Lovely bombs

You may need to bear with me on this post.  I’ve been thinking about writing it for at least a year, possibly longer.  I’m sure all the ideas made a lovely linear argument when I first had them, but I’ve pondered them so long that they’ve all turned into some kind of thought soup.  The ingredients include bombs, posters and a very famous John Betjeman poem.  Only writing will tell me if they still make sense together, so here goes.

The easy part is the poster, which is this design by Edward McKnight Kauffer, commissioned by the Air Raid Precautions Department of the Home Office in 1938.

McKNight Kauffer vintage propaganda poster ARP 1938

Every so often I come back and think about this poster, and not just because we’ve got a copy framed on our walls.  I’m intrigued by what living through those years of the late 1930s must have been like, with people trying to live their normal lives as much as possible, but all the time knowing that war was looming dark and unavoidable in the very near future.

I’ve always thought that the allusiveness of the poster – you are invited to join ARP without any clue about what you might be joining or what the organisation might do – was because no one was very clear about what the war in the air might involve.  Pat Keeley’s companion poster is similarly vague.

Pat Keely vintage arp world war two propaganda poster 1938

Perhaps it was the misunderstandings behind the Keep Calm and Carry On poster which led me to think that no one really foresaw the reality of bombing raids, but that’s certainly what I believed.  The posters show nothing because back then no one really knew what was to come.

How wrong I was, it turns out.  People, not just the army, not just the government, but ordinary people in the streets, newspaper readers and casual observers, knew exactly how the bombers would come when war was declared.  It had been shown to them for years, and the evidence was actually there in plain view, if only I knew where to look.

The first clue to this came in a history of the inter-war years, which I was reading for another reason altogether, but piqued my interest by mentioning ‘London’s Great Air Battle’ which was staged in 1925.  Here’s the account from the News of the World, as reprinted in the book.

Powerful searchlights…stabbed into the path of darkness overhead, sweeping the skies for the menacing machines….Guns manned by alert teams rattled away as they spat out their imaginary stream of shells into the heavens and the invaders circled round and round loosing their cargoes of destruction from the heights.

Someone clearly had a very good idea of what the next war would do to London.   But who?  I nearly broke Google trying to find out (London’s Great Air Battle wasn’t actually what it was called, so this made life a bit more difficult than it might have been).

Until I eventually – and really this did take a couple of days – found a perfect blog.  It’s called Airminded, and it’s subject is Airpower and British Society 1908-1941.  I’d say that it couldn’t be more perfect, were it not for the fact that the author of the blog, Brett Holman, has also written a book called The Next War in the Air: Britain’s Fear of the Bomber, 1908-1941.  Which is exactly what I needed to know.  Except it’s an academic book, and so costs £75.   But never mind, the blog gives us more than enough information to look at the posters in a new light.

It turns out that these displays were put on as part of the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley in 1924 and 1925.


One of the many attractions was that No 32 Squadron of the RAF simulated the bombing of London in a thrilling display of pyrotechnics that included anti-aircraft guns and fire engines.  And not just one display either, these ran six days a week for nearly a month.

London Defended wembley programme

As Holman points out, this was a lot of time, energy and aeroplane for the RAF to commit, so they must have been convinced that there was a propaganda purpose in all the spectacle.  They wanted people to know that the RAF was the most modern and exciting of the fighting forces, they wanted people to understand that the next war would be fought in the air and so the RAF would be essential.  But a side effect was that it made clear to people that, should the next war ever come, London would very definitely be in the firing line.  (It’s also notable that the Air Raid Precautions Department that commissioned the posters was also founded in 1924, which given the propaganda nature of the displays may be rather less than coincidence).

This wasn’t the only place that the RAF were showing their workings either.  The RAF Aerial Pageants had been held in Hendon since 1920 – and it’s worth noting that a lot of lovely London Transport posters were produced to advertise them too (this image from Kiki Werth).


In 1926 and 1927, one of the high points of the spectacle was set piece displays of the bombing of London.  The pageants, too, were large scale events – 150,00 people visited in 1926 alone.  None of this was a secret.

However, back then in the twenties it wasn’t necessarily clear then that another war was imminent.  So the shows could just be seen as hypothetical displays.  Perhaps even the results of the Air Defence Exercises that ran alongside the Wembley and Hendon events were not as frightening as they seem now with hindsight.  Each summer, starting in 1927, the RAF High Command tried to bomb London with some squadrons, while others tried to defend it.  The results were clear each time, the bomber almost always got through.  And this conclusion was widely reported in the newspapers when it happened year after year.  By 1932, the results must have felt at least a bit ominous though.

