I am what I am


I really, really didn’t want to be right about Lilian Dring; that she was forced into the female arena of needlework after being pushed out of the world of poster design.  But I am.  That’s exactly what happened, and I am furious.

David Bownes, of Twentieth Century Posters fame, scanned and sent over images of the (small) catalogue for what I believe is the only exhibition of her work, at the Orleans House Gallery in Richmond in 1989.

The very first paragraph sets out the stark truth.

It was never Lilian Dring’s intention to be an embroiderer.  She has not in over fifty years ceased to think like the graphic designer she was trained to be and which circumstances beyond her control prevented.

The biography gives the exact details of how this happened.  She was a very able art student, who excelled at Kingston School of Art and then got a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, as one of the first four students on the Poster Design course (has this course ever been studied, or do the archives not exist?  If anyone can tell me the answer to this, I would love to know).

Some of the pictures reproduced in the catalogue may be of her student work, although the book, I think, was published.

Lilian doing student work 1920s

She studied at the RCA for three years and, as a promising talent, was offered a fourth, but had to turn it down because of her mother’s failing health.  Men, I will note, aren’t often expected to make this kind of choice.

The next section of the catalogue is entitled ‘What Might Have Been’.

For Lilian the 1930’s were “the lean, mean years”, when all the talk was of depression, recession, dole queues and the gathering clouds of war.  It was the worst possible time for a young free-lance graphic designer to establish herself.  She had done some fine work at College and now, lugging her portfolio up and down Fleet Street, she showed her stuff to anybody who could be persuaded to look at it, but the answer was always the same: they liked her work but could not use it – at least not at present.

The catalogue seems to suggest that the only two commissions she ever received were the Youth Hostelling posters preserved at the V&A and the London Transport poster which was never produced.

So instead she got married, made toys for her friends’ children out of scraps and gradually turned this craft into a way of making a living.  (She divorced after the Second World War and so supported herself by her work all her life).

I’m not going to talk much about her needlework, because plenty of other people have and it’s not really the business of this blog.  But I would just like to show you one of her works from 1947.

Lilian Dring 1947 embroidery.

It melds together past and present, eighteenth century and twentieth.

The text on the left is by the Countess of Winchelsea and reads:

My hand delights to trace unusual things/And deviates from known and common ways/Nor will in fading silks compose/Faintly the inimitable rose.

On the right is Dring’s own response to this.

O Kindred Spirit, I do agree/Expressions should be unhampered, free/Admit few conceptions, keep less rules/Be individual, not set in schools.

On the one hand, quite literally, this is her artistic manifesto, her statement that she can do what she likes with embroidery – and she did, kettle fur and all.

But the texts can be read in more than one way; at the same time, there seems to be to be a mourning, and perhaps even a rage against her lot..  Because composing in fading silks is exactly what she did end up doing.  Her expression was never unhampered and free; instead she was put into a box marked ‘suitable artistic expression for women’  and made to stay in it.

The story is all too common: the most unusual thing about Lilian Dring was that she told the truth about what had happened to her.  And every single one of you should be as filled with feminist rage at this as I am.

Not small.

Having said that nothing new and interesting has turned up for a while, I am just about to prove myself wrong.  But that’s probably a good thing.  At least I think it is.

Anyway, I was looking at the V&A’s collection of Empire Marketing Board posters (as anyone might do on a quiet afternoon) and my search turned up this.

Lilian Dring Youth Hostel Poster 1940

Or rather these, as there are three images in the one record.

Lilian Doing Youth Hostel Association poster 1940

Lilian Doing Youth Hostel Association poster

The description is:

Join the Youth Hostels Association. Poster, originally printed on 7 sheets, 2 of which were later cut by the artist, issued by the Central Council of Health Education through the Agency of Abbey Arts Ltd.

They were designed by Lilian Dring (which auto-correct wants to change to everything but her actual surname), and produced in 1940, all of which is fascinating for at least three reasons.

