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Birkbeck Art History title shortlisted for major book prize

Professor Lynda Nead, Pevsner Chair of History of Art at Birkbeck, has been shortlisted for the PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History 2018 for her title The Tiger in the Smoke: Art and Culture in Post-War Britain. The prize, worth £2000, is awarded annually by English PEN for a non-fiction book of specifically historical content.

The Tiger in the Smoke takes an interdisciplinary approach, looking at film, television and commercial advertisements as well as more traditional media such as painting to explore the art and culture of post-war Britain. The book explores the influence of the Great Fogs of the 1950s on the newfound fashion for atmospheric cinematic effects, and how the widespread use of colour in advertisements contributed to an increased ideological awareness of racial differences.

Professor Nead said: “I have spent much of my academic career as a historian of British art and culture, but The Tiger in the Smoke is my first major study of post-war British cultural history. I was initially drawn to the period by the stories of the great fogs of the post-war period, when, through a combination of domestic and industrial smoke, visibility was often reduced to a few feet and pollution made the air unbreathable. I began to wonder how I could use the motif of the fog as a way of thinking about post-war Britain more generally.

“The book is divided into three main parts: it begins with the idea of smoke, fog, bomb-sites and Victorianism as the greyscale of the post-war period and then moves on to consider the symbolic and metaphorical meanings of colour, examining the Festival of Britain, advertising, film and how colour symbolism became tied to notions of race and racism in the Windrush era. Finally, the third part of the book looks at domesticity and gender relations, looking at the Kitchen Sink painters, Sunday afternoons and women’s housecoats! I have become really interested in British film in this period and it was a delight immersing myself in outstanding films such as Woman in a Dressing Gown; It Always Rains on Sunday and David Lean’s Dickens adaptation Great Expectations.

“I am so honoured that the book has been shortlisted for the PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History 2018. The book was published by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art with Yale University Press and it has been beautifully designed; the images are fundamental to my argument and tell the history of this period alongside the text.”

A representative from English PEN praised the book, saying: “Nead gives readers a history of post-war Britain seen through colour. This would be enough to warrant acclaim; she also is an accomplished storyteller. The Tiger in the Smoke rejects the self-congratulatory narrative of Britain after the Second World War, focussing instead on shades of grey smog, bomb-sites, virulent racism, art and film, and the dreams of ordinary people. The book is itself an objet d’art. The judges were enchanted by the way Nead interweaves the cultural, social, political, and emotional lives of Britons.”

The Tiger in the Smoke is available from Yale University Press. 

Published: 19 April 2018