As the decade turned and the 1930s rolled on, it must have been apparent to even the most casual observer that was would be very different next time round.  No more trenches, no more stale mate.  The new war belonged to bombers, and the bombs would not be falling on soldiers alone, everyone in Britain would have to be prepared for what might come.

The final piece of evidence for this is John Betjeman, and perhaps his most famous lines of all.

Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!

Come, bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air -conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath.

These lines aren’t the result, as somehow I’d always assumed, of hindsight, the poet summoning the bombs back in the 1950s to do their work again.  Although Betjeman published the poem in 1937, he actually wrote it in 1928.  This is ten years before those ARP posters, and yet there’s no explanation in the poem, no need for him to explain what the bombs will do. Everyone understands.

All of which means that when I now look at the posters again (this is a third one, produced for the WRVS but in 1938 as well) I have to see them in a very different way.

ARP WRVS poster air raid 1938 world war two propaganda

Their vagueness isn’t the result of evasion at all.  On the contrary, everyone is so clear about what the next war will involve that the realities don’t need to be mentioned at all.  No one wants to see the blasted corpses, the broken homes, the dead children.  All that needs to be said are the three letters of ARP, and the viewer of the poster knows what has to be done.  Because war is coming, and this time the war will come from the air and no one will be spared.

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Ghost posters

This picture arrived by email last week.  It is, I am told, a street corner in Brighton at some point during the 80s.  But with the 1950s lurking just under the skin.

Brighton street corner with posters remaining

Now this would be worth putting your way just as a reminder of what does persist, and in the strangest places.  But there’s more to it than just that.

Because this picture is the only colour image I’ve ever seen of that Eckersley Omo poster on the left.  Until now, I only knew it from a black and white reproduction in Modern Publicity.

Tom Eckersley Omo poster 1962 Modern Publicity

Despite that,  I recognised the poster at once, because I’ve used it – both on here and elsewhere – as an example.  It’s a reminder of the sheer volume of British posters, specifically commercial posters, which have not only failed to survive in any number, but quite often have left almost no trace at all.  Except here it is, leaving a trace, thirty years after it was first printed.  Hurrah for that.  And I much prefer it in colour too.

(I suspect that there are other clues in that picture too, or at least hints.  My feeling is that British commercial posters weren’t kept in part because they were immense, whereas – perhaps – Continental ones came in smaller sizes too.  But that’s just a hunch with no research behind it for now.)

Two addenda.  Firstly I know nothing about that Bovril poster at all, so if anyone has any ideas about that, please point yourself at the comments box at once as I would love to find out more.  Secondly, the picture comes from someone called Bongo Pete, but arrived with me via the medium of Facebook which means that it’s hard to contact him.  So if you are Bongo Pete and want any more acknowledgement than that (and of course my eternal gratitude for taking the picture in the first place) please do get in touch.



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There’s an undervalued poster coming up at a provincial auction in Cheltenham (and the auction’s tomorrow – Tuesday – sorry about that).

Harry Riley (1895-1966) 1950's British Railway advertising poster "Newquay on the Cornish Coast", 63cm x 101cm

Given that this Harry Riley poster usually goes for well north of a grand, I am expecting it to fetch more than the £100-200 estimate, even taking into account its charming mis-attribution to British Railways and the 1950s.  There are another two Harry Riley posters thrown in with it too, just to make it even more of a bargain.

There’s another of his posters on offer too, with a similarly daft estimate.

Harry Riley Ilfracombe railway poster

But that’s not the real news story.  Lurking further down the listings is an entire world of Harry Riley items.  There’s artwork, paintings and a multitude of family portraits.  These pictures are him in his studio with his daughter, Barbara.Harry Riley in studio with his daughter barbara sketches

There are cartoons and sketches.

Harry Riley national service cartoon

Scrapbooks and advertising material.

Harry Riley advertising sketch mens clothes

And even a gigantic pile of ephemera including his complete correspondence with the BBC.  I have to give you the complete description of that one because it’s fantastic.

