Deck the halls

I think it’s about time to get the Christmas decorations out, isn’t it?  Or in this case, the Christmas posters.  I’ve been saving this one for half the year – and that’s not a weird reflection on it, by the way, it’s part of the design.

Raymond McGrath London Transport Christmas poster 1937

This delight is a little 10″ x 15″ London Transport poster, from 1937 which popped up on eBay over the summer.  And that was supposed to be the end of the post, until I decided to try and find out something about Raymond McGrath, who designed it.

Now the London Transport Museum website doesn’t have much information on him, and it appears that this was the only thing he ever did for LT.  But a bit more delving on the web reveals a lot more.  If I am honest it didn’t take that much, McGrath has his own Wikipedia page for heavens sake, and it turns out he was a really interesting chap.

Predominantly, McGrath was an architect and so rather falls out of the scope of this blog, but I’ll give you a brief summary because it’s such a fascinating and, it seems, infrequently told story.  Coming from Australia in 1926, he quickly became one of the pioneers and champions of modernist architecture in Britain.  His first major work was the remodelling of Finella, a house for the Cambridge don Mansfield Forbes (there is a comprehensive and wonderful article about this if you would like to read more), and this got him known, to the extent that he was put in charge  of the remodelling of Broadcasting House in  1931, so at the age of just 27 he was overseeing architects like Wells Coates and Serge Chermayeff.  He also designed a stunning modernist house in Chertsey, St Anne’s Hill House.

Raymond McGrath Hill House chertsey

(This was later owned by Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music, and there is a great discussion of the area’s modernist rock heritage here.)

Despite these works, a combination of the war, a lack of work and his wife’s mental problems led McGrath to take a job in the Dublin Office of Public Works, where he became Principal Architect in 1948, a job he held until the 1960s.  While he did much notable work there, the move meant that he effectively disappeared from the architectural record in Britain.

As the poster shows, McGrath was also a talented artist and draughtsman.   Below is one of the set of drawing about aircraft production that he contributed to the War Artists scheme before he left for Dublin.

Raymond McGrath war artists painting aircraft production

But this piece of his design has to be one of my favourite things, just for its pure modernist quirkiness.

Raymond McGrath aeroplane wallpaper

It has an interesting provenance, apparently.

This elegant design for a wallpaper was only one element in an entire design scheme presented by McGrath for a house called “Rudderbar”, commissioned by a British female pilot of the 1930′s.  It had been conceived as a combination “house and transport hub” having “an aircraft hanger and a garage built alongside domestic quarters surmounted by an observation/control tower”! It was to be built nearby the historic Hanworth Airplane Field, Feltham, Middlesex, England. And all of this in McGrath’s signature Modernist style.

Rather wonderfully, the paper is being reprinted, so you can now buy it to paper your flying room should you wish.  Although McGrath is interesting enough to warrant more of a memorial than even this, I think.

Posted in designers, eBay, London Transport | 2 Responses

Hither and thither

In the immortal words of Smash Hits, I am back.  Back, back back.  Admittedly I am typing this from amongst a forest of boxes, and if you asked me to lay my hands on almost anything we own, I wouldn’t be able to, but I am here.  And with a rather snazzy new network connection too, which probably isn’t going to make much difference at your end, but is certainly an improvement from where I am sitting.

But enough of my domestic arrangements, it’s time to turn back to the world of posters, and in particular next week’s Onslow’s sale.  What are we going to say about this – or rather what am I going to say as my attempt at crowd-sourcing some opinions on this didn’t really get enough of a response to constitute a post.  So here goes.

My first impression on flicking through the catalogue is that there are an awful lot of Shell educational posters; I haven’t actually counted them, but more than enough to fulfill all your county needs.    Here’s Rowland Hilder’s Warwickshire and David Gentleman’s Somerset by way of a sample.

