overtaken, again

I’ve been meaning for a while now to dig out some old blog posts from the archives.  This isn’t just to do with the current constraints on my time, but also because I’ve found myself wandering through the Quad Royal archives in search of this and that, and coming across things that perhaps could do with another chance to be seen.  But in this case I have found myself so surprised that I really did have to repost it.  In search of my endless promises to find out more about Kraber (represented here by a GPO poster) I came across this, which not only do I not remember writing, but which contains thoughts I don’t even remember thinking.  Although perhaps your memories are better than mine.

See my urgent book.

my book is urgent

I have had to read it very quickly, because tomorrow it goes back to the British Library for someone else to read urgently too.

Now its subject – modernism, bombsites and English culture – might not seem immediately applicable to our concerns here on Quad Royal.  But in fact it’s been surprisingly enlightening, mainly because it has forced me to think about British Surrealism.  Now this is a style which in the 1930s spreads very quickly from fine art into the world of graphic design.

Zero journalists Use Shell vintage poster 1938

But then, during the Second World War, it goes underground (a fine place for the art of the subconscious to be) and is seen no more.  According to this book (Reading the Ruins if you want to buy it yourself rather than be hectored by the British Library) Herbert Read asked in 1951 what had happenned to surrealism?

The break-up of the Surrealist Movement as a direct consequence of the Second World War is an historical event which has never been adequately explained…

The book’s answer to this question is a very interesting one, which is that war itself was so surreal that it rendered the artworks redundant.  This was Stephen Spender’s view too, in 1945.

The immense resources of all the governments of the world are now being devoted to producing surrealist effects. Surrealism has ceased to be fantasy, its ‘objects’ hurtle round our heads, its operations cause the strangest conjunctions of phenomena in the most unexpected of places,

That’s an idea I’ll come back to in a moment, but what surprised me most about this was the idea that surrealism had disappeared.  Because in graphic design that definitely wasn’t the case.  We bought this quite recently – it’s by Henrion and I think dates from 1947.

Harella henrion vintage post war fashion poster

His ‘Agriculture and Country’ pavilion at the Festival of Britain was also described at the time as surreal, with a giant white oak tree growing up through the space, while large swathes of Britain Can Make It also featured the same kind of odd juxtapositions of scale, space and objects too.

Kitchens display Britain can make it

And remember those Lines of Communication GPO posters I mentioned a while back?  There’s a strong streak of surrealism to be found in some of those as well.

Hans Schleger post office lines of communication poster

And I am sure there is more elsewhere, too.

But thinking about World War Two posters (something I’ve been forced to do quite a bit recently), the surrealism is simply not there.  Just as in the art world, it disappears; but the difference – compared to fine art  – is that the style does come back after 1945.

Stephen Spender pins down very clearly the reasons why surrealism disappears during the war.  Humankind can only bear so much strangeness, and the every day world offered more than enough during World War Two.  Here is novelist Inez Holden remembering an episode during the Blitz.

One morning I walked back through the park, and saw the highest branches of a tree draped with marabout, with some sort of silk, with two or three odd stockings [and] … balanced on a twig was a brand new bowler hat. They had all been blown across the street from the bombed hotel opposite. A Surrealist painter who I knew slightly was staring at this, too. He said: ‘Of course we were painting this kind of thing years ago, but it has taken some time to get here.’

How this operates visually can be seen in the career of the photographer Lee Miller.  Before the war, she had been a surrealist photographer.  During the war, she is also a surrealist photographer, but this time it is called reportage.

Women in Fire Masks

(source Telegraph/Lee Miller archives)

The world is inside out and the surrealism of the subconscious is now on the surface.  There is no need to invent it any more (If you want to see more of Lee Miller’s photographs, there is a good website of her works here).

There are other, more pressing reasons for turning away from surrealism too.  The disembodied hands – or in the case of this 1937 poster by Schleger eyes and ears – are now too disturbing to portray.

Hans Schleger 1937 Highway Code exhibition Charing Cross

Because they are now not the fantasies of the imagination but the kind of body part that you might be unlucky enough to find on an ordinary street after a bombing raid.

Interestingly, pretty much the only surrealist wartime poster I can think of  – this safety one by Lewitt Him – is in part relying on this horror to make its point.

