That’s modernism, that was

This may not be the cause of great excitement for many of you, indeed it may not even be news, but the Journal of Design History is now freely accessible online.  Which has let me get hold of an article that I’ve been wanting to read for ages, John Hewitt on ‘The ‘Nature’ and ‘Art’ of Shell Advertising in the 1930s’.  Fortunately it turned out to be as interesting as I’d hoped.

Frank Dobson, vintage shell poster 1931
Frank Dobson, 1931

One idea in particular struck a chord, as it links in with the themes that I’ve been mulling over here recently.

By 1930 Shell had come to realise that any whole-hearted endorsement of modernisation was problematical.  The transformation of the environment, occasioned by increasing suburbanisation and expanding commerce and predicated on a dramatic expansion of the motor car industry intensified during the 1920s and 1930s provoking vigorous and sustained resistance from influential lobbies of middle class opinion.

All too soon it had become impossible to see the brave new modern world – as epitomised by the car – as wholly good.  Even worse, advertising itself was seen as a problem of modernity, as enamel signs and billboards sprouted.  So Shell’s advertising changed round about 1930, something which is often ascribed to the arrival of Jack Beddington at the company.  He was part of it, but as Hewitt points out, there was also an important cultural shift taking place.  Hewitt’s essay explores how Shell reconstructed its public image in terms of art and nature, making the threatening motor car seem much more part of a wholesome and quintessential British identity.

Which is undoubtedly true, but there is also another way of seeing it.  Because the change in their advertising was also a flight away from modernism.

Vic vintage shell poster quick starting pair 1930
Vic, 1930

Until Beddington’s arrival, Shell had primarily been selling its products on their technical qualities.  And the underlying language of that was very often modern.

Vintage Shell poster lubricating Tom Purvis 1928
Tom Purvis, 1928.

But when Jack Beddington arrived, he instituted a very different approach.  There was almost no direct selling of the qualities of the product; instead he tried to build up an image for the brand.  And this image was initially based on the English landscape and nature.

The clearest expression of this is in the ‘Quick Starting Pair’ posters.  Before 1930, these had used images of animals, but often treated in a very schematic way.

G S Brien, Quick Starting, chamois, 1929
G S Brien, 1929

But these were then replaced by much more naturalistic images.

Vintage Shell poster Kennedy north 1931
Kennedy North, 1931

As Hewitt points out, there is a tension between the technological idea and the imagery here which doesn’t necessarily make for successful advertising.

But it was the major landcape campaigns that Beddington, and indeed Shell posters in general, are most associated with.  These began with See Britain First on Shell.

Hal Woolf 1931 vintage Shell poster salcombe
Hal Woolf, Salcombe

Followed in turn by ‘You Can Be Sure of Shell’.

Merlyn Evans vintage shell poster 1936
Merlyn Evans, 1936

This is not only a very different kind of advertising, it is expressed in a very different visual language.  But it’s not simply a retreat back to traditional landscape painting.  This is still a very living idiom in the Britain of the 1930s, and the posters tap into the vein of British romanticism identified by Alexandra Harris and others before her.

Vintage Shell poster lord berners 1936
Lord Berners, 1936

Which is why I think this essay, and the changes it describes, are worth going into at such length.  Because this retreat from modernism doesn’t just happen in Shell posters.  I would argue that it is happening in many other places – and not just the graphic arts. Romantic Moderns contains a discussion of Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts which shows how modernist writing was shifting as well.

I find it hard to be surprised by this, though.  Living in Britain in the 1930s, between the Great Depression and the onset of war, it must have been almost impossible to maintain any faith in the endlessly improving effects of modernity.  The evidence against it was easy to see.  And if you don’t believe in modernity, perhaps the jagged edges of the machine age aren’t going to feel very comfortable either.

Of course, reality is always much more complicated.  But by looking at some of the exceptions within the Shell posters, it becomes possible to see how some of these complexities worked.  Because there were still modernist posters being commissioned – here’s an example from McKnight Kauffer in 1937.

McKnight Kauffer vintage shell poster 1937

Celebrating its achievements of this sleek new aeroplane is still, perhaps a safe place to use a modern visual vocabulary.  Even if only one was every produced in the end.  Other technical advertising was done in this style too.

McKNight Kauffer vintage shell poster 1936
McKnight Kauffer, 1936

But campaigns that could be construed as selling a technical advantage didn’t necessarily use modernism as the decade progressed.

