A ramshackle old bank in Clerkenwell has been transformed by architect-turned-gallery director Didier Madoc-Jones into a new exhibition space.

Two years ago, the handsome, half-abandoned shell (complete with stray cat in the basement) was crying out for conversion. Didier enlisted his brother, the RIBA award-winning architect Pascal Madoc-Jones, to pull the space apart, adding partition walls to provide picture hanging room. ‘He also made the building’s past visible by exposing the metal security structures around the old bank vaults and the old Victorian paint on the ceilings,’ Didier explains. ‘It all adds texture.’

These layers of history left on the gallery walls are a fitting tribute to what now hangs on them: postwar magazine illustrations. Lever Gallery is dedicated to preserving this oft-ignored, papered-over visual heritage. ‘Before photography dominated, colour magazine illustration had a brief heyday in the UK, lasting from the late 1950s to the mid-70s,’ Didier explains. 'That time is gone and will not come again.’

Of course, there are still prominent magazine illustrators working today, but ‘their work does not define today’s popular culture in the way that the lifestyle illustrators of that time had the opportunity to do.’ In the fifties, illustration was the most affordable, frequently used visual asset magazines worked with.

‘2001 Moon Pit’, by Brian Sanders. © The artist. Courtesy of Lever Gallery

Colour printing presses were popping up across the country, and with them, new opportunities for artists, who would sketch an illustration, sending it via post for reproduction. They'd be lucky if they got the original back. ‘Ironically, because lifestyle illustration was mass-produced it wasn’t considered to be of great value,’ says Didier. ‘Much of the original work is lost, in someone's attic, or destroyed.’

Lever Gallery is constantly on the hunt for good, original work. A series by revered lifestyle illustrator Brian Sanders, currently on show with the gallery, is one such hidden gem. The collection has never before been exhibited – having been tucked away for almost half a century in Stanley Kubrick’s house. Sanders was invited by the cult director onto the set of his legendary film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) to document the comings and goings of cast, crew (and spacecraft). The resulting series offers a unique glimpse into the director’s notoriously closed-book creative process.

These works are displayed alongside Sanders' more traditional lifestyle illustrations (seen in publications like Woman’s Mirror, The Sunday Times Magazine and Nova) as well as recent poster illustrations that the 80-year-old Sanders created for TV show Mad Men in 2011.

Didier acknowledges that the gallery premise is niche. ‘In the US, postwar illustrators have a loyal and sophisticated following. Iconic works command significant sums, but here, no one can name a Rockwell or a Bernie Fuchs.’ But the UK audience is small but committed, and Didier is optimisitic. ‘There’s a nostalgia for print media illustration. It has something distinct to say about who we were and what we aspired to be.’

If this is a new dawn for postwar illustration, it’s a misty one. But it’s a pleasure to see these wistfully charming original drawings finally displayed for what they are – works of art.

RELATED TOPICS: ILLUSTRATION, LONDON EXHIBITIONS