Firstly, there aren’t enough posters out there by Lilian Dring.  I’ve seen very few examples of her work at all, and yet she designed this amazing, albeit never used poster for London Underground.

Lilian Doing modern god of transport London Transport poster

It’s brave, it’s heroic, its modernist – and by a woman designer.  I think she should have been as famous as McKnight Kauffer.

On top of that, these posters were produced in 1940.  At this point, almost all commercial poster advertising was prohibited, and the Ministry of Information was pumping out posters of every which kind telling the British population what to do, join, eat and save.  It’s really quite surprising to find another government body engaging in what could be seen as inessential postering on this scale; I genuinely had no idea that this had happened.  It makes me wonder what else got advertised in the first year or two of the war – and that’s quite an important question.  In the later years of the way, people complained about the omnipresence of propaganda.  But if, in 1940, the government’s poster efforts were surrounded by other kinds of messages, it would have made their impact very different.

But one more interesting detail – to me the most fascinating one of all – is lurking in the object history note.

The poster was printed to the same format as the Empire Marketing Board posters on the hoardings for which it was placed in November 1940.

Now one of the many notable things about the Empire Marketing Board poster campaigns were that they were designed for their own, unique, set of hoardings.  I’ve written about them in detail elsewhere but they were elongated and set apart, designed to take a very specific set of formats.

Austin Cooper vintage Empire Marketing Board poster set Order by Telephone

That’s three 60 x 40″ 4-sheet posters, two 40 x 25″ Double Royals and then a title strip at the top, in this case by Austin Cooper.

And if we look at the full pictures in the V&A’s catalogue, not only do the Dring posters work as a sequence in just the same way, there are clearly three more in the collection which I’m guessing would fill the remaining slots perfectly.

Lilian Dring YHA poster 1940

Lilian Dring YHA poster 1940

Lilian Dring YHA poster 1940

All of which raises some ideas which I’d never really considered before.  The Empire Marketing Board had something like 1700 of its own poster sites in towns and cities across Britain, but it only produced posters between 1927 and 1933.  So what happened to those hoardings after the EMB ended?  Did they get taken down, or did they moulder and rot?  Or, as these posters suggest, were they used by other semi-official, non-commercial advertisers?  Because these posters were produced in 1940, seven years after the EMB stopped using them.  That’s a long gap, and suggests it was filled by something in the meantime. Will I ever know the answer to that?  Probably not.  But it’s still an interesting question.

When I started writing about these posters, that was the sum total of my thoughts.  But then, I thought, I should probably find out a bit more about Lilian Dring.  So I did.

Despite being one of the first students on the Royal College of Art’s Poster Design course, she ended up working in textiles.  Now, maybe textiles were always her one real love, I don’t know, but at the same time it’s a course which quite a lot of women end up following.  Step away from the big, dominant poster work, that’s for the men – instead why don’t you go off and do something a bit more, well, crafty?

I can’t help reading that kind of narrative into the story of how she changed direction.

She began stitching in 1931 on her mother’s hand-operated 1912 Frister & Rossman machine.  […]  Her early work, undertaken during the Depression and using scraps, included rag dolls, given as presents to friends’ children, and later the ‘personal pillows’ and ‘music cushions’,  which always illustrate articles about Lilian. Recycling thus became a major influence in her life and work.

Now Dring did go on to be quite avant-garde in her use of recycled stuff and I really like the sound of what she was doing.

Her reaction to WW2 was illustrated by a piece called ‘Parable 1’ made in 1941 to cover a bombed out window, by then she may have been living in Twickenham, where she died in 1998.  It was in three layers with quotations from Exodus (20, v.4.): In the Heavens above: fighter planes and barrage balloons; In the Earth beneath: bombed-out buildings & ambulances; ‘And in the Shelters (sic) under the Earth: people sleeping in air-raid shelters.  She appears to have been deeply disturbed by both the destruction caused by warfare, and later by that caused by pollution of the environment.  Most of her work featured appliqué – […] and in a similar work, ‘Parable 2’ made in 1972 (the year after she made a red presentation stole for Canon Blair-Fish, the then Vicar) she used can-pulls, dead gladioli stems and even fur from her kettle.

