What a Carry On

I’ve never written about the Keep Calm and Carry On poster on here until now, mainly because the internet is already thoroughly pock-marked with its image and the story done to death, so I was bored of the whole thing before this blog had even begun (and rather assumed that everyone else was too).  But I’ve been delving into the history of World War Two posters recently, and rather to my surprise have discovered that a whole chunk of its history – and to my mind the most interesting part – never gets told.

Here it is then, exhibit A, Keep Calm and Carry On.

Original layout of Keep Calm and Carry on vintage World War Two poster 1939

This is actually the original poster, as produced by the Ministry of Information in 1939.  Most of the copies that are around today, not only on posters but also on everything from soap to golf balls (does the world really need this, I am forced to ask) have in fact been reversioned from the original and thus look slightly different.

New reversioned Keep Calm and Carry On

And if you go and look on eBay (which I wouldn’t actually advise) you can find versions where the type has been bastardised even further from the original, but I don’t want to give these ones the oxygen of publicity.

The backstory, as repeated all over the interweb in very similar terms, goes like this.  In 1939, with war looming, the Ministry of Information commissioned three posters with the aim of reassuring the British public when the inevitable came.  They were meant to be messages from the King to his people, and the three slogans were Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution, Will Bring Us Victory, Freedom Is In Peril and, of course, Keep Calm and Carry On.  Hundreds of thousands were printed, and the first two were plastered all over the country in their hundreds and thousands as soon as war was declared.  But the third – Keep Calm –  was held back in the case of invasion.  This never came, and the poster was eventually pulped and forgotten.  Until in 2000 a single copy turned up in a box of books at Barter Books in Alnwick.  The owners framed it, and then were asked about it so much that they reprinted a few copies.  The rest I think you know.

Keep Calm and Carry On Teacosy

Now were I to be picky (which I’m going to be, because it’s fun) there are a couple of holes in this story.  To start with, the posters weren’t designed by the Ministry of Information, because that didn’t exist until the day after war was declared.  The government was in a tricky situation as war became inevitable.  Although they knew that propaganda would be a vital part of the war, particularly as they would be fighting an enemy with a slick and established propaganda machine of its own, they were equally aware that any Ministry of Information would be very unpopular with the public.  So the plans for the MoI were set up in complete secrecy, and the posters were commissioned by the Home Publicity Committee of a department which didn’t actually exist yet.

What’s more, Keep Calm and Carry On wasn’t designed in case of invasion – when it was commissioned the Germans were hundreds of miles across Europe, and few people imagined that they would be on the coast of the English Channel at any point in the future.  What they did predict was that the start of the war would lead to a massive bombing campaign that would destabilise the country and shatter national morale.  That’s why people would need to Keep Calm and Carry On, and that’s the real story behind this poster – and why it was never used.

Because although people know that Keep Calm and Carry On was created as part of a campaign of posters, what is never said (and I find it intriguing that it isn’t) is that this was a massive and thundering turkey of a failure.  The two posters which were displayed – Your Courage and Freedom Is In Peril – were ridiculed by the press, criticised in the House of Commons and mostly disregarded by the public on the ground that they didn’t really know what they were meant to do.  All of which makes Keep Calm’s success, fifty years on, even more remarkable.

Your Courage original failed world war two propaganda poster 1939

So what was wrong with these posters ?  Most of the criticism was of the Your Courage slogan, which people didn’t really understand (one complaint being that most people associated resolutions only with the New Year) and which wasn’t catchy enough to be memorable.  More worryingly, some people (like Mass Observation) saw the idea that Your Courage would bring Us Victory meant that the general mass of the people would be making a sacrifice on behalf of the upper classes, who would reap the real benefits.  This evoked memories of the last war, where many people felt that ordinary soldiers had suffered while the generals had got off scot free, which wasn’t a particularly good set of associations to be revisiting at the start of another conflict.

