Folded over

So, time to tackle the vastly overdue heap of new books which need our attention.  First in line is a book I have mentioned a while back, Empire Marketing Board Posters by Melanie Horton.

Melanie Horton Empire Marketing Board cover

Now I am going to try to be as nice as I can about this book, but it’s going to be difficult given the format it comes in.  Because it’s been designed by someone who a) had a rather over-blown sense of his own importance in the process, and b) hates narrative.

Although this book might appear at first to have pages, they’re deceptive.

Empire Marketing Board book simple page spread

Instead it is laid out like an Ordnance Survey map on acid.  Some of the spreads fold out like this.

Empire Marketing Board book wide spread

Others fold out like this.

Empire Marketing Board book high spread

Which makes it almost impossible to follow the text.  I think it goes across the unfolded bits first and then into the bits in the middle, but even now I am not entirely sure.  The whole experience is like wandering about in a badly-laid out exhibition without any sense of where you are meant to be.  No, actually, it’s worse than that, because it’s a book.  I’m meant to understand books.

As a result, I don’t even know that I’ve read it properly.  Which is a shame as there are some good nuggets in there.  Like the fact that the Empire Marketing Board posters had their own special display frames, and posters were designed in sets to make the most of this format and changed every three weeks.

empire marketing board specialist poster frame image from book

Apologies for the cropping, the picture is bigger than the scanner.

Now this is interesting, because as we’ve discussed here before, the context in which posters are displayed can make a real difference to their meaning.  So these posters must have been perceived in a very different way to product advertising – I would imagine that they’d be seen much more as propaganda as a result.  But the EMB seemed quite happy with that, as this parliamentary exchange from July 1930 shows.

Mr. MANDER asked the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs why it is the policy of the Empire Marketing Board not to make use of the ordinary hoardings for their advertising campaign?

Mr. THOMAS The Board have from time to time employed the ordinary hoardings for the display of posters on special occasions. They are, however, satisfied that their own poster frames are better suited than the public hoardings to the special requirements of their main poster publicity campaign.

Although Hansard also tells us that some posters were displayed in other situations too.

The SECRETARY of STATE for DOMINION AFFAIRS (Mr. J. H. Thomas): During the 12 months ended 30th June, 1931, 16 new sets of posters have been displayed by the Empire Marketing Board on their special frames. In addition, one new poster for display on the commercial hoardings, and 12 new posters for display in shops, have been published.

F C HArrison Christmas Empire Marketing Board Poster

I wonder whether the British housewife was more likely to buy Empire raisins if they were advertised next to other products, or if they were lauded on those fantastic long displays?  And I wonder if the EMB ever did the research to find out?

The other interesting nugget is the provenance of the collection itself.  It seems the Manchester City Art Gallery collected them as part of an embryonic ‘Industrial Art Collection’, but this idea was short-lived, the posters disappeared into storage and were only rediscovered in the 1990s.  I’d love to know what, if anything else, was part of that collection.

But beyond this, I have a problem with the book, and it’s not just caused by the layout.  The Empire Marketing Board collection is a very difficult one because Empire is a disputed subject, and because some of the posters can only be seen as racist (for a fuller discussion of the issues, see here).

Frank pape Smoke Empire Tobaco

And as a state-funded museum in a multi-cultural city, Manchester City Art Gallery undoubtedly finds itself in a tricky position.  All of which I completely understand.  Unfortunately here all of this contemporary background seems to be getting in the way of the analysis.

Because this is a book in which Melanie Horton does everything except look at the posters themselves.  It divides into two halves, an explanation of the workings of the Empire Marketing Board, and then a very brief scamper through the different themes of the campaigns.  But at no stage does the text ever actually refer to an individual poster, what it shows or how it was designed and what this might have meant then, as well as what it means now.  The ideology that the Empire is bad and therefore all of these posters are morally contaminated comes first and foremost, regardless of the posters themselves. Indeed in places, her argument is rather undermined by the illustrations.  Asking whether the imagery of the posters was representative of the British people as a whole, she says,

They flattered their implied consumers by representing them as stylish, active and independent…

On the opposite page is this, And We’ll All Have Tea, by Keith Henderson

Keith Henderson And We'll All Have Tea

This sense that the posters are not doing what she wants them to do comes to a head in her conclusion.

The posters gave no space to anti-colonial criticism or to any other inconvenient truths that  may have detracted from their message.  Neither do they reflect the conflict and tension that had already come to characterise many parts of Enpire.

This is a bit like complaining that Shell posters don’t mention pollution, or that World War Two posters fail to give adequate space to the Nazi point of view.  They’re advertising, propaganda; it’s what they do.  To expect them to do anything else is absurd, and not a point of view that makes for very good history.

