My name is Barbara Purser and I’ve been a Tour Guide at Upton for nine years. Right from the start, I was keen to do some of my own research into whatever subject was to be part of the various tours I was doing whether it was paintings, conservation, history of the Bearsteds, treasures of Upton. There was so much to learn, so many interesting new facts to emerge (all of which had to be checked and double checked) and therefore so much more to say to our visitors in the hope of making their time with us more enjoyable. Then I found I was being asked to research subjects outside my own tours.
My most recent research has involved being a member of the Shell Focus Group, working on the preparation of the Shell and the Art of Advertising exhibition. Each of us had a specified area of study: the history of Shell, a particular artist, the story of advertising posters, etc. Mine was the artist, John Armstrong and the 1930s publicity manager of Shell, Jack Beddington.
Researching involves looking into archives, libraries, newspaper cuttings, books, letters and as many possible sources as can be thought of. Much initial help can today be found on the internet which is very time-consuming as looking at one subject can then lead to another, then another, and another until the researcher is completely distracted and miles away from the original subject – it’s just all so interesting! So many threads must be followed up and so many phone calls and visits to make to find out yet more information.
My prize was pinpointing the location of the Shell Archive which turned out to be part of the BP Archive located very close to Upton at the University of Warwick. Once we had access to the Archive’s digital database, we were able to pin down information on company history, people, promotional materials, photographs, newspaper articles and more – it is a veritable treasure trove. Three of us spent a day of real discovery among the files and envelopes. With the permission of the Archive to use the material for the exhibition, we next wanted scans of the really important pieces and were very lucky in the help we were given by the archivist. Most of the information we found that day can be seen in Shell and the Art of Advertising in the Squash Court Gallery.
The Armstrong artwork I was particularly keen to learn more about was a commission from Jack Beddington for a set of murals for Shell-Mex House, the headquarters of Shell in London. I knew that Armstrong had designed eight panels titled Transport through the Ages and that they were installed in 1933. I knew too that Shell-Mex House had been badly damaged in a World War II bombing raid in November 1940. What had happened to the murals? All I wanted to know I found in the BP Archive and that story is told elsewhere.
But perhaps most pleasing for me came about when I was trying to find the copyright holder of the photograph of John Armstrong with the Shell-Mex House panels, currently on view in the Shell exhibition. I had come across the image in a book detailing John Armstrong’s works and felt that it was especially representative of the man and his painting. No credit was listed for the photograph so I telephoned the publishers and was told that copyright belonged to his widow. Do get in touch with her, I was urged, she will be delighted to hear that her husband is being featured in your exhibition. I did so by letter and a week later she telephoned me – a most charming and courteous lady, she gladly gave her permission. Mrs Armstrong has been invited to visit Upton to see the exhibition and she hopes to come, with their daughter, later in the summer. She will be most welcome.