One of the other facts about these posters which is often repeated is that the phrase Your Courage was thought up by a career civil servant called Sydney Waterfield.  The implied story here is that the poster was the creation of exactly what people had perceived in the slogan, an out of touch ruling class who had no idea what ordinary British people thought or felt (with the further implication that one of the good results of World War Two was that, as a democratising force, it put a stop to This Kind of Posh Thing).  There is a grain of truth in all this, as the MoI floundered for a couple of years before it began to work well and at one point, amusingly, its Home Publicity was co-ordinated by Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery and Harold Nicholson, husband of Vita Sackville-West.  It’s hard to imagine two people further removed from ordinary life.  But in the case of  Your Courage, it may have been thought up by a civil servant, but it had also been approved by a committee which included representatives from two of the big advertising agencies of the time, S H Benson and Odhams, so someone should probably have known better.

Freedom is in Peril original world war two propaganda poster 1939

But that’s applying hindsight to the problem, because the real flaw with the posters was that they were designed for a situation which never actually happened.   Almost all the planning for World War Two worked from one key assumption, which was that the start of war would immediately lead to wave after wave of bombing hitting the United Kingdom.  This would not only cause destruction and casualties on a massive scale, but also hysteria and panic in the general public.  Planners worked on the assumption that for every physical injury there would be three psychiatric cases, leading to three or four million cases in the first six months of the war.  But when war was declared, the bombers never came.  (Nor, as it turned out did the neurosis; in fact psychiatric admissions actually decreased during the Blitz).  So the posters were designed to soothe the shattered nerves of a terrified population.  Unfortunately, when they were displayed in the calm of the Phoney War, they just ended up looking a bit silly.

So Keep Calm and Carry On is not, as I’ve seen it described, “an inspiring poster which speaks to us across the ages”; instead it’s the forgotten remnant of a rather spectacular failure, a failure of planning, of understanding, but mainly just a failure caused by events.  Although its modern success has lead to some versions which inadvertently bring up that history.

Panic and run away version

I think that’s a much more interesting story than the anodyne set of facts which tends to be repeated on the internet.  What’s more there is no reason why the story shouldn’t be told – almost all the histories reference Dr Bex Lewis’s thorough thesis on World War Two posters, which contains pretty much all of the information I’ve put in up there (and plenty more besides, including a blog of all of the misguided uses to which it has subsequently been put).  So why don’t people want to tell this story?  I wonder whether, just as there is a myth of the Blitz, which is that everyone kept calm and carried on, there is also a myth of the Home Front Poster, which is that they were all uplifting and inspiring from the very start, and so people were always uplifted and inspired rather than bored and cross and irritated with them (as they were).  And we wouldn’t want the facts to get in the way of that.

Keep calm parody

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Pheasants and Leaves

This post is mostly by way of a thankyou to Shelf Appeal, who pointed us at an eBay listing earlier in the week.  And so we won this, which I am very pleased about indeed.

James FItton turn over a new leaf vintage WW2 poster

It’s by James Fitton and is a lovely bright copy of one of my favourite ever posters.  So much one of my favourite posters that we now have two copies, but this is not only the much better one but was also considerably more of a bargain.  It’s going to be lovingly restored and will be up on the wall shortly.

Elsewhere on eBay I would like to refer you to this.

Pheasant Margarine poster from eBay

I’m not too impressed with the poster as a thing, but as an idea, it’s fantastic.  Is the margarine made by pheasants, for pheasants or from pheasants?  Or is it simply for spreading on pheasants?  I think we need to know.

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So the Central Office of Information is to be no more (news here in the Guardian).  This is a sad end because once upon a time they produced some rather wonderful posters.  Here’s a handy thought from them for this time of the year.

COI remember your passport when travelling abroad Reginald Mount Eileen Evans vintage poster

Coincidentally, I reccently bought a history of the COI from Abebooks.  (I don’t suggest you do the same: this would be the driest book I have come across for some time, had it not been beaten by History of The Second Word War: Food Volume 2 – Studies in Administration and Control which currently sits on my desk, waiting to bore me out of my wits.)  The real problem, at least as far as I am concerned, is that the book  doesn’t mention posters much.  Here’s pretty much the most interesting – or at least relevant – paragraph in the whole thing.

