Tony and Me




The research tasks were divided up between us, Phil Beard and Chris Mullen. Our questionnaires rolled out and as the warm responses from participants rolled in - from Jane Mull, Heneniah Harari, Barney Line and Hank Brennan, I asked Phil what was the best thing that could happen. "That Petruccelli is alive and keen to answer questions." Hank had been the Art Director during Tony Petruccelli's heyday and I had forgotten to ask him about our hero. "Sure," he wrote, "Tony lives in New Jersey. A place called Mount Tabor. Give him a ring."

With my copies of his covers assembled on the table I called the number and he answered straight away. I explained what we were doing at some length and said how much we admired his art. How can we find out more? There was a pause. A hand went over the receiver. "Hey Toby" he called out, "Fame at last."

Toby, I found out quickly was his wife, sitting behind him in the room. That was how it started. For the Norwich show, Tony did the colour separations for the poster, printed by Mel Clark at the Norwich School of Art. He answered questionnaires, and was generous in his information on the execution of the covers, which for us were the glory of the magazine before 1945. The show in Norwich was a success in the terms Phil and I had decided on at the beginning. The Librarian Willi Guttsman, an amusing but irritable man, agreed to the Library's exhibition space being used for this exploration of capitalist imagery. He refused to have the catalogue on open sale. The rotter, I thought. I got no money back until the show opened in Rochester. Despite our having a great poster designed by Penny Hudd with colour separations by Tony, Willi refused to acknowledge the show to the rest of the University. Roy Church, Professor of Economics said he would have arranged classes for his students had he known it was there. I did give an impromptu talk to a visiting American academic, and that was about it. Still, several old FORTUNE hands from the UK turned up. Paul Hogarth came up for the Private View, and was delighted how much of his reportage work we had included.

I flew out with the tear sheets of the FORTUNE exhibition in a carrier bag to be delivered to R. Roger Remingtron who was to stage the thing at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He was to give the material the spread and presence we believed it needed.

Tony and Bob Reed met me at JFK, believing that I looked like the commercial artist depicted on Cigarette Pack Art. After a moment of confusion Tony took me to his huge big-finned car in the car park. Missing every turning available to take us home we swept out into the night, arriving hours later in Mount Tabor. Tony was a tiny sparkling man who could barely peer over the steering wheel without a pile of cusions. Bob Reed whom I had known of as a magazine collector beamed at the adventure of it all. The meat loaf cooked by Toby was reduced to a blackened lump about the size of a bar of soap.

We talked well into the night. I was taken to a bedroom leading off the Lounge and unloaded by tape recorder, camera and film. What hospitality, what a thrill it all was... The house you'll see in my photographs, small neat and surrounded by larger houses on all sides except the vista to the golf course and the distant horizon. I was unprepared for the summer's heat and its effects on me. We sat outside a lot during the days that were to follow in the Petruccelli's picnic area. The hospitality was warm and generous. "English Muffins, just for you. " I kept to myself that I had never eaten them in my life. Toby was the sweetest of supportive wives, averting her gaze at the more eccentric of his claims. I turned down the orange juice at breakfast which had been fermenting unobserved over the weeks in the 'fridge. There was too much to do in America for me to succumb this early to a stomach bug.

I soon realised that my research methodology was too conventional for conversations with Tony. I returned the pile of miniature tapes to my suitcase and just chatted. He had been a modestly successful commercial artist whose peak of celebrity had been years ago. I am always alert to the tendency of the interviewed subject to cautiously skirt critical successes and disappointents (Tom Eckersley, Nigel Henderson, Humphrey Spender and others). Rare it was for my interviewee to ponder the world from a critical eminence. Perhaps David Watkin was the only great man who was at ease with his own work and achievements.

The questions given to Tony just couldn't get too incisive. Who was I to adopt a lofty perspective of what had happened? The rise of the European Art Director (Leo Lionni, Walter Burtin for example) had ensured that American talents working for FORTUNE (and elsewhere) either conformed to the Modernist patois, or else withered on the vine. After 1946, and with decades ahead of him, his work was restricted to lesser publications, and in the end, to the occasional commission. He clearly missed swimming in the shoal. Hans Barschel made a telling observation we found useful to apply to Tony, that American Graphic Design before the arrival of the Bauhaus men and women (and that included Barschel) was almost medieval in its colours and compositions.

Tony's conversation was just too mercurial and unstructured to help me create any dogged narrative line. Much more fascinating was his delight at being in employment with its visual challenges, sudden trips up to FORTUNE's offices at a moment's notice to fill the occasional space with vignette or diagram.

