A curiosity

Once again, found in the great warehouse of curiosities which is eBay.  It’s a Fitton, not a poster this time but a painting.

James fitton funny sketchy thing

And I’m pretty sure it’s the same Fitton too.  Certainly the signature matches those on the paintings in the Dulwich Art Gallery catalogue.

James Fitton signature

But even were it not signed, that acid green is reminiscent of the luminosity of the colours in quite a few of his posters  (although we almost certainly wouldn’t have found it on the great online jumble sale without a signature, I must admit).

James Fitton The Seen London Transport vintage poster 1948

James Fitton abbey Road poster

We paid a very small amount for it, and frankly you can see why, as it is a sketch, and a sketchy one at that, rather than a painting.  But having said that, I’m starting to become rather fond of the thing.  It looks best from a distance, an experience I can recreate for you here by shrinking it to a thumbnail.

And so, propped up on the highest shelf of the Ladderax, it works rather well.  The overall effect is one I rather like and generally tend to aim for, that of an impoverished 1950s architect trying to make the best of a slightly recalcitrant house.  And this might be a painting by one of the architect’s friends.  Well I can always pretend, can’t I?

Mr Black will see you now.

I haven’t finished with exhibition design, not by a long way.  A copy of Misha Black’s Exhibition Design recently arrived in the post. He’s a much droller read than Beverley Pick – as well as designing some rather nice exhibitions too – so parts of that will definitely be appearing on here one of these days.

But in the meantime, that reminded me of Motif magazine, to be precise issue 4, because I photographed this ages ago and then left the results languishing.  For here is Misha Black himself, waiting to see us in his office.

Mischa Black in his office from Motif Issue 4 Edward Hughes

He’s writing about taste, style and the Industrial Designer, and I should probably read it thoroughly one of these days.  Although the essays of this period on the moral arguments for good design over popular taste are not among my favourite things, as they mostly tend to pontifications.  This issue of Motif is from 1960, though, so they are coming to the end of the the line; any moment now his arguments will be exploded by Pop.

The drawings, however, by Edward Hughes, are lovely.  Here is the miscellania on Misha Black’s shelves.

Misha Black's shelves, from Motif 4, Edward Hughes

It’s pretty good issue all round, really.  There’s an article on

Typography on buildings

featuring such delights as this.

type on building one

And this.

more type on buildings

Although Mr Tracy isn’t very impressed with the one above at all.

A plastic version of fat Bodoni italic: debased – the serifs have been thickened and the counters have been squared off – presumably to make the letters easier to produce.  This letter form has no relationship (either of harmony or contrast) with the wall surface or the architectural style of the building.

That’s them told.

Also in there are pearly kings and queens, illuminated advertising in Piccadilly Circus and antiquarian prints; truly there is something for everyone here.

But my favourite thing of all is the cover.

MOtif 4 cover Laurence Scarfe

It’s by Laurence Scarfe, who is clearly someone I ought to know more about.  Here’s the reverse.

Laurence Scarfe Motif reverse

We’ve just been offered some space to grow vegetables in, and that is what it is going to look like at the end of the summer.  For definite.

Sax, vandalism and underwear

While eBay is still quiet after the holidays, there are a few things worth noticing up for sale at the moment.  Of which my favourite are these musical instrument posters.

Vintage 1940s musical instrument educational poster - Saxophone

There are nineteen of them altogether, and they were produced, so the listing usefully notes, between 1946 and 1949, with the editor of the series being the Director of Music for the Royal Military School for Music.  I’m guessing they were intended for schools, not least because they have the same format as the Shell Educational series, with integral black metal hangers at top and bottom.  They’re all good, but my favourite is this, the invisible man plays the tuba.

Vintage 1940s musical instrument educational poster - Tuba

They are all priced at 99p, and as things stand there isn’t a single bid on any of them, so a bargain awaits.

The other British offerings are more interesting for their historical curiosity than any aesthetic appeal.   The Fritter Fly must have been designed as a post-war successor to the Squanderbug, but never quite achieved the same fame.

Vintage 1953 savings poster Fritter Fly

Despite being lovingly framed, this has just failed to sell at £50, so you could always make the seller an offer.  Which is more than you might want to do with this one.

