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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A short history of smiling between 1947 and 1956

I’m putting this post back up again partly because it’s one of the ones I have most liked writing, and whose thoughts have remained with me ever since, but also because I really had thought that I’d dug it out before now, and it turns out that I hadn’t.  So here you are.

I’ve always loved the smiliness of Tom Eckersley’s posters.

Tom Eckersley vintage hastings travel poster
Hastings, n/d

Between the late forties and the mid 1950s, his work is filled with cheerful characters, from spoons to beach balls.

Tom Eckersley Enos Fruit Salts advertisement 1947
Eno’s Fruit Salts, 1947

Tom Eckersley Vintage British Railways poster Bridlington 1955
Bridlington, British Railways, 1955

And of course people.

Tom Eckersley Vintage Guinness poster seal topiary 1956
Guinness, 1956

So I was rather disappointed to discover that Eckersley himself didn’t like these posters later on in his life – he said that he wanted to get rid of the whimsy and the smiling faces as they almost made him angry.  Which seems a harsh judgement on something so delightful.

Then, a couple of months ago, I read an interview with the poet Jo Shapcott, in which she discussed her experience of having cancer.

I ask whether that period changed her sense of the world. She says it did, dramatically. “When Dennis Potter was dying, he filmed that famous interview, in which he talked about looking out of the window, and observing the blossominess of the blossoms with an increased urgency and joy. And I think that does happen to cancer survivors – apparently it’s really common to feel euphoria[.]

But it was her final words which really struck me – and, strangely enough reminded me of all of the posters above.

Does she still feel the euphoria she did at the end of treatment? “I do,” she says. “All these years later, it hasn’t gone away.”

Because perhaps we – and also Tom Eckersley himself – have been doing the 1950s a disservice.

It’s really easy to characterise the early 1950s as an era which was almost feeble-witted.  See the women gladly strap on their floral pinnies and get back into the kitchen while the men take their pipes, sow the vegetable garden and tidy out the shed.  Imagine their pleasure in a brand new fridge or washing machine.  Look at their simple-minded delight in the primary colours and pretty shapes of the Festival of Britain or happy posters with smiles on.

Festival of Britain postcard

All of which is rather patronising, and, I think, wrong.

Because these are not a new generation of air-heads but the people who have lived through six years of war. For the first time it’s not only the men on active service who’ve faced death every day, but the women and children, the clerks and the old men too; they have all spent years in which they knew that they might not make it through to the next morning.  Having lived with death breathing down their necks for so long, might they not feel euphoria too once it has departed?

Festival of Britain Battersea Pleasure Gardens vintage poster 1951


They weren’t being dim when they they enjoyed the simple pleasures of their home, or the visual delights of the Festival of Britain.  Rather than a child-like wonder, it was the more c0mplex pleasures of people who have been through the fires and survived.  Perhaps, in fact, they were both more clever and more alive than we are now?

Tom Eckersley vintage British railways poster Mablethorpe

To be fair to Tom Eckersley, he himself partly knew this.  Because he also said of these posters that they were done sincerely. It was just that he couldn’t ever do them again.  Maybe, in the end, the euphoria does fade after all.

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Improve each shining hour

Right, it’s back to the auction marathon here, and coming up next is the GWRA on 17th May.

As is the case with pretty much all the railwayana auctions these days, there are increasing number of posters.  Of which the best, in my opinion, is this one.

Tom Eckersley Paignton british railways poster 1950s

But then we’ve already got one, so I would say that, wouldn’t I.  And apologies for the intermittent wonkiness, it’s them not me.

Most interesting poster award goes to this one, by A R Thomson from 1931.

A R Thomson Shining hour LNER poster 1931

I’ve written about this series before, and, as promised in that post, have been doing some more research on both Thomson and the posters.  With the result that I know about a whole slew of strange matters including the development of cognition in deaf people and Eric Gill’s ride on the footplate of the Flying Scotsman.  I will knit them all into a proper blog post one day, I promise.  And in the meantime, if anyone can tell me why that quote is being used on the poster, other than just because they can, I will be very grateful.

Finally, in the perennial category of poster that I quite like without there being any obvious reason, this jolly little number.

Sunny South devon GWR poster

Perhaps it’s because that’s where I’m going on holiday this year and I’m already looking forward to it.

Other than that, all forms of poster life are out there and waiting for your bid.  There are the classics, nicely mounted on linen.

Frank Newbould East Coast types LNER poster lobsterman

There are the pretty pictures of landscape, in this case by one Hesketh Hubbard, who is new to me.

Hesketh Hubbard Simonsbath exmoor 1948 BR poster


It turns out that he’s more of an artist than a poster designer, and also has a life drawing society founded in his name.  So now we know.

Kitsch is also represented by the yard.

Rhyl BR poster 1950s British Railways

Along with Cuneos, tram posters and much much more.  Oh, and this.

Spratts cat food advertisement enamel sign

About which I have no comment at all.

I managed to omit the Great Central Railwayana Auction a couple of weeks ago.  Again, there were a lot of posters, most of which went for pretty much the kind of prices you’d expect.  And also the kind of prices that GCR would expect because, the heavens be praised, they have started putting estimates on their catalogues.  So I can tell you that this Amstutz sold for £210 when it had an estimate of £150-200.

British Railways Lowestoft poster Amstutz

But there were also some surprises out there.  Perhaps everyone else apart from me thinks that a Tom Purvis is now worth £1800, but even the estimate was only £900-1,200.

Tom Purvis Bridlington LNER poster

Less plausibly, this went for £420 (set. £150-300)

Teignmouth 1950s British Railways poster

I can only imagine some kind of bidding war between two people from Teignmouth to create that price.

I’m also somewhat surprised that this poster went for £620 because, well, it doesn’t have much picture on it really, does it?

Clyde coast Frank Mason LNER poster 1939

I suppose that the small bit that does exist is by Frank Mason, but even so.

One of my cherished theories – that artwork for posters never goes for that much in the end – was blown out of the water by this particular lot.

Original artwork for a Southern Railway quad royal poster, KENT ELECTRIFICATION, by Ward. 20¾"x13½".

By Ward, it is the original watercolour and sized at just 20″  x 13″; nonetheless it went for a whopping £1500.

More modern lots were rather less predictable.  This very fine London Transport poster by Peter Robeson sold well over estimate at £270.  Which is a considerable sum for this kind of poster.

A London Transport double royal poster, COUNTRY WALKS, Foxes and cubs in Epping Forest, by Peter Roberson

A statement you may translate as, we like to buy these kinds of poster only now it’s looking like we can’t afford them any more.

While on the other hand, we really should have gone for this truly great Stevens, a steal at £110.

LT double royal poster, SEE LONDON BY LT, by Stevens

And from all of that I can offer you no conclusions at all, except that posters cost money and getting estimates on railwayana auctions makes me rather happier than it probably ought to.

More auctions soon, and, if you are very unlucky, a discussion of birth rates in the 1920s and 30s with reference to the work of Tom Purvis.

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