Poster pot

As if last week didn’t give you enough posters to fritter your monies away on, there are still more.  Really quite a lot more too.

First, Swann Galleries, whose auction is on 15th November.  Usually the appearance of a whole swathe of high quality London Underground posters on the other side of the Atlantic would be worth making a fuss over.  This time though, unfortunately for them, they’re in competition with the stellar collection on sale at Christies this month.  With the result that theirs don’t look quite as enticing.

Alma Faulkner vintage London Transport poster 1928
Alma Faulkner, 1928, est. $1,000-1,500

This may just be because I am jaded.  But I also think that there’s a different feel to this collection – a bit more pastel and bucolic, possibly even a bit more fey, which means that they don’t appeal to me as much.

Austin Cooper vintage London Transport poster out of doors 1923
Austin Cooper, 1923, est. $1,500-2,000

There are a few exceptions to this, though.  One is this wonderful piece of modernism by Andrew Power (which, the catalogue tells me, was a pseudonym used by Sybil Andrews, something I didn’t know).

Andrew Power wimbledon vintage london transport poster 1933
Andrew Power, 1933, est. $4,000-6,000

There is also this fabulous vision of modern transport.

Harold McCready vintage London transport tram poster 1930
Harold McCready, 1930, est. $1,200-1,800

Although it does make me very unsure about taking a tram, for fear of the large explosion when they all reach the centre.

Even further away in San Francisco, Poster Connection have only a handful British posters at all in their auction on 6th November.  Your starter for ten are two Frank Newboulds for the Ideal Home exhibition.

Frank Newbould 1928 vintage Ideal Home poster
Frank Newbould, 1928, est. $600.

My favourites are these two Lewitt-Hims for BOAC.

Lewitt Him vintage BOAC poster 1948
Lewitt Him, 1948, est. $400.

Vintage Lewitt Him BOAC poster 1948
Lewitt Him, 1948, est. $500

And there’s also a Games.

Abram Games BOAC poster 1949
Abram Games, 1949, est. $500

Plus a couple of interesting McKnight Kauffers too.

mcKnight Kauffre vintage American Airlines poster
McKnight Kauffer, 1948, est. $700.

Vintage McKnight Kauffer American Airlines poster
McKnight Kauffer, 1948, est. $800

The whole catalogue is worth looking at though, as they have put together a selection of the European greats, including Herbert Leupin, Donald Brun and Raymond Savignac.

Donald Brun 1949 Vintage poster
Donald Brun, 1949, est. $300

And I’ve rather taken a shine to these two by Max Bill, mainly because no one in Britain ever really did type like this and so I pine for it.

Max Bill vintage poster 1933
Max Bill, 1933, est. $1,700

Max Bill vintage poster 1933
Max Bill, 1933, est. $1,000

That’s not all, either.  G.W. Railwayana have an auction on 13 November (with no estimates in the catalogue, in case you wonder why I haven’t attached them).  For those of us who aren’t after Pictures of Trains, there are only a few curiosities, like this rather nice bit of early 1960s Ladybird book styling.

British Railways vintage poster barry 1961
Anonymous, 1961

Although this is rather nice – it’s half of a pair poster of London’s Street Markets, from 1949 and would be a lovely thing to look at every day.

London Street Markets vintage poster 1949 AR Thomson
A R Thomson, 1949.

I’m pointing out these GPO Schools posters, simply because they’ve come up for discussion here last week.

Keeping in Touch, the post office in town vintage poster 1960s

These (there’s another one too) are quite late, 1960s, and not very appealing if you ask me (we had some, no idea why, and sold them).

But, if you’re interested in piecing together the archaeology of poster display, this little lot is quite interesting, even though it isn’t a poster.

Poster Paste pots

They’re poster paste pots, designed, I suppose, to be non-spill and to get just the right amount of paste on your Tom Purvis.  What’s particularly interesting is that one, unsurprisingly has  GWR on it.  But the other says Waterlows – who were of course one of the great printers of posters.  So is this a very early promotional gift?  I need to know.

And finally, who wouldn’t want to be Babycham Coal Queen of 1980?

I am speechless

Yours with Scotland For Me (7 assorted); Visit Moscow; Manchester plus others.  A bargain in the making.

Modern or British?

“It may be clever and modern and progressive.  But it certainly isn’t English.”

That’s the incomparable Patrick Wright quoting from a ‘heritage journal’ called This England.  He’s talking about landscape and memory, but it struck a chord with me.

Because ever since I wrote about Paul Rennie’s Modern British Posters, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between modernism and British design.  It’s a very important undercurrent in the book, but one that he only spells out at the end.