Rowland HIlder Shell county poster Warwickshire

David Gentleman shell county poster warwickshire

Now these have estimates of £70-100 and £100-150 respectively and I am going to say once again what I always say when Shell posters come up, which is that I do not understand what the market is for these and thus have no idea what they are worth.  They’re lovely things to display, but both the educational text and the metal hanging bars do rather get in the way of the value I think.  What is a fair price for these – other than just what people are prepared to pay?  Any thoughts?

There’s also the usual tranche of World War Two posters, including this old friend.

Abram Games Army world war two poster civvy street
Abram Games, 1946, est. £70-100

It’s current ubiquity is affecting the estimate I think, which is a shame as its a lovely design.  Of the rest, this Dame Laura Knight has to be the best drawing, if perhaps not the best poster.

Laura Knight (1877-1970) Thousands of Women Needed Now in the ATS WAAF, original WW2 Home Front poster printed for HMSO 1940

Dame Laura Knight, 1940, est. £250-300

While my personal favourite is this modernist take on Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases.

Coughs & Sneezes Spread Diseases, original WW2 Home Front poster printed for HMSO  194

Anon, c. 1940, est. £50-100

I do like the variety of design styles you get in the Home Front posters; there was a way of persuading you to use a handkerchief to suit almost every kind of taste.

Then, of course, there are the railway and underground posters that you’d expect too.  Contrarian that I am, this is the kind of thing I like.

F Donald Blake (1908 - 1997) British Railways for British Industry, original poster printed for BR (E) by Waterlow

F Donald Blake, est. £70-100

But if you’re after countryside and representation, that is of course available by the yard as well.

Claude Buckle (1905-1973) Sussex, original poster Ad 6697 printed for BR (SR) by Waterlow circa 1950

Claude Buckle, c. 1950, est. £400-600

ohn Greene RibblesdaleStainforth near Settle, original poster printed for BR (LMR) by Wood Roselaar circa 1960

John Greene, c. 1960, est. £400-450

Those two are both later examples from British Railways, when the line between poster and landscape painting is getting a bit more blurred, but for some reason I rather like them both.  There’s plenty more of that kind of thing available.  Then there is also this Austin Cooper, which is a rather unusual item in that it’s a British poster for a furrin destination.

Austin Cooper (1890-1964) Bonn on Rhine The birthplace of Beethoven, original poster printed for LNER by Ben Johnson circa 1930

Austin Cooper, 1930, est. £100-150

But pick of the pops for me has to be this Hans Unger, for just being great.

Hans Unger (1915-1975) The Contnent via Harwich, original poster printed for BR (ER) circa 1957

Hans Unger, 1957, est. £100-150

The London Transport posters are fewer in number and less immediately engaging, although this James Fitton always deserves a mention.

James Fitton (1899-1992) Its safer by London Underground, (Clown on Tight rope) original poster (without title) printed for LT by Baynard 1937

James Fitton, 1937, est. £300-400

Finally, something which is both interesting and rather lovely.

R Coxon (1896-1997) October Tree Felling, original poster printed for CEMA (later became Arts Council) circa 1940

R Coxon, 1940, est. £150-200

Here’s the blurb from the catalogue about it:

R Coxon (1896-1997) October Tree Felling, original poster printed for CEMA (later became Arts Council) circa 1940

I’m guessing – looking at the design and format – that these are in some ways related to the post-war Schools Prints, but I don’t really know and right now don’t have the time to get lost in the internet and find out.  Is there a good book written about CEMA anywhere?  You would think there ought to be.

And if there is anything I have missed out that you think should be included, please let me know.  The comments box is just down there and waiting for your thoughts.

Posted in auctions | 8 Responses


This post is basically me waving the white flag of surrender for the next week or so while the house move finally takes place.  But instead of a white flag I thought I would offer you a pale poster instead.

Vintage Post Office Savings Bank poster Combs pre war

I know this isn’t in the best condition ever, but it’s interesting enough to be worth looking at anyway.  I know precisely nothing about it (the Post Office Savings Bank posters aren’t archived on line yet) except that it is good and that I don’t think I’ve seen very many pre-war POSB posters before now, if indeed any.  Oh and the signature says, I think, Coombs, but I am none the wiser for that either.

