A Miserable Reflection

In trying to put together the history of the Post Office : Lines of Communication posters last week, I spent some time wandering within the BT archives.  Where I found this.

Clifford and Rosemary ellis vintage GPO poste 1935.

Which does, truly, justify the existence of the entire archive on its own.  It’s by Clifford and Rosemary Ellis, it’s from 1935, and it is bonkers.  I also have no idea what it means.  Answers on a postcard please, if you have any.

Now I’ve mentioned before that the BT online archive is quite a curious and obscure thing, which may perhaps be why this Abram Games has lurked there unnoticed for so long.

Abram Games vintage GPO poster greeting telegram 1937

On the other hand, its obscurity may have something to do with the fact that the archive’s search facility is, how shall we say this, a bit challenging.  A search for Abram Games doesn’t bring it up, while a search on Greetings telegram just produces a deluge of material; I only found this by putting in ‘Good wishes’.

But there is good news on this front, because BT do now have a  more accessible way of looking at some of these images, which is the interestingly named Telefocus Media Gallery, a title which for some reason just makes me visualise the Post Office Tower, but never mind.  It’s mainly aimed at picture researchers, but it does have a reasonably browsable gallery of images, including both of the ones above and plenty more besides.

A telephone for your guests vintage GPO poster 1937

Be warned though, there are still lots of pictures of Busby and trimphones in there, so take care.

I did also discover a bit more about the Lines of Communications posters while I was there.  Mainly that there is also an artwork by Abram Games for the series.  All I can tell you about it, because there is no illustration, is that it features ‘twelve coast radio stations working to ships’ and is, once again, artwork.  If anyone fancies a stroll down to Holborn in order to tell me whether it’s as good as the rest or not, feel free.

More strangely, I found this.

Beaumont, lines of communication, vintage GPO poster

It’s by Beaumont, and it is an actual poster which seems to have made it out into the world rather than just existing as artwork.  If possibly just once, because I’ve only found it in a single auction, which was Van Sabben’s last sale just a few months ago.  (They regularly get interesting GPO posters for each sale, and I would like to know where from).  But this one isn’t where it ought to be in the BT Catalogue – not even its artwork – so the mystery just deepens.  Any more thoughts anyone?

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East Wind (blustering)

A while ago, I wrote about John Griffith’s fantastic drawings of shop-fronts for Motif.  Which are so good that they can easily stand a bit of repetition.

Motif 3 art journal of brilliance front cover by John Griffiths

Even a bit more.

Motif 3 John Griffiths shopfront pictures Fratelli Camisa

They’re so wonderful that I not only wanted to find out more about him, but also wanted to see some more of his work, without much luck.  Mr Crownfolio got on the case, though, and we don’t yet have anything like a biography, he has turned up these three BBC Schools booklets.  This one dates from 1968, and is the most reminiscent of his Motif drawings.

John Griffiths 1968 BBC Schools Time and Tune booklet front cover

This theatre and orchestra could easily have come from Motif.  Here’s its other half.

John Griffiths 1968 BBC Schools Booklet Time and Tune back cover

Nothing inside is quite as good as that, although I do quite like this scratchy little set of musical drawings, which remind me a bit of Barbara Jones, not least in the seemingly random way they’ve been put onto the page.

John Griffiths 1968 BBC Schools Booklet Time and Tune

He was also commissioned to produce another the next year.

John Griffiths BBC Schools Booklet Time and Tune 1969 front cover

I particularly like this illustration inside, which is more than good enough to be framed and hung on a wall.

John Griffiths BBC Schools Booklet Time and Tune 1969 inside illustration

East Wind (blustering) is the title of the song, along with tempo instructions.

Now I’ve said it before but it’s a point worth repeating, the illustration in these BBC booklets is not only of a fantastically high standard, but also interesting, even edgy.  I can’t see children today being exposed to things of this quality as a matter of course.  Yes, there are some children’s books which are interesting, risky, eye-opening.  But in the general litter of ephemera which is aimed at them at school or at home, is there anything which has ambitions even one tenth as high as these booklets?  If there is, I can’t think of it (and I’m not going to post a picture of the CBeebies art magazine to prove my point but trust me, it makes my eyes ache).