How visual culture like posters and other graphic design is studied is an interesting and unresolved question (there’s an interesting debate over at Design Observer right now).  But however we do it, surely we have to look at the objects themselves.  If we are only able to view them through the lens of our current perspectives, we’re not going to end up seeing very much at all.

The Volkswagen Problem

For some time I’ve been meaning to post a link to the Empire Marketing Board Archive at Manchester Art Gallery.

It’s an exemplary online resource for a really interesting collection.  The Empire Marketing Board was what Stephen Tallents did before he came to the GPO, and in many ways is one of the first attempts at the kind of ‘soft’ advertising and propaganda that we now take for granted.

Empire Marketing Board poster Christmas produce bear
Austin Cooper, 1927

In his time at the Empire Marketing Board between 1926 and 1933, Tallents (working with Frank Pick and William Crawford of Crawfords advertising agency) commissioned some of the very best designers and artists working in Britain at the time.  These included those such as Austin Cooper, Frank Newbould and Fred Taylor who were best known for their work for the railway companies,

Good Shopper Empire Marketing Board Poster Frank Newbould
Frank Newbould

as well as fine artists like Paul Nash.

Paul Nash Empire Marketing Board poster

But I’ve been holding off writing about it for months.  Why?  Because these posters constitute an ideological problem of the first order, and it’s not one I have an easy answer to.

The issue at stake is, of course, Empire.  The Manchester Art Gallery website describes the collection as ‘challenging and fascinating’.

Created during the 1920s and ’30s to promote trade and understanding between empire countries, the posters present a view of the British Empire that, from today’s perspective, is often uncomfortable.  Although visually stunning, the posters contain images that would today be considered offensive. As a product of their time, they raise difficult questions about the legacy of empire.

I’m not proposing to get into a discussion about the legacy of Empire and the historic wrongs involved.  What I’m interested in is how much ideology can adhere to images, in particular to these posters.

There is no denying that there are some posters in the collection which can only be interpreted as racism of the highest degree.  This vision of the white man bringing civilisation is by Adrian Allinson.

Allinson Empire Marketing Board poster African Transport

It gets worse, too – the implicit comparison is with the companion poster.

Allinson Empire Marketing Board African transport

But these posters are by no means in the majority in the archive.  To start with, a good portion of the posters are images of either produce,

Bacon Factory Empire Marketing Board poster

or pictures of Britain that wouldn’t look out of place on a railway poster.

Home Agricultural Show Empire Marketing Board poser
Gregory Brown

Or quite possibly both.

Frank Newbould Empire Marketing Board poster
Frank Newbould

So my questi0n is, can a poster like this Fred Taylor of Market Day be interpreted as loaded, racist even?

Fred Taylor Market Day Empire Marketing Board Poster

I’ve had quite an interesting email conversation about this with Melanie Horton, the researcher who’s been working on the archive.  She would argue that it is, that all the posters have to be seen as whole and cannot be separated from the politics of how they came to be produced.

I’m not going to tackle her arguments now as she has a booklet about the collection coming out soon (Empire Marketing Board Posters: Manchester Art Gallery ) and it only seems fair to read them in detail first.  But I do have a few broader thoughts to raise before then.

Because what we are debating here isn’t in any way a new question.  T.S. Eliot was undoubtedly a small-minded anti-semite, but does that devalue The Four Quartets, in which there is nothing of the sort?  Or if you want a more modern version of the same problem, try yesterday’s Guardian, where Brett Easton Ellis is freely admitting to misogyny, sexism and generally being a rather unappealing bit of work.  But what does that do to our opinion of his novels?  As it happens, I love The Four Quartets but loathe American Psycho, so my answer is different in each case.

But this problem also came up when I studied Design History, in perhaps its most taxing presentation.  Here it was known as the Volkswagen problem.  And it is quite a problem.

The Volkswagen Beetle is a great piece of design which produced one of the most popular small cars of the twentieth century, and was also technologically very innovative.  However it was also, and there is no too ways about this, a product of Nazi ideology.  As if the name Volkswagen itself wasn’t enough of a clue, the Beetle was originally known as the KdFwagen – the Strength Through Joy car. Adolf Hitler commissioned it, approved it and set it into production.   And yet we are not only prepared to forgive the Beetle, but clasp it to our hearts as one of the best-loved cars there has ever been.

Channel Island Pea Harvest poster Empire Marketing Board
Keith Henderson

So where does that leave images like these?

Oat Harvest Empire Marketing Board Poster
George Houston

Can we separate them out from how and when they were produced, and only see the oats and the peas and the pears?

Empire Marketing Board Poster

Or is it only the Volkswagen that can ever achieve that kind of forgiveness?