Our collecting began, back in about 1982, with an interest in modern design. We discovered that, where the market existed, it was conceptualised around an idea of modernism as an international phenomenon of people, ideas and products that connected Moscow, Berlin, Paris and New York. In 1982, the words British and Modernism seemed like a contradiction in terms… Our interest in graphic design quickly began to define itself as an attempt to gather together irrefutable material evidence of British Modernism.

McKnight Kauffer BP Ethyl poster 1933

So in essence, the whole book – and of course the Rennies’ whole collection of posters around which it is based – is didactic.  His argument is for the existence of a specifically British approach to modernism, from early McKnight Kauffer to late Eckersley.

Tom Eckersley Cutty Sark London Transport 1963

There can be no doubt that this home-grown kind of modernism existed; the evidence is there in the shape of posters like these (Powers, 1934 and anon, 1938) and many, many more.  Just take a look at the book.

Powers Aldershot Tattoo poster

Anonymous LT swimming poster

Rennie is in good company when he wants to place Britain within the modernist tradition, as it’s a path that many other writers have taken before him.  Pevsner’s Pioneers of Modern Design has exactly the same aim.  Here the argument is that Voysey, Owen Jones and even William Morris are the fore-runners of German architectural, steel and glass, functional modernism.

But Rennie and Pevsner have more in common than just that.  They position themselves as swimming against the tide, having to make an argument for a kind of modernism which isn’t seen as naturally British.  (In the case of posters, it isn’t very British anyway; emigree designers must outnumber the home-grown modernists by at least three to one, but that’s another story for another day).

Edward McKnight Kauffer GPO poster
Edward McKnight Kauffer, GPO, 1937

This isn’t a view that only applies to buildings or posters, either.  It’s been said that Utility furniture scheme during World War Two and after was a chance for modernism to be imposed on the unsuspecting British public, who weren’t showing much inclination to embrace it any other way.  It’s also possible to argue (as I have before) that much modernism in posters operates in the same way.  During the 1930s institutions such as the GPO,  London Transport and Shell commissioned modern design in a seemingly medicinal fashion, because it was Good For the general public.

Graham Sutherland Shell poster
Graham Sutherland

I’m intrigued most, though, by what’s implicit here.  If modernism is seen as improving, then what is it trying to make better?  If modern design is being imposed on mainstream taste, then what is this style that it’s fighting against?  Can we say  what exactly is this natural British design?

Strangely, the answers to these questions aren’t as easy to find out as you might imagine.  Design history tends, even now, to think in terms of the narrative of modernism alone.  It’s a clean-lined and minimalist version of the Whig view of history, in which everything leads towards the ultimate fulfillment of civilisation, which can only be some  monochrome combination of Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus and Helvetica Neue standing triumphant over the death of ornament.  All of which tends to create some oddities in the stories they tell.

One is a kind of tortured argument, as designs and designers are jemmied into place to fit the party line.  Tim Mowl (a man who knows; his book Stylistic Cold Wars: Betjeman Versus Pevsner is worth quite a lot of your time, if not the £69.99 that someone wants for it on Amazon) calls Pevsner’s attempts to turn William Morris into a proto-modernist “obvious nonsense”.  Harsh, but fair.

Modern British Posters isn’t having to strain so hard, as the designs were there.  But, in Britain, if you only write about the modernist experience, quite a few designers and posters don’t make the cut.  Like railway posters, for example.

Alnwick castle fred taylor railway poster 1933
Fred Taylor, 1933

Because this is the other problem with surveying the material world only through the lens of modernism, particularly in Britain.  The vast majority of objects don’t get seen.  If you wanted to find out what furniture people who didn’t care for the Bloomsbury Set and pale wood were buying just before the war, or how the average, non-Arts-and-Crafts Victorian papered their walls, you’d be hard pressed to find out.  The books won’t tell you and nor, in the main, will the museums either (The Geffrye Museum is a notable democratic exception here).

It’s not even as though these things are criticised, or even described.  They are invisible, utterly absent from the story.

Yet such objects did exist, in their hundreds and thousands, these wing-back chairs and flock wallpapers, these Crown Derby dinner sets and aspidistra stands.  Which takes us back to the question I asked earlier.  Exactly what is ordinary British taste if it isn’t modern?  And if we don’t know, how can we find out?

These questions aren’t here just to be difficult (although of course that is part of the fun).  I’m also raising them because, perhaps, posters can give us some clues.

After all, not all graphic design flew the modernist flag.  In the same year that McKnight Kauffer produced his machine age version of BP petrol above, 1933, there were other styles and other designers at work too.  I’ve raided the National Railway Museum’s collection to find a selection from the same year.

Some of them are modernism incarnate.

Midland Hotel Railway poster 1933

While others act like it had never happened at all.

Railway Poster Frank Mason 1933
Frank Mason

Meanwhile yet more are modern, but at the same time not modernist.