Quantity of Harry Riley (1895-1966) ephemera including 1940’s letters from The British Broadcasting Corporation, Southern Television, Savage Club, 78rpm gramophone record “Harry Riley Cartoonist Corner”, quantity editions of Sketchpad and other Periodicals, quantity dinner menus and entertainment programmes including 40th Anniversary London Sketch Club and others and large quantity of Harry Riley illustrated menswear catalogues and other advertising material and ephemera (1 bag and 1 box)

But the auction is also very sad.  What’s on offer here – in a multitude of tiny lots – is an entire archive.  And it’s going to be broken up, which is heartbreaking, because once sold like this it will probably never be assembled again.  I hope the NRM are there and bidding, and bidding hard.  It would be a crime to let this disappear.

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Shop Now

Right, there is no way on earth that I am going to be able to do today’s auction justice.  This is partly because I am tired (I had to get up at 5.45 am to go to Stonehenge, don’t ask) and partly because it is tomorrow, but mainly because it is just such a vast, sprawling and wonderful beast that it would be impossible to cover all the highlights in one blog post.  So this is just a taster, and you really do have to go and look at the catalogue yourself.

The auction in question is the posthumous sale of the collection of Bob Date, who was a dealer in books and ephemera, and clearly blessed with exceptional taste.  Along with the collecting gene, clearly, as there is tons of the stuff.

How do I know he had good taste?  Well he liked Barnett Freedman, to start with.

FREEDMAN (Barnett): 'Modern Furniture & Design by Bowmans,,'; London, 1930; together with 'Bowman's Furniture, Ring Up The Curtain..', same publisher, 1936, both square 4to; photographic trade catalogues of 'Unit' furniture with fine cover designs by Barnett Freedman printed in various colours
Lot 219, est. £150-200

But there’s so much  more than just catalogues.  How about an accordion folded, peepshow diorama?

FREEDMAN (Barnett): 'In Winter & In Summer You Can Be Sure of Shell..'; rare accordian-folding peepshow diorama from a design by Freedman, comprising eight colour litho card sections with paper sides, reading 'Be Up to Date Shellubricate',
Lot 217, est £300-500

Or perhaps an entire archive of more than a hundred items of almost limitless Freedman glory?

Barnett Freedman archive items


Chromoworks publicity Barnett Freedman
Lot 221, est. £2,000-3,000

And there are also posters too, and not just by Freedman either, although he is of course represented.

Barnett Freedman, 'Circus, Go By Underground', printed by Curwen Press, two colour lithographs London Transport poster
Lot 846, est. £500-700 (two posters)

And not just by the known posters either.  This – which I assume is for the Festival of Britain – is fantastic.  If somewhat large.

After Barnett Freedman, an extremely rare Shell advertising billboard poster, in four parts Festival of Britain poster 1951 Shell
Lot 911, £1,000-2,000

And there’s plenty of posters by other artists too, scattered throughout the tail end of the auction.

After Sybil Andrews and Cyril Power, 'Football', a rare 1933 London Transport poster, printed by The Baynard Press
Andrew Power, 1933, lot 864, est. £500-800

Paxton Chadwick, 'The South Gets More Sun', a 1930s Southern Railway Poster
Paxton Chadwick, 1933, lot 933, est. £100-150

After Dame Laura Knight, 'Victory Delayed' poster, printed by J. Weiner Ltd, colour lithograph World War Two poster
Dame Laura Knight, lot 927, est. £50-70

And not just posters, but books about posters too, whole lots of them.  And books about canals, and trains, and architecture, and books of designs for the Curwen Press.  And then there’s the ephemera, which is here in industrial quantities.  You could probably start up as a dealer just by buying one lot like this.

A collection of approx. five hundred and forty items, to include: labels; advertising; book plates; packaging; a few postcards; etc., 19th century to modern, largely in fine condition. (Approx. 540)

That’s lot 98, if you’re interested, estimated at £200-300.  Although I have no idea how the values will work out tomorrow, it really could go either way.  Possibly these are wild under-estimates and there will be a crazed frenzy of buying the like of which I have not seen for a while.  Equally, it could go the way of Morphets, and people will be so boggled by the sheer volume of stuff for sale that some things will slip by for almost nothing.

I am, obviously, hoping for the latter as there are one or two things we’ve got our eye on, but I have to say I think it’s a pipe dream.  Over the last few days, the estimate on one item I’ve been looking at – a Paul Nash lithograph since you ask – has risen from £150-200, to £500-700.  Which means we won’t be getting that, or much else either I should think.  But watch this space.


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I’ve posted about the Empire Marketing Board posters before, both the ideological problem that they present, and their rather special hoardings.

I can’t even remember why I was searching for them again the other day, but in doing so, I turned up something I’ve never seen before, which is this.

