Paddenalia, inter alia.

I’ve been meaning to post this for ages, and now the Jubilee has been and gone but I’m carrying on regardless.  They’re Marks and Spencers’ Jubilee packaging designs – this is the tin we bought.

Marks and Spencers Jubilee shortbread tin

Remind you of anyone?  To me, there is a definite touch of Daphne Padden about them, particularly this pigeon.

M&S Jubilee packaging for teacakes - pigeon

And of course she designed for Marks and Spencers too.

Daphne Padden Marks and Spencers Christmas cake design

But this isn’t them raiding their archives, they are apparently by an illustrator called Phil Hankinson.  I must drop him a line and ask whether he likes Daphne Padden or whether it is just a happy accident.

Marks and Spencers Jubilee teacake packet

The pictures (because I ran out of time to take them myself and we’re still eating the shortbread anyway) are borrowed from H is For Home’s blog about the packets.  They did it properly, and on time, not like me.

While we’re on the subject of Daphne Padden, a few of her paintings (and a couple of her father’s too) are up for auction tomorrow.  It’s a saleroom close to where she lived, so I wonder what the connection is?

Daphne Padden bird watercolour paintings
Daphne Padden, est £30-50

Dominic Winter’s forthcoming sale, meanwhile, contains a small set of McKnight Kauffer posters, which are worth taking note of because they include this one which I’ve never, ever seen before.

McKnight Kauffer elephant ballet
McKnight Kauffer, 1942, est. £400-600

Yes, that is for an elephant ballet to the music of Stravinsky.  I will let the catalogue explain more…

This advertised the extraordinary Circus Polka, an act featuring fifty elephants in tutus ridden by similarly-clad dancers, which brought together the remarkable talents of the dancer and choreographer George Balanchine (1904-1983), the composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), and the circus manager John Ringling North. By 1942 Stravinsky was an established composer living in Hollywood, and Balanchine was a well-known choreographer and the founder of the American School of Ballet. The elephant ballet was performed during the 1942 season entitled Holidays, in New York’s Madison Garden building where Barnum’s circus had performed since 1881.

These two are also discoveries for me.

McKNight Kauffer Eastman Gloves poster 1926 Dominic Winter
McKnight Kauffer, 1926, est. £200-400

McKnight Kauffer Schools exhibition News Chronicle 1938 poster
McKnight Kauffer, 1938, est. £100-150

This is considerably more familiar, mind you.

McKnight Kauffer ARP poster home front world war two Dominic Winter
McKnight Kauffer, 1938, est. £100-150

There seems to be an unerring rule that wherever the McKnight Kauffer ARP poster is offered for sale, the Pat Keely treatment of the theme must also be there too, and it applies here just as always.

Pat Keely ARP Calling You poster home front 1938 Dominic Winter
Pat Keely, 1938, est. £100-150

I wonder whether these went out together, and whether quite a few were saved together by their recipients as souvenirs of what must have seemed, even then, to be a turning point in Britain’s history.  Later on in the war, the pressure to salvage paper must have been greater, and so fewer posters survived.  Or do these ones exist in great numbers because of an enormous print run?

Also for sale are a couple of Lyons prints, of which my favourite is this John Minton.

John Minton Apple Orchards Lyons Print Dominic Winter
John Minton, 1951, £200-300

More obscure, but quite enticing despite this, are a collection of Edward Bawden and John Aldridge wallpaper samples.

Edward Bawden wallpaper design Dominic Winter
Edward Bawden, c1940s-50s, est £300-500

But then they’re just as expensive as a good poster, and quite a bit smaller, so perhaps not.

While we’re on this kind of track, shall I draw your attention to a few things worth noticing on eBay as well?  Top Quad Royal tip is this Hans Unger, although it comes with a rather aggressive start price of £193.  But it’s still nice.

Hans Unger 1959 London Transport poster theatre

We have a copy ourselves, but one which could probably win a competition  for worst preservation and condition of a poster ever.  It’s so bad that I am too embarrassed to put a picture of it on here.  Mr Crownfolio is saving it for when he retrains as a poster conservator, but even then it may still be beyond rescue.