Ebay vintage anti-vandalism poster

Yet again, proof that the art of the poster was well and truly dead (and buried with the coffin fully nailed shut) by 1973.

Moving swiftly on officer, there are also a couple of items from outside our normal stomping grounds.  Shall we start with this painting?

Theyre Lee Elliott original painting

It’s by Theyre Lee Elliott, who produced wonderful posters before the Second World War, and then concentrated more on his paintings after that.  Just £49 if that’s your sort of thing.  Mine, it has to be said, is his posters.

Finally, a quick reminder that PosterConnection are still trundling along on eBay, selling industrial quantities of European posters in their shop.  Of the current stock, this Austrian design from 1954 is the one I like the best.

Vintage Knorr commercial poster chicken stock  Emil Neukomm from 1954

Even though I know that this, by Donald Brun, is probably a ‘better’ poster.

Vintage Cigar poster Donald Brun from 1964

Comedy award, however goes here.

Vintage Swiss underwear poster 1930

There’s something about the combination of the phrase Schutzmarke with underwear that my inner seven year old can’t resist.  Even though it’s not really funny at all. oh no.

Posters on Display

There was more to the Beverley Pick book than could fit into one single post. Ironically, what got left out last time was posters: to be precise their display, as demonstrated in this wonderful illustration by Mr Pick.

Beverley Pick wartime  poster display stand from display presentation book

It particularly jumped out at me because we have the poster at the bottom left, which I wasn’t actually certain was by Beverley Pick.

Beverley Pick photomontage world war two propaganda poster ministry of food small girl green vegetables

To be fair, the book doesn’t actually say it is either.  But given that every other photo in the book of Pick’s own work. it’s a reasonable assumption to make – and the photomontage and deep colour is very similar to his other poster work during the war.

BEverley Pick world war two propaganda poster ATS be useful

But the illustration of how these posters were displayed is worth a second look too.  Pick describes it as follows:

The light and portable poster screen shown here was designed to take seven posters of standard size and one headline streamer circulated at monthly intervals.

It’s a much more organised mean of display than I ever tend to imagine for Second World War posters.  More importantly, the experience of seeing seven posters together is very different to seeing one alone.  The single poster is much more like propaganda, just giving the viewer the idea that sowing winter vegetables is a good thing to do.  En masse, they are much more informative and give the viewer enough basic knowledge – which vegetables and when – to allow someone to go about it.

The display panel is a useful reminder that  posters appeared in more than one context, not only as solo propaganda pinned up on hoardings, in shops and on the walls of village halls but also in the more organised and didactic context of exhibitions too. It’s not something I’d really considered or read about before but having had that thought, the Imperial War Museum’s photo collection started to come in very useful.  Here’s their image of another poster much beloved of this blog.

F H K HEnrion posters on display off the ration exhibition London Zoo

This is, of course,  F.H.K. Henrion’s paen to the joys of rabbit meat, which  is on display as part of the Off the Ration Exhibition.

Entrance to Off the Ration Exhibition London Zoo

‘Off The Ration’ was originally held at London Zoo, which I always felt must have been a bit unnerving for the other animals, wondering how long it would be before they were designated as steak too.  No wonder that Lewitt Him’s kangaroo is feeding up the more likely candidates in the poster for the exhibition.

Lewitt Him off the ration exhibition poster 1943 Ministry of Information propaganda vintage poster

But returning to our subject of  the poster displays inside, I have seen both the posters at each end before now, but never the panel in the middle.  This may or may not have existed as a single poster – I have no way of knowing and even less means of finding out.  And were the Henrion posters commissioned for the exhibition first, or were existing posters incorporated into the exhibition’s design?  Again, I can’t tell you.

But these unanswerable questions are a useful reminder that posters during the war weren’t lone objects but were seen by people at the time as part of a whole range of other kinds of of graphic design – and the rest of it can easily be forgotten when we’re telling the story of the posters.

Take Potato Pete, as one of the more obvious examples.  He exists on posters, of course.

