Who knew there was an English wine scene? I mean, microbreweries producing all sorts of weird and wonderful beers appear to be popping up constantly but wineries? I had always assumed that our slightly bleak weather really wouldn’t lend itself to grape growing. I had my horizons broadened with the completion of a recent brief however, a label design for a limited edition wine produced by Blackbook Winery.
Located in the railway arches of Battersea, Blackbook is an urban winery launched by Sergio and Lynsey Verillo in 2018 whose focus, in their words is “to make bloody good wine”. I initially got in touch as they had posted an opportunity online seeking a designer to produce labels for their range of wines – whilst they were really positive about my work they didn’t feel it was the right fit for the launch but would keep me in mind for a future project.
A little over a year later I received an email from Sergio, they were producing a new organic wine to be released in April 2019 and thought my style could work really well on this new label . I have to say that this was probably the clearest brief I have ever received, so often with clients there is a lot of toing-and-froing with emails to clarify things and make sure we are on right track but this was perfect. Working within the confines of their already arresting brand identity as developed by the Yarza Twins they were “seeking a look and design that is visually striking, London-centric and edgier than your typical English wine”.
Each of the labels already in production feature little, geometrically stylised hints at their London origin. The GMF label is based on the mosaic design from the Green Park tube station, the rosé has an image from an art deco building in Camden in her hair, the chardonnay’s earrings were inspired by the floor tiles at the Tate Britain and the pinot’s bow tie design is taken from the pillars at the Natural History Museum. I really love incorporating subtle narrative elements into my illustrations, and being a native Londoner this seemed like a great opportunity to dig into the history of Battersea and see what direction this took my artwork in.
The proposed name for the wine was Tamesis, an ancient name for the river Thames. In my research I found that this was a Latin truncation of Tame & Isis, the river flowing through London originally named as Tame and then becoming know as Isis as it continued its journey through Oxford. This hidden Roman influence over such an icon of London really surprised me, how else had this occupation impacted upon Britain? The grapes used to produce the wine were named for the Roman god of wine, Bacchus, so clearly this was a connection I could exploit in the design of the label. In doing so I discovered that our national love of wine could trace its lineage directly back to the waters flowing beneath the Chelsea Bridge.
‘The Thames is liquid history” - John Burns, MP for Battersea, 1929
Two thousand years ago the Roman Tacitus described Britain’s climate as “hostile and unsuitable for the growing of grapes or olives”. Despite the natural obstacle of our weather, the Romans persisted. The invasion by Julius Caesar in 54 BC introduced one of the central aspects of Southern European culture to Britain’s tribal communities, leaving our landscape dotted with the traces of ancient viticulture. It’s been suggested that this was one of the earliest forms of cultural imperialism, the presence of a vineyard being an indication of a ruling class separated from the Celtic hordes by their elite drinking habits.
The Romans brought more than a love of wine with them. They also brought their Gods. Bacchus is the God of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, as well as that of fertility, ritual madness and religious ecstasy. His symbols include the Kantharos, an ancient wine cup, and the Thyrsus, a staff wielded by him and revellers in his Bacchanal. Composed of a fennel plant tipped with a pine cone, wound in vine leaves and ivy and dripping with honey, this symbol of prosperity, fertility and hedonism formed the basis for my design - the deconstructed elements of the staff intertwining on the label being a subtle allusion to this Roman god and also to the name of the grape that birthed this wine.
The second design aspect of label is derived from one of the most significant pieces of Celtic art ever discovered: the Battersea Shield. Unearthed during excavations for what would be the precursor to the current Chelsea Bridge in 1857, the Battersea Shield is thought to date from the 1st Century BC. The extensive human remains discovered in the same area has led historians to posit that the site of the current bridge is the location from which Julius Caesar co-ordinated his expansion across Britain. The birth of British wine culture can therefore be traced directly back to this part of South West London, Blackbook Winery being a modern descendant of a wine-making tradition that reaches back centuries.
The shield is decorated with a swirling design of interconnected bronze and enamel decorations associated with good luck and solar energy, my abstract interpretation of this reduces these patterns down to simple geometric shapes. The bee wing that is the main focus of the label is both a reference to the honey laden Thyrsus and also army of growers and volunteers at 40 Hall Vineyard. Their collective activity enabling the production of the Bacchus grape and in turn Tamesis, the first wine entirely produced in London in modern times, in which the ancient intermingles with the new.