To the Max

Right, this is a fleeting visit as time has run away with me this week, but you need to know that Bloomsbury have an auction, and it’s tomorrow.  The title is Railwayana including the collection of Michael Max, and it contains all manner of things, including nineteenth century Parliamentary reports on atmospheric railways and maps of Barry docks.  Fortunately for us, there are also a few posters.

Star exhibit if you are me is this Lander, which I swear I’ve never seen until now.

R M Lander North Wales British Railways poster
R M Lander, est £150-250

Star exhibit for everyone else is probably this.

McKNight Kauffer Great Western Devon poster 1932
McKnight Kauffer, 1932, est. £600-800

Beyond that, there are pictures of trains and pictures of places and I can’t really get excited about very much of it.  Although this is at least different, and I’m always a sucker for that 1950s Festival typeface anyway.

Harwich British Railways poster 1956
Anonymous, 1956, est. £150-200

I have been meaning for a while to have a wonder about Bloomsburys, because some posters seem to have been slipping through there at quite a low price, and I don’t know whether that’s them, or a sign of changing times in the market (yet again). But I’ll save that for their next poster sale, I think.

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The importance of being dull

Still the auctions keep coming at us.  Although today’s first offering is a bit left field, as Lawrence’s of Bletchingly have a really quite massive set of World War Two Propaganda posters on offer in their next sale.  But it’s a set of posters I rather like, mainly because they are very, very dull.

Take the one on the left, here.  This is about strikes in the mining industry, which were a real problem during the war.

World war two propaganda poster illegal stoppages men wanted for stretcher parties

I doubt that would ever get illustrated, except perhaps in a fairly detailed book about the mining industry during World War Two.  And that’s if they ever found a copy – it doesn’t seem to be in the IWM collections, certainly not in the digitised set anyway.  And so it’s dull, but it’s actually quite important.

Sometimes it still boggles me that there is no complete record of what posters were produced during the war (I mean, what’s their excuse?) and, more than that, we still don’t really have any idea.  So posters like this can just pop up and, perhaps, be seen for the first time since 1945.  And so this poster may be dull, but it’s also important.

There are plenty more where that came from too.

Quicker Turnaround World War Two propaganda poster

This one isn’t in the IWM digitised collections either, but there are six copies in this auction.

The story of how they survived is as follows (with thanks to Lawrences for being so helpful).

The posterswere discovered in a chest of drawers which had been kept in a garage.  Surprisingly they have survived on the whole in very good condition, although many do show signs of age and some appear to have been displayed at the time of the war.  There are also many which have not been used and we can only guess were surplus to requirements.  Two envelopes and some labels are visible within the collection and are addressed to HM Inspector of Taxes, Hendon.  I should imagine that the collection had not seen the light of day for nearly 70 years.

From the selection offered, I am guessing that Mr Inspector of Taxes was an air raid warden, as a lot of the posters relate to that.

Strip posters what to do in an air raid, world war two propaganda

And I think we can see some official document here.

eyes poster and official ARP documentation

But he clearly got sent a lot of other stuff too, as what’s on offer covers a huge range from the run-up to the war, through to the war itself and then the financial aftermath as well.

Fill the Ships to Fill the shops World War Two propaganda poster

There is only one poster that I would buy on aesthetic grounds, which is this classic Lewitt-Him.

Lewitt Him Shanks Pony Walk Short Distances poster world war two

Unlike most of the others, it has an estimate, in this case a fairly reasonable £100-200.   Although it is in the slightly more lurid (and if I am remembering rightly, later) colour way and version, which I have to say I like less.

Lewitt Him Shanks Pony Walk Short Distances poster world war two

But that’s not the star turn.  Because what else was in the drawer, but this?

Keep Calm and Carry On poster

And not once, but six times.  Each now with an estimate of £400-600.

I have to say though, that I can’t really see the point of buying an original of these, unless you are a museum.  Because restored, framed and on the wall, everyone is just going to assume that you’ve bought a reprint.  And I can’t see the satisfaction of knowing that you have an original being worth several hundred quid.  Although this is mainly because I can’t really see the point of buying it at all.