This earlier London Transport poster is rather less my personal cup of tea but probably a bit more of a bargain at £120.  It’s by Alan Sorrell and dates from 1938 and is, if you ask me, a rare example of neo-classicism in poster design of the times.

London transport poster 1938 Alan Sorrell river

While this is an interesting and quite rare Home Front poster for just £39.99.  This campaign was one of the rare early succeses for the Ministry of Information. who generally spent the first two years of the war getting everyone’s backs up.

Home front poster Go To It World War Two ministry of information 1940

But then that price probably reflects the fact that while it is a very important piece of historical ephemera, most people, including me, don’t actually want to sit and look at it all day.

A sentiment that also applies in even greater measure to this.

1960s southern region train map thingy

Advertised as a ‘fantastic train poster from the 60s70s’, it has a Buy It Now price of  £175, but then the seller clearly had a crisis of confidence because the opening bid is set at £10.  What am I missing here?  Can any train fans enlighten me?


Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Responses

Posters on Parade

When I was trying to find some festive-looking posters the other day, my search, rather wonderfully, came up with this in the Science and Society picture library.

Poster wagon railway poster display for Blackpool carnival

We find ourselves at Blackpool station in 1925, and the cart is getting ready to take part in Blackpool Carnival.  Here’s what’s on display:

London, Midland & Scottish Railway display pulled by four horses. The display comprises railway posters designed by ‘eminent Royal Academy artists’: ‘Aberdeen’ by Algernon Mayow Talmage; ‘Carlisle’ by Maurice Greiffenhagen; ‘Edinburgh’ by George Henry; ‘The Peak District’ by Leonard Campbell Taylor; ‘The Night Mail’ by William Orpen; ‘Northern Ireland’ by Julius Olsson. The display is to be used in the Blackpool carnival.

This is clearly a fabulous thing simply for existing.  But it’s also interesting in that adds a new layer to how railway posters were shown – and therefore perceived – at the time.

'Aberdeen' by Algernon Mayow Talmage;LMS railway poster, 1924.

We’ve covered quite a bit of this ground on here before, mainly thanks to David Watt’s fine essay on Yorkshire railway posters, which I wrote about a while back.  He makes the point that railway posters are rather unusual because they are displayed at railway stations and so the viewer can assume that they are advertising rail travel, rather than just places.  So they don’t need to show trains or say ‘Travel By Rail’ and this makes them, in his words, semi-detatched from ‘mundane commercial purpose’.  As a result, these posters occupied a middle ground between fine art and the grubbiness of actually selling things.  (This status obviously has implications for modern day collecting of railway posters too, but that’s another thought for another day.)

'Carlisle: The Gateway to Scotland', LMS railway poster, 1924.Maurice Greiffenhagen

These particular designs are more explicit than most about this connection with fine art.  All of the posters on the wagon come from a set of sixteen commissioned by the LMS from Royal Academy artists; they are indeed fine art being displayed on a poster.

As such, they link up with another idea that has come up before, the sense of public bodies using artists and painters in particular for their posters as a form of social good.  I’ve discussed this before in the context of the GPO, Shell and London Transport posters.

The involvement of Shell shows that it wasn’t an attitude that was confined to state-own entities alone, and a similar ethos of public service seems to have been present in the railway companies before the war.  This wasn’t just confined to their publicity; the LNER kept open lines that were running at a loss because they felt that people needed access to them.   So these posters clearly fall into an established tradition of posters which are on the borderline between fine art and advertising, and which are produced, in part, because they are felt to be part of the railway companies’ duties to the wider society they serve.

What’s so interesting about the carnival cart above, though, is that is shows that the LMS had a slightly different attitude to the audience for these posters than I would have imagined – and it’s one that I find rather endearing.

'Edinburgh', LMS railway poster, 1924 George Henry

Until now I’ve always thought of these these posters being on display in stations, where passengers could inspect or ignore them at their will, or in occasional exhibitions (more on these here if you’re interested), where I would have imagined the audience was predominantly middle class.