Snowdonia Charles H Baker railway poster 1933
Charles H Baker

This view is about as far from a celebration of steel, movement and urban frenzy as it is possible to get.  But at the same time it is still modern.  Go figure.

There are many many more too, from Fred Taylor to lesser known artists like Margaret Hordern below.

Fred Taylor, Jervaulx abbey railway poster

Margaret Hordern Railway poster 1933.

Now it’s not an accident that I’ve chosen railway posters as a comparison.  Because railway posters were popular.  They were popular then, when they were sold over the counter as art as well as being displayed in stations. (There’s a good description of how this worked in Yale’s Art for All book if you’re interested).

And they’re popular now.  Railway posters are probably the most collected and traded posters there are (and if you take eBay as any kind of sample, they’re certainly the most reproduced and pirated too).  Lots of people like railway posters, and I suspect they like them for all the reasons I’ve railed against them before.  They’re pretty, nice to hang on the wall, they look like a proper picture.  And by far the most popular of all are the pictures of the countryside.

Somerset Frank Newbould 1936
Frank Newbould, 1936

Which starts to give us some clues about the nature of mainstream British taste.  It’s not the first time that this has been said, but railway posters seem to suggest that it prefers the rural to the urban, likes representation and tradition.  In which case, by the by,  modernism, with its paens to the city and the machine, never was going to have much of a chance, was it?

Now I know that this is an immensely contentious generalisation, and I’m rather hoping that lots of people will pile in with examples to prove me wrong.

But for the moment I still think it holds water; I might even argue that mainstream British taste hasn’t changed a whole heap since 1933 or before.  It still prefers the rural to the city, it likes flowers, leaves and pictures of things it can recognise.  And it still gets mostly ignored by writers and designers, architects and museums.  But you can easily find it if you look.  Here for example.

Interior of National Trust shop

The inside of a National Trust shop.  Does it get any more British than that?

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?

It’s the economy, stupid

At least that’s my theory. I can’t account for the Onslows’s sale otherwise.  More posters than usual didn’t sell, or didn’t make their reserves, and very few indeed made more than their estimate.  It seems that after two weeks of hearing about nothing but austerity budgets and cost-cutting across the board, everyone is now too frightened to spend money on posters.

There were a few honourable exceptions.  This World War Two poster reached £420, from an original estimate of £100-150.

Lend a Hand on the Land WW2 poster fron onslows

I don’t quite know why; plenty of other wartime posters didn’t sell that well, or at all, and it’s not even a particular design classic – I prefer the idea of the Londoner’s Land Club (which I would join in a flash if it still existed) to the actual poster itself.

A few other categories did well – Munich Olympics posters, and a smattering of French things and old things that I can’t get too excited about.  This Frank Sherwin poster also went for £20 over its £600 high estimate.

Frank Sherwin Redcar British Railway poster from Onslows

But many classic railway posters weren’t as popular as they might have been.  Lots of Terence Cuneos and landscape Quad Royals were passed over.  As was this delightful chap, from Studio Seven.

Studio Seven British railways Dogs Need Tickets too poster 1957 Onslows

I’d have thought him irresistable, but not even cute can sell in a recession it seems.

Mind you, I can see why there might be a shortage of buyers here.  After Morphets and Bloomsbury’s big railway poster sale in New York, I imagine quite a few collectors may have spent over their annual budget already.  Or they may just have auction fatigue.  I’m getting quite close to it, and I’ve hardly bought anything.

There were some exceptions to the general trend though.  The Shell Educational Posters all did well, almost all of them selling at their £50-70 estimates.

Shell Guide to Sussex poster Rowland Hilder from Onslows

Which is possibly surprising, because the set on eBay which I blogged about recently, have almost entirely failed to sell for £60 each.  (Should you fancy a bargain, they’re now coming round again at a more enticing £39.99 each.)

Other than that, the strange rule of the poster world was once again proven, which is that original artworks are less valuable than the mass-produced reproductions that sprang from them.  (Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr Benjamin).  There were a whole set – nine in total – of Frank Newbould railway safety posters.  Each one paired the poster with the artwork and one or more original design treatments.

Frank Newbould Railway safety posters with original design onslows

You’d have thought it would be a museum or a collector’s dream; but none of them made their £150-200 estimate, and a few failed to sell altogether.  I’d love to know where they came from.

Also of interest is that a selection of 1960s London Underground posters (like this 1963 Frank Dobson) almost entirely went for £55-60 each.

Frank Dobson bus tour poster for London Transport 1963

Which perhaps makes the estimates at the Morphets sale look more reasonable, a thought which quite perks me up.  Perhaps I’d better go and order that truck then…

But if you fancy buying any posters in the meantime, Onslows will consider offers on any of the unsold lots, so take a look, there may be a bargain or two to be had.