Over this entire period [i.e. since 1946] the COI has also had the part-time services of Reginald Mount and Eileen Evans as consultants and designers of a long succession of award winning posters, most notably for health education.

Posters like this.

Mount Evans hand palmistry stop smoking vintage poster central office of information

Which does at least answer the question I raised a few weeks back, which was when did Mount/Evans leave the COI and set up on their own?  Although the answer does seem to be a kind of Schroedinger-esque uncertainty principle in which they both left in 1946 when the COI was founded and at the same time never left.  I suppose that as long as we never look in the Ministry box, it will be fine.

What does seem to be true is that the vast majority of the COI posters I have come across seem to be by either Mount/Evans or Reginald Mount on his own.  My very slightly anal database tells me that we have had 28 COI posters at various times, but with very few other artists represented.  One is Thelwell, who produced a whole series of Countryside Code cartoons.

Thelwell Countryside code poster Central Office of Information

While the other is the magnificent Royston Cooper.

Brian the Lion Royston Cooper vintage poster Keep Britain Tidy Central Officec of Information

I also suspect that this Henrion may also be a COI production, but can’t prove it.

FHK Henrion vintage poster Keep Britain Tidy exhibtiion

But that’s almost it.  Which is surprising, because the COI book has a list of designers who worked for them, and it reads like a who’s who of graphic design in the 1950s and 60s.

For posters and book illustrations in the department’s lifetime these have included Rowland Hilder, Milner Grey, John Minton, Topolski, Ardizzone, Abram Games, Ashley Havinden, F H K Henrion, Hans Unger, Eckersley, Laurence Scarfe, James Fitton, Ronald Searle, Edward Bawden, Andre Amstutz, Tunnicliffe and the Crosby/Fletcher/Forbes group.

Now, I can see that our collection is a bit skewed, simply because we bought a lot of Mount/Evans posters at auction a few years ago when what I suspect was their studio archive was being sold off.  But even then, whenever we’ve seen and bought other COI posters they’ve been by them too – like this Keep Britain Tidy design by Reginald Mount.

Keep Britain Tidy vintage poster Reginald Mount for COI

A search of auction houses and archives like VADS reveals pretty much the same pattern – much Mount/Evans and Mount, very little else from the COI.

One reason for this may lie in the history of the COI itself.  The Central Office of Information was formed in 1946 as a replacement for the Ministry of Information, which had produced most of the government’s publicity and propaganda requirements during the war.  But for many people, propaganda of any time was seen as fundamentally not British and unsuited to a democratic state – i.e. this was something that the Nazis did and therefore, by definition, we shouldn’t.  It could only be justified by the needs of war, and so the Ministry had to go at the end of hostilities.

The problem with this was that the war itself didn’t finish so neatly.  Austerity and rationing continued right into the early 1950s, and indeed was stricter in the late 1940s than it had been during the war.  This in turn meant that much of the wartime instruction and exhortation to work hard and make a nutritious meal out of little more than cabbage had to carry on too.  So when the Central Office of Information was founded, it had quite a lot of work on its hands, and I suspect that many of those artists worked for the COI in those early years.

However it’s very hard to tell which these are; my suspicions are that most get lumped in under the heading of ‘World War Two’ posters.  For example, I’ve seen both of these posters, by Lewitt-Him and James Fitton respectively, dated to 1947 rather than during the war itself.

Lewitt Him Vegetabull vintage poster Ministry of Food

Turn Over A New Leaf vintage poster James Fitton Ministry of Food

Neither of these would have been produced by the COI, since the Ministry of Food ran its own posters and publicity throughout the war and I can’t imagine changed that afterwards, but they are good examples of how the wartime messages carried on past 1945.  The only COI poster I know of which is definitely from this period is by Dorrit Dekk.