Potato Pete vintage world war two propaganda poster ministry of food

He too had his own exhibition, this time on Oxford Street (this looks like the site of the bombed-out John Lewis store which was used for a number of exhibitions during and just after the war).

Potato Pete exhibition

But many more people would have seen his image in the daily newspaper Food Bulletins put out by the Ministry of Food and so in many respects the posters and exhibtiions were just adjuncts of that.  So the poster was an image of an already well-known character, which meant that it would have been understood in a very different way.

The continuum of graphic design and display can work the opposite way round as well.  This woman in Oxford is finding out about salvage.

Ministry of Information Salvage exhibition Oxford

The displays that she is looking at aren’t, as far as I know, related to any particular poster campaign,although the main panel could quite easily pass as a poster design.  But nonetheless, people who’d seen this exhibition or one like it would read posters in a subtly different way, seeing them as just one part of what they were being told about salvage.  So perhaps posters had to say less, because they were acting as a reminder, or they were able to use visual symbols which would have been easily understood by the viewer because they’d already been explained in a different context.  It’s impossible to prove this, of course but equally it does seem absurd to thing that this overlap would not have happened.

None of this is in the slightest bit surprising to anyone who has any idea how advertising works in the modern world, where campaigns are planned across television, press and sometimes still posters, and now with social media added on too.  But these multiple contexts are very rarely considered in terms of wartime posters, even though the Ministry of Information was clearly a very shrewd and sophisticated user of all the means available to it.  And there were very many means indeed.  You might find a food exhibition in your local furniture retailer.

A view of a display by the Ministry of Food at the 'Domestic Front' exhibition held at James Brooke and Sons Ltd., 376 Bethnal Green Road. This display focuses on wartime cookery demonstrations and includes information on vitamins, dried eggs and vegetables.

More surprisingly, you might even catch an exhibition being driven down the street.

Travelling salvage exhibition outside Ministry of Information Bruce Angrave.

This highly covetable vehicle is a travelling salvage exhibition in 1943, and I shall let the Imperial War Museum describe it to you.

…the car has the words ‘Private Scrap is in town…come and meet him’ painted on the side. The van itself has a special bin for collecting books ‘for the forces, blitzed libraries, and salvage’, and the side of the van features a series of wooden display panels by artist Bruce Angrave. The salvage exhibition continues inside the vehicle.

Bruce Angrave’s panels aren’t posters and almost certainly don’t exist any more (and if someone wants to tell me I’m wrong on that, I’d very much like it). But they are part of the visual landscape that salvage posters inhabited, and so ought, even if just a tiny bit, to be taken into account when we talk about them.

When I studied Design History, I used to hate entirely abstract phrases like ‘visual culture’ and ‘discourse’; I’m hardly fond of them even now.  But they can have their uses sometimes.  Now that posters have become objects which are both valuable and collectable, the art-historical impulse tends to take over.  They are treated as ‘art’: framed and conserved, and displayed on their own.  None of this is wrong, but it can tend to leach into our thinking about them as well and that isn’t a good thing.  Posters are the bits of graphic design which were lucky enough to survive, but they were part of a much wider world of print and explanation, and it’s worth remembering that more often.


Anglo-American relations

In the cold dark days of winter, it’s always good to see an auction coming along to cheer me up.   But with January being the season of abstinence and all that, it’s probably good that it’s an American auction, at Swann Galleries, so without too much that absolutely has to be bought.

IR INDIA / FLY YOUR FREIGHT.  40x25 inches, 101 1/2x63 1/2 cm. Bombay Fine Art, Bombay vintage poster
Anonymous, est. $400-600

That doesn’t mean there aren’t things I like, though.  The first two of these have an Indian slant.  It’s obvious in the one above, but the only clue in the one below is that it’s printed in Madras.

vintage commercial poster IT'S KODAK FILM TIME.  29 3/4x20 inches, 75 1/2x51 cm. Prasad Process LTD., Madras.
Anonymous, est. $400-600

Elsewhere,  I am amused at the logical end to the idea of the house as a machine for living in, which is that the housewife must, of course, become a robot.