Lewitt Him vintage poster world war two grow fingers surrealist

But this is a rare exception; the style of the war is modernism, not surrealism.  And this is not only from a fear of the bombed out body.  I don’t believe that people wanted to look into their subconscious during the war, there was too much fear and horror in there to be acknowledged.  The black thoughts of death, fate and atrocity had to be banished into the underworld for daily life to go on.  Instead it is the brighter future promised by modernism which helped them to get through.

Abram Games abca Finsbury Health Centre rickets vintage ww2 poster

Interestingly the Games poster above does have a surrealist element to it, but it is safely contained in a narrative structure; the black underworld is in the past, the bright modernism is in the future.

While its possible to argue that other posters like the Vegetabull have elements of surrealism in them, they have exchanged the true strangeness of surrealism for a cosy humour.

Lewitt Him Vegetabull vintage poster Ministry of Food

I’d call that whimsy instead.  Humour was a favourite way for the British to cope with the war, and whimsy was a way of dealing with the surrounding surrealism, of defusing it.


Only after the war could the true strangeness of surrealism – and its underlying fears – be looked at properly, because, finally, it was safe to do so.  Designers can choose to be odd and uncanny because the world around them no longer looks like that.

John Kraber 1948 GPO internal poster artwork

Indeed choosing to recreate this disorder in a controlled way, these designs are, in a small way, healing some of what has happened during the war.

GPO vintage Poster Zero Hans Schleger lines of communication 1950

So the way that surrealism flourished again for a while in the late 1940s and the very early 1950s makes perfect sense.  Which only leaves one big question, why this did not happen in art as well?  Or was Herbert Read wrong?  I’m not enough of an art expert to answer that question one way or another, but there are enough British surrealist paintings about to make me suspect that he might have been.

Leonora Carrington Bird Bath

Perhaps everyone was too busy looking at Paris and New York to have noticed.  But here I  am treading into areas which I don’t really know about – so if anyone else has some thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them.

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Mammoth sale

Right, in my attempt to keep on top of things, a quick scamper through the forthcoming Swann Galleries auction.  Which is tomorrow, so you’d better be quick if you actually want to buy any of them.  Me, I’m just window-shopping, especially at these prices.

All the prices are high, but then that’s a posh auction in America for you, but the one I slightly take exception to is this.

McKnight Kauffer, 1924, est. $1,500 – 2000

But that’s only because we sold one at the last Onslows sale, and it went for £230, which seemed quite reasonable at the time.  And it was backed on linen too.

Kauffer is also represented by this rather magnificent Art Deco mammoth (now there’s a phrase I never thought I’d have recourse to).

McKnight Kauffer, 1924, est. $2,000 – 3,000

There are a few other London Transport posters in there, like this rather splendid Zero.

Zero, 1935, est $800 – 1,200

Although I do end up wondering whether I’d ever put that up on the wall.  Maybe if I were a museum.

There is this rather lovely pair of Barnett Freedmans too.


Barnett Freedman, 1936, est. $700 – 1,000 the pair

Of more interest to me are these two Orient line posters, mainly because I wrote about the first one a while back.

Richard Beck, 1937, est $600 – 900

Reimann Studios and Kraber, 1937, est. $600 – 900

The second one is at least partly by Kraber, whose work I keep discovering and each time I say that I will find out more about him.  I must make good on this promise one of these days, because every single design I come across by him is great.  This is no exception, and I would happily put that poster on the wall if someone would like to buy it for me.

This, being an early airline map by Moholy Nagy, ought to be interesting.

Moholy-Nagy, 1936, est. $10,000 – 15,000

But it just isn’t, is it.  The price suggests that other people might not agree with me though.

And finally, as is customary with these sales where there are just a handful of British posters, a dip into the furrin.  This is a Savignac rough design that I just like.

RAYMOND SAVIGNAC (1907-2002) MA COLLE. Gouache maquette. Circa 1951
Savignac, 1951, est $3,000 – 4,000

But this is much more interesting.

RAYMOND SAVIGNAC (1907-2002) TASTEE BREAD / BAKED WHILE YOU SLEEP. Group of 39 gouache studies. Circa 1950s.


RAYMOND SAVIGNAC (1907-2002) TASTEE BREAD / BAKED WHILE YOU SLEEP. Group of 39 gouache studies. Circa 1950s.


Savignac, 1950s, est. $800 – 1,200

These are two designs from a set of 39 roughs, which Savignac clearly did for a British firm.  Now I did know that he and Colin, amongst others, had worked over here, but evidence of it doesn’t come up often enough if you ask me.