But at Blackpool, the LMS is taking these posters out, which in itself shows a degree of pride that I wouldn’t have expected, but what’s more it’s taking them out in front of an audience which is probably not quite so genteel and alongside dancing girls, giant dogs and, er, people dressed up as food.

blackpool carnival procession no date

So the LMS is positioning the posters not as ‘high culture’ being foisted on the working classes from above, but very much as part of a thriving and quite varied popular culture.

There are a few other hints too, that this point of view might have prevailed.  This series of posters was one of the LMS’s best-sellers, with Carlisle a particular favourite.  But when I was looking to find the particular posters on display on the cart, I also found a reference to a colour print of William Orpen’s Night Mail.  There are no dimensions given, but I imagine that this would have been a much more affordable version than buying a copy of the original poster.  (And who did buy those? I would love to know.)

Dunluce Castle, Northern Ireland LMS railway poster, 1924 Julius Olsson

Perhaps we need to rethink what the fine art elements of railway posters meant at this time, and indeed later on when they were used by other companies in the same way.  We see something that was imposed on an ultimately indifferent population who were not interested in art, and this may indeed be how the original commissioners of the posters too.  But it’s possible that these images were enjoyed and taken up by a much wider variety of people than we, slightly snobbishly, tend to imagine.

Posted in posters, railway posters | Tagged | 3 Responses

Lend a hand

There’s a certain inevitability about the fact that now I’ve written the Home Front Posters book, a whole heap of new information about World War Two posters has popped up in various places.  This isn’t entirely a painful discovery, and not just because I am now resigned to the fact that while research could go on indefinitely, books do have deadlines.  Because today’s exhibit is that particular joy, a brand new archive.

What’s happened is that the National Archives have digitised a significant chunk of their wartime posters and are distributing them via Wikipedia.  (There’s a full explanation here if you want to know more).  It’s very exciting because there are a large number in there that I’ve never seen before.  Here’s a rather nice Dorrit Dekk to begin with.

Dorrit Dekk World War Two propaganda poster Staggered Holidays

This isn’t just an act of altruism but also a kind of crowd-sourcing, because the archives don’t have much information about many of these posters and they’re asking for people to help with everything from attributions to translation of foreign-language posters.

Part of the challenge, particularly with matching artists to designs is that these aren’t printed posters but the original artworks, quite often without the signatures that the finished item would have.  So it ends up being a process more like finding the provenance of a painting.  For example, we have this Eileen Evans, signed.

Lend a Hand on the Land Eileen Evans World War Two propaganda poster

Which makes it a fairly reasonable guess that these two posters in the National Archives are also by her.

Lend a Hand potato harvest farming holiday camp poster artwork eileen evans national archives ministry of information

Lend a hand with the potato harvest farming holiday camp world war two poster eileen evans ministry of information artwork

In fact I’m confident enough about that to have amended the description for each of those.

Only 350 of the 2,000 designs in the National Archives have been uploaded so far, but what’s already striking is how many of these I’ve never even seen before.  Take this Pat Keely for example.

Pat Keely wait for daylight world war two blackout poster artwork national archives

I think he owes McKnight Kauffer an acknowledgement on that one. Keely’s quite well-represented in the selection that are up so far, again often with previously unseen posters.

Cross at the lights world war two blackout poster national archives Pat Keely

What’s difficult, though, is to interpret what these previously unknown designs actually mean.  Are these for posters which were printed but are as yet unreported – whether that is because a copy never survived, or perhaps does exist but has not yet been digitised by the Imperial War Museum?  Or are they designs which were not actually ever produced?  In many ways. my bet would be on the latter.  Artworks which never went to the printers would be far more likely to survive.

Then on the other hand, this artwork is in there, for a poster which was very definitely printed in quite large numbers.

Make do and mend world war two poster ministry of information artwork

There’s not an obvious conclusion to be had.  Except perhaps that – because of wartime haste, limited record-keeping and the only accidental survival of what were intended to be very ephemeral bits of paper – we’ll probably never have the definitive list of World War Two Home Front posters, never mind their dates and artists.