Does this matter?  Yes I think it probably does.  Because this is the third BBC booklet by John Griffiths that we’ve managed to find, dating from 1973.

John Griffiths 1973 BBC Schools music booklet

I was completely taken aback when this fell out of the envelope because know that I sang from this booklet at school.  In particular, I remembered the spread below as though I’d only seen it yesterday.

John Griffiths 1973 BBC Schools Booklet inside

Now I’m not saying that it was John Griffiths’ illustrations that turned me into a design fiend (if I’m honest, I like this booklet the least of the three).  But the fact that I can remember these pictures so clearly despite the passing of well over thirty years suggests that I stared at them so hard and so long that they became part of the structure of my brain.  So if we are furnishing our children with things that might perhaps last a lifetime, hadn’t we better make sure that we’re giving them something good?

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Lines of disappearance

As I mentioned then, the Graphis article I posted about a couple of days ago has raised a few questions.

The easy one – in the sense that it is factual rather than philosophical – is about this wonderful set of GPO posters, Lines of Communication.  Four are illustrated in Graphis, of which I can find three in the BPMA catalogue.

GPO vintage Poster lewitt him lines of communication 1950
Lewitt Him

GPO vintage Poster Zero Hans Schleger lines of communication 1950
Hans Schleger

GPO vintage Poster Jessie Collins lines of communication 1950
Jessie Collins

The fourth one in Graphis is also by Schleger, but doesn’t turn up in the BPMA catalogue at all. It does very much remind me of his pre-war poster for Shell too.

Hans Schleger post office lines of communication poster

I think the artwork for this one probably went to the BT archives instead because it’s about telegraphs; there is certainly something likely there, but it’s not illustrated so I can’t say for certain.

But why aren’t these fantastic posters better known?  My guess is that they were never produced.  This is partly because I’ve never ever seen one in an auction or illustrated anywhere else, but also because even the BPMA and BT archives only have the artworks, no printed posters.  Which, considering they are some of the loveliest things ever to come out of the GPO is nothing short of a crime.

It gets worse.  Because there are more in the series that they inexplicably failed to send to the printers either.

Two are by Henrion.

Henrion  Lines of Communication vintage GPO poster

Henrion lines of communication vintage GPO poster

While the third is by John Rowland Barker, aka Kraber. (He’s clearly very interesting, and we will return to him another day I think.)

GPO vintage poster lines of communication kraber john rowland barker

Graphis seem to have merged two different series of posters into one in their article, because the Country Postman image also has a pair.

Vintage GPO poster postman in the potteries Jessie Collins

There is also a third illustration of The River Postman which might have made up the series, but it’s not one tenth as good so I won’t bother you with it.

Judging by their format, these were most likely intended as GPO Educational posters which were distributed to schools rather than displayed in post offices.  But why these ones were commissioned but never printed or sent out I do not know, I really don’t.

Somewhere in the archives, there must be a memo explaining this folly, and one day I will dig it out and tell you why.  For the moment, I will just weep gently.  And if anyone else out there can shed any more light on this, please do let me know.

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What is the range of activity of the commercial artist in Britain?

That’s what this copy of Graphis is asking in 1950. (And yes, the cover is by Tom Eckersley).

Cover of Graphis 31 1950 Tom Eckersley cover

Unfortunately for us, most of the answers are in black and white, apart from this design for Kia-ora by Lewitt-Him.

Lewitt Him Kiaora advertisrement 1950

And this Christmas advertisement for Simpsons of Piccadilly.

Simpsons of Piccadilly advertisement 1950

I think there may have been some more at some point, but my copy seems to have a page missing.  By way of compensation, I’ll try and find colour versions of the posters and illustrations they’ve reproduced where I can.  Still, it’s worth putting up with the black and white because there is some wonderful stuff included in their survey of British design.  I would like this Lewitt-Him showcard whatever colour it turned out to be.