Parable 2 is behind her in this picture, although I can’t identify the kettle fur in there.

Lilian Dring

I really hope she did exactly what she wanted to do – that textiles were her choice and decision, not something forced upon her by circumstance and the lean times of the 1930s.  At the same time, I can’t square those small scraps of reused fabric with the woman who created a set of posters too dramatic and expensive for even Frank Pick to produce, or even the expansive YHA posters.  Perhaps she had art in her that had to come out somehow, any which way she could find, and the world told her textiles, not posters.

Women artists and designers are so often made small in this way, pushed into work which can be marginalised or even ignored.  All that talent unseen, when it could have been stretched across the biggest billboards in the land; instead it hangs in private houses, or the far end of dark churches.  I hope she was happier than I am about it.


All quotes, and the picture of Lilian Dring, are from this website about embroidery in Surbiton, where St Mark’s church contains a number of ecclesiastical embroideries that she designed and made.

It’s not you, it’s me. Or maybe it’s them.

Even the least attentive people will have noticed a slight absence of content on Quad Royal recently.

A fair amount of this is because my brain has been tangled up in other things, like hoarding and the world of objects in general, as opposed to the tiny sub-set of that constituted by British posters and their designers.

The life of stuff - cover image

Now that the book has gone out into the world, I have moved on to wrestling with a whole mess of thoughts to do with paths, grass, chalk landscapes and Julian Cope, along with how we think of ourselves as British.

And yes, I know what you’re thinking and right now it doesn’t make much sense to me either. But I live in hope that it might yet turn into a communicable idea.  Perhaps.

None of this has left much time or spare head space for thinking about posters, but equally, whenever the guilt overwhelms me and I think I should write something, I don’t know what to say.  And I don’t think this is entirely my fault.

Some of it undoubtedly is the result of all my other distractions, and some of it is down to circumstances.  The more posters and poster-related stuff I see, the less chance there is of something new and surprising turning up.

At the same time – and I’d be interested to see what the rest of you think about this statement – I think there is a shortage of new and surprising posters out there for me.  To my mind it feels as though, more and more, auctions are choosing safer and more predictable posters: so pictorial railway images and London Underground bankers are doing well.  World War One posters, thanks to the centenary, are staple auction fodder (although I don’t think I’d ever give one houseroom myself) and World War Two propaganda seems to have settled in as a regular as well.

Dig for victory world war two propaganda poster 1941

But again, what this means is that the same posters turn up over and over again, while the more niche ones seem to have disappeared entirely.

There are some practical reasons why this might be happening.  Back when we started buying posters, by far the most interesting sources were usually when designers either died or downsized, and their own collections came on the market.   Inevitably that has pretty much come to an end – although  over the last year or so a whole cache of works by Clifford and Rosemary Ellis appeared across a selection of sales.

ellis clifford and rosemary giant panda design

They’d both died twenty or more years ago, so I am guessing that these had been handed down once already.

Clifford and Rosemary Ellis appledore shell framed

Designers seemed to have a habit of not only collecting their own stuff but also the work of other designers that they admired, and in the past this was one of the ways in which some of the more interesting and rarer posters I’ve seen have come up for sale.

Amstutz camping coaches railway poster

On top of this, though, I also think that the market itself has changed.  Obviously, offering tried and tested posters which you know are going to sell is a pretty good way to make money if you are an auction house, so I can’t blame them for what they’re doing.  Stick with the familiar and nothing will go wrong.

But what’s failed to happen – and I have to say that I am fairly disappointed in this – is for other, newer markets to emerge.  Specifically, people don’t seem to be interested in buying the modern post-war posters which I love possibly above all others.

Tom Eckersley properly packed parcels please dog

When I first started writing this blog, the work of Hans Unger, Tom Eckersley, Hans Schleger and Harry Stevens would pop up regularly in amongst the other, more usual, offerings.  But now this doesn’t happen very much at all.