It’s also worth remembering that this collection is very partial. The artworks all came from the Ministry of Information, but they were by no means the sole source of posters during the war.  Both National Savings and the Ministry of Food, two of the highest-spending departments at the time, commissioned their own advertising, so very few of their designs, if any, would turn up in the MoI’s archives.   And that’s without considering other poster producers, from British Railways to the Army.  Even so, there are still some delightful surprises in there.  It may not be the greatest design ever – apparently by the mysterious Xenia – but I love the idea of Village Produce Associations a lot.

Xenia poster artwork village produce associations

So I am very happy to report that Google reveals many VPA’s founded during the war are still going today.  Hurrah.

That kind of continuity after the war is also apparent in the poster designs.  It’s easy to believe, as I’ve said on here before, that all wartime posters stopped as soon as hostilities ceased, but that’s far from the truth.  Many campaigns, from salvage to fuel saving, just continued unchanged.  This fuel saving poster – in the great tradition of bossy shouty slogans – could date from during or after the war.

Turn that Gas down World War Two austerity fuel saving poster national archives

Other campaigns, meanwhile, were reversioned for the peace.

Dig for Plenty world war two poster reversioned for austerity post war national archives

Dig for plenty world war two austerity poster national archives artwork

It’s also fascinating to see some of the very definitely post-war designs produced by the new Labour Government to persuade people that the continuing austerity was necessary – a much harder job than wartime propaganda.

We work or want post world war two propaganda poster national archives

Wages and salaries can only go up with production post war propaganda poster national archives

These seem to me to be much rarer than the wartime posters, presumably because, by this stage of post-war austerity, no one at all wanted to keep them as a souvenir.

There’s plenty more to be seen in there too – including this Percy Drake Brookshaw artwork for – well for what?

Percy Drake Brookshaw apple picking artwork for something national archives

So why not take a look and see what I’ve missed out.


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Auction news and reviews today.  Well that’s the theory, but in truth I’m not sure what to type next, because I can’t make head nor tail of the Onslows results.  Some things sold, quite a lot of other things didn’t, but there’s no kind of pattern in it that I can find.

The best result was  £5,000 (estimate £3,000 to £4,000) for Helen McKie’s Waterloo Station during wartime.

Helen McKie British Railways poster Waterloo Station in peace and war 1948

I am pleased to report that the Post Office in Space also went for a well-deserved £130.

Ken Howard (b1932) The Post Office in Space, Goonhilly Downs, original poster PRD 1636

On the other hand, I was somewhat disgruntled to see this Unger go for £40 over estimate because that means the we didn’t win it.

Hans Unger London Transport tower poster 1968 raven

Curses.  I want it even more now.  It would have gone so well with our ravens too.

But those were the few glimmers of excitement in some otherwise fairly quiet results.  The vast majority of posters that sold went for within or even under their estimates.  I know they’re not classics, but I was still surprised to see these two Shell posters going for just £130 and £95.

Kavari Schwitzer The Circus These Men Use Shell poster 1938

Derek Sayer "Nellie Jane" Fishermen These Men Use Shell, poster 1937

World War Two posters were sold, or weren’t, with what seems to be no pattern at all to me.  Why did this one go for £410 for example?

Mackinlay's Back Up The Fighting Forces,Weiner for HMSO  1940

While this Abram Games went for just £90.

Abram Games wartime civvy street army poster WW2

I ought to be relieved that not everyone shares my tastes, but the confusion just makes my head spin.

You can multiply that bewilderment by ten when it comes to the railway posters, I simply don’t understand the logic behind what sells and what doesn’t, if there is any to be found.  I suppose it may just depend on something as random as whether or not potential bidders have a sentimental attachment to the particular places depicted.  If you can enlighten me more than that, please do say.

All of which makes trying to guess prices at the forthcoming Great Central Railwayana Auction even more difficult than usual, given the ususal absence of any estimates at all.  There’s a fair selection of posters on offer there, a quite surprising number of which I like.  And this isn’t just because I am trying to be well-disposed towards railway posters and their collectors (more on this another day).