FRANCIS BERNARD (1900-1979) VIII SALON DES ARTS MÉNAGERS. 1931.  38x24inches, 97x61cm. Editions Paul-Martial, vintage poster
Francis Bernard, 1931, est. $600-900

This poster, meanwhile,  is not just worth noticing because it’s advertising Burger Beer, although that’s quite funny enough.

BURGER BEER / HAVE FUN IN SOUTH CAROLINA. Circa 1955. vintage poster
Anonymous, c. 1955, est. $400-600

It’s also possibly the only piece of genuine 1950s graphics that I’ve ever come across which actually looks like the current pastiches of the period – that style so beloved of giftshops and eBay for fridge magnets and signs for your kitchen.

frdge magnet

I never thought that existed in real life, but it seems it did, so there you go.

In amongst these diversions, there are also a handful of British posters too.  Well I say British posters, but these two I suspect were designed for the American tourist market.

vintage poster WELCOME TO BRITAIN.  39 1/2x25 inches, 100x63 1/2 cm. British Travel Associatio
Anonymous, est. $500-750

I’ve recently been reading about Britain’s attempts to reinvent itself as a modern country in the 1950s but, in this instance at least, the project hasn’t been working.  The design may be modern, but the images are all as traditional as can be: pageantry and pewter posts, policemen and, if we’re being honest here, peasants.

And don’t forget our quaint buses either.

AARON FINE (DATES UNKNOWN) TO LONDON BY JET CLIPPER / PAN AM. Circa 1960.  41 1/2x28 inches, 105 1/2x71 cm.vintage poser
Aaron Fine, est. $600-900

That is a rather wonderful poster though.

Finally, one entirely British poster.  Well, apart from the fact it’s designed by an American.

EDWARD MCKNIGHT KAUFFER (1890-1954) NEAR WALTHAM CROSS / BY TRAM. 1924.  30 1/4x20 inches, 77x51 cm. Baynard Press, London.  vintage poster
McKnight Kauffer, 1924, est. $600-900.

But I think we’ll allow that one as landscapes don’t get much more British than that.

Next week: Harry Stevens and posters on display.  If things go to plan, that is.

On Display

Having already written in praise of the ephemeral last week, it’s time to explore some more things that can never be recreated.

I ordered this book ages ago, but it arrived just before Christmas after a slow sea crossing of the Atlantic.

Beverley Pick, cover image of display presentation book

The wait was worthwhile, because it is full of wonderful things, even if, sadly, the cover is the only bit of colour there is.

The book covers the full range of display and design, ranging from grand stands at trade shows, like this one for English Electric at the Radio Show at Olympia,

Beverley Pick exhibition Stand for English Electric at Radio Show at Olympia

to small portable displays and shop windows.

Beverley Pick BOAC small counter display object

Beverley Pick BOAC five continents window display

In addition, there’s plenty of practical advice too, with examples of Pick’s own models for his designs – this one intended for shop windows.  He’ll even tell you what glue he used to keep a particularly difficult model together.

Beverley Pick design for Alexon shop display board

But it’s the exhibition stands I love the best.  This is another one from the Radio Show, for a manufacturer of wireless components.

Beverley Pick Ediswann stand Radio Show

This love isn’t just about a wallowing in ephemeral nostalgia on my part, I also think that the exhibition stands are architecturally important, and too often forgotten.

Pick’s book was published in 1957, at a time when British architecture was only just getting on its feet again after the war.  Although a great deal of buildings were being built, houses and flats in particular, the pressures of wartime reconstruction meant that they were mass-produced and kept simple as a result.  Almost everything being built was commissioned by governments and local authorities, with private building licences almost impossible to procure, so the scope for architectural innovation was very limited indeed.

Schools were almost the only buildings which allowed for any kind of experimentation, and even this was constrained by the limited materials available, along with the pressure for  quick and low-cost rebuilding of war damage.  This is Great Barr School in Birmingham, finished in 1958.

Great Barr School, Birmingham, designed by architect A.G. Sheppard Fidler, 1958

All of which meant that the architecture of the first half of the decade (what tends to be called ‘The Festival Style’) never really got built. By the time that less urgent, more extravagant buildings were being commissioned, the architectural fashion had changed, and Brutalism was coming to the fore.  It’s been said that Coventry Cathedral (commissioned n 1951 but only finished in 1962) is one of the few buildings outside the South Bank to be a full expression of the style.  Certainly it was seen as old-fashioned even before it was completed.