Percy Drake Brookshaw, Summer Shell vintage poster 1933
Percy Drake Brookshaw, 1933

Jack Miller vintage shell summer shell poster 1936
Jack Miller, 1936

The other way in which Shell could be said to be using modernism was in its choice of artists like Graham Sutherland, Ben Nicholson, Paul Nash and Tristram Hillier.  But as Hewitt points out, these artists might be called modernist, but that wasn’t really the way they were being used by Shell.

Graham Sutherland Shell poster vintage 1932
Graham Sutherland, 1932

Nor was the use of modernist artists a means by which Shell could celebrate its identification with modern technology… They were involved in the campaigns that played down any references to the modern qualities of speed and power.

Ben Nicholson vintage shell poster 1938
Ben Nicholson, 1938

The visual language was hardly defiantly modern either; none of these posters were very likely to frighten the horses as they raced past on a Shell lorry.  The modern artists had moved on too.

Hewitt also points out that these artists were not in a majority.  For every poster extolling the modern charms of film stars in an equally modern style,

kathleen Mann vintage shell poster 1938
Cathleen Mann, 1938

there was at least one with a much more traditional point of view.

Cedric Morris Gardeners Prefer Shell vintage poster 1934
Cedric Morris, 1934

This is possibly another case where hindsight gives us the wrong view of a period.  The ‘modern’ Shell posters – particularly the ones by the modernist artists – are much more interesting and collectable for us now, so we tend to privilege them and make them seem more normal than perhaps they were at the time.  But in writing this I’ve been through the online images from the Shell Collection.  And what’s there is a very different set of posters to the ones that are normally reproduced, whether in a book or a Christies catalogue.  Sometimes the hunt for modernism can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One final footnote.  Shell’s advertising did take on a much more modern tone again in the 1950s.

Vintage Shell poster John Castle 1952
John Castle, 1952

Machinery and technological progress had become not just acceptable, but worth celebrating, one way or another.

Terence Cuneo Vintage Shell poster 1952
Terence Cuneo, 1952.

Modernism was once again possible in the 1950s .  Which is a thought I will be coming back to again one day.

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5 Comments

  1. DR G
    Posted February 2, 2011 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    According to my research one of Beddington’s predecessors, E.W. Delacour, first introduced the ‘See Britain First – on Shell’ campaign. In 1925 the artist (Dominique) Charles Fouqueray (1869-1956) produced 12 posters on this theme. One of Delacour’s initiatives at the time was to display the original paintings for these posters in garages. Brochures containing reproductions of the posters (or paintings) were also available at these garages.

  2. Stockwell
    Posted February 3, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Shell was only interested in advertising to people who who might to want to buy its fuel. Before the middle of the 1920s these people tended to be ‘techies’ or chauffeurs and the advertising of the time reflected this. As the market for cars grew so the people who were buying fuel changed to a wider middle class market with a less technical view of the product. Shell recognized this change and altered their advertising in response – a shift that was also designed to encourage the growing body of owner drivers to use their cars for recreational purposes. What this says about the growth of modernism I don’t know. It does illustrate the difficulty, however, of drawing general conclusions from works that are designed to appeal to restricted segments of the population.

  3. crownfolio
    Posted February 4, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the comments – I very much like the idea of original artworks in garages, it would improve the tone of MOTs no end. And I will go and check out these posters.

    Stockwell – I absolutely agree that the change from technical to fluffy rural advertising wasn’t just led by one factor alone, and that it’s almost impossible to tease them apart. In the essay, John Hewitt also ascribes the change to the fact that, by the late 1920s, all of the fuels for sale in the UK were pretty similar in composition and so it was harder to sell a petrol on a technical basis. I only wish my father (a motor historian) was still around to ask, as he’d undoubtedly have an opinion.

    But he does make a reasonable case for the fact that driving and car ownership (and the advertising that resulted from it) was seen as much more problematic from the 1930s onwards, so I think that the change in style might have happened almost regardless of whether the target group for the advertising had changed or not. But I’d love to hear any more thoughts you have on this.

  4. Susan Punnett
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    I seem to remember shell posters on the classroom wall in the 50’s
    I am especially interested in one with Avebury village and circle on it
    Can anyone enlighten me?

  5. crownfolio
    Posted June 18, 2013 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    I don’t know that one either, but as an Avebury fan, would love to hear of it too if anyone knows.

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