Collectors and cows

I don’t normally bother you with auction results except for the biggest sales.  But Swann Galeries sent me the results for their  15 November poster sale which I wrote about a few weeks ago.  And it’s noteworthy for two things.

Number one is this.

Andrew Power Wimbledon Poster from Swann Galleries vintage London Transpot

It went for, wait for it, $24,000 – the second most expensive poster they sold at that auction.  Which is a fairly extraordinary result for a London Transport poster.  Almost everything else in the list of high-fliers is a trad tourism poster from the 1920s or a picture of a cruise ship.  I’m surprised and impressed.

Although this did also make $10,800 t00.

Reginald Higgins Scarborough poster LNER vintage railway poster

The catalogue text could only have been written by an American. One who has never seen the English seaside.

Here, in a visual snippet worthy of Brideshead Revisited, Higgins’s exceptional Art Deco style captures the perfect essence of an elegant evening at a British holiday destination.

If only.

The other brilliant thing about Swann’s results, though, is that they tell me just a bit about who bought the poster, at least whether it’s a collector or a dealer.  So both of those ones above went to collectors, for example.

One of the real sadnesses about internet bidding, is that I just don’t know who’s bought anything any more.  Back in the old and draughty days of Onslows at Marble Arch, I knew exactly who had beaten me to a gem, and who else was hoovering up all of the odds and ends for £20 a lot like us.  I can’t even see who’s bought a poster on eBay now.  So it’s always good to hear even just a little bit about where these things are going.

Elsewhere, Onslows have put up a preview for their December sale.  The auction advertises itself as ‘Important Railway Posters’ so it is perhaps no surprise that the preview features more pictures of trains than I consider strictly necessary in one place (a detailed image of a train being repaired at Crewe being perhaps the apotheosis of this).  Although, as pictures of trains go, this one isn’t bad.

Zec night train poster 1932

It’s by Zec, it’s from 1932, and Onslows are estimating that it will go for £10,000-15,000 in the sale.  Which could make it the most expensive railway poster they’ve ever sold.  We shall see how hard times really are then, shan’t we?

The only one I can muster up any real enthusiasm for is this Bromfield from 1956.

Bromfield golden arrow railway poster 1956

Although I didn’t buy it for £440 at Morphets, so I rather doubt that I will buy it at Onslows’ estimate of £700-1,000 either.

Finally, Sotherans have put a new(ish) catalogue of posters on their site.  It’s all digital and so fully carbon neutral, whoop de doop.

It is, of course, still eye-achingly expensive.  I’ve gone on about them often enough before, so you can take my complaints as read this time.  Although I am starting to get inured to their prices. To the extent that £195 each for these seems really quite reasonable.

Vintage London transport cows from Sotherans catalogue

This may of course be down to the fact that we own two of these cows already, and I really, really need the third.

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Designs of the times

Oddly enough, the day after I posted a (rare) Robin Day poster on here, news has broken of his death.

He was of course far more of a furniture designer than a graphic artist.

Robin Day roomset for Festival of Britain Design Council slide

This is a roomset he designed for the Festival of Britain in 1951, and I’d willingly move into that tomorrow.

He only really designed posters in the early years of his career – pretty much up until the Festival.

Robin Day Festival of Britain exhibition of science poster

But as a giant of British post-war design, he very much deserves remembering here.  And there’s a very good obituary in the Guardian today if you want to read more.

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Small but perfectly formed

So, back on the auction rounds once more, and first in our sights is Van Sabben, on December 11th.

I’ve already skipped through a few of the French ones in passing last week, but there are also a small selection of British posters in there which are worth looking at.

Lewitt Him Vegetabull poster vintage WW2 on sale Van Sabben
Lewitt Him, c.1947, est. €250

Like the Vegetabull, to start with.  Everyone should own this poster.

But in addition to that, it’s a small, but quite interesting selection.  There’s something for everyone.  Some railway posters, like this faintly murky Fred Taylor.

Fred Taylor cambridge vintage LNER railway poster from Van Sabben 1930
Fred Taylor, 1930, est. €450

And this rather wonderful piece of glamour.  In as much as Felixstowe can do glamour.

Nicoll Gordon vintage railway poster 1930 van sabben felixstowe
Nicoll Gordon, 1930, est. €2,000

There’s a really lovely Abram Games too, which I’ve always rather liked.

Abram Games civvy street vintage WW2 poster from Van Sabben
Abram Games, 1944, est. €450

As well as a few more of his posters which, while brilliant pieces of design, I nonetheless wouldn’t much fancy having up on the wall.

Abram Games vintage ww2 safety poster 1943
Abram Games, 1943, est. €650

Especially if I have to pay €650 for the rather morbid pleasure.

But one thing that I really like about the Van Sabben auctions is that, even though they don’t have that many British posters, they’re not just comprised of the usual suspects.  So in addition to Abram Games and Tom Eckersley,

Tom Eckersley vintage London Transport poster 1947 from Van sabben
Tom Eckersley, 1947, est. €250

there are also posters by Henrion.