BAsil Spence vintage British Railways poster

Although, I personally do have to nominate the Toast Rack building in Manchester as another classic in the style, even if Pevsner calls it the first Pop building ever.

Manchester Hollings Building toast rack

This used to house the Domestic Science College, and thus also had the fried egg building next door.

toast rack and fried egg building

Arguments about the precise number aside, the fact that there are so few of these huildings is why the exhibition stands are worth looking at.  Because for the first five years of the 1950s, perhaps even longer, exhibition design was the main expression of cutting-edge architectural taste in Britain.

Beverley Pick BOAC stand British Industries Fair

These stands are not buildings, they never will be, and often they were designed by different people, exhibition designers rather than architects.  But they are still among the best expressions of the style of the early and mid 1950s that were ever built, and perhaps all the more exuberant because that architectural imagination simply couldn’t be channelled anywhere else.

More beverley pick exhibition stand models

Beverley Pick, in his book, is mostly concerned with the design process and mechanics of display rather than the theory, but even he acknowledges that architecture and exhibition design were very intermingled at this point.

In the years after the war, many architects, forced by building restrictions to devote much of their time to exhibition work, by necessity, acquired valuable training in display and presentation.  Conversely, display designers, entrusted by their clients with the responsibility of producing their exhibition stands, became well versed in architectural and structural matters.

This is also a reminder that Pick was just one of many designers working in the field.  His book only illustrates his own work, but there are plenty more to be found (and goodness only knows I have spent enough time poring over them) in the Designers in Britain series.  I particularly love this Farmers’ Weekly stand by Misha Black and Alexander Gibson from about 1950.

Farmers Weekly exhibition stand c1950 Mischa Black

This Robin Day design for ECKO dates from about the same year too.

Robin Day ecko stand Radio exhibition

Day also did this ICI pavilion for the Royal Agricultural Show in 1955 or 1956; here the spindly festival style is developing into something sleeker and a bit closer to International Modernism.

Robin Day exhibition stand for ICI Royal Agricultural Show

I would like to live in this as my house please, with a giant Quad Royal logo towering over the roof.

More seriously, I am really surprised that more attention hasn’t been paid to these exhibition designs, however ephemeral they were.  The start of the 1950s – and indeed what is seen as the birth of serious design at this time – is always constructed in terms of exhibitions: Britain Can Make It in 1946 (below), and then of course the Festival of Britain itself in 1951.

Shop Window Street at Britain Can Make It 1946

Both of these exhibitions are very thoroughly documented, which does help.  But all sorts of exhibitions on every scale continued throughout the decade and, mostly, their design has been completely  ignored.

This amnesia goes back in time, because a lot of pent-up architectural design was being channelled into exhibition design during the war as well.  Here are a couple of rather striking Army exhibitions.

Ministry of Information Army Exhibition in Cardiff 1944

The one above is in Cardiff in 1944, that below on the site of the bombed-out John Lewis department store on Oxford Street a year earlier.

Ministry of Information Army Exhibition Oxford Street 1943

Ministry of Information Army Exhibition Oxford Street 1943

It’s clear that the Festival of Britain style was already in the making during the war, rather than springing out of nowhere on the South Bank.

As well as the big budget extravaganzas, there were smaller ones too, many of which were held at Charing Cross Station (did they tour in the provinces after, or was the newspaper coverage enough I wonder?)

Ministry of Information Coupons Exhibition at Charing Cross Station

Ministry of Information Bread is a munition of war exhibition Charing Cross Station

Again, the wartime exhibitions are also a subject which has not been much covered as far as I can tell (and if I’ve missed something please do let me know).  All I’ve found so far is this article, and the fact that it was produced as part of a Henry Moore Institute Study Day about Sculpture in the Home shows just how much the subject has slipped between the cracks of different disciplines.  It’s a shame for what seems to me to be a really important piece of the design history of Britain.  There’s a lost architectural story to be told out there for the telling, if only we can be bothered to look in different places to find it.