Disclaimer:  this is an entirely personal view and has probably missed lots of interesting prices out.  Please feel free to point them out, or to suggest any other theories you may have about why auctions and prices are as they are.

Horses, sorry, modernism for all

Crownfolio is thinking of going to France.  Actually, I’ve been thinking about my holidays for some time, but now it looks as though I’m going to have to plan another trip as well, and all because of this exhibition.

It’s called Art for All, and it’s an exhibition of British transport posters at the Yale Center for British Art, which is a part of the University.

Now at first I found myself a bit surprised and bemused that Yale could be bothered to have a collection of transport posters (a bequest, apparently see below*).  But then I look at something like this 1932 Newbould,

Frank Newbould Harrogate vintage railway poster 1932

and realise that it’s not a million miles away from a Stubbs or a Gainsborough in its depiction of a very specific kind of horsey Britishness.

To be fair to them, though, the exhibition – or at least the collection of images that they’ve chosen to promote it – isn’t packed to the gills with landscapes and posh people.  In fact, if anything, it’s more on the side of modernism.    There’s plenty of McKnight Kauffer, and also these delightfully a-typical Newboulds from 1933 (I wonder if he got bored of fields, villages and market towns too).

Frank Newbould, East Coast Frolics 1933

The Jazz Age made incarnate by fish.  You can’t beat that, can you.  Or this Tom Purvis, with an unusually subtle colour-scheme.

Tom Purvis East Coast LNER poster  1928

I also like the fact that the curators don’t seem to believe that all good design evaporated after the Second World War.  They’ve included this 1956 Unger,

Unger Tower of London vintage London transport poster 1956

As well as this even later – 1965 – Abram Games.

Abram Games vintage London Transport poster

Even better, they’ve not just gone for name designers and known posters.  Also included is this 1933 gem by Anna Katrina Zinkeisen.

Zinkeisen_Mortor-Cycle-and-Cycle-Show, vintage London Transport poster, 1934

All of these were part of the Henry S Hacker bequest to Yale.  I think I rather like his taste.

So, if you are in the U.S., it would be worth quite a detour to see this lot  – and more, there are over 100 in the show in total.  The show runs from next week until August 15th, so you’ve got plenty of time.  And if you do make it, I’d love to hear what it’s like.

If you’ve been wondering in the meantime why I’m thinking French thoughts, it’s because the exhibition transfers to the Musée de L’Imprimerie, Lyon, France: October 15, 2010–February 13, 2011.  Which is slightly more accessible by Eurostar than Yale.

But if even that seems too daunting, there’s also a book – Art for All: British Posters for Transport (Yale Center for British Art).  More on that when it arrives.

*Thanks to a very forgiving email from Henry Hacker himself, I now know that it isn’t a bequest, and that Henry Hacker is still very happily collecting posters.  Which makes his gifts even more generous.

There’s no escaping this

Not with BBC iPlayer, there isn’t.  So for those of you who managed to be out there having a life on Sunday evening, and thus are still skipping around with joy in your hearts and a twinkle in your eye, here is five minutes of television to turn your gills green with envy.

It’s the Antiques Roadshow (available there for another 4 days or so).

At about 52 minutes in, you will find a man who accidentally bought 100+ vintage travel posters for 50p as an eleven year old.  Watch away, then feel free to whine and gnash your teeth along with me in the comments box.  And also tell me whether or not you think the valuation is just a bit on the high side.

For those of you who are outside the UK and thus barred from the wonder that is the BBC iPlayer, here is an executive summary.  Man goes to auction as 11 year old,  buys nondescript roll of paper which is part of job lot, ends up with 120 or so travel and other posters.  There were only 9 of his haul on show on the programme; starting with two liner posters that I’m not that fussed about, but then moving on to two Frank Newboulds for the GPO, one of which was a close relative of this one, if not identical, and neither of which I’ve ever seen before.

Frank Newbould telephone your order GPO vintage poster

Then there was a McKnight Kauffer of Buckingham Palace.

McKnight Kauffer vintage London Transport poster Buckingham Palace

And four posters by Jean Dupas, all of which look to me like book covers for Evelyn Waugh novels,

Dupas LPTB vintage poster riverside

but which are, if you want to be a bit nerdy about them, noteworthy for having the very short lived LPTB logo on them (public demand soon brought back the roundel).

Interestingly, all of these posters date from 1934.  Even more interestingly, if you’re the owner, the show’s expert valued them at £30,000+.  (I’d quite like another opinion on that, especially these days.  Or maybe she buys all her posters from Mayfair dealers.)  Then that was it, and we’re back to Fiona Bruce for another lame link.

There, now it’s just like you watched the programme, isn’t it?