – climbing Nelson’s Column to give it a clean!
One of those students was Graham Sutherland, later to become one of the greatest English painters of the twentieth century. But during his time at Goldsmiths he too became consumed by producing etchings – inspired in part by Larkins’ work.
“I knew William Larkins very well,” he remembered years later. “As students we sat side by side, he a little earlier than I in arriving at the School of Art, often as early as 6.30 in the morning, while I arrived about 7.00.”
Sutherland describes Larkins etchings as “exceptional – very small but packed with insight. He managed to combine a highly complex technique with an air of simplicity”. And it was Larkins who introduced his fellows to the work of great 19th century artist and etcher Samuel Palmer.
Much of the vitality and detail of Larkins’ early work derived from the fact he was drawing on his East End childhood. With his detailed local knowledge he was plundering an area rich in character and street theatre for his pictures. A boot stall in Whitechapel; a brewery and timber yard in Mile End; an Aldgate tripe dresser’s shop; the rays of sunlight beaming down into Whitechapel Underground Station. Mundane street scenes were carved into dramatic contrasts of greys, whites and blacks.
It was an extraordinary burst of creativity. But although he travelled extensively, making etchings of Bruges, Paris, New York, as well as a series of idyllic scenes from the Welsh countryside, most of the work would be compressed into the 1920s. Etching had been a lucrative business in the early years of the century – with the resulting prints sold in editions of thousands. But as the 1920s wore on, it was increasingly losing out to photography.
The Depression of the late 20s sounded the death knell for the etchings market. And so, although in 1925 he had been exhibited at the Los Angeles Museum, in New Zealand and at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, by the 1930s he was looking for a more solid career.
In 1932, Larkins joined giant advertising agency J Walter Thompson as an art director. He soon became an ad man as much as an artist, getting involved in selling and marketing. Back at the drawing board, he produced the famed Black Magic chocolates box (a design that for 35 years was to stay largely unchanged). He came up with the wrapper for Aero and designed the Lux soap flakes box.
But he was still drawing for pleasure as well as profit. Visiting New York in 1934, he made a series of large pastel drawings depicting Manhattan Night Life. Compared with the tight detail of his East End etchings, they are fresh, relaxed loose pictures. And in 1940 he formed the Larkins Studio, which produced films and animations on tank and aircraft recognition for the Ministries of Defence and Information, as well as propaganda and independent cartoons.
Larkins spent the last 30 years of his life as art and graphics director of the Reader’s Digest. With his jack-of-all-trades approach taking in sales, promotion and advertising, it was a million miles from his early days at Goldsmiths. It probably seemed all too distant to Larkins too – most of his work had been done before the age of 25. In later life he was dismissive of his work of the 1920s – yet in his stark pictures, there is captured all the vibrancy of the East End streets.
A 28-page book of Larkins’ life and pictures, William Larkins, Etchings of the East End in the 1920s and other scenes is available. £8 incl post and packing from Garton & Co, Roundway House, Devizes, Wilts, SN10 2EQ. Cheques made payable to Garton & Co.