Describe A Place: A Theatre

The Rossini Opera House (r.) Pesaro - Illustration by Achille Vildi, 1969

Suburban cinemas were often pretty comfortless places. While the entrance could be quite imposing with the box office generally at the top of a flight of white marble steps, presumably to accommodate the rake, the auditorium itself was often not much more than a hangar, the aisle carpeted but he seats on lino or even bare concrete. Wartime meant there was no ice cream but enroute to the cinema we would generally call at a sweet shop and get what Dad called ‘some spice’, provided, of course, we had the points, sweet rationing the most irksome of wartime restrictions and still in force as late as 1952 when I went in the army.

Alan Bennett
Poster by Henri Ott, 1953, theatre
Poster by Henri Ott, 1953
Seymour Joseph Guy - At the Opera 1887
Seymour Joseph Guy – At the Opera 1887
Illustration by Anton Franciscus Pieck (19 April 1895 – 24 November 1987) old school movies
Illustration by Anton Franciscus Pieck (19 April 1895 – 24 November 1987) old school movies
At the Opera, Harrison Fisher, c. 1901
At the Theatre by Ward Brackett (1914-2006)
At the Theatre by Ward Brackett (1914-2006)
  • Ancinemation: The curious act of waiting in line to see a movie and watching exiting movie goers’ reactions to see if they liked the movie or not.
  • Cinemuck: The sticky substance on the floor of a movie theater.

– from the Sniglet entry of Wikipedia

Header painting: The Rossini Opera House (r.) Pesaro – Illustration by Achille Vildi, 1969

Cutaway Houses In Picture Books

Cutaway illustrations are described by engineers and architects as ‘sectional axonometric’ drawings. They exist to show the viewer the inside of an object, with emphasis on its parts. In picture books for children, the cutaway illustration is quite often educational in its intent, for example to show the reader the inside of an object of building.

For example, the image below is a cutaway image of an insect nest, designed to show the viewer what it looks like on the inside — novel exposure of an otherwise secret space.

There was a time when cutaway illustrations were very popular for child consumption, and I guess that’s because they were so new and therefore impressive. You see them a lot in early to mid 20th century advertisements.

'Lancia Ardea' Poster by Giorgio Alisi, 1939 cutaway car
‘Lancia Ardea’ Poster by Giorgio Alisi, 1939 cutaway car

Popular computer games are all about the cutaway, normalising it, removing the ‘wow’. The Sims is all about the cutaway houses.

Sims cutaway house
from Mod The Sims

I also associate ‘cutaway’ views in games as necessary but bug-like features, for example when a character in a first person game approaches a wall, then partially enters the wall. This also happens in 3D architectural software when moving the camera about. It’s called ‘glitching through walls’. This game phenomenon is visually unappealing and I think it removes some of the romance of the cutaway house.

Though the golden age of the picture book cutaway seems to have passed (for now), it’s much easier for illustrators to create these images, even with no formal design training. A familiarity with popular 3D design software affords anyone the reference material to go to town with cutaways. But perhaps this is precisely why the cutaway is less utilised now; because it is less special? Or perhaps the proliferation of images in our culture has stripped away the feeling that we are afforded a glimpse into a secret world.

In any case, I remain in awe of a good cutaway illustration. The most simple and therefore the most suited to a retro style are these one point perspective dollhouse cutaways:

The illustration below is created in two point perspective, which lends a modern complexity.

This is a sectional axonometric comic by American cartoonist Chris Ware. Frames on a page are depicted as rooms in a brownstone building, a fusion of comic book design and architecture.

Modern software allows designers to create the ‘exploded axon‘. In these exploded diagrams, not only do we get a cutaway, detailed and 3D view, but each item is separated out. In the fascinating image below, Chris Ware has taken elements of exploded axons and applied a comic book style. These images are from a graphic novel called Building Stories (2012).

exploded axon by Chris Ware
Chris Ware

And here is a three point perspective example.

1974 printing of 1960's book Let's give a PARTY, pictures by Joanne Nigro
1974 printing of 1960’s book Let’s give a PARTY, illustrated by Joanne Nigro

Various “Picture Book” Cutaway Houses

It’s not easy to find the original creators of the images below, but each of them might easily appear in a children’s book. Some of them might just as easily have appeared in 20th century advertisements.