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Your goodwill eases our daily task

Right, I have got behind again (apologies) and so the next few posts are going to be mostly me catching up with the auctions.  And there seem to be quite a lot to get through, too.  Although I do also have some thoughts on 1930s railway posters which need an airing one of these days as well.

First up, because the auction is next weekend, is London Transport Auctions.  On the plus side, they do at least, unlike most railwayman auctions, include a guide price.  On the downside, the pictures in their catalogue are minute.  Like this one, for example.

St Albans timetable

That, to save your eyesight, is a road and rail timetable for St Albans in 1937.  I suspect that the cover design may be quite nice, but I can’t really tell.

Fortunately The Saleroom have come to our rescue, so we can actually have a look at some of the posters that are on sale.  Which is a relief, because there are some nice ones in there.  Let’s start with the classics (for which you can read really quite valuable posters) represented here by Anna Zinkeiesen.

Original 1934 London Transport POSTER by Anna Zinkeisen (1901-76, designed for London Transport 1933-1944) promoting the Lord Mayor's Show.
Anna Zinkeiesen, 1934, est. £150-200

There’s also a design of hers for the Aldershot Tattoo, but it’s not as mice as the one above.  Or this one below, come to that. which is by John Stewart Anderson.

Original 1939 London Transport POSTER by John Stewart Anderson promoting the Royal Tournament at Olympia by bus, coach and Underground
John Stewart Anderson, 1939,  est. £150-200

He did some work for Shell in the 1930s as well, in the same kind of airbrush style, but that is pretty much all I can tell you.  And I don’t know anything about Charles Mozley, either, except that he designs in a style very reminiscent of Barnett Freedman crossed with a Punch cartoon.

Original 1939 London Transport POSTER by Charles Mozley (1915-91, designed for London Transport 1937-1939), the last of the 1930-1939 series promoting the Rugby League Cup Final at Wembley.
Charles Mozley, 1939, est. £100-150

Although, when I google, it turns out that I probably should have heard of him.

Elsewhere in the classics department, there are a couple of World War Two posters.

Original WW2 London Transport POSTER from 1944 'Seeing it through' by Eric Henri Kennington (1888-1960), one of a series he designed for LT that year, this one featuring a woman firefighter at the wheel of a truck above three verses of poetry by A P Herbert
Eric Kennington, 1944, est. £75-100

Original WW2 London Transport POSTER from 1943 '10 million passengers a day - your goodwill eases our daily task' by James Fitton (1899-1982)
James Fitton, 1943, est. £100-150.

A James Fitton is always a joy to see, at least for me.

As is this Eckersley-Lombers, which I would say was rare, on the basis that I’ve never seen it turn up at auction before.  Except that there are two of them in this very sale, each slightly different.  Go figure.

Original London Transport 1936 double-royal POSTER "Christmas Calling" by Tom Eckersley (1914-1997) & Eric Lombers (1914-1978),


Original London Transport 1936 double-royal POSTER "Christmas Calling" by Tom Eckersley (1914-1997) & Eric Lombers (1914-1978),

Spot the difference.  Both are double royal, both from 1936 and both on offer for £100-125 which, if you ask me, would be a bit of a steal.  (Actually I think that quite a few of these prices are at the low end of what even a notorious cheapskate like me would be prepared to pay, so it will be interesting to see what things actually go for).

Elsewhere, there are also some lovely post-war poster which are, inevitably, a bit more up my own personal street. Cream of the crop is probably this very colourful Kensington Palace Coronation Special.

Original 1953 London Transport double-royal POSTER from Coronation Year 'Kensington Palace' by Sheila Robinson (1925-1987)
Sheila Robinson, 1953, est.  £75-100

I could quite happily decorate a room in those colours.  And with that poster too.

There are also a few nice later examples too, like these two by Victoria Davidson and Anthony Rossiter.

Original 1959 London Transport double-royal POSTER 'Cockerel' by Victoria Davidson (1915-1999
Victoria Davison, 1959, est. £75-100

Original London Transport double-royal POSTER "Harvests" by Anthony Rossiter (1926-2000) who designed a number for LT between 1955 and 1974. The poster dates from 1965 (designed in 1964) and promotes Green Rover tickets for unlimited travel on London's country buses.
Anthony Rossiter, 1964, est.  £30-50

But you should probably go and have a look at the catalogue, if only because it is full of many and diverse delights apart from posters.  If I spend more than a few minutes in there, I find myself wondering about  bus conductors’s satchels and cap badges, about poster frames and brochures.  Or why not buy a bus stop?