Lewitt Him panda showcard from Graphis

Oddly, one of the things that makes this article particularly interesting is the small print.  Each image is credit twice, once to the artist and/or illustrator and once to the advertising agency which commissioned it.  Which means that, for a change, it’s possible to see how posters and advertisments came into being.

Let’s take Crawfords, for example (I would happily take almost anything from Crawfords’ considerable output if anyone is offering).  Their art director was Ashley Havinden, who did produce some of the illustrations for his own press advertisements.

Design for Wolsey advertisement, illustration by Ashley Havinden

Even within a single campaign, more than one artist might be used though; so this cartoon is by John Parsons.

Wolsey advertisement illustration by John Parsons

(Apologies for the wobbliness of the scans, but I don’t want to damage the magazine.)

At the same time, Havinden was also commissioning entire campaigns from other designers, like Tom Eckersley’s work for Gillette.

Tom Eckersley vintage poster Gillette goat 1950

As well as Eno’s Fruit salts, which was also produced by Crawfords.  A different format of this advertisement is reproduced in Graphis;  the French caption provides the extra explanation that Enos is ‘un digestif’.  I think, if forced to make a choice between some French pastis and a glass of Enos, the pastis would win every time.

Tom Eckersley Enos Fruit salts ad 1950


These double attributions of the advertisements, thougb, are a useful reminder that designers of the period were not artists, producing whatever they liked, but were working within a very commercial framework, receiving commissions from people they knew, often, I imagine, to quite a tight brief.  This is something that can get forgotten as we collect and admire posters today; increasingly they become detached from their original purpose and seen as artworks rather than functional pieces of design.  But that’s not how they were originally produced at all.

This is a point also made, in a slightly different way, in the essay which goes with these illustrations.  The author, Charles Rosner, thinks that the standard of posters and other commercial art has declined considerably since the war. The only high points are provided by what he calls ‘the cultural and social activities in advertising’, by which he means commissions from the BBC, London Transport, the Arts Council and the GPO.  By which he is also implying designs which aren’t contaminated by the need to sell things.

it's a wartime poster by hans schleger and we've got one too

But were these high-minded designs really better?  From this distance it’s hard to say for sure because so little British commercial advertising survives.  But take this page of F H K Henrion’s work.  The poster designs for the government health campaigns are more in the international modernist style with which I tend to associate him.

This wasn’t all he could produce though.   Take these fine fish for example.

(I’m rather fond of the sheep too, which is why it’s here, even though it’s not actually by Henrion).

On the opposite page are also a couple of his better-known designs for Punch.

a punch poster by henrion

But which of these are better?  Public information edges or Punch decorative? I find it hard to say, but then my pro-modernist bias probably isn’t as strong as some people’s.  What do you lot reckon?

The text makes an interesting point about posters as well.  Remember, this is 1950, and television advertising hasn’t been imagined yet, but posters are already seen as being in decline, and for reasons I’ve never seen put before.

 Posters are victims of the great speed of modern traffic, congestion of town streets, squeezing out of hoardings from town centres to areas with less appeal in publicity value, and town and country planning regulations, with only vague definitions of the places where hoardings are still allowed to stand.

So the golden age of the poster was partly caused by the fact that people were moving slowly enough to look at them.  Now there’s a thought.

But the article isn’t all about answers, it’s also made me ponder a couple of questions too.  This post is going on a bit, so I’ll return to them in the next few days.  For now you can just have this rather wonderful Lewitt-Him artwork as a clue about the first.  It is illustrated in Graphis, but if anyone has sighted it anywhere else other than the GPO archive, I’d like to hear from you.

GPO vintage Poster lewitt him lines of communication 1950

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New Term

It’s September, school has started (in the case of small Crownfolio, for the very first time) and the auction season is getting back into gear too.  First in the queue are International Poster Auctions in New York, whose Auction of Rare Posters is on Sept 8th.

Most of what’s on offer consists of things that Americans like and I don’t (Barnum and Bailey Circus posters, Art Nouveau, that kind of thing) but there are a few British gems on offer.

