Beyond Metroland

In the 1930s, the Shell oil company helped create a very British kind of modernism

The Shell Guides were a series of motorists' handbooks to the British landscape that ran until the 1980s, and were edited first by John Betjeman and then by the painter John Piper. They are the focus of an exhibition at Middlesex University's Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, which features books, posters, films and appropriate ephemera from old adverts to trilobites. To reach it, one has to get the London Underground to its most pejoratively peripheral outpost - Cockfosters, that mysterious signifier of the very end of the line. Charles Holden's sharp, elegant hangar of a Tube station funnels you out into the suburbia so often associated with Betjeman and his brand of eccentrically conformist Englishness - plenty of mock Tudor and "stockbroker's Georgian"; a streamline Moderne school at the end of an echoing green; the beginnings of the green belt itself. Aptly enough, there is even a startlingly shoddy block of Barratt-style flats called Betjeman Court.

The Shell Guides, beginning in the early 1930s (contemporary with the development of Cockfosters itself), marked the replacement of this particular Metroland of fixed stations and daily commutes with another kind of relationship to travel and the landscape: one based upon the supposed freedom of the car, enabling the exploration of Britain's strange outposts. Yet at the same time the Shell Guides were part of an attempt to establish a distinctively British modernism.

The Royal Dutch-Shell company grew exponentially in the first decades of the 20th century, and would play a role similar to London Transport's in the patronage of Britain's tentative modern artists. In the 1930s Jack Beddington, advertising manager at Shell, commissioned the likes of Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash to design surrealist posters that seemed, in their weird atavism, to gesture at the prehistoric origin of the oil being sold. An abstract, unnerving image (with the painter's name clearly marked) would be subtitled reassuringly "You Can Be Sure of Shell". Meanwhile, the Shell Film Unit revelled in a playful modernism - for instance, Len Lye's deliriously imaginative 1935 short Birth of a Robot, now an animation classic, was essentially a means of flogging petrol. Although today oil companies are less subtle, bar the occasional unconvincing greenwash, Shell at this point was remarkably advanced in its thinking, developing a corporate identity through indirect association and what might even be called "cool" - something usually thought of as a very recent phenomenon.

The firm's aesthetic was bright, modern and at times a little sinister: think of Shell Mex House, the overbearing, Orwellian headquarters on the Victoria Embankment in London. Indeed, Henri Deterding, chairman of Royal Dutch-Shell from 1907 to 1936, was a Nazi sympathiser. In his 1929 novel The Life of the Automobile, Ilya Ehrenburg wrote of Deterding as an "emperor of oil", a new kind of monopoly capitalist bent on profit and control through "orderly morality" rather than Dickensian chaos. Ehrenburg's version of Shell's rise factored in the brutal conditions of the workers and neocolonial vassals who extracted the product, but of course the Guides didn't dwell on this.

The Guide covers, such as the one (above) for Wiltshire, might be found using photomontage in a kind of Lewis Carroll version of Dadaism, while inside would often be stark, high-contrast photographs of Neolithic sites, geological formations or strange medieval carvings. It seemed to suggest that, in order to discover these ancient, almost paganistic remnants of primal Englishness, one had to use the most modern techniques - whether that meant the design innovations of the Weimar Republic or the sputtering, roaring machines that got you from A to B.

Despite Deterding's fascist inclinations, the 1930s Guides shared in the soft leftism of the British surrealists, the Left Book Club or Mass Observation. The painters and critics who produced the Guides (the likes of Nash, Robert Byron and Christopher Hobhouse, who participated in the 1932 Kinder Scout mass trespass) were often associates of the Architectural Review, and had a disdain for what speculation and housebuilding were doing to the landscape. They initially aimed their guides at educated, middle-class motorists who wouldn't have been seen dead in Blackpool.

But with this came a laudable inclusiveness. Betjeman advised on "how to like everything", and so here were grimy, jarring industrial landscapes, cranky Victoriana, a celebration of the weather's willingness to provide a sense of foreboding, and an embrace of modernism. It would appear that Shell kept its hands off, never making deliberate editorial interventions. The Guides stayed an uneasy mixture of ancient and modern, if no longer at the cutting edge, long into the 1960s and 1970s, notwithstanding the Pevsner guides' less personalised incursion on their territory. Although they were discontinued in the 1980s, their slightly patrician modernist primitivism has its disciples today: for instance, the Ghost Box record label, with its similar love for clean-lined design and quiet oddity. Belbury Poly's album The Owl's Map even made direct references to the Guides.

The one thing not addressed in this exhibition is the car, and the oil economy that came with it - something about which we are no longer quite so sanguine. By inviting the reader to discover Britain by road, the Guides helped in their small way to create a new landscape, one of signs, service stations and, later, motorways, out-of-town shopping centres, suburbs and exurbs. By the 1980s this world, which often invoked an eternal Britishness as it tore it apart, would be effacing the very individuality that the Guides were set up to celebrate. In their petrol-sponsored perambulations, the Shell Guides might just have helped to kill the thing they loved.

"The Shell Guides: Surrealism, Modernism, Tourism" is at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, Cat Hill, Barnet, Hertfordshire, until 2 November. http://www.moda.mdx.ac.uk