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Auctions, var

The Great Northern Railwayana auction is back with us again next weekend, once again in my old stomping ground of Poynton.  Sadly, the posters aren’t quite as exciting as they were last time, but there are still a few that catch my attention, like some classically styled seaside posters.

Whitby british Railways poster 1950s

I like both the woman fighting the dog and the oh, by the way we’ve got a ruin down in the corner.  So full marks for that.

Weymouth British Railways poster 1950s

This one gets points because we go to Weymouth (although the beach is never as curiously empty around us) which does also allow me to say that the bay actually looks nothing like that really.  But it also wins because it’s once again proving my argument that railway posters for seaside holidays are predominantly aimed at women.  I mean, look at he: she’s got to go and have a swim all by herself while he looks after the toddler.  And in fact she’s been away for so long that he’s turned the colour of a sideboard.  The colours make my eyes hurt generally with that one, they’ve been turned up too high.

Shall we look at something more restful instead?

British Railways poster York Spencer 1955

I sort of like it, but to be honest there isn’t a whole heap of stuff that tickles my fancy this time around.

I can also offer you this though.

Hugh Casson BEA Rome poster

Admittedly, it’s not the most ground breaking image in the world, but it is by Hugh Casson, which has to count for something.  Architectural detail, probably.

And that is about your lot.  There are some Terence Cuneos on offer as well. but I’ve run out of ways to express my lack of interest in engineering detail.  I’m sure they will go to good homes.

Meanwhile, Van Sabben have an auction the week after, and boy have they been busy.  But on my first trawl through the 962 posters on offer (yes you did read that right) I couldn’t see a single British item.  My second go did turn up one or two, but even then, they are not that exciting.  I think my personal favourite is this.

William Henry 1949 BEA poster
William Henry, 1949, est. €220-450

In the end, that is what you want from an airline, isn’t it.

Running  it a close second is this, mainly because I can hear the words being read in those tight clipped tones from the newsreels.

Crawfords Biscuits poster 1930s
Anonymous, Crawfords, est. €70-150

I would quibble with them about the date though, as I don’t think many manufacturers were printing posters in 1940, and the clothes and hair also look earlier.  But I am prepared to be wrong on that.

Lastly, this poster for P&O is out of my usual sphere being both early and for cruising, but it is rather good.

Michael Horan P&O cruise poster 1930
Michael Horan, 1930, est. €1,500-3,000

I’ve never seen it before, but a cursory search reveals that Horan also did this in 1936, which I now need very badly.

Michael Horan poster 1936 p and o cruise sun

Apart from these, we are mostly looking at the usual suspects, of which this Lewitt Him is just one example.

Lewitt Him AOA poster 1950
Lewitt Him, 1950, est €150-300

More interesting, and also by Lewitt Him, is this poster for Israel.

Lewitt Him Israel poster 1950
Lewitt-Him, 1950, est. €80-160

Which sits alongside this Abram Games on similar lines.

Abram Games travel to Bible lands poster
Abram Games, 1950, est. €450-650

I’ve never seen either of these before, and they are both rather good.

To find these, I have of course had to wade through 950 or so other, foreign posters.  My compensation was a squirrel trying to sell me milk chocolate.

Milk Chocolate squirrel poster
Karel Suyling, 1955, est. €80-160

As they do.

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Spying on posters

Another photograph from Twitter for your amusement.  This time, it’s Vauxhall Bridge in the late 1950s.

Traffic on Vauxhall Bridge with posters to one side

The bomb site/development area hidden by the posters will one day become Terry Farrell’s MI5 headquarters.

Mr Crownfolio says that we have a copy of the Keep Britain Tidy poster, which I think is by Amstutz, but I can’t find any record of it if we do.  And if anyone can identify anything else, I will be much obliged.  I’ve put the picture on here giant sized (just click on it to see) so that you can have a good peer.  All I know is that the poster nearest us, but the traffic lights, is for the Radio Times.