Dorrit Dekk bones still needed for salvage vintage poster Central Office of Information

Dorrit Dekk only started producing posters in 1946, when she was demobbed from the WRNS and went to work for Reginald Mount at the COI, so this must be from between then and 1948 when she left.  But without knowing this biography, it would be impossible to date the poster and it too would probably be ascribed to the war years as well.  So I imagine that vast swathes of the COI’s early output has either disappeared, or been labelled as ‘wartime posters’ and, unless someone puts in a formidable piece of archival research one day, will never be known.  I also suspect that those were the posters designed by that great list of artists in the book.

As the years went on, the need for government publicity decreased – although this anonymous COI poster is reminiscent of wartime appeals.

Civil Defense COI vintage poster

Judging by her hairdo, I’d put this at quite soon after the war anyway, but I’d be interested to hear if anyone else knows more.

By the late 1950s or early 1960s though, the government just didn’t have as much to say.  Get a passport on time, don’t drop litter, smoke a bit less.  Don’t drink and drive.  And remember to tell the milkman when you go on holiday.

Mount Evans stop the milkman when you're off on holiday vintage poster

It doesn’t have quite the same heady excitement as the war years.  Although the designers were allowed out for a few digressions, such as United Nations Day.

Mount Evans United Nations Day poster 1967

Not every COI poster was aimed at the general public either; Mount/Evans also produced a number of internal campaigns for the government, most notable ‘Keep Our Secrets Secret’ which I’ve mentioned before on here but which are so excellent that I can’t resist posting one more time.

Mount Evans vintage combination  number poster COI

What Every Girl Should Know Mount Evans secrecy poster Central Office of Information

The other reason why there were fewer posters, of course, is that they were no longer the biggest game in town.  More and more, the COI’s main campaigns were conducted through short films, whether in the cinema or in public information slots on the television.  (Should you be interested, the National Archives have put tons of these online for your amusement).  Only the less important messages like UN Day or internal communications would have been put out by posters alone.

But all of this has now gone, and every government message will just be put out by advertising agencies and be indistinguishable from commercial campaigns.  Perhaps one day someone will produce an illustrated and possibly even interesting history of the COI, to show us just what design classics they did produce in their heyday.

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Today, a very unusual sight.  Yet it’s one that shouldn’t be a rarity at all, because it’s posters doing what they are intended to do, advertising things.  Here on hoardings sometime in the mid 1950s.

Advertising hoarding c1955/6 with several ads on it including Patrick Tilley

Mostly, this is such an everyday scene that no one takes any notice, never mind a photograph.  But this time, an up and coming poster designer was recording some of his work appearing.  That designer was Patrick Tilley, and he’d designed the Hartley’s Jelly ad in the centre.

Patrick Tilley Hartleys Jelly poster 1950s

I can’t tell you how excited I am to see these.  It’s not just that Tilley’s posters are lovely, these photos are also a great chance to see posters in the wild, rather than collected and curated and hung on people’s walls.  Which means we can find out a bit more about how they really functioned at the time.  Take this set.

More Posters on Walls including Patrick Tilley and Donald Brun

The Patrick Tilley design is for MacDougalls flour.

Patrick Tilley vintage poster McDougall's self raising flour 1950s

But take a look to the left. The HP Ketchup poster seems to have been signed by Donald Brun.

HP Tomato Ketchup poster Donald Brun 1950s vintage

I sort of half knew that some of the great European poster artists of the 1950s had worked in Britain, and had come across it happening here and there.  But it’s still odd to see their work on a British poster hoarding, advertising a very British brand.  And the image seems vaguely familiar, but I can’t trace it anywhere.  Because that’s the other thing about these posters, they’re also very rare.

Patrick Tilley McDougalls flour advertising poster on hoarding 1950s

Unlike in Europe, Britain’s commercial posters were never (with the exception of Guinness) made available to the public or collected.  So it’s not even that only a few survive, probably most of these posters have disappeared entirely.  They might be in the archives of the company they’re advertising or the agency that created them; they may even have been recorded in a magazine or design annual.  But I’d be prepared to bet that a fair proportion of these posters have disappeared without trace, or at least would have done without these photos.