Henrion exhibition poster 1945 from Van Sabben
FHK Henrion, 1945, est. €280

And Beverley Pick and Reginald Mount too.

Beverley Pick vintage London Transport poster 1947 from Van Sabben
Beverley Pick, 1947, est €250

Reginald Mount vintage WW2 home front poster 1946 from van sabben
Reginald Mount, 1946, est. €650

And even Robin Day.

ROBIN Day RAF poster c 1950 from Van Sabben vintage poster
Robin Day, c.1950, est. €450.

I’m assuming that’s the furniture designer rather than the interviewer.

It’s not just that they have a good mix of designers, they also get posters from different sources.  Like these two from the GPO, which are also both large format rather than 1o x 15.

Zero Hans SChleger remember the country name vintage gpo poster 1942
Zero, 1942, est. €300

Manfred Reiss GPO helps the export drive vintage poster 1950
Manfred Reiss, 1950, est. €300

I’d love to know where they source their posters from, but I don’t suppose they’ll tell me.

My only minor complaint is the pricing.  It’s hard to work out how the Vegetabull can be worth so much less than this Hans Schleger, for example, when they’re both in similar condition.

Hans Schleger blackout vintage ww2 poster London Transport 1943
Zero, 1943, est. €500

It does sometimes feel as though estimages are obtained by sticking a pin into a roulette wheel.  Mind you, I shouldn’t be complaining; that’s the way that bargains are made, after all.

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Hastings will welcome your invasion

I have been enfeebled by gastric flu.  Normal service of some kind will be resumed tomorrow.  In the meantime, here is a very nice Tom Eckersley that I haven’t seen around very much (although I think Books and Things might have had a copy once upon the while).

Tom Eckersley Hastings poster no date

The title comes from this Bruce Angrave poster.

Bruce Angrave Hastings poster

Not quite such a good image, but a great line.

And now I am going to lie down again.

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Distinction

I have on my desk two books, a thick one and a thin one.  The thin one is Melanie Horton’s book on the Empire Marketing Board Posters at Manchester University. But, rather counter-intuitively for a Friday, I’m going to go for the doorstop sized one instead, which is Distinction by Pierre Bourdieu.

It has been, I discovered today, voted one of the most influential sociological books of the 20th Century.  Wikipedia can summarise it, as they do this rather well.

Bourdieu discussed how those in power define aesthetic concepts such as “taste”. Using research, he shows how social class tends to determine a person’s likes and interests, and how distinctions based on social class get reinforced in daily life.

JEan Carlu France Tourist poster 1958
Jean Carlu, 1958

He does this by micro-analysing the taste and cultural choices (whether that’s music or interior design) of a vast number of French families and people in the early 1960s, over 500 pages and with myriad tables, diagrams and interviews.

I was forced to read it as part of my Design History course.  But I’m actually rather glad I did.  Because although the book is undoubtedly ‘very French’ (as the translator’s foreword warns) his approach is also a very useful way of thinking about design.  It earns its keep simply by reminding us that there is no such thing as pure good design or taste, that everything we choose, or turn away from, is a determined by class and culture as well as our own personal preferences.

Bernard Villemot France tourist poster 1955
Bernard Villemot, 1955

That’s not the only reason why I’m writing about it here, though.  The book may also answer the question, why do I (why do we?) collect posters?  I will try to distill the argument from his rather dense and sociological prose to see if it stands up.

One of his key ideas is that the ruling classes don’t just have economic capital but also social and cultural capital.  While the first two can be acquired, cultural capital tends to be inherited.  And he argues that it is perhaps the most important means by which social classes differentiate themselves. (For example, if you have economic capital, but no cultural capital, you will tend to be pigeonholed as nouveau riche).

Paul Colin vintage poster 1945
Paul Colin, 1945

But what’s great about the book is that he microanalyses these ideas and how they work in real life.  So, he points out that while many people agree on the cultural capital of appreciating art, there is a big difference between the middle classes who go to see it in a museum, and the very small fraction of the upper classes who own it themselves.

The appropriation of symbolic objects with a material existence, such as paintings, raises the distinctive force of ownership to the second power and reduces purely symbolic appropriation to the inferior status of a symbolic substitute.

Roughly translated, too many people are able to ‘appreciate’ a Leonardo da Vinci painting for it to be exclusive enough.  But if I own a Leonardo, I can lord it over you and feel superior, because you may only go and see in in a museum.  In visiting a museum, you’re trying to reproduce the experience of owning it, but you know that this isn’t as good.  I think that’s probably as true of the English upper classes than the French.  After all, the English aristocracy let us into their stately homes, so that they can be certain we know that they have lots of nice paintings and we don’t.

Bernard Villemot vintage poster 1960
Bernard Villemot, 1960

He also argues that art objects are particularly key examples of the way the upper classes distinguish themselves, because while they take a long time to know about and appreciate properly, they are, in the end, pointless.

[I could type that bit out but it's fairly headache-inducing, let me know if you want to see it, it's on p281 of my edition.]