Quite a few of these are pre-war London Transport posters like this Dora Batty, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Dora Batty vintage London Transport poster 1933 up for auction
Dora Batty, 1933, est. $1,000-1,200

This Roy Meldrum is less often reproduced but also rather fine.  It seems to have an odd familiarity to me, but I don’t know whether this is because it looks like a mixture of so many other images from that period, or simply that I used to own a postcard of it once upon a time.

Roy Meldrum vintage London Transport poster 1933 Something Different
Roy Meldrum, 1933, est. $1,700-2,000

There are also a couple of McKnight Kauffer classics up for grabs.

McKnight Kauffer The Flea vintage London Transport poster 1926
E. McKnight Kauffer, 1926, est. $1,700-2,000

McKNight Kauffer Stonehenge vintage shell poster 1931
E. McKnight Kauffer, 1931, est. $3,000-4,000

But my favourite is much later than any of these, as it dates from 1973 and is by David Gentleman.
David Gentleman vintage London Transport poster Victorian London 1973
David Gentleman, 1973, est. $700-1,000

Clearly prices rise as posters cross the Atlantic: this poster went for just £130 on eBay last month, much to the disappointment of at least one reader of this blog.

Elsewhere on eBay, it’s still a bit quiet.  This Tom Purvis is out of focus, a bit battered and in the U.S., although that doesn’t seem to be deterring the bidders.

Tom Purvis British Industries Fair 1930s poster on eBay

It is also my bounded duty to point out that Cyclamon has yet another of these small but perfectly formed Eckersley GPO posters for sale on a Buy It Now for £35.

Tom Eckersley vintage GPO poster for sale on eBay

I don’t think he’s printing them.

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See Again

The end of the summer holidays loom, normal order will be restored soon.  But in the meantime, here is proof that not all good design either comes from a known designer or has been seen and seen again.  I love every single one of these designs, and they deserve to be better known.

In the course of some auction research, Mr Crownfolio came across the Murphy Radio site.  Now, generally, this bears the same relation to poster design as railway name-plate auctions do.  Actually, no, it’s even more frightening; there are circuit diagrams.

A murphy circuit diagram, don't ask me which one

This is for the Murphy A26 RG radiogram for use with AC Mains, since you ask.

But also on the site are pages and pages of leaflets and brochures.  And they are great.  All of the following are  from 1948-49 and are incredibly sharp for their era.

Murphy leaflet 1

Mprhy leaflet 2

Murphy brochure 3

In fact, the graphic design was considerably more modern than the televisions themselves.  This brochure

another Murphy brochure

is for this television.

large wooden television not living up to graphic style

Unlike the brochure, the woodwork hasn’t moved on from the 1930s.  In some ways this is surprising, because much of the company’s graphic design was done by James Reeve, who also designed many of the televisions.  I was going to say that I like the brochures better than the products, but then I would say that, wouldn’t I.

There are plenty more great pieces of design as we go into the early to mid 50s.

yet another murphy brochure

When we also enter the era of the portable (ish) radio.

Another Murphy catalogue cover

Murphy Irish catalogue

best bit of design there is here

I swear, it’s almost like looking at European posters it’s that good.

The great work continues until 1960.

1950 murphy television brochure

What I find extraordinary, apart from the fact that I haven’t seen these before, is that an internal employee, whose main job was designing television sets, produced all of the above. He clearly knew his graphic design – especially considering that the likes of Abram Games and Reginald Mount were designing posters for Murphy television – but that can’t account for all of it.  James Reeve was certainly a very clever man, bordering on undiscovered genius.

Furthermore, he is definitely hiding his light under a bushel.  He’s written an ebook about his designs – which you can find here – and it’s all about televisions.  Although I can give you this wonderful image of the Murphy stand at Olympia in 1939 – I’m guessing for the Ideal Home Show.

Murphy stand Olympia 1939

But it is possible to find out more.  There’s an exhibition at Mill Green Museum in Hatfield, all about Reeve’s work and including some of his poster designs.  So if someone could pop over and tell me if the rest of his work is as good as this stuff, I’d be very grateful.

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