Designer’s eye

So here I am submerged in house renovations when there are poster auctions which I need to tell you about.  First in the line, mainly because it’s in just a few days time, is the forthcoming Swann Auction of Modernist Posters.

Now, with their being in New York, there are usually only one or two items of interest for us in a Swann auction, things like this, which although wonderful are somewhat outside the Quad Royal remit.

WALTER ALLNER (1909-2006) SUISSE ÉTÉ / WAGONS - LITS // COOK. travel poster
Allner, est. $1,500-2,000

HERBERT MATTER (1907-1984) ALL ROADS LEAD TO SWITZERLAND. 1935 travel poster
Matter, 1938, est. $2,000-3000

There are also a set of Theyre Lee-Elliott posters for the embryonic British Airways.


M26145-31 001

M26145-29 001

All three are from 1938 and estimated at $800-1,200.  While we’re on the subject of British Airways, there is also this, which is apparently a very early example of photography in an airline poster.

Anonymous, c.1938, est. $800-1,200

If only flying were so glamorous now.

The main reason we’re here, however,  is lots 185-222 which are, in the main, from the collection of F H K Henrion.  There is one piece of his own work.

FREDERIC KAY HENRION (1914-1990) ARMY EXHIBITION. 1943. propaganada poster
F H K Henrion, 1943, est. $600-900

But what’s really going on is Henrion looking at the work of his fellow designers.  So there are examples from Reginald Mount, Pat Keely, Hans Schleger, Eckersley and many others – so many that I can’t include all of the ones I like.

REGINALD MOUNT (1906-1979) BONES MAKE EXPLOSIVES. Circa 1944.  world war two poster
Reginald Mount, 1944, est. $600-900

Pat Keely, 1941, est. $400-600

Hans Schleger, 1940, est. $400-600

As well as a substantial selection of Abram Games’ designs; I don’t know if they were friends or whether Henrion was a particular admirer of his work.

ABRAM GAMES (1914-1996) RADIOLOCATION. 1941. World war two poster
Abram Games, 1941, est. $2,000-3,000

ABRAM GAMES (1914-1996) CIVIL RESETTLEMENT UNITS. 1945. army poster
Abram Games, 1945, est. $700-1,000

Abram Games, 1955, est. $2,000-3,000

I’ve even found a rare example of an Ashley Havinden poster.

Ashley Havinden, 1950, est. $400-600

Not everything is by a big name, either.  This very striking wartime image is simply by A.R., about whom I can tell you nothing.

A.R., 1941, est. $500-750

Henrion clearly never stopped looking at posters and thinking about them as long as he worked, because there are a host of later examples too.

ALAN FLETCHER (1931-2006) D & AD 21ST. 1983. poster

So I strongly suggest you go over there and take a peek, not only for the insight into a designer looking, but also because Swann’s catalogues are properly written and informative.

MANFRED REISS (1922-1987) BE COURTEOUS. Circa 1955.  ROSPA poster
Manfred Reiss, 1955, est. $400-600

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to order a skip.

Lend a hand

There’s a certain inevitability about the fact that now I’ve written the Home Front Posters book, a whole heap of new information about World War Two posters has popped up in various places.  This isn’t entirely a painful discovery, and not just because I am now resigned to the fact that while research could go on indefinitely, books do have deadlines.  Because today’s exhibit is that particular joy, a brand new archive.

What’s happened is that the National Archives have digitised a significant chunk of their wartime posters and are distributing them via Wikipedia.  (There’s a full explanation here if you want to know more).  It’s very exciting because there are a large number in there that I’ve never seen before.  Here’s a rather nice Dorrit Dekk to begin with.

Dorrit Dekk World War Two propaganda poster Staggered Holidays

This isn’t just an act of altruism but also a kind of crowd-sourcing, because the archives don’t have much information about many of these posters and they’re asking for people to help with everything from attributions to translation of foreign-language posters.

Part of the challenge, particularly with matching artists to designs is that these aren’t printed posters but the original artworks, quite often without the signatures that the finished item would have.  So it ends up being a process more like finding the provenance of a painting.  For example, we have this Eileen Evans, signed.