You do still have to wade through quite a few pictures of trains to get to them, mostly by Terence Cuneo.  This one is so much of a picture of a train though that it is actually funny.

Terence Cuneo Scotland For Your Holidays british railways poster 1957

I would love to have heard the commissioning process for this one. We want them to travel to Scotland for their holidays, what shall we show?  The lochs? Edinburgh Castle?  No, I’ve got a much better idea, the engineering of the Forth Bridge and a train.  That’ll entice them.

If that doesn’t persuade you, how about dead monks and missing windows?

Andrew Johnson LNER railway poster fountains abbey

Less obviously odd is this post-war poster for Teignmouth by Mayes, but I still find it a bit uncanny.

Teignmouth Mayes poster British Railways

I can’t work out if it’s the night time, the faint traces of pointilism or just the fact that it looks as though it was painted in 1932.  Answers on a postcard please.  Preferably from Teignmouth.

There are of course more straightforward railway posters to be had too.  I like this Fred Taylor partly for the sentimental reasons mentioned above, because it’s of a place I know.

Fred Taylor British Railways poster Wells market place

What’s also quite satisfying though is that this corner of Wells Market Place still looks just like that.  Which I suspect may not be true of this view of Southend.

British Railways southend playground of the south poster

If this is all getting a bit traditional for you, there is also some more modern typography on offer of a kind that I am always a sucker for.

British Railways poster devon Johnston 1960

British Railways poster Greene Northern Ireland 1960

In both cases, they date from 1960, and there’s an interesting set of thoughts to follow there one day about the updating and modernisation of the traditional art form of the railway poster.

Finally, my favourite poster of the lot, which isn’t actually anything to do with the railways at all, but is both completely 1950s and something I’ve never seen before.

British Travel and Holiday Association Coronation Year 1953 poster anon

Which has to be quite an achievement this year.

Posted in auctions | 6 Responses

Put Out More Flags

I was asked to help out earlier this week.  Could I find a few vintage posters to act as inspiration for a designer doing a poster for a retro tea-dance? Cakes, bunting, dancing, something nice and festive – it’s not that difficult to imagine the sort of thing. But that sort of thing turned out to be rather harder to find in reality.

If you go back to the 1930s, there was at least dancing, as in this Gordon Nicoll poster from 1932.

Gordon Nicoll Portrush hotel poster LMS 1932

As well as in this rather wonderful London Transport design by Clifford and Rosemary Ellis from 1936.

Come Out To Play London Transport poster Clifford Rosemary Ellis 1936

There’s some glamourous going out in a couple more posters, as in this 1925 Fortunino Matania poster for Southport (on sale once more at Onslows this afternoon if you have a few thousand pounds to spare).

'Southport, For a Holiday In Wintertime, LMS poster, 1925.Fortunino Matania

Which was available in London as well as Southport, it seems.

BRightest London Horace Taylor 1924 London Transport poster

Horace Taylor, 1924, since you ask.

But of cakes and bunting, or indeed anything remotely relevant from the 1950s, not a sniff.  The closest I could get was this.

Kraber Tea on the lawn at Alexandra Palace London Transport poster 1939

Which isn’t really what I was after.  Somewhere – and I have lost it and would love to see it again if anyone can help – there is also a 1950s poster of a husband bringing a tray of tea to his family on the beach.  But even that isn’t really doing what my friend wanted the posters to do.

What’s happening here is something that I’ve mentioned time and again on this blog, the bending of visual memory.  Today, we want to see the 1950s in terms of tea, dancing and bunting, and so that is how we expect them to depict themselves as well.  Except they won’t oblige, mainly because they are too busy building a modern, post-war future – as encapsulated in Nick Morgan’s prize winning poster from last week.

Vintage post office savings bank poster eric fraser 1953 genius

No sign of Coronation bunting here, oh no.  Not when there’s history to be made instead.

In this respect, bunting, vintage bunting, retro bunting on posters for tea dances work in much the same way as our reusing of wartime posters (full post on that subject here).  The meanings tell us far more about ourselves and our worries about the world than they will ever reveal about the past.