Empire Marketing Board Hoarding with posters by McKNight Kauffer in place

It looks like some kind of contemporaneous photograph of an Empire Marketing Board billboard, with posters in place.  (This isn’t an ideal format for the blog, so do click on the image to enlarge it a bit).  But I have no real idea where it came from as it was on a forum with no provenance at all.

I can tell you however that the posters on there are by McKnight Kauffer and date from 1926.  The one on the right was sold at the last Onslows auction.

Kauffer Bananas Empire Marketing Board poster 1926

It went for £800, which is quite a lot of money, especially for something which is quite arguably racist.

And thanks to the Canadian archives that I mentioned in my previous post, I can also show you not just the other pictorial poster.

McKnight Kauffer Bananas Empire Marketing Board poster 1926 Cocoa image

But also the two text posters as well.

McKnight Kauffer Bananas Empire Marketing Board poster 1926 text poster

McKnight Kauffer Bananas Empire Marketing Board poster 1926 cocoa text

All that’s missing is the banner along the top, so you’ll just have to imagine that.

My searches also uncovered this Kauffer, which I have never seen before.

McKnight Kauffer gold mines Empire Marketing Board poster

And perhaps that’s not a surprise, because it not simply racist but imperialist and exploitative to a degree that is really quite shocking today.  All the more reason to look at it really.  Perhaps it needs to be in a few more books.

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Special purchase

My initial thought when I first looked at the new Onslow’s catalogue a few weeks ago was that someone had better ring the BPMA, because they’ve been burgled.  Then I read the auction blurb more closely, and of course it says

including duplicates from the British Postal Museum & Archive

Panic over.

What they actually mean, it turns out, is duplicates from the BPMA collection, mostly featuring the work of Stan Krol.  You can buy single posters like this.

Stan Krol (born 1910) Round the clock service, printed for HMSO GPO PRD 683 1952 Round the clock service
Stan Krol, 1952, est. £100-150

Or indeed this one, which I love for drawing my attention to a problem that I was hitherto utterly unaware of.

Stan Krol (born 1910) To loosen frozen covers, printed for HMSO GPO PRD 535 1949 to loosen frozen covers use salt and hot water
Stan Krol, 1949, est. £100-150.

Both of these come with a bonus set of small size Post Office ‘art’ posters as well.

Art posters job lot John Minton etc

They must have hundreds of them, but even so it’s a funny way of getting rid of John Mintons if you ask me.  But no one did.

Anyway, back to the Krols.  If you want more than just a single poster (and have no desire for a John Minton), you can buy job lots of six.

Stan Krol (born 1910) A group of six 1950's GPO posters including Use Block Letters, Stick Correct Stamps, One red stamp book and Round the clock services, each - 37 x 24 cm; and one other Spencer Market Place Norwich GPO
Stan Krol, est. £150-200

And this lot is repeated three times.  Although there’s no escaping those art posters here either, you get a bonus Norwich Market Place (as shown above) whether you want it or not.  I’m guessing people mostly don’t if they are having to give it away like this.

That’s not the end of it either, there’s also another job lot of Krols, this time for the Post Office Savings Bank, also available twice over.

Stan Krol (born 1910) Post Office Savings Bank, five different designs, printed for HMSO, each 37 x 24 cm; and one othe
Stan Krol, est. £60-80

No Norwich Market Place in sight here either, which is a bonus.

Now I have two thoughts about this.  One is that it massively increases my knowledge of the work of Stan Krol, which can only be a good thing.  While the GPO posters are all on the BPMA website, the majority of the Post Office Savings Bank ones haven’t been digitised yet so some are entirely new to me.

But the other is that this is no way to sell off an archive.  Flooding the market with duplicates like this surely isn’t going to get the best value for the museum.  The result is going to be something like the final Morphets sale, when people were so boggled by the sheer volume of stuff on offer than poster after poster went really cheaply.  (Morphets have taken the online catalogue down from their server now, but I used to regularly go back and look at the fantastic posters that went for £40 or so and wish we’d bought everything).   But that was an estate sale, after Malcolm Guest’s death, so they had no choice.  Given that they had choices, I can’t help feeling that the BPMA aren’t handling this very well, and will not be getting the maximum value from their holdings. An instructive contrast is with the recent London Transport Museum sale, where there were no duplicates at all.*

This is particularly true of some of the more expensive posters in the sale, like these McKnight Kauffers.