Lend a Hand on the Land Eileen Evans World War Two propaganda poster

Which makes it a fairly reasonable guess that these two posters in the National Archives are also by her.

Lend a Hand potato harvest farming holiday camp poster artwork eileen evans national archives ministry of information

Lend a hand with the potato harvest farming holiday camp world war two poster eileen evans ministry of information artwork

In fact I’m confident enough about that to have amended the description for each of those.

Only 350 of the 2,000 designs in the National Archives have been uploaded so far, but what’s already striking is how many of these I’ve never even seen before.  Take this Pat Keely for example.

Pat Keely wait for daylight world war two blackout poster artwork national archives

I think he owes McKnight Kauffer an acknowledgement on that one. Keely’s quite well-represented in the selection that are up so far, again often with previously unseen posters.

Cross at the lights world war two blackout poster national archives Pat Keely

What’s difficult, though, is to interpret what these previously unknown designs actually mean.  Are these for posters which were printed but are as yet unreported – whether that is because a copy never survived, or perhaps does exist but has not yet been digitised by the Imperial War Museum?  Or are they designs which were not actually ever produced?  In many ways. my bet would be on the latter.  Artworks which never went to the printers would be far more likely to survive.

Then on the other hand, this artwork is in there, for a poster which was very definitely printed in quite large numbers.

Make do and mend world war two poster ministry of information artwork

There’s not an obvious conclusion to be had.  Except perhaps that – because of wartime haste, limited record-keeping and the only accidental survival of what were intended to be very ephemeral bits of paper – we’ll probably never have the definitive list of World War Two Home Front posters, never mind their dates and artists.

It’s also worth remembering that this collection is very partial. The artworks all came from the Ministry of Information, but they were by no means the sole source of posters during the war.  Both National Savings and the Ministry of Food, two of the highest-spending departments at the time, commissioned their own advertising, so very few of their designs, if any, would turn up in the MoI’s archives.   And that’s without considering other poster producers, from British Railways to the Army.  Even so, there are still some delightful surprises in there.  It may not be the greatest design ever – apparently by the mysterious Xenia – but I love the idea of Village Produce Associations a lot.

Xenia poster artwork village produce associations

So I am very happy to report that Google reveals many VPA’s founded during the war are still going today.  Hurrah.

That kind of continuity after the war is also apparent in the poster designs.  It’s easy to believe, as I’ve said on here before, that all wartime posters stopped as soon as hostilities ceased, but that’s far from the truth.  Many campaigns, from salvage to fuel saving, just continued unchanged.  This fuel saving poster – in the great tradition of bossy shouty slogans – could date from during or after the war.

Turn that Gas down World War Two austerity fuel saving poster national archives

Other campaigns, meanwhile, were reversioned for the peace.

Dig for Plenty world war two poster reversioned for austerity post war national archives

Dig for plenty world war two austerity poster national archives artwork

It’s also fascinating to see some of the very definitely post-war designs produced by the new Labour Government to persuade people that the continuing austerity was necessary – a much harder job than wartime propaganda.

We work or want post world war two propaganda poster national archives

Wages and salaries can only go up with production post war propaganda poster national archives

These seem to me to be much rarer than the wartime posters, presumably because, by this stage of post-war austerity, no one at all wanted to keep them as a souvenir.

There’s plenty more to be seen in there too – including this Percy Drake Brookshaw artwork for – well for what?

Percy Drake Brookshaw apple picking artwork for something national archives

So why not take a look and see what I’ve missed out.


It’s 1959, OK

This has been sitting on my desk for a few weeks.

Furnishing Your Home 1959

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not a great example of graphic design nor interior styling.  But it has been making me think.

Because this is Autumn 1959, the calendar is about to turn over into the 1960s.  That’s not the only thing which is going to change either, as there’s a new design style in the offing too.  You can see it here, the splayed legs of the contemporary have become straight, the acid bright colour contrasts have become more muted, the typefaces starting to go less Victorian, more sleek (although that yellow script is still hanging on grimly from the jollier 1950s).