And while we’re here, there is a whole page of Guinness posters in situ.  This hoarding is probably about the same period as the picture above.

Gilroy Guinness poster crocodile on hoarding 1957

As indeed are these Eckersleys on a bus, probably.

Bus with Eckersley Guinness poster

Should these have whetted your appetite, you can find lots more of them here.  Have fun.


It turns out that we did have the poster after all.

Amstutz litter poster

I couldn’t find it because a) it doesn’t actually say Keep Britain Tidy on it and b) we hadn’t got round to cataloguing it anyway.  I hope you are enjoying the carpet too.

Mr Crownfolio would also like to ask whether any of you think, as he does, that this knight has more than a passing resemblance to one D Cameron?

And thank you to everyone for the dating, in the comments and by email – much appreciated.

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Poster shopping wise, if not price wise

Christies bi-annual poster sale is once again hoving into view at the end of the month, and this time around there are some very expensive posters that they’d like you to buy.

The stakes are sufficiently high for this not to be the most expensive British poster.

KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON lithograph in colours, 1939, published by the Ministry of Information
Anonymous, 1939, Est. £6,000-8,000

That honour instead falls to these two.

Edward McKnight Kauffer (1890-1954) POWER, THE NERVE CENTRE OF LONDON'S UNDERGROUND lithograph in colours, 1930
McKnight Kauffer, 1930, est. £30,000-40,000

Man Ray (1890-1976) KEEPS LONDON GOING photolithograph, 1939
Man Ray, 1939, est. £40,000-60,000

While on one level I really don’t mind which posters people are prepared to pay preposterous amounts of money for, on the other hand it does slightly bother me.  Because these posters I am sure accrue at least some of their value because they are both part of the Grand Narrative of Modernism. (Really, otherwise why is a McKnight Kauffer of a giant Futurist Fist worth more than one of his works depicting trees or fields?)  But as I’ve said often enough on here before, trying to see British design exclusively through the lens of modernism is like looking at the landscape through a small keyhole.  There’s an awful lot more out there than ever gets seen or noticed, just because it doesn’t fit the story of what the heroic modernists were doing elsewhere in Europe.  Was being modernist such a great thing – and did the British therefore just fail?  Or should we be writing another story altogether, about what actually happened here?  As you may guess, my views tend towards the latter opinion.  But the prices being asked here tell me that I am in a minority.

Interestingly, the estimate on that Man Ray renders it more expensive than a Toulouse Lautrec.

Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) JANE AVRIL lithograph in colours, 1893
Toulouse-Lautrec, 1893, est. £20,00-30,000

Although not every Toulouse-Lautrec mind you.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) MOULIN ROUGE - LA GOULUE lithograph in colours, 1891
Toulouse-Lautrec, 1891, est. £120,000-180,000

Which must mean something too, even if I am not entirely sure what that something might be.

Elsewhere, I am pleased to see two Eckersleys up for sale.

Tom Eckersley (1914-1997) GILLETTE, ALL OVER THE WORLD lithograph in colours, c.1948
Tom Eckersley, 1948, est. £800-1,200

Tom Eckersley (1914-1997) & Eric Lombers (1914-1978) SCIENTISTS PREFER SHELL  lithograph in colours, 1938
Eckersley-Lombers, 1938, est. £1,000-1,500

Not just because they are Eckersleys, but also because we own the Shell and a slightly different version of the Gillette (one which, if you ask me, is nicer) so it’s good to feel that I am not entirely out on a limb here.

These two other Shell posters, meanwhile, are just good.

Clifford (1907-1985) & Rosemary (1910-1998) Ellis ANTIQUARIES PREFER SHELL lithograph in colours, 1934
Clifford and Rosemary Ellis, 1934, et. 800-1,200

Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) THESE MEN USE SHELL lithograph in colours, 1938
Ben Nicholson, 1938, est. 1,000-1,500

As is this Games (there are others in the auction, it’s  just that this one is my favourite).