I’m hoping to be back within a week, not least because the Onslows catalogue for the December sale is now up.  But perhaps you could all go and have a look and crowd-source some opinions for me in the meantime.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Responses

Food is Necessary

Once again, people have been sending me things.  To be more precise, they’ve been sending pictures of things.  Which is a shame, as I would have very much liked to get this in the post.

Hans Unger mosaic of London photo by MIchael Sand

Michael Sand got in contact with me.  His parents were friends of Hans Unger’s in London in the 196os, and so he made them this lovely mosaic of their house in 1965.  I love this, I think it’s my favourite of any of his mosaics that I’ve seen, so thank you to Michael for telling me about it and then letting me show you the photograph.

That’s not all, either.  Suzanne Emerson’s parents were friends of Royston Cooper in the 1960s and 1970s, and so she now owns two of Royston’s paintings.

Royston cooper original painting

Royston Cooper original painting

Apparently she and her mum called the first one drips and the second one eggs.  There’s also a limited edition lithograph too.

Original Royston Cooper lithograph

She asked me about them, but I am well outside of what I know about here, so I thought I’d put them up on the blog and see if you lot can help.  Suzanne is also thinking about selling them, so if anyone has any knowledge of or interest in them, please do let me know in the comments and I will pass your details on.

Because I outed myself in a recent post as being utterly ignorant about film posters, I have also – very kindly – been sent an entire book on the subject.  So once I have moved house (have I mentioned this yet?), I shall read it and then I will know.  Watch out.

Finally, since we’re all here, an interesting heap of posters have come up on eBay, all from the one seller.

Abram Games wasted food is another ship lost World war two propaganda poster

Abram Games talk kills world war two poster propaganda

That’s interesting as in the sense of totally bemusing, because I do not know how someone ends up with three Abram Games posters (there is also the Damp Ruins Ammunition one which I have seen more often than these two), and then two GPO posters from the 1960s?  Most odd.  I am hoping that the Talk Kills one is in focus in real life,  I’m sure it must be.

GPO stamps in books poster from ebay 1960

Most confounding.  But I shall watch the prices with interest.

We are, finally, moving house next week, and chaos will almost certainly loom large.  So if Quad Royal falls short of its customary standards of service, I apologise.  Back to normal very soon.  I hope.

Posted in eBay | 3 Responses

Mrs Housewife on Display

There are some things I haven’t been telling you recently, and it’s time to fess up.

The biggest omission is the Bloomsbury Auctions sale which happened last week. Now this wasn’t the most exciting collection of posters I have ever seen in one place, but there was one significant exception. This was three lots, right at the end, all by Dorrit Dekk.  Each one was a total treasure trove, with a whole range of posters in, not just one.

Dorrit Dekk wireless licence GPO poster 1940s

Dorrit Dekk Home makers poster Post office savings bank

What’s more, they were estimated at £200-300 per lot which, with at least ten posters each time, was looking like a total bargain.  Hence my silence.

Dorrit Dekk staggered holidays World War Two home front propaganda poster

As the sale went on, we got more and more excited, because nothing seemed to be selling for over its estimate, and quite a few things were falling below that (the contrast with Christies is not something that you need me to explain).  So by the time we got to the three Dekk lots our hopes were high.

Dorrit Dekk Love Post Office Savings Banks poster 1960s

But they were rapidly dashed to the ground again.  They all went for well over their estimates, £420 in two cases and a whopping £550 for the one with all of the travel posters in.

Dorrit Dekk orient line travel poster

Dorrit Dekk France travel poster

Bah.  I hope whoever got them likes them.

The second thing I missed was for the rather more practical reason that I only got about 48 hours notice of the sale, but it’s still interesting enough to draw your attention to after the event.  Lot 247 at 1818 Auctioneers in Cumbria at the start of this week was a set of World War Two Home Front propaganda posters, How Mrs Housewife Saves Fuel For Battle.