Such Turkeys Macfisheries Hans Schleger Zero poster 1950s

I really don’t understand why this is happening.  We live in a world where all the dark brown furniture of our parents and grandparents has been cast to one side in favour of Danish teak and Ladderax; every furniture shop is full of pastiches of 1950s contemporary armchairs, and reproduction fabric prints of the time are available in even the smallest of fabric retailers.  And yet no one, it seems, wants the posters.  Their worth is, at best, the same as it was six or eight years ago.  And it’s all wrong.  But nonetheless, it is.

Mr Crownfolio has a theory that there were never that many of these posters available in the first place, a first wave of interest flushed them out into the market place and auction house and now they are all in the hands of people who love them and don’t want to sell them on (and we can possibly plead guilty to this).  So it’s only the less desirable posters which come back onto the market.

It’s certainly a more cheery thought process than mine.  Really, though I have no idea – and this is very much an introductory set of thoughts, so if anyone has any better ideas, or actual experience of what is going on, please do say.




So, my attention was rather diverted from Quad Royal towards the end of last year on account of this.

The life of stuff - cover image

First the bad news, it’s not about posters at all.

Despite that, it may yet be of interest to a few of you because, amongst other things, the book is about how things come to mean and what we read into them.  So in some ways it is a much wider application of what I do with posters on here, which is to stare at them very hard and see what might be understood from them.*

At the same time, it’s also very different, what with being a memoir and taking in museums and hoarding and the history of napkin rings and all sorts of other things besides, so I won’t be offended if you don’t read it.  In any case, it’s not coming out until May.  But if you do decide you want to get it, it’s available online, or you can trundle down to your lovely local bookshop and get it there.

Next post will be back to posters, or at least vintage design, I promise.


*I’ve been fascinated by this ever since taking an MA in Design History, where I was intensely frustrating to my tutors because I wasn’t particularly interested in what they considered to be the core of the subject, which was how things came into being.  I wrote about what bits of china might have meant to the people who owned them instead.

As the book shows, this is still what I’d rather write about – only now I think I’d defend myself a bit harder.  Because looking at things in terms only of who designed them and why is missing a big part of the picture.  It’s not quite discussing books only in terms of the history of authors and printing, but it’s getting close to it.  Much of literary criticism is based on re-readings and re-interpretations of a book, rather than restricting itself to what the author intended, or discovering which kind of desk it was written on, so I don’t see why we shouldn’t look at objects in the same way.  And that includes posters.



there is still the museum

Never apologise, never explain.  Only it has been rather a long time, for which I am sorry.  I hope that the new look (and concurrent ability to be seen properly on a mobile device) are some small consolation.

I will explain the gap properly in the next post (the short version being that I have discovered there is a limit as to how much writing even I can do in a day), but in the meantime I need to tell you that I will be appearing in real life next week, in that London.

I’m speaking as part of an event at the London Transport Museum which accompanies their Poster Girls exhibition, along with properly qualified people like Oliver Green and Ruth Sykes.  I will discussing how women designers portrayed women between the wars, which will mostly involve going on about this Dora Batty poster at inordinate length.

Dora Batty There is Still The Country London Transport 1927

It’s a good looking piece of design, but it’s also kicking great holes in the expectations of what women are meant to do on posters, which can only be a good thing.

If you can’t make it, I also wrote most of it down as an essay in the exhibition catalogue.  I’d like to be able to tell you that the exhibition itself is lovely, but as I had flu instead of going to the private view, I can’t yet.  Proper verdict next week, and in the meantime, perhaps I will see you there.

Pieter Huveneers

I’m really sorry to have to share the news that poster designer Pieter Huveneers has died on 14th June.

He was 92 and died in Australia, where he’d become one of the country’s leading design consultants, creating logos and corporate images for some of the biggest companies there.

During his time in Britain, he also designed some truly excellent posters.

Pieter Huveneers Royal Mail airmail poster

If you want to know more, I’ve written about his career in both posters and beyond here.