Nonethless, the upper classes don’t get it all their own way.  These views can be challenged or subverted.  And the people who are most likely to do it, are those with plenty of cultural capital but less material capital.  Plenty of good taste, but no money.   The problem – as Bourdieu sees it – is that these people like ‘good’ art but can’t buy it.

But in the absence of the conditions of material possession, the pursuit of exclusiveness has to be content with developing a unique mode of appropriation.

The trick is to find ways round this, either by liking things differently or – and can you see where this is going – liking different things.

Intellectuals and artists have a special prediliction for the most risky, but also most profitable strategies of distinction, those which consist in asserting the power, which is peculiarly theirs, to constitute insignificant objects as works of art.

So if I can’t afford a Picasso, I’m damn well going to go and define something else as a work of art.  And then own it.

Herbert Leupin 1956 from van Sabben Agfa poster
Herbert Leupin, 1956

Now, Bourdieu wrote the book in 1962, and I would argue that there are more people than just intellectuals and artists playing this game now.  More and more people have no choice.  Fine art prices have risen so much that only oligarchs can think of buying the real thing these days.  Yes you could go down the Walter Benjamin route and buy yourself a print – and plenty of people do.  But not everyone wants to do that, for whatever reasons.  (In my own case, Bourdieu would blame the accumulation of cultural capital caused by a spell at art college, with the distinct lack of economic capital caused by the kind of career which results.)

So if we (if you are with me on this) want to buy art, we have to designate something else as art.  So how about posters?  They are originals, they are limited, they have the patina of age.  We can collect them and display them in our homes, we don’t have to go to galleries to see them.  We can, in short, be as upper class and tasteful as we like without having to pay a million pounds for the privilege.

Herbert Leupin poster 1952 van sabben
Herbert Leupin, 1952

I think that there are a few peculiarly British twists to the story, though.  One is the way that the left-minded section of English upper-middle classes have always rather enjoyed defining themselves against the aristocracy, and so have repeatedly embraced modernism as deliberate snub to posh people’s gilding and decoration (the Herbivore tendency of the Festival of Britain is a classic example of this kind of person in operation).  The other is the simple fact that the British tend to have a very small aristocracy (compared to the French bourgeoisie) and a huge, squeezed middle class that can’t afford a grand house and a Van Dyck and there have always been a lot of people who to find another way round good taste.

Herbert Leupin poster 1947

If that’s fascinated you and you’d like to read the whole darn thing, well you can, here, thanks to the wonders of the internet.  Don’t all rush at once.

Next week, Empire Marketing board posters from the pleasingly thin book, and, so help me, even more posters for sale.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering about the images, not only are they all very French, but they’re also all for sale at the next Van Sabben poster auction on December 11th so you can buy them too.  If you’ve got the material capital to afford them.

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Posters are good for you

A brief update today on my wonderings about why some posters survive and others don’t.

I’ve heard back from the Guinness archive in Dublin.  And while Guinness never sold their posters, they were very much available to the general public.

Guinness first began advertising in 1929 and once the Company began advertising Guinness posters were produced in vast quantities and made available to both the general public and publicans. The Company very much encouraged members of the public to write into the company to obtain their copies of Guinness posters and as a result posters were produced in vast quantities throughout the decades.

Guinness christmas poster Gilroy 1958

They also sent over a useful factsheet about Guinness advertising.  I had no idea that Gilroy produced posters for them from 1934 (only five years after the company began advertising at all) until 1961.

John Gilroy Guinness resort poster 1961

This was his last poster for the company, in 1961.  The same year, they produced their first ever photographic poster.  These two facts may have something to do with each other.

So thanks to Deirdre and Eibhlin at the Guinness archive for the information, it’s very much appreciated.

Gilroy vintage Guinness poster 1952

In some ways, if they were giving the posters away for free, I’m surprised that there aren’t more of them kicking around now.

Although a quick trawl through the records made me realise, to my surprise, that Mr Crownfolio and I have owned ten Guinness posters at various points in time.  But we’ve ended up selling most of them.  I think this is mostly because they’re great posters but not quite our sort of thing, even this Lander from 1956.

Eric Lander Guinness poster 1956

And the ones that are, were just too big to put on the wall.

Abram Games 5 million Guinness poster

But we have kept a couple This is on the wall (in fact in the collection of animal posters that climb the stairs),

Guinness Seal Tom Eckersley poster 1956

because it’s one of my favourite posters ever, as well as being a reasonable size.  We also have this Raymond Tooby next to it,

Ramond Tooby Guinness toucan poster 1957

That wins mainly because the television aerial on the nest is such a brilliant 1957 detail.

But once again, all of these posters are here because the company involved distributed the posters to the public above and beyond the numbers they used for actual advertising.  It certainly seems that this is one of the key factors in numbers of posters surviving.

The exceptions to this may be World War Two and National Savings posters, which I left off the original post but which do survive in some numbers.  Perhaps people were aware, even at the time, of the historical significance of wartime posters and so kept them?  Although that isn’t much of an explanation for National Savings posters – were these perhaps distributed to savings groups as well as being displayed?  Or is there another reason that I am missing?  Any ideas?

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