Mrs Housewife Saves Fuel World War Two Propaganda poster home front

Mrs Housewife Saves Fuel World War Two Propaganda poster home front pair

Mrs Housewife Saves Fuel World War Two Propaganda poster home front

There were thirteen in total, which would have been worth a mention on its own as it’s pretty rare for a whole set to turn up like this.  But also included were these title banners.

Mrs Housewife Saves Fuel for battle title posters for set world war two propaganda

Now I’ve never actually seen something like that before, and I was immediately reminded of this.

Beverley Pick wartime poster display stand from display presentation book

These are Beverley Pick’s travelling poster displays for the Ministry of Information, which I’ve blogged about before.  And what I think came up for auction was a set of posters designed for exactly this kind of display.  Which is a rare thing indeed.  I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if those posters were by Pick himself, either; I’ve seen that kind of brickwork effect on other designs of his.

By way of atonement for these past sins, please have a couple of things which are coming up for auction in the future and so you’re able to buy.  Of which the most interesting is this rather lovely London Transport poster which is being sold by Wooley and Wallis in Salisbury next week.

Leith Poster 1928 London Transport Never Mind the Weather

It’s by a rather mysterious Leith, and seems to be the only poster that he or she ever designed for London Transport.  It has an estimate of just £100-200 if you fancy it, and why shouldn’t you, it’s very appropriate for the season.

Meanwhile in Chippenham a collection of rather ordinary advertising posters has turned up.

Goodyear tyres for farmers advertising posters

I was going to call them pedestrian, but given that half of them are for tyres, that would just be silly.

Goodyear deluxe tyres advertising poster

Still, worth mentioning simply to remind ourselves once again that by no means all past advertising was great.

Motor Homes poster

And quite a lot of it was really rather ordinary.

Finally, this isn’t a poster and it is in a Christies sale with the word Old Master in the title, so it’s definitely unaffordable.  It’s by Lill Tschudi and dates from 1933.

Lilli Tschudi Sticking Up Posters 1933

But it’s people sticking up posters, and the work behind the paper is always worth remembering.


Posted in auctions | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Hit the North

Today this poster is your starter for ten.

The question is, what’s so unusual about it?  (Other, that is, than it’s Manchester Piccadilly Station looking quite spruce; I regularly used to get the last train home from there in the early 80s, and it was a dump.  Always)

The answer is that it’s a railway poster depicting Manchester.  They are rarities indeed, don’t you know.  As are posters of Leeds, Liverpool and Birmingham too.  Although I did manage to find Perry Barr looking quite bucolic in 1928.

But generally the point remains: should you happen to map the world by railway poster, the industrial heartlands of Britain are pretty much invisible.  I can only find one exception and that’s this Norman Wilkinson poster of the Manchester Ship Canal.

Now I put this point to Mr Crownfolio, and he looked at me as though I was in pursuit of the blindingly obvious to no apparent purpose.  I can see where he is coming from with this.  Birmingham, Manchester and their ilk are not pretty, they are not by the seaside: in short they are places that you come from rather than travel to.  So why would the railway companies want to make posters of them?

But this is a point which is actually worth making, so bear with me.  Because there were several series of railway posters which could quite easily have taken in points in the industrial north.  Like Norman Wilkinson’s depictions of schools, for example.

Or indeed they could have been included in the endless series of churches and cathedrals.  Liverpool alone gets a chance here, and twice – posters by Fred Taylor and Keith Elleston respectively.

But Liverpool is, in all probability, a special case.  Having only been built a decade before, Giles Gilbert Scott’s cathedral was a modern marvel, built just ten years before, as well as simply a landmark to be visited.

Why this matters beyond just northern pride is that the railway posters are reflecting an important part of British culture.  When we think of Britain, it is a southern landscape we see in our mind’s eye.  Perhaps the most potent representation of it ever made is Frank Newbould’s wartime poster for ABCA.