Abram Games (1914-1996) THE FINANCIAL TIMES lithograph in colours, c.1951
Abram Games,  c.1951, est. 800-1,200

While this Austin Cooper is just a bit odd, if not disturbing.

Austin Cooper (1890-1964) SOUVENIRS, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM lithograph in colours, 1932
Austin Cooper, 1932, est. £800-1,200

Are they suggesting we take guns home with us?  And shells?  To create our own ruins?

At the other end of the scary vs cuddly spectrum entirely, this is nothing less than delightful.

René Gruau (Renato de Zavagli, 1909-2004) SHOPPING WISE
René Gruau, est. £1,000-1,500

And it comes with two other DH Evans posters as well, so is as close to a bargain as Christies are ever going to deign to provide.

Elsewhere you can also find some David Kleins , lots of airline posters and with all of the other cruise posters, this Richard Beck, which is always a pleasure to see.

Richard Beck, 1937, est. £800-1,200

And of course it is proof that we did do modernism sometimes.  Despite everything I say.

But that’s about as far as my interest can stretch, although it is worth noting – in a follow the money kind of way – a large tranche of Russian posters, some of which are rather admirable, albeit out of the remit of this blog.  Should you be curious, this poster is called Party Administration.  It never looked so interesting.

Sergei Sen'kin (1894-1963) PARTY ADMINISTRATION photography and lithography, 1927
Sergei Sen’kin, 1927, est. £5,000-7,000

Over in America, meanwhile, a fascinating little set of posters is coming up for auction tomorrow, online.


They are all for Cooks the travel agent, date from the middle of the 1950s, and are in turn by Derrick Hass, Pobjoy and Karo.  And no, I’ve never heard of Pobjoy either before now.

Cooks poster 1950s travel Derrick Hass

But they are fascinating because they are just the kind of posters that don’t usually survive – I’ve never seen any of  them before.

Cooks travel agent poster KAro

Furthermore, they may not go for that much money over there as they are being sold without reserve- although the shipping costs will preclude a total bargain.  But move fast because the auction ends on Sunday night.

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Thinking in poster

Twice now I have promised you more on Alfred Reginald Thomson, designer of this poster.

A R Thomson Improve each shining hour LNER poster

And indeed the whole series of posters which go with it.

LNER Harwich crossings poster a r thomson

When I first came across his work, I bought his biography, because it cost me exactly one pence + delivery on Abebooks.  But actually I’m really glad I did, because it has brought up some interesting questions about the ways in which designers and artists think, and how in particular that might apply to posters.

I mentioned then in passing that Thomson had been profoundly deaf, but this turns out, perhaps, to be the key to his work.  Indeed, it’s almost possible to argue that his being deaf perhaps made him a better artist.  This isn’t to say it wasn’t a handicap – Thomson never learned to speak that well and each of his wives in turn became an interpreter between him and the outside world, particularly his clients.  But the advantage does still seem to be there.  Because being deaf isn’t simply a question of losing a sense, and perhaps having to compensate more with sight.  The mental landscape of deaf people seems to be – and all of this post has to be hedged with the caveat that it is never truly possible to know how another person operates within their own head – very different to that of the hearing.

Alfred Thomson by Francis Goodman, 2 1/4 inch square film negative, 1 November 1946

Alfred Thomson in 1946, from the National Portrait Gallery collections

I was first alerted to this by the foreword to the biography.  This was as it happens written by a hearing person, Alfred’s godson (Thomson’s actual biographer, Arthur Dimmock was also deaf) but who nonetheless brings the idea up.  He suggests that deafness causes people

…to grow  to intellectual maturity by means of non-verbal concept patterns, later linked to a language that is a solely visual amalgam of reading, lip-reading, finger-spelling and sign.  The very nature of thought, let alone explanation, differs when the auditory-visual balance of perception is altered.  Many deaf people thus give up trying to explain… ‘You have got to be deaf to understand.’