In short, what seems to be happening here is that Britain is, finally, getting the hang of International Modernism.  Here’s another dose of it for you, a G Plan room from from 1962 (and while I’m here, I can’t commend its source, the High Wycombe Furniture Archive, too highly, at least if you want to look at industrial quantities of G Plan and Ercol furniture).

High Wycombe G PLan room 1962

Robin Day was doing this kind of thing even earlier than that, as I’ve mentioned on here before.

Robin Day exhibition stand for ICI Royal Agricultural Show

It’s the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion reconfigured in Shepton Mallet; not something which happens often enough really.

Seeing as this claims to be a blog about graphics, here’s a a couple of more relevant examples, by Reginald Mount from 1962 and Hans Unger from 1966.

Reginald Mount vintage CoI poster 1962 home safety

Hans Unger vintage 1966 GPO poster

I also think the Sainsbury’s graphics also represent a similar trend – no, they are what a modernist supermarket ought to look like, albeit one modulated through the idiosyncratic colour choices of the 1960s and 70s.

Sainsburys Own Label biscuit genius

and cornflake modernism

Now – and this may be a deficiency in my reading rather than anything else – I don’t think I’ve ever seen the 1960s described in these terms.  As Pop art, yes, as Mod, that too.  But not as modernism. Have I missed this somewhere?  And can you point to it if I have?  Because I think I’d like to know some more.

Having said all that, in the interests of balance I do have to report that a cruise through our posters, at least, also reveals a huge quantity of design which does not conform to this theory in the slightest – take this 1967 London Underground poster as just one of many examples.

Vintage London Transport poster 1967 Christopher Hill Chalk Downland landscape of the gods

The British love of both landscape and whimsy tends to trip up the modernist impulse in graphic design perhaps more than in other places.

Then there was psychedelia to take on board shortly afterwards to boot.

Properly Packed Parcels Please tom bund 1968

So perhaps the argument holds more true for interiors.  Or perhaps it’s not the case at all.  But I would like someone elses’s thoughts please.

Quite a Lot

Incoming at Crownfolio Towers has been the story this week.

Three times in the last couple of weeks a job lot of posters has come up on eBay and, as no one else seemed to want them very much, three times they’ve ended up as ours.  Net result, more posters than one household strictly needs (35 in total, if you must ask).

So we are now the go-to people for vintage dental hygiene,

Vintage 1950s dental hygiene poster Ministry of Health CoI HMSO

food hygiene posters

Vintage Food Hygiene posters Ministry of Health CoI

and 1960s road safety messages.

Dixon of Dock Green RoSPA cycling proficiency poster

Lucky old us.

Now, these kinds of lots are interesting for a whole heap of reasons, many of which I’ve gone over on here before.  They’re a window into sets of posters which might otherwise have disappeared entirely.  I can’t imagine there are too many collectors of posters about dustbin hygiene management, to start with.

Ministry of Health vintage 1950s dustbin hygiene poster CoI

Or supersized flies.

Guard food against flies vintage CoI Ministry of Health poster

Lots are also interesting because they tend to preserve bad posters along with the good, and quite a few of the posters we have bought are, if I’m honest, second-rate.  But then, if we’re just writing about what’s graphically appealing, is that a proper reflection of what really happened? To start with, we’re writing a story that’s going to change every time tastes alter.  Although some posters might never make it back into fashion.

Rabbit Teeth Matter vintage tooth care poster

If they were ever there in the first place.

What’s more, there’s quite often something to be learned from seeing a group of posters together, even if it’s just the taste of the person who collected them at the time.  These lots offer an insight into some of the less glamourous jobs the CoI were doing in the 1950s and 1960s.

CoI ministry of health vintage food hygiene poster

While the RoSPA posters do give a real sense of an entire campaign, probably at about the same sort of time.

Vintage ROSpa road safety poster 1960s

Vintage RoSPA road safety poster 1960s

Vintage RoSPA road safety poster 1960s

All of which is the intellectual justification, but an even bigger reason for buying job lots like these is the hope, never far from the mind of the collector, that lurking in the pile might be a hidden gem.  And we did get lucky this time; the dental health set included this Reginald Mount which I’ve never seen before.