Yours for £100-125 if you want it.  But I think I’d better end there, before I get entirely carried away.  On a bus, of course.

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In a field of their own

I really ought to be writing about the latest Great Central Railwayana catalogue, but  that will have to wait for now, as my attention has been grabbed by a pair of rather fetching animals instead.

This delightful pig is being sold on eBay by the previously mentioned Postercollection.

Hass, British bacon and ham poster early 1960s

It’s by Derrick Hass, it’s probably from the early 1960s and because it’s being sold by Postercollection it comes without linen on backside and is yours for a rather eye watering £198.  Or they will apparently take an offer.

Meanwhile, I’ve never seen this somewhat bewildered sheep before, and I feel as though I should have, because it’s the work of Mount Evans.


He is included in a brand new book of public information posters from the National Archives, called Keep Britain Tidy.  I have no idea whether it just contains pictures of posters or whether there is some kind of informative text too, but I probably need to get my hands on a  copy to find out.  Although the subtitle – and other posters from the nanny state – is almost enough to put me off.  But if I manage to swallow my disquiet, I will report back in due course.

While I have your attention, there are a couple of interesting posters coming up at an auction in Nottingham on Saturday.  Amongst the offerings are yet another Lander that I’ve never seen before, and which we would be bidding on were it not so a touch holed.  (It’s estimated at £60-90, so may yet be worth your while)

R M Lander North Wales poster

Along with this Cornwall poster too, which we failed to get an auction, possibly Morphets, some time back and I still hanker after for its general levels of insanity.

Cornwall trumpet of holiday joy poster

Yours for a mere £40-60 if they’ve got their estimates right.

And finally, a question for you.  Who’s doing the looking in this picture?

Woolacombe and Morthoe Harry Riley poster British Railways

Seriously.  The whole family is outside the window, so who’s inside looking at them?  Granny?  A voyeur?  Or should I assume that there is a third child, some sulky teenager lurking inside with their copy of Jane Eyre?  Answers on the usual electronic postcard below, please.

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The train now arriving

This photo was brought to my attention on Twitter last week, and I got very excited because it was labelled as The Bakerloo Line at Piccadilly Station, 1970.

Bakerloo line at Piccadilly Station with nice graphic adverts


I was all ready to launch a whole blog post on the back of this, talking about how the 1950s style of graphic advertising persisted for far longer than any of us had imagined, and how what’s reported in graphics annuals may not reflect what’s actually going on in the real world, and so on and so on.

And then I looked at the clothes.  This isn’t 1970, is it.  It’s scarcely pushing 1960 if you ask me. So design history does not have to be redrawn.

It is a lovely photo though, and also a reminder that the past is a far distant place where tobacco is an acceptable Christmas present.

So in the absence of those thoughts, I do also have space to point you at this lovely picture as well, which Dr G posted in the comments section the other day and is originally from this blog.

War posters on display at MomA New York


On the main floor galleries of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, visitors study posters that tell them to buy war bonds and look out for the enemy.”-LIFE Magazine, December 21, 1942.

What they are actually looking at is entries in a National War Poster competition – and it’s a good job that Dr G told me that otherwise I would have wasted a great deal of time trying to identify what’s on the walls.

But the picture is interesting, and not just because it shows people looking at posters.  It’s also a reminder that war posters in particular were not just preaching, but were part of a conversation with the viewers, and a conversation in which the public could sometimes have quite an active role.  Right down, I might remind you, to making their own posters themselves.

handmade world war two poster

It still pains me that someone has cut up a Lewitt-Him to create this, but it can’t exactly be undone, can it.  Hey ho.

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Hand crafted

This picture was tweeted by @HistoryInPictures the other day, and I thought you lot deserved to see it.

women making propaganda posters fort washington 1942

It was captioned ‘Making propaganda posters’, but I’d be surprised if that’s what’s actually going on here.  Even the British found printing posters a bit more efficient than hand-drawing each one, and this picture, a bit of internet searching tells me, was taken in Port Washington in 1942.

So what are they up to?  My money is that this is some kind of art school – they have proper desks after all – and  these women are learning graphic design.  But I am prepared to stand corrected on this one.

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