There are two key ideas in this passage, particularly where Thomson is concerned.  The first is that he grew to intellectual maturity without using words.   Nowadays, mostly, it is understood that children need access to a language in order to learn to think.  Without this, it is very difficult for them to develop that ‘inner voice’ which we use to chunter away to ourselves in our heads.  This isn’t just a way of thinking, research has shown that we need this internal monologue in order to develop some crucial mental functions such as memory and abstract thought.  So it’s absolutely essential for deaf children to get access to sign language at an early age, before they are about twelve, for them to be able to develop their capacities fully.

Thomson was born in 1894 when none of this was known.  Furthermore he was born in India, far away from any of the limited help that might have been offered at the time. He spent his early years communicating with a small repertoire of signs, and through drawing.

When Alfred was five, he started to sketch on the white walls with charcoal.  Most of the subjects were oxen […] and the results were no mean feat for a five year old.

The biography doesn’t tell us, but we can only guess that at this age Thomson thought entirely in images.  This, and the habit of looking intently because it was his only access to the outside world, must have massively enhanced his artistic abilities later on.  But there is another part to the relationship between his deafness and his visual sense as well.

It’s not often that you use the word ‘fortunately’ about a child sent away to boarding school in a foreign country at six, but in Thomson’s case it is true.  His father sent him to the Royal Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in Margate.  Here he learned sign language – although it’s hard to tell from the book whether this was taught by the school or simply picked up from the other children.  Whatever the case, it was the saving of him, because he got a language early enough to develop to his full potential.

Sister Fry 1939 by Alfred R. Thomson 1894-1979
Sister Fry, 1939.  She was the midwife who delivered Thomson’s first child.

But there is another advantage to sign language if you want to be an artist.  Because thinking in Sign is not creating a sentence in words and then translating it into gestures.  The whole grammar, the conceptual ideas which are possible and quite possibly the entire interior architecture of the brain ends up being different.  And one of these key differences is that you think visually, in time and space.  Children whose first language is Sign can describe rooms and places in far more detail than their hearing contemporaries, and from an early age.

alfred thomson portrait of son charles
Thomson’s portrait of his infant son, Charles

So no wonder he turned to drawing and art.  Between the wars, Thomson alternated between commercial work and fine art.   (Along with, as the biography tells us in quite surprising detail, a great deal of drinking, louche clubs and pubs and shagging which goes to show that his deafness didn’t get in the way of his having a thoroughly bohemian lifestyle as well.  My favourite anecdote is of him and Augustus John on a bar crawl in Marseilles, keeping themselves on the straight and narrow by only having one bottle of good champagne in each bar.  That restraint wasn’t enough to stop them from being unable to perform with some women they picked up at the end of the evening.  Really, there is quite a surprising amount of information in that book.)

Thomson was clearly a very successful commercial designer; the book constantly refers to how busy this kind of work kept him between the wars.  Sadly it’s almost impossible to piece together much sense of who his clients were, apart from one reference to Three Nuns, Daimler, Barclays Bank and Bass (as ever, I would be in the eternal debt of anyone who can find me details of these posters).  So pretty much all we know of this aspect of his work are these few railway posters and a single post-war design for London Transport along with a very small number of others.

post office savings bank tank poster a r thomson

While after the Second World War – in which he designed a number of Home Front posters as well as working as an official  war artist – Thomson became a very successful portraitist, whose subjects included Lester Piggott, Churchill, Douglas Bader and the Queen.

Clearly the visual nature of deafness must, fairly often, transform itself into art.  The prologue to Thomson’s biography gives an impressive list of deaf artists from the fifteenth century to the present, and Thomson himself was close friends with another deaf artist, Alexander Bilbin. But it could also be argued that his thought patterns gave him an even greater advantage when it came to posters.  Because the whole language of a poster should be visual.  As designers themselves tell us time and again, the message of a great poster should be immediately apparent through the images and the associations, not the words.

Sea bathing LNER then and now ppster a r thomson

And how much easier is that to do if you yourself think in images?

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