Victorians loved to make miniatures, and rich houses often commissioned miniature replicas of their own homes. These now look like ‘doll houses’ though they were not used for play.

The intrigue for miniature houses has not gone away. Though they have a retro vibe — or precisely because of this — look on any craft website and you’ll soon find embroidery patterns of cutaway houses (a.k.a dollhouses).


Below is a well-known image of a cutaway building. Aerial perspective is achieved by rendering the background in sepia tones, and the people outside the building as grey silhouettes. This image is my favourite cutaway illustration.

Image by Andres Marin Jarque for the Valencian Museum of Ethnology’s permanent exhibition “The Living City”. Depicts the interior of a city apartment block at the beginning of the twentieth century.
George Hughes, "Early Guests" 1957; used on the Saturday Evening Post cover November 23rd
George Hughes, “Early Guests” 1957; used on the Saturday Evening Post cover November 23rd. This illustration is not ‘cutaway’ in the usual sense, but the composition intrigues.
Les Roses bleuâtres l’oubliette dans la cuisine by Edward Gorey
Les Roses bleuâtres l’oubliette dans la cuisine by Edward Gorey
Arthur Rackham ~ Fairy Tales by Hans Andersen,1932 "When night was come and the shop shut up."
Arthur Rackham ~ Fairy Tales by Hans Andersen,1932 “When night was come and the shop shut up.”

There is apparently an Inn like this the Siebel illustration below located in upstate New York. It’s called “The Bull and Garland“.

Dinning Out by Frederick Siebel (1913-1991) cutaway house
Dinning Out by Frederick Siebel (1913-1991)


The Lost Art Of The Cutaway

A Slice of Spitlefields by Ben Rea

Adam Simpson has made updated posters for Hitchcock’s film Rear Window. By using the cutaway technique reminiscent of yesteryear, these new posters take the audience right back to the 20th century. The designs are beautiful.

The See Inside series of Usborne books

Progressive Narrative Art

Progressive narrative in artwork describes a single scene in which characters do not repeat. However, multiple actions are taking place in order to convey a passing of time in the story.

There are 7 main categories of narrative art. Narrative art is art which tells a story.

  1. Monoscenic — represents a single scene with no repetition of characters and only one action taking place
  2. Sequential — very much like a continuous narrative with one major difference. The artist uses frames. Each frame is a particular scene during a particular moment.
  3. Continuous — Continuous narrative art gives clues, provided by the layout itself, about a sequence. Like sequential narrative but without the frames.
  4. Synoptic — offers the synopsis of a bigger story. You must know a story before you can understand synoptic narrative.
  5. Simultaneous — has very little visually discernible organisation to those who are not acquainted with its purpose concentrating on repeatable patterns and dualities
  6. Panoptic — depicts multiple scenes and actions without the repetition of characters. Think of the word ‘panorama’. ‘All-seeing’ (pan + optic)
  7. Progressivea single scene in which characters do not repeat. However, multiple actions are taking place in order to convey a passing of time in the narrative. A progressive narrative is not to be interpreted as a group of simultaneous events. Instead, progressive art is a sequence dependent on its location. Actions displayed by characters in the narratives compress present and future action into a single image.

Below is a children’s book on the history of France. With history itself existing on a linear timeline, it makes sense that the cover illustration is progressive.

Progressive Narrative Art

Sequential narrative art was often used in film noir posters of the 20th century.

Progressive narrative art is so embedded in children’s book illustrations that the technique hardly needs a name. Any difference between progressive and panoptic narrative is a matter of viewer interpretation.

An especially interesting example of something akin to progressive narrative can be seen in some artwork by Richard McGuire.

These images are of single scenes, but frames are cut into the single scene to indicate the passage of time. The labels on the cut outs are clear indications to the reader exactly what the time sequence is. Apparently this style of narrative art was inspired by the artist’s friend talking to him about a Windows operating system. The modern audience is used to seeing multiple frames on a screen before us, and can easily cope with this form of visual narrative. If we read the date labels, we easily decode the meaning.

The Norman Rockwell illustration below might be a depiction of three people simultaneously viewing pictures in an art gallery, but it might also be regarded an amalgamation of two separate times.

Noman Rockwell (February 3, 1894 – November 8, 1978) ‘Picasso vs Sargent’, The Way It Is, 1966