Mostly, it seems, it’s the artists that keep the records (as was the case with Daphne Padden’s packaging designs).  Patrick Tilley kept not only these photographs, but also the original artwork that he presented to the agency, The London Press Exchange, to get the commission.

Patrick Tilley MacDougal flour design pitch

But not everything is sweetness, light and good design on the hoardings.  Once again, the photographs are a reminder that, along with the award-winning posters by great designers that we choose to remember, there was also quite a lot of dross too.  Like the tattoo and charity adverts in the first photograph, or that for Swan Vestas next to the McDougalls ad.

Swan vestas vintage billboard advertising poster from photograph

I mention this quite a lot, and in a way it’s an obvious truth, but the presence of all these rather average posters must have affected how people saw the good posters too, even if I’m not sure how.  Perhaps people got used to just tuning out posters, and so everything got ignored; or perhaps the good posters looked even better because they had a dull picture of a box of matches next to them.  I don’t know, I really don’t.

But the other reason that its important is that, by allowing only the good posters through our filter, we distort what they tell us about their times.  We will see only classy posters, probably for up-market products.  Which means that we’ll miss some things entirely.  Take a look at this set below.

Osram Gas VP wine posters on billboard 1950s

The Osram and Gas posters are both very good.

Patrick Tilley Gas poster 1950s

Vintage Osram hoarding poster

The top one is by Patrick Tilley, the Osram advertisement by ‘Rim’ which raises a whole set of other questions (if you can tell me who this is, I would love to know).  But it’s the one on the far right which intrigues me most.  It’s neither bad nor good, but take a closer look at what it’s advertising.

VP wine 1950s vintage advertisement

Drink fortified British Wine when you sit down in front of the television (tv being clearly a new and exciting innovation).  Now there’s a thought you’d never get from anywhere else.

Patrick Tilley vintage McDougalls advertisement 1950s

And thank you very much to Patrick Tilley for taking the photographs, and keeping them, as well as allowing me to use them here.

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Recent Acquisitions

In the days when I used to be in the V&A, which is quite some time ago, each department used to have cases where they displayed recently bought objects, before they found their place in the main collection, with a small paper sign in which read Recent Acquisitions.  A friend of mine got hold of one of these and stuck it on her fridge, which amused me a great deal at the time.

All of which is by way of saying that we’ve bought a few things recently (in fact, thanks to the wonder of modern phones, we managed to do most of this on holiday).  These GPO posters are small, Demy I think, but each one perfectly formed.

Tom Eckersley vintage posters 1955 GPO
Tom Eckersley, 1955

Beaumont Vintage GPO post early poster n/d
Beaumont, can’t find a date

Frank Newbould Telephone your orders vintage GPO posters
Frank Newbould, 1930s?

Although small daughter refuses to be quite persuaded that the image above is actually a telephone.

There’s also the Bloomsbury Sale, which was on Wednesday.   I didn’t get time to preview it, what with being in France, but that’s also been handy because I didn’t want to point at this too hard.

Lewitt Him vintage London transport poster 1938

It’s by Lewitt Him, and dates from 1938.  I’d never seen it before, even though it is in the London Transport Museum Collection now I look.  And I think we won it, although I haven’t definitely heard from Bloomsbury that we have yet.  We better had, that’s all I’m saying.

There were a few other nice things in there, but the online catalogue seems to have disappeared already so I can’t tell you about then.   More fun next week, though, when there will be some pictures of actual vintage posters on billboards for you, and rather good posters at that.

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Nothing New

Worried about your Facebook presence?  Not sure how to optimise your Twitter account for the benefit of your business?  Finding all these modern communications just a bit confusing?

Well you would have been just as worried about new media eighty years ago, or it seems.

Selling By Telegram leaflet from eBay

The leaflet, should you want to take comfort in the easier choices of an analogue age, is for sale on eBay right now.  Stop.

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