E McKnight Kauffer (Edward 1890-1954) Outposts of Britain Posting Box at Lands End, GPO poster PRD 200 1937
McKnight Kauffer, 1937, est. £500-700

The description says very firmly that these are the much rarer large format posters (they are a slightly odd 30″ x 36″).  So then why sell them as individual posters, but then also as two pairs, and finally a set of four.  They’re a lot less rarer as the result of that.  Surely four would have been enough for one sale, with another batch next year, and so on.

But the sale isn’t entirely duplicates, there are also some single posters too, including a small handful of the van side posters that I love so much.

Andre Franion (dates not known) 2 1/2d for Inland Postcards, GPO poster PRD 1083 1960 For Inland Postcards
Andre Franion, 1960, est. £70-100

Guess what, you get a free John Minton with that too.  But I’m still tempted, even though I have no idea how I, or anyone else, would display something that’s almost a metre long.

Other delights include this Alick Knight.

Alick Knight Remember Inland Post Cards need a 2d Stamp, GPO PRD 785
Alick Knight, 1955, est. £100-150

I’m also very pleased to see the estimate on this Zero too.

Zero (Hans Schleger 1898-1976) Address your letters plainly, printed for PRD 260 GPO by W R Royle 1942
Hans Schleger (Zero), 1942, est. £400-600

This is because we’ve got one, and as a general rule anything I buy tends to lose rather than gain value so it’s nice to see something bucking the trend.

This is of course just a small selection of the GPO posters available, so it does pay to go and look at the catalogue yourself.  In the meantime, this can stand as an example of the vast number of this type of poster that are on offer.

Peter Edwards (dates not known) Old Compton Street, Soho, original GPO poster PRD 1078 1960
Peter Edwards, 1960, est. £70-100

There are also a whole range of other posters included as well, including the usual Shell educational posters.

Rowland Hilder (1905-1983) Shell Guide to Warwickshire, original poster printed by C Nicholls 1963
Rowland Hilder, 1963, est. £50-100 (with four others)

The 1914 centenary effect is also still holding strong, so there’s a set of World War One posters, including another Alfred Leete Lord Kitchener at a vast estimate.

Alfred Leete (1882-1933) Britons (Kitchener) "Wants You" Join Your Country's Army ! God Save the King !, an original but trimmed copy of the recruiting poster printed by the Victoria House Printing Company Co. Ltd. September 1914
Alfred Leete, 1914, ezt. £1,000-1,500

This is turning into the Keep Calm of World War One, as the rarity and high auction values brings yet more examples out of the woodwork with every new auction.

Speaking of which, for a change there isn’t a Keep Calm and Carry On poster in this sale, although you can have one of either of the others from these series should you wish.

Description	Your Courage Your Cheerfulness Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory, original WW2 poster with red background and white lettering and Crown, printed 1939
Anonymous, 1939, est. £300-400

Mostly, the WW2 offerings are more of historic than visual interest, the exception being a pair of Abram Games.

Abram Games (1914-1996) Talk Kills, explicit WW2 propaganda poster depicting soldier wearing helmet in the sea, PR 76 printed for HMSO c.1942
Abram Games, 1942, est. £400-500

What with all of this, it’s perhaps not surprising that there aren’t that many railways or London Transport posters this time round, although this circular Tom Eckersley is a delight.

Eckersley (Tom 1914 - 1997) Exact Fare Helps the Conductor, circle poster published by LT 1945 Exact Fare helps the conductor
Tom Eckersley, 1945, est. £100-150

A number of the London Transport posters – although not the Eckersley – are listed has having come from another London Transport Museum Sale, run by Sotheby’s in 1993.  I’d have loved to see how the values had changed between then and now, but sadly this date is just a bit too early for me to find the answers online.  So if anyone does have a copy of the catalogue and can run the comparison, I’d be very grateful.

And finally, there is this.

Anonymous, £20-40

A simple poster, doing its job.  Can’t argue with that.


*Underneath all the debate about how to sell off museum archives lurks a bigger question, which is whether museums should be selling off their collections at all.  Generally I tend to think no, because what people might discard as ‘worthless’ now could well turn out to be highly prized in later times, and also because museums have histories themselves, and these histories need to be recorded.  And because then people won’t give stuff to museums if they think it might be sold in the future, and the reasons go on and on and on.  But I do think posters are a slightly different case, precisely because they aren’t unique, and therefore it is possible to have too many.  As long as the museum has enough to cover losses, and damage and loans, then I can’t really see a good reason why they should keep 12, or 20 Stan Krols, just because they have them.  But I’d be interested in other people’s thoughts on this too.


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