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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Art and craft

A little bit of Ravilious for you on a Friday, yet another thing which I have unearthed on the bookshelves as a result of the move.

British Art BBC talks pamphlet Eric Ravilious

I particularly like the little electric transmission logos at the bottom.

Sadly there is no further Ravilious to be found inside, although there is a collection of wierd and wonderful things, including an iron age shield, an Eric Gill sculpture and Winchester Cathedral.  The artists’ tools on the cover seem positively conservative in comparison.

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Today’s lesson

Which is, don’t move house if you own lots of posters.  The picture below is the corner of my study.  There are some more Quad Royals behind the sofa too, and a ton of smaller ones scattered everywhere else.

too many posters

Most of those aren’t going to make it onto the walls in the forseeable future either.  This is a) because we’ve moved to a rented house for the moment in the hope of finding a lovely renovation project which doesn’t seem to exist at the moment and b) the walls of the aforementioned rented house are made up of equal combinations of old plaster and air, and so wouldn’t stand most of what we’d like to throw at them.  Anyone got a hotel for sale?  The corridors would be ideal for poster hanging.

Now that we’ve moved out, I was going to post some pictures  of the old house so that you could see the posters in situ without too much of my life being out there on the internet.  But when I came back to look at the photos, it seemed that the estate agent had prioritised the rooms rather than the posters.  Can’t think why.

Tom Purvis travel poster on our old walls

The one above is the only real exception, and it’s a bit out of character too, what with the poster being pre-war rather than post war.  Never mind.

A normal service should be possible from here on, with some news of poster auctions ahoy either tomorrow or Tuesday, depending on how it all goes.

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A post of a copy

Or indeed a copy of a post.  Because the post I’ve pulled from the archives today is indeed all about reproduction.  The subject came up again in the comments here recently, so I thought it might be interesting to revisit this. The eBay links no longer work, but the argument still applies, I hope.

Exhibits A and B for today’s argument come from eBay.

This is a London Transport poster by Abram Games from 1968.

Abram Games London Transport poster repro

Except it also isn’t.  Here’s the description from the listing itself.

“Sightsee London” by Abram Games 1968. This is an authentic LT poster printed by Sir Joseph Causton & Sons in 1971 for sale in the LT shop and carries the line “this is a reproduction of a poster designed for London Transport” – it is not a recent reprint.

So, I don’t want to buy it because it says all over the bottom that it’s a reprint.   An old reprint, true, almost as old as the original poster, but still a copy.

There’s another one too, a rather natty bit of swinging 60s design.

1960s London Transport poster repro

And I’m not going to buy that one either, for just the same reason.

But why should this matter?  It’s still an old poster.  Come to that, why don’t I buy a giclee print of whatever poster I fancy instead of spending time and money in pursuit of the originals?

Mr Crownfolio asked that question the other day, and I didn’t have a good answer.  If we buy posters for the good design and because they are lovely images to have around, a reprint, of any kind, shouldn’t be an issue.  I could have this Lewitt Him for £30 from Postal Heritage Prints,

Lewitt Him post early GPO vintage poster 1941

which is considerably cheaper than the amount we actually paid for an original copy.  And yet I still don’t want it.  Why is that?

There are some relatively straightforward answers, like the thrill of the chase and the bargain, and that the originals will make much better investments.  That’s all true, but there’s more at stake here than that.  And to explain it, I may have to use some theory (but don’t worry, there will be nice pictures as well along the way).

Back in 1936, the critic and writer Walter Benjamin (in an often-quoted and pleasingly short essay called ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’) argued that the original work of art had an ‘aura’ – its presence, uniqueness, history and associations.  Now this, for me, is what an original poster offers.  Its past life, its direct connection with the artist and their times, its apparent authenticity compared to a giclee print, all of these make a poster more interesting than a later copy.

F K Henrion, Post Office Savings Bank poster, 1944
F K Henrion, Post Office Savings Bank poster, 1944

Seems sensible, but it would have had Benjamin foaming at the mouth with fury.  He believed that even fine art works would lose their aura once high quality printing and photographic reproduction could make them accessible to everyone; while modern creations like films and photographs (and, by implication, posters) would have no aura at all, because there could be no original.

McKnight Kauffer, Explorers Prefer Shell, vintage poster 1934
McKnight Kauffer, Explorers Prefer Shell, 1934

And without an aura, he thought that art would have to change entirely.  Being of a Marxist persuasion, he thought that it would have to be about politics instead of reverence for the individual work.  Which is why he’d be so infuriated by my faffing about, worried about which London Transport posters are original and which are not.  Somehow (the mighty and indistructible powers of capitalism in all probability), we have managed to transfer all of our myths and beliefs about individual art works on to these reproduced, never-original copies.  Benjamin must be spitting tacks.

John Tunnard Holiday School Print 1947
John Tunnard, Holiday, School Print, 1947

The sad thing is, he came quite close to being right.  In a very British, watered-down way, ideas like the ‘School Prints’ series were an attempt to put his theories into practice.  In the late 1940s, fine and avant-garde artists including Henry Moore, Picasso and Braque created lithographs that were designed for reproduction and offered to every school in the country, making the best of modern art available to everyone who wanted it (nice article here if you want to know more).  These artworks were designed to be reproduced, in theory infinite in number, just as Benjamin would have liked them to be.  This should have been art without an aura, easily encountered on the walls of schools and hospitals rather than art galleries, in a political gesture very typical of the egalitarian post-war period.

Michael Rothenstein School Print Essex Wood Cutters, 1946
Michael Rothenstein, Essex Wood Cutters, School Print 1946

But, of course, it didn’t end up as he had hoped; we now collect them, value them, treasure them for their limited availability.  The Henry Moore is worth close on £1000.  If you can get hold of a copy of course.

The School Prints were not alone either.  The late 40s and early 1950s were a Benjamin-esque frenzy of art for all.  Lyons Tea Shops commissioned prints from modern artists between 1947 and 1955 with much the same motivation. (Like the School prints they are now valuable, collectable unique items.  There is a slew of them on offer today at the Christies auction, as mentioned a few weeks ago.)

john nash landscape with bathers lyons print 1947
John Nash, Landscape with Bathers, Lyons print, 1947

And I’ve already blogged about the way that London Transport Shell and the GPO commissioned fine artists and avant-garde designers to design their posters both before and after World War Two with some of the same motivations.  Art was no longer the preserve of the privileged, it needed to be made available to everyone in this new, modern, reproducible world.  All these prints and posters were Benjamin’s theories made flesh.

Night Mail Pat Keely vintage GPO poster
Pat Keely, Night Mail, GPO, 1939

But each and every one of these objects are now unique, collectable, valuable.  They’ve all acquired an aura.  And so I do mind whether or not I get a print, whether my poster was printed in 1968 or 1971.  I am, frankly, a lousy revolutionary.

Two other points to bear in mind.  One is that I used to work in a museum, so there are other reasons for collecting old things as well.  I’ll blog about them one day too, when I’ve articulated what on earth they are.

I also need to admit we’ve bought a couple of these reprints before now. Like this Carol Barker.

Carol Barker London for children vintage poster London Transport 1968

(I’d like to blame this on initial naivete, and some slightly dodgy eBay listings, but I think lack of attention to detail may have had something to do with it as well.  Repeat after me: I must read descriptions more carefully.)

Once again, the reprint is only a few years later than the ‘original’ but it still wrong and we’ll probably sell it on at some point.  Walter Benjamin would be very disappointed in me; I just can’t help seeing auras.

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