A life of surprises

Odd times indeed on eBay.  When I pointed out this poster last week, it was more for entertainment than investment value.

Ebay vintage anti-vandalism poster

But it went for £104.  Not so funny indeed.

I should have been less surprised that these two pieces of prime psychedelia went for £143 each.  They’re by the wonderful Dan Fern and printer-fresh.

Dan Fern Vintage Cadburys Crunchie poster 1960s

Dan Fern Vintage Cadburys Crunchie poster 1960s

Although Mr Crownfolio and I had harboured hopes of picking one up cheap, mainly because these are the kind of things which can fall through eBay searches un-noticed.  But not this time.  (There were another two, which went for under £40 each, but still not cheap).

This Daphne Padden also sold very quickly for a Buy It Now price of £50.

Daphne Padden vintage British railways poster packed lunch

I think I’d file that under interesting rather than desirable (much like the concept it’s advertising), mostly because it’s the first time I’ve ever seen that design and I had no idea that she had done much work for BR at all.  So there you go.

As for what’s on sale at the moment, it is, as ever, a mixed old bag.  Probably the most interesting are those being sold by medieval modernist, a name not unknown round these parts.  This Henrion is, how shall I put this, unlike anything else I’ve ever seen of his by quite a long way and then some.

Vintage henrion poster iconograda

If you find that a bit frightening, this Salter is slightly more conventional.

Vintage sAlter come to britain poster friendly policeman

And there’s plenty more in between, so go and take a look.

This poster wouldn’t be worth mentioning for itself, were it not for the person selling it.

Vintage war savings poster world war two propaganda

I’ve mentioned this story before, but  a seller on eBay, Kingchristopher, has been selling an incredible collection of leaflets, tickets, stamps, memorabilia and other ephemera for a very long time, all collected by his uncle George King.  A long time before this blog existed, we bought a number of 1950s and 60s GPO posters from him: apparently his uncle used to go into the Post Office and ask to have the posters they’d taken down each week.  Ones like this.

Tom Eckersley vintage GPO poster 1955

George King was clearly an interesting, if slightly obsessive man.  Mr Crownfolio recently found out a bit more about him from a philately forum:

George King who was one of the great Philatelic hoarders of our time, and a man truly ahead of his own time.
From about 1908 to the 1950’s (?) he posted envelopes to himself to obtain examples of virtually every new special event or special purpose postmark issued by the GPO in the UK. (TPO’s Machine Cancels Exhibitions, Skeleton marks etc etc). If you ever see his name on a cover do some more research.
Often the postmark will be the first day of use or the last day of use. He would often send half a doz or more covers and now these are often the only examples known. He also kept copies of virtually every Post Office leaflet and label issued and quantities of associated Shipping and aviation leaflets etc.
His accumulation must have filled rooms not just boxes and when it first came on the market, I believe in the early 1980’s, it was a real eye opener and helped establish the dates of issue of many TPO’s and provided examples of otherwise unknown marks.
Its a shame that the entire accumulation does not appear to have been recorded before sale. I know that the family had some problems, being let down financially by some of those involved.
Today I believe a family member still sells some of the original covers and leaflets on eBay etc. If you see a 1930’s Brit GPO leaflet in “looks like it was printed yesterday” condition chances are its ex. George King.
I heard a rumour that in WWI he was interviewed by the Secret Service to find out why he was writing to the postie in charge of every British and many Australian NZ and Indian Army Post Offices to obtain examples of their FPO postmarks!

None of my relatives were so forward thinking sadly, although I’m not entirely sure I would like to have inherited the job for life that disposing of it all seems to have become for his nephew.

Other than that, the theme seems to be 1950s kitsch.  This poster might be quite a nice buy were it not a) framed and b) in the States, so postage will be rather prohibitive.

Vintage 1950s British tourist poster for Redcar

This side of the Atlantic, you can have your kitsch in the form of tourism posters.