What came through regularly in his conversation and calculations was the insecurity of freelance illustration, with a family to support. "Too many martinis," he said sorrowfully when contemplating his career. Those he loved and respected brought light and passion into his life, such as Eleanor Treacy and subsequently Hank Brennan. Such was the peripatetic nature of his life as a jobbing illustrator he didn't seem to have regular and informative encounters with others of his trade. He remembered passing Ernest Hamlin Baker and Boris Artzybasheff in the corridor with wisecracks and jossing.

His greatest awe was reserved for Richard Edes Harrison, the cartographer whose generous maps and projections gave FORTUNE's such panache and authority. "We're all going to a party at the Buerks, and he'll be there."

That was only a part of it. Tony and Bob ran me with the carrier bag of FORTUNE tear sheets to Rochester, stopping at his son's house on the way. Where shall we take you? What do you want to do? Such care and consideration. I got to Diners and Malls. Just talking was enough for me. I got to see Bob's magazine collection. Bob ran me the Fairleigh Dickinson Library to meet Jim Fraser. Bob and Jean were volunteers there. Jim had been under the surgeon's knife and discharged himself from hospital the previous day in order to meet me. Imagine that. Jim drove me to a certain book shop he knew of in Brownsville where there was a half-price sale. All my purchases and some carefully chosen duplicates from the Library and the American Outdoor Advertising Archive were sent back to Brighton in huge canvas sacks.

I learnt so much. It was clear that my employers at the Norwich School of Art was pathetic and provincial, not from deployment of resources but from a cautious perception of what could happen in education. Jim was terrific at attracting sponsorship and bequests from generations of European avant garde artists and designers who escaped a murderous fate in 'Thirties Europe. Renee Weber was in charge of the Advertising Archive, a position that also funded her editorship of the Journal of American Printing History. She still hated the song, 'Walk Away Renee' that had plagued her early years at school. At Rochester Roger had given up the Chairmanship of the Department to concentrate on developing the storage of digital images and data on optical disks, a development I was desperate for my employers in Norwich to contribute to.

Fat chance.

Wherever I was during my stay , whatever I did, there was Tony Petruccelli beaming in a paternal way.

Back in his studio he went through his FORTUNE cover art work, his proofs and work for other magazines. He was eager to show me more, and to have it all photographed. One day he had a treat planned for me - a demonstration to be committed to film of his airbrush techniques. He was clearly a designer who had bright sparkling ideas that often involved multiple repeated elements of pattern making. These would be carried out with a meticulous craftsmanship often involving different depictions of lighting, with chalky shafts of light, sudden gleams and halation, jagged edges of lightning. Great, I said. Air brushing it is.

Next morning we went through to the first floor studio at the apex of the house. His generator and air brush were laid out and various cut silhouettes ready for use. I wanted to witness how he balanced the manipulated paint with airbrushed elements. How were they laid down? How did the shapes meet? how was one overlaid?

The camera was loaded. The tape recorder was alive. Sadly for posterity, Tony discovered that his apparatus was rusted into uselessness. A pain and frustration was generated that I hadn't seen before. I once saw a documentary on the photographer O.Winston Link who demonstrated his complex battery of lights required to make portraits of locomotives in transit, only to discover after ignition of the battery of bulbs that he hadn't loaded a film.

"Never mind Tony, keep pointing and I'll keep taking the pictures."

Just before I left, after three weeks in Mount Tabor, Bob Reed took me aside. He wanted to say how much Tony had enjoyed my visit. I couldn't have known that in order to offer me shelter he had actually built another room on to his house.

From the perspective of the morning I now write in Brighton (December 2009) , I still can't quite grasp the actuality of this generosity. Tony got to the Rochester Show and contributed to a discussion Roger Remington organised for the students (Petruccelli, Barschel, Allner). I still have a tape of the event which I showed one afternoon to the cinematographer David Watkin. "I know who I'd keep the camera on... " David said. "You mate is alive and kicking. Can't disguise what he is thinking on his face."

Hans Barschel was modest and gentlemanly. Walter Allner was driven by the need to set his seal on the afternoon's proceedings. Never an opportunity lost. Then there was Tony, keeping his end up, a spirit of sheer wickedness colouring his own contributions to the discussions and his responses to the others on the panel.

I spread my collections of Petruccelli FORTUNE covers out again today on the table. They still thrill, delight and amaze me. I feel that this part of my website is in part a recognition of what I owed to Tony and Toby. He believed me when I said that I wanted to proselytize his work. Now, at last, I believe I have done it a small amount of justice.


Tony and Toby, the complete Collection, photographed on my visit to Mount Tabor.