Back in the 1950s, bunting was something that you got out for your village fete or Coronation street party, and then put away again.

Newcastle Coronation Street party with bunting 1953

It definitely meant festive, and so appeared in people’s imaginings of the Festival of Britain.

Festival of Britain artists impression from FoB catalogue

Although interestingly it was nothing like as prominent in the actual event.

Bunting outside Royal Festival Hall Festival of Britain

Bunting on the South Bank

Although, of course, every single article about the South Bank anniversary last year had to make mention of getting out the bunting nonetheless.

You can also find a small string of the stuff on the cover of the Battersea Pleasure Gardens brochure too.  Again it’s operating as a sign here: this is not normal life but a carnival.  We are going to have fun.

Festival of Britain battersea pleasure gardens front cover

Bunting in the 1950s was just an everyday object that you got out for the jollities and then put back in the cupboard, nothing worth making a fuss about.  Certainly not worth putting on posters.

Nowadays though, bunting is not just a thing, but a cultural phenomenon, as even the briefest of Google image searches will reveal.

Google search for bunting

It represents, amongst many other things*, a desire to return to a more simple life of making our own entertainments.  A life which had so few visual stimuli that we were pleased with bunting.  A sense of community too.  This is all well and good – and indeed perfect for a nostalgic tea dance.  I don’t have any problems with that.  Just as long as we stop expecting to find it having the same meanings in the 1950s too.


*Bunting does become more problematic when you look at it through the lens of Thorsten Veblen and conspicuous consumption.  Bunting isn’t only the fetishisation of an utterly unnecessary object to prove that you have money to spend, it’s also a signifier of conspicuous leisure, because if you’ve got time to shop for, stitch or even worry about bunting, you do have a fair amount of spare time on your hands.  I preferred the stuff in its 1950s incarnation, I think.


Posted in other, posters | 7 Responses

This is not a poster

Or is it?

Chris Ofili Olympic poster 2012 London for the unknown runner

It certainly claims to be a poster, as one of the set commissioned for the 2012 Olympics, in this case designed by Chris Ofili.

Rather against my will, I have to consider these on an almost daily basis, because a selection are on display in a shop window just a couple of hundred yards from our house.  Mr Crownfolio says that he’s quite enjoying them;  I’m less sure.  Here’s Michael Craig Martin’s offering, which I like a bit more but isn’t there.

Michael Craig Martin Olympic 2012 poster Go

The thing is, I’m wrestling with the idea of them being posters.  Here’s the 1948 Olumpic poster, designed by Walter Herz, which is a very different beast.

London Olympics poster 1948 Walter Herz

As is London Transport’s only Olympic offering from that year.

London Transport 1948 Olympics poster

They’ve been created by designers, not artists.  They’re big and informational and no one wanted you to frame them.  So what’s happened in between?

The way that the meaning of the word ‘poster’ has changed over the last sixty or so years was pointed out by the Catherine Flood book which I mentioned a few weeks ago.  It’s one of the most thought-provoking ideas in it.  A poster was once something that was displayed in public as a form of advertising or information, but somewhere in the 1960s it became a smaller-scale object that was bought in shops and displayed on domestic walls.

In some ways, this is a statement of the blindingly obvious.  Even though I knew the facts at some level, I’d never really thought about them properly. But it’s well worth the effort.

We begin in the 1950s, when the display poster is the most prestige form of advertising you can get.  There are specialist poster artists, annuals and competitions and posters are in every urban scene, out there, communicating.  This, then, is a poster.

Tom Eckersley gillette monkey poster

And another three, seen here in their natural habitat.

More Posters on Walls including Patrick Tilley and Donald Brun

At some point in the 1960s, however, things begin to change.  Catherine Flood devotes an entire chapter to this, so I will very much be paraphrasing her descriptions and arguments, but here’s her assessment of where it all begins.

The first flutterings of a consumer love affair with the poster were evident around 1965 in Tom Salter’s trendy Carnaby Street boutique Gear, which was selling comically quaint Victorian advertisements for medicines and corsets blown up to poster size.