Vintage jersey tourism poster

Or commercial advertising.

eBay vintage card advertisement 1950s

Or simply way bigger than you really need.

very large vintage cigarette advertisement 1950s

That’s nine foot by six foot of big, so don’t say you weren’t warned.


When I wrote about poster hoardings and their rather surprising effects last week, the comments section ended up as a bit of a debate on how posters survive.  Were the few that remain only saved because the designers and a few other far-sighted people connected with their production and display collected them (the Malcolm Guest model)?  Or were there more which were sold on to the public of the time as well?

I promised to go away and try and find out as much as I could and report back.  There’s lots more research that can be done, so this is very much a work in progress.  But by asking the questions here, I’m hoping that I might get some answers from you as well.  So please do pile in if you can help.

John Minton London's river vintage london transport poster
John Minton, London’s River, 1951

What strikes me is that some kinds of posters survive in disproportionate quantities.  Any auction, or even a look at eBay will show you a lot of London Transport posters or railway posters, with lesser amounts of Shell and Guinness items too.  But very little British commercial advertising survives at all – you can go through swathes of auction catalogues without seeing any for months or even years.

The same is true of GPO posters – which are examples of great design but nonetheless come up very rarely. (To give you an idea of how rarely, Christies catalogue archive can turn up only 10 or so GPO posters which have come up for sale.  Put in “shell poster” and you get hundreds of results.  I daren’t even type in railway poster.)

Lewitt Him 1951 vintage GPO poster
Lewitt Him, 1951

So my suggestion would be that the kinds of posters which survive in numbers were also sold on to the public one way or another.

There is no dispute that this is what London Transport did (as mentioned on here before).  Here’s Oliver Green of the London Transport Museum on the sales pattern in the 1920s:

A typical print run in the 1920s was 1,000, of which 850 were required for posting on the system where they were displayed for one month.  The remaining 150 copies were available for purchase at the company’s head office for between about two and five shillings, depending on the printing cost.  Posters in demand with the public were invariably those which followed the more traditional artistic designs, such as Gregory Brown’s St Albans, Fred Taylor’s Kew and Dorothy Burroughes’ For the Zoo.  These three were all in the top ten of a bestsellers’ list which was announced by the Underground in 1923.

Dorothy Burroughes Zoo vintage london transport poster 1922
Dorothy Burroughes, 1922

By 1931 the best sellers were selling over 300 posters each, and London Transport were selling a total of 10,000 posters in a year.  But even the modern art posters did sell to some.

Edward Bawden has also recalled that he and Eric Ravilious, when students together at the Royal College of Art in the 1920s. looked forward eagerly to the appearance of a new Kauffer Underground poster which was then, literally, one of the cheapest forms of good modern art available.

McKnight Kauffer vintage London Transport poster 1934
McKnight Kauffer, 1934

In 1933 the London Transport poster shop opened in their headquarters at 55, Broadway, and designs were, it seemed, commissioned specifically with shop sales in mind.

London Transport poster shop exterior
London Transport shop,c.1935.

Furthermore, some posters were also created so that they could be easily cut down for framing and display in the home.

Laura Knight September Freshnes 1937
Laura Knight, September Freshness, 1937

Poster sales continued on and off, with a break for the war, sometimes only to schools and other educational establishments, sometimes to the public.  Claire Dobbin writes about it in some detail in her essay in London Transport Posters if you want to know more.

She also mentions is that London Transport held poster exhibitions too, at Burlington House in 1928 and the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1949.

LT exhibition Burlington House 1928
London Transport poster exhibition at Burlington House, 1928

For London Transport, these were infrequent special events, but in the case of  the railway companies, exhibitions were a regular feature of their promotions. David Watts catalogues them in the essay I was referring to the other day.

