Lend a hand

There’s a certain inevitability about the fact that now I’ve written the Home Front Posters book, a whole heap of new information about World War Two posters has popped up in various places.  This isn’t entirely a painful discovery, and not just because I am now resigned to the fact that while research could go on indefinitely, books do have deadlines.  Because today’s exhibit is that particular joy, a brand new archive.

What’s happened is that the National Archives have digitised a significant chunk of their wartime posters and are distributing them via Wikipedia.  (There’s a full explanation here if you want to know more).  It’s very exciting because there are a large number in there that I’ve never seen before.  Here’s a rather nice Dorrit Dekk to begin with.

Dorrit Dekk World War Two propaganda poster Staggered Holidays

This isn’t just an act of altruism but also a kind of crowd-sourcing, because the archives don’t have much information about many of these posters and they’re asking for people to help with everything from attributions to translation of foreign-language posters.

Part of the challenge, particularly with matching artists to designs is that these aren’t printed posters but the original artworks, quite often without the signatures that the finished item would have.  So it ends up being a process more like finding the provenance of a painting.  For example, we have this Eileen Evans, signed.

Lend a Hand on the Land Eileen Evans World War Two propaganda poster

Which makes it a fairly reasonable guess that these two posters in the National Archives are also by her.

Lend a Hand potato harvest farming holiday camp poster artwork eileen evans national archives ministry of information

Lend a hand with the potato harvest farming holiday camp world war two poster eileen evans ministry of information artwork

In fact I’m confident enough about that to have amended the description for each of those.

Only 350 of the 2,000 designs in the National Archives have been uploaded so far, but what’s already striking is how many of these I’ve never even seen before.  Take this Pat Keely for example.

Pat Keely wait for daylight world war two blackout poster artwork national archives

I think he owes McKnight Kauffer an acknowledgement on that one. Keely’s quite well-represented in the selection that are up so far, again often with previously unseen posters.

Cross at the lights world war two blackout poster national archives Pat Keely

What’s difficult, though, is to interpret what these previously unknown designs actually mean.  Are these for posters which were printed but are as yet unreported – whether that is because a copy never survived, or perhaps does exist but has not yet been digitised by the Imperial War Museum?  Or are they designs which were not actually ever produced?  In many ways. my bet would be on the latter.  Artworks which never went to the printers would be far more likely to survive.

Then on the other hand, this artwork is in there, for a poster which was very definitely printed in quite large numbers.

Make do and mend world war two poster ministry of information artwork

There’s not an obvious conclusion to be had.  Except perhaps that – because of wartime haste, limited record-keeping and the only accidental survival of what were intended to be very ephemeral bits of paper – we’ll probably never have the definitive list of World War Two Home Front posters, never mind their dates and artists.

It’s also worth remembering that this collection is very partial. The artworks all came from the Ministry of Information, but they were by no means the sole source of posters during the war.  Both National Savings and the Ministry of Food, two of the highest-spending departments at the time, commissioned their own advertising, so very few of their designs, if any, would turn up in the MoI’s archives.   And that’s without considering other poster producers, from British Railways to the Army.  Even so, there are still some delightful surprises in there.  It may not be the greatest design ever – apparently by the mysterious Xenia – but I love the idea of Village Produce Associations a lot.

Xenia poster artwork village produce associations

So I am very happy to report that Google reveals many VPA’s founded during the war are still going today.  Hurrah.

That kind of continuity after the war is also apparent in the poster designs.  It’s easy to believe, as I’ve said on here before, that all wartime posters stopped as soon as hostilities ceased, but that’s far from the truth.  Many campaigns, from salvage to fuel saving, just continued unchanged.  This fuel saving poster – in the great tradition of bossy shouty slogans – could date from during or after the war.

Turn that Gas down World War Two austerity fuel saving poster national archives

Other campaigns, meanwhile, were reversioned for the peace.

Dig for Plenty world war two poster reversioned for austerity post war national archives

Dig for plenty world war two austerity poster national archives artwork

It’s also fascinating to see some of the very definitely post-war designs produced by the new Labour Government to persuade people that the continuing austerity was necessary – a much harder job than wartime propaganda.

We work or want post world war two propaganda poster national archives

Wages and salaries can only go up with production post war propaganda poster national archives

These seem to me to be much rarer than the wartime posters, presumably because, by this stage of post-war austerity, no one at all wanted to keep them as a souvenir.

There’s plenty more to be seen in there too – including this Percy Drake Brookshaw artwork for – well for what?

Percy Drake Brookshaw apple picking artwork for something national archives

So why not take a look and see what I’ve missed out.

 

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4 Comments

  1. W P
    Posted July 6, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    That Dorrit Dekk poster is absolutely spectacular! What a find!

  2. crownfolio
    Posted July 7, 2012 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    She is still alive and selling her collages on eBay,or at least was last time I looked. And yes, it’s great isn’t it!

  3. Posted October 9, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Is it me, or do some of these posters have a Soviet feel to them? Really lovely pieces – my favourite is the first Eileen Evans.

  4. crownfolio
    Posted October 9, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I think there is a very real link, as most of these posters date from the period when the soviets were allies, and before the Cold War set in. Somewhere out there is a World War Two poster whose message to women workers is: Cover Your Hair – Your Soviet Sister Does!

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