The later 1960s are then a very interesting time, in which there is a constant exchange of ideas between these increasingly psychedelic screen prints and posters produced for home display, and the more traditional advertising poster.  Below is a great photograph from the Observer magazine in 1967, illustrating a George Melly article on Poster Power. I’m only sorry that I can’t find a bigger image.

Observer Magazine photograph Patrick Ward poster power 1967

Even so, take a squint at the top left corner.  In amongst the products of the counter-culture are a couple of images you might recognise.  GPO posters to be precise.

Properly Packed Parcels Please vintage GPO poster woman out of hat

That photograph is recording a transitional moment when the poster is just about to become an object for the home, but a few great display designs still exist.  So is this one of the last ‘proper’ posters ever?  It certainly feels that way to me.

The newer kind of designs were certainly seen as interesting cultural artefacts even at the time.  The Daily Telegraph ran its own article about posters in 1968 about how ‘posters are selling in a very pop way’.  They noted that they were

expendable art, the perfect child of the consumer age, that costs as little as five shillings to five pounds, can be thrown away if you are tired of it, framed if you want it forever.

It’s hard not to think about Walter Benjamin at this point.  I’ve expounded on his ideas about reproduction on here before, but the gist of it is (extreme summary of a dense text here) that the nature of art will change absolutely now that images are infinitely reproducible.

the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. […]. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition.

Benjamin had hoped that reproduction would, in the end, lead to revolution. In fact, what we ended up with was this instead.

Athena Tennis girl poster

The Athena poster of the 1970s is the apotheosis of his ideas, an infinitely reproducible and reproduced image that has no original.  They are a genuinely mass market art form,  a true popular culture.  I don’t think Benjamin would be particularly delighted. (It is intriguing that at the very height of Athena’s domination in the early 1970s, John Berger was popularising Benjamin’s ideas in Ways of Seeing on the BBC.  But it’s probably only coincidental.)

What’s notable is that this kind of design didn’t sustain.  Since the 1970s, the poster has increasingly crept back towards the domain of fine art.  If you imagine most of the contemporary posters you see displayed in other people’s houses today, they are most often for fine art exhibitions of one kind or another.  The aura of the work of art had, in the end, too strong a pull to resist; we would still prefer have an image which is associated, however indirectly, with that aura rather than one which just exists in its own right.  (Mr Bourdieu would have a lot to say about this too, but if I go down that line of thought we’ll be here all night and then a bit longer too.)

In a way, though, this is just us coming full circle.  Because the mass-produced piece of art already existed long before the word ‘poster’ shifted over to meet it.  Once upon a time – just before and after the second world war to be precise – they were called art prints, and the School Prints and Lyons Tea Shops series were prime examples of this.  These were not reproductions of old masters, but images designed for unlimited reproduction and to be displayed in public.  They just weren’t called posters, that’s all.

Michael Rothenstein School Print Essex Wood Cutters, 1946

The one above is by Michael Rothenstein and dates from 1948.

The journey from display poster and art print back to art print via the diversion of popular imagery is a fascinating set of shifts, and one which I’ve only skimmed the surface of here.  But to return to our original starting point, there are also a set of Olympic posters which show us the transition exactly as it is happening, and those are the posters for Munich 1972.

Two different sets of posters were produced for these games.  The first feel utterly familiar to us today, because they were designed by fine artists and are, in the end, art prints for collecting.  David Hockney, for example, depicted swimming

David Hockney Munich 1972 Olympics poster swimming

But there are a whole other set of posters too.  Designer Otl Aicher created an entire and rather wonderful graphic identity for the games which even included an infinitely reproducible mascot.

Otl Aicher dachsund mascot 1972 olympics

If you want to read more about Aicher and his designs there are good articles here and here as well as an entire website here.  But part of the graphic scheme was a set of posters.

Otl Aicher Munich 1972 Olympics poster hurdling

Otl Aicher Munich 1972 Olympic poster

Which are, I think, still posters. And that is the journey that takes us from the 1948 Olympic poster to Tracey Emin.

Tracey Emin paralympic poster London 2012

Or not if you don’t want to.

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