Annual poster exhibitions were held at the LNER’s King’s Cross station in London between 1923 and 1927. Between 1928 and 1933, with the possible exception of 1931, they were held in either the New Burlington or Grieve’s galleries in the West End. In 1936 a private exhibition was held in Marylebone, presumably at the LNER station. In 1937 the exhibition reverted to the West End. LNER poster exhibitions were held annually in Edinburgh between 1924 and 1938. Their exact location is not stated, except for 1935, 1937 and 1938, when it was Waverley station. Numerous other localities hosted occasional LNER poster exhibitions, including: Aberdeen (1929–30, 1934), Barnard Castle (1934–36), Bournemouth (1934), Bradford (1934–35), Brighton (1936), Cleethorpes (1935), Dundee (1934), Gateshead (1936), Glasgow (1929–30), Grimsby (1934), Ipswich (1935), Kingston upon Hull (1932–36), Leeds (1934), Lincoln (1934, 1936), Manchester (1935–36), Newcastle upon Tyne (1930, 1934–36), Norwich (1933), Shef?eld (1933, 1936–37), Yarmouth (1934) and York (1932–36). […] It is likely that other localities also hosted exhibitions of LNER posters and that those listed above held them in more years than shown here. Exhibitions seem not to have been systematically recorded.

That’s quite a lot of exhibitions.

Now, I can’t lay my hands on any proof that posters were sold at these events.  But posters were definitely sold by railway companies.  Pre-war artists had contracts which paid them for every copy sold to the public, for a start.

And the LMS marketed posters to the public – possibly by the same system of writing in as London Transport used.  When the company produced a series of posters designed by Royal Academicians in 1924, they “sold well”, and Maurice Greiffenhagan’s image of Carlisle was top of the pops, selling to the public “in large numbers”.

Maurice Greiffenhagen Carlisle vintage Railway poster LMS

In 1931, the LMS even published a list of its six best-selling posters.  Like the railways, traditional art was what the public wanted to buy, with Paul Henry’s views of Ireland taking the top two places.

Paul Henry Connemara 1926 vintage railway poster

So railway posters were definitely for sale.  Which just leaves Shell and Guinness posters to account for.

W Steggles Tattingstone wonder shell poster
W Steggles

Shell held exhibitions of its advertising too.  The first was at New Burlington Gardens in 1931 and then later they were held at Shell-Mex House and around the country. These were reviewed in the press and attracted thousands of visitors.  And, yes, the posters were for sale.  Michael Heller has reseached Shell’s inter-war corporate branding.

Its posters rapidly became collectors items, available by subscription from Shell or through its popular published catalogue collections.

Which just leaves Guinness posters, about which I can find out nothing right now.  But  I think I might be prepared to make a guess that they also were sold given that they survive in the numbers they do.

Bromfield Foreign letter GPO poster 1951
Bromfield, 1951

By way of a contrast, let’s go back to the GPO posters.  We’ve got a fair number (in fact a rather embarrassing quantity), but what’s interesting is that I know the direct provenance of most of them.  A few came from the Malcom Guest collection, a few more (all by her) from Daphne Padden’s estate.  But the greatest number came from eBay, sold by a man whose uncle went to his local post office in the early 1950s and asked if he could have their posters when they’d finished with them.    They’re not just floating about like the railway and London Transport posters, only thanks to rare and chance collections are they kept.

Tom Eckersley vintage GPO poster 1955
Tom Eckersley, 1955

Which makes me think that we’re very lucky that Shell, London Transport and the Railway Companies wanted to improve the nations taste by selling posters.  Otherwise practically nothing would survive.


I haven’t given references in this, mainly because footnotes and blogs don’t mix well.  But most of the information came from these books:

London Transport Posters: A Century of Art and Design

Underground Art: London Transport Posters, 1908 to the Present

Art for All: British Posters for Transport (Yale Center for British Art)

Railway Posters 1923-1947

as well as from Michael Heller’s paper, Corporate Brand Building at Shell-Mex Ltd in the Interwar Period.  Do ask if you want any more detail and I will do my best.