Frank Newbould Your Britain Fight For It Now ww2 propaganda poster army ABCA

And of course Newbould is a railway poster artist, so he knows exactly what he’s doing there.  This isn’t just a piece of countryside you want to visit, it’s a landscape that you need to believe in.

The writer and academic David Matless has called this vision of the countryside ‘Deep England’, and I have mentioned this idea before in passing.  Matless articulates the idea in a very good book called Landscape and Englishness, which I will revisit one day in a post  when my copy finally re-emerges from storage.  To summarise a subtle and well-documented argument in the meantime, Deep England is a version of Britain which has its greatest potency between the wars, and one of its many uses is to represent an eternal image of Britain to set against the forces of modernity and change.  And this timeless country is very firmly based in the south.

Somerset Railway poster Frank Sherwin c1930


All of which adds some additional reasons why railway posters don’t mention the North.  Yes, it might not be somewhere you want to go to, but it is also, in a wider sense, not somewhere you want to see either.  Because railway posters weren’t just about suggesting you travel to a different place by train.  As David Watts suggests in his very interesting essay (discussed on here in the post I have already linked to above), they also rely for their impact on the implicit contrast between the bucolic idea that they represent, and the forces of modern industrialism, in the form of the railway, which surrounds them.  So sticking a picture of Mancunian cotton mills in there simply doesn’t work.

Although this does go some way towards explaining a small sub-genre of northern and midlands posters, which are designed to celebrate the modernisation of the railways.

Because of course it’s fine to mention these cities if you are actually enthusing about industry.  The Manchester Piccadilly poster at the top probably fits into this category too (these tend, as a rule, to be post-war).

All of which is not only important because of what it tells us about railway poster design and prevailing British culture.  To flip it on its head, it also reveals a great deal about why people like railway posters.  As I’ve said before, railway posters are a refuge, a form of Safe Art in a world of abstraction and conceptualism. But there’s more to the railway poster than simply nice old-fashioned landscapes.  By omitting the problematic north and Midlands, these images also tap into some of our deeper feelings about Britain and what we want to see.  No wonder they are so popular.

Devon. From Christies. Pretty but dull

Now, some of you may be on the side of Mr Crownfolio and thinking that this is still, to some degree, a statement of the blindingly obvious.  But I think it matters now.  Because one thing that has been bothering me for some time is that the North has disappeared from our consciousness, taking Birmingham and Stoke with it on the way.  Back when I was a teenager and travelling in and out of Piccadilly Station, there was a very definite sense of their being a Northern culture and sensibility, taking in everything from The Smiths to Boys from the Blackstuff and all points in between.  Hell, I was proud to come from the North, even if they wouldn’t let me belong there.

But where is that now?  I can’t seem to discover its like anywhere.  Eighty years after its supposed heyday, Deep England has finally triumphed.  We all think like southerners, act like southerners and see like southerners.  And thus a whole swathe of Britain and its history has been made invisible.

This isn’t healthy.  But it also isn’t true.  We can’t help our railway posters, we probably can’t even help liking them.  But we can pay attention to what we see elsewhere.  For a whole set of reasons, both social and political and just sensible, we need to make sure that we look at the whole of the country, not just the easy, prosperous, reassuring parts.  So beware the lure of the deep landscape.  By all means look at it; but make sure it isn’t the only thing you see.

Two small addenda to that.  The first is that one of the very many wonderful things about the Olympics Opening Ceremony was the fact that it took a long hard look at Britain’s industrial heartlands, and what’s more saw something to celebrate as well as fear.  Something that makes us British.

The second is a bit of a tangent but still worth noting, and that’s the way in which the north still has – or certainly had last time I looked – its own very distinctive visuals.  Fifty years after the railway posters, Factory Records set the style which made Manchester look different.

Hacienda first birthday flyer factory records

I was very surprised to arrive in London and discover that not everything worth finding out about happened in sans serif.  Or that the clubs were nowhere near as interesting.

hacienda 5th Birthday flyer

But this is worthy of a whole post of its own on another day.  In the meantime, don’t forget the factories.

Factory records logo


Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Responses