REginald Mount tooth care poster for ministry of Health CoI 1950s

Which considering that the entire set only cost us 55p, really has to be a bargain.

I also quite like this RoSPA poster, even if it is a bit battered.

Vintage RoSPA road safety poster 1950s

But for us, lots have a particular compulsion.  This is because, once upon a few years ago, we bought a huge lot of posters from eBay, based only on a single shot of a pile of posters spread on someone’s floor. Admittedly that pile did seem to contain a Guinnes poster, two 1950s London Transport posters and quite a bit more, so we bet quite a lot of money on it, having both promised each other that there would be no recriminations if it turned out that we had spent a lot of money on a pile of rubbish.

Fortunately, it was worth every penny. Below are just a couple of the unexpected joys that came out of the package when it finally arrived.

Macfish of lovelyness by zero

Sheila Robinson poster as part of heap

There were plenty more too – most of the classics in our collection came from that one single purchase.

We’ll probably never get anything like that again. But even so, it’s still almost impossible to pass on a lot of posters when we see one, just in case.

The New Wave

I thought I’d said pretty much everything I could say about Sotherans by now, in particular about the unlikelihood of being able to sell posters at such prices in a world where, thanks to the internet, everyone should agree on what a poster is worth.   But it seems that modern technology  has made precisely no difference at all to their business model, because this year they have once again produced a new catalogue, and the prices are just as jaw-dropping as they have ever been.

Anglesey Norman Wilkinson LMS Poster 1930
Norman Wilkinson, 1930, £1,995 – sold

So far, so not news.  But this set of posters is worth taking a look at, because it marks an interesting change in the focus of the company, and so perhaps also a movement in the market more generally.

It is true that they still begin with the traditional railway landscape/Terence Cuneo favourites that we have come to know, like this Somerset poster by Jack Merriott.

Jack Merriott Somerset British Railways vintage poster 1960
Jack Merriott, 1960, £1,500

I do also have to note that this Somerset British Railways Map is apparently £760, unbacked, mostly because we bought one for £16.99 on eBay a while back.

JP Sayers British Railways Somerset Map
J P Sayers, 1937, £765

And then sold it for £56 a few years later.  I thought we’d done well, but clearly not.

But there aren’t as many of these as you’d expect.  Very soon the catalogue shifts into an entirely different gear, one which might be called cheerful British kitsch.

Bexhill on Sea vintage british railways poster 1961
Anonymous,1961, £800

In fact a few pages in the catalogue look more like a romp through Quad Royal than an up-market poster sale.

Page from sotherans catalogue

There are some good posters in here – I did actually type great and then deleted it, because mostly they’re not.  They’re bright, they’re very 1950s, but what they are not is classic graphic design (although I might just have to make an exception for a this stick of rock).

Eastbourne vintage travel poster 1950 Bromfield British Railways
Bromfield, 1950, £685 – sold

What’s really interesting though is that almost all of them have sold, and for prices that they just wouldn’t reach anywhere else.

Southport, vintage British Railways travel poster 1965
Anonymous, 1965 (??), £485

The interest in this style is not entirely a new thing.  When I first started going to poster auctions in about 2002, Christies had just started selling these kinds of poster, and they were doing very well in the their auctions too.  But when Christies introduced their new £800 minimum lot price, this rather ruled them out.  Clearly though, as this catalogue shows, the demand for them hasn’t gone away.

R M Lander come to hastings by train vintage british railways poster 1962
Lander, 1962, £685 – sold

Sotherans could be accused of pushing it to the limit, mind you.  As I’ve mentioned before, these two Harry Stevens posters are not exactly rare.

Harry Stevens vintage London Transport poster Travel Enquiries
Harry Stevens, 1974, £85 – sold

HArry Stevens litter vintage 1974 London Transport poster
Harry Stevens, 1974, £85 – sold

In fact they have been swilling all over eBay for some time.  Right now you can buy a framed copy of the top poster for £21 should you wish, and a portrait version of the lower one for £23.  