Modern British Collecting

I’ve had Paul Rennie’s Modern British Posters: Art, Design & Communication for a few weeks now, and am guiltily aware that I haven’t given it a proper mention yet.  Now there are a whole heap of real life reasons why this hasn’t happened, which I won’t go on about, but I am also aware that I’m finding it hard to come to a conclusion about it.  Which is absurd, so here are a few thoughts which may or may not come to a definite answer at the end.

Tom Eckersley Seven Seas vitamins advertising vintage poster
Tom Eckersley, Seven Seas Vitamin Oil, 1947

This doesn’t mean that I don’t like it.  The book is beautiful and would justify its cover price (more on that below) for the illustrations alone.  You’ve seen a few on the blog already, there are plenty more littering this post.  There simply isn’t another book covering these subjects in this detail and with this kind of wonderful reproduction, so it’s a great thing to have.

H A Rotholz, vintage GPO poster stamps in books
HA Rothholz, Stamps in Books, GPO, 1955

Even better, the book mentions Quad Royal which is very flattering indeed.  So now it’s been immortalised in print, I’d better keep this thing going for a while, rather than just be a fly-by-night blog.

Reginald Mount Keep Britain Tidy poster
Reginald Mount, Keep Britain Tidy, 1950s

But as well as the book being a whole treasure trove of beautiful images, Paul Rennie also makes some really good points about posters and collecting, so much so that I am going to repeat them all over again here.  At the start, he observes that part of the reason that no one else has written this book before him is that the world of the poster, in Britain at least, is absurdly fragmented.

For example, railway posters, motoring posters and war propaganda all form specialised archives within separate institutions. Within the context of these distinct institutions, there is no urgent requirement to integrate the various and disparate parts into a history of visual communication.

I’ve touched on this in posts before – this odd disjunction between disciplines results in quirks like the National Railway Museum not thinking about its posters in terms of designers on their website and many other odd occurrences.  People who know all about railway posters might have no idea about the history of the Ministry of Information; the Imperial War Museum has no reason to care about what designers did before or after the war.  As a result, Modern British Posters is therefore pretty much the first decent survey of the whole, and that can only be applauded.

Abram Games London Transport poster
Abram Games, At London’s Service, London Transport, 1947

I’m also really interested when, at the end of the book, he sets out the history of how they started collecting, and the rationale behind what they chose to buy.  Partly because he started out by being fascinated by the Festival of Britain and then, in discovering more about Abram Games and the Festival symbol, found himself intrigued by a wider world of graphics and communication.  I trod exactly the same path too (I still have the little Festival badge that I used to wear on my hat as a teenager); it makes me wonder how many people have followed the same thoughts, and also why the Festival exerts such a potent hold over our imaginations even now.

Abram Games British Railway Poster
Abram Games, See Britain By Train, British Railways 1951.

But he also explains why they bought what they did.

Our collecting began, back in about 1982, with an interest in modern design… In 1982, the words British and Modernism seemed like a contradiction in terms.

The direction of our collecting was formed in relation to this widespread,and misguided, perception of British resistance to modernity. Conveniently, it turned out that British items were generally of little interest to international collectors and were, accordingly, less expensive to purchase.

In a way, I wish he’d put this manifesto right at the start of the book, because it’s really important.  This is partly because this is – and Paul Rennie freely acknowledges the point himself – a very partial book.  Every single illustration is from their own collection and so knowing the history behind it makes a big difference to the way you might read the book as a whole.  (I have been trying to work out whether there is a similar unifying idea behind our own collecting; so far I have only managed to come up with: It was cheap and we liked it).

Henrion BOAC poster
Henrion, BOAC Speedbird, 1947

The idea of the British relation to modernism itself is really interesting, and something I’d want to think about at length and probably devote a whole blog post (0r three) to.  But it also informs a lot of the arguments that he’s making in the main bulk of the book, so it would have been good to know beforehand.

Now, I have to confess that between these two ideas I did get a bit lost in the middle of the book. Now this is partly I think a problem of the form – Paul Rennie is heroically attempting a complete survey not only of the history of posters in Britain, but also of the social and economic conditions which affected how they were produced.  So it is, of necessity, a bit of a race through quite a lot of ideas and thoughts.

But also – and this is the bit I have been pondering for a while – Modern British Posters is at heart an academic book.  It’s having a dialogue with a lot of other books, and theories of art and design, ideas about cultural production and the transmission of modernism, and that simply isn’t a conversation that I am part of any more.  Academia and I gave up on each other more than twenty years ago, and since then I have been concentrating on the much simpler task of telling stories about people and things.  So the fault is probably with me rather than the book, for which I can only apologise.  I’d be interested to hear what anyone else thinks about this, particularly if you’re a design historian and have read it.

Telephone Less Tom Eckersley 1945
Tom Eckersley, Telephone Less, GPO, 1945

If you haven’t read it yet, and want to have an opinion, which of course you do, I am pleased to say that there is also a special Quad Royal readers’ offer (we’ve never had one of those before, get us).  The book is available at a massive 40% off the list price to you our esteemed reader.  To get hold of it, just email jess at blackdogonline.com, with Quad Royal Readers Offer as the subject line, and she will sort out the rest.

Railway posters vs design

It was a long day, watching the Morphets auction.  And as all of those posters went buy, one after another going for way more than the Crownfolio budget, I found myself getting more and more jaded.  Until, by the end of the auction, I was quite glad that we’d only bought one single lot.

It wasn’t just that I was gorged on posters – although the experience was a bit like trying to eat a whole box of chocolates at once.  Seeing so many ‘classic’ railway posters together made me realise that (heresy alert here) the majority of them are not actually great pieces of design.

Of course, your average railway poster does have a lot of things going for it.  Nice watercolours, pictures of pretty parts of the countryside or heritage; a nostalgic vision of a Britain long gone.  A lovely thing to hang on your wall.

But when you look at them as pieces of poster design, it’s hard to get enthusiastic, particularly about the post-war breed.  The typography is average at best, and not integrated into the poster, while the images themselves are hardly cutting-edge illustration.  Of course there are some wonderful posters, like the one below, but they’re the exception rather than the rule.

lander english lakes poster auction

In the end – faced with five hundred of them laid end to end at the Morphets auction – it’s hard not to see the vast majority of railways posters as not only safe, but even a bit reactionary.  A nicely drawn vision of a Britain of plough-horses and fields, ancient cathedrals and Georgian towns, and, of course, steam trains.  Easy on the eye, not modern, not threatening – and not much different to buying a Victorian sketch of trees and a few cows to go over the fireplace.

This may seem a bit harsh, but I think it’s fair.  Because the other distinguishing factor of the auction was that some of the more striking and modern posters were the ones that didn’t get the highest prices.  The Lander above (which I love) only went for £300.

And Crownfolio’s only purchase of the whole long day was this.

Bristol poster auction

Which is lovely – and was also one of the only posters not even to reach its estimate.   So perhaps it’s a good thing that railway poster collectors aren’t in it for the design, it may yet still leave a few bargains for those of us who are.

Why would you want to buy a poster?

I could say quite a lot about railwayana and other transport obsessives.  And even more about eBay.  But for now, it’s enough just to say that one reason to buy a poster might be to decorate your bus.  Yes, you heard me right there.

two bus posters

That’s why this eBay seller is suggesting you buy these.  The left hand one is a pretty grim bit of 1970s brown, but the other one isn’t bad at all, particularly for £1.99 + postage.  And there are nine, so you can all have one.  Even if you haven’t got a Routemaster.

The Lord Mayor’s Show poster is by Peter Roberson who did a fair amount for London Transport, including this

when did you last see your velasquez?

which is about as wonderfully 1956 as it is possible to be.