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Maritime non-fiction / Culture

Artistic appraisal of iconic nautical images

Flag Waves, by Sue Pritchard

Aimed at arts and crafts aficionados, Flag Waves is the first book to present the extensive collection of house flags held by the UK National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Written and compiled by Sue Pritchard, a senior curator at the museum, this handsome cloth-bound book makes a fine addition to the library of anyone who would like to combine their interest in seafaring with a craft hobby.Flag_waves_cover.jpeg

Until recent times, flags were an essential part of maritime communication, used to aid identification of a vessel's nationality and deliver detailed messages using geometric shapes ('England expects every man to do his duty').
House flags, however, were those used to indicate the ownership of a vessel. Mainly produced from the mid-19th to mid-20th century, they were traditionally not flown at sea but rather on entering or leaving port, or during a stay, as they allowed owners to easily spot their vessels in a busy harbour.

So, what makes these particular flags interesting? From an artistic point of view, Pritchard explains in her introduction that while maritime corporate identity might seem an unlikely source of striking designs, 'the visual language of flags – mostly consisting of a seemingly never-ending combination of geometric shapes and bold primary colours – both anticipates and has much in common with some of the avant-garde art movements of the twentieth century.'

Indeed, many of the flags in the book hit the viewer in the same way as a propaganda poster, or a heraldic beast on a medieval banner: they're designed to be identified and appreciated at a distance, and pack an even greater punch when up close. Some are bold, some are quirky, but in each case the bright colours and simple but impactful design elements are truly striking.

More than 100 are presented here, the cream of the National Maritime Museum's collection of over 1,000 flags. As well as private shipowners – from famous names like White Star Line and Shell Tankers to less well-known players like Metcalf Motor Coasters – there are the flags adopted by civil society organisations such as Greenpeace and those of national bodies like Royal Mail and the Civil Service Sailing Association. Nor is this just a British book; there are plenty of flags from international companies and organisations presented too.

Most of the flags appear on a single page with just a couple of lines to identify the company and date, plus a little bit of detail on the material and production of the flag. Some take up a double page.

Occasionally there is also a facing page with a couple of paragraphs to explain a bit more about the company, how the flag's design was created or the meaning of particular symbols that appear.

Anyone thinking about purchasing this book should be aware that it is not a history textbook; maritime history buffs who want more than just a cursory glance at the many organisations referenced here should probably find something different. However, those who are interested in design or looking for inspiration in their own craft projects will be well satisfied.

Flag Waves: House Flags from the National Maritime Museum
By Sue Pritchard
Four Corners Books, £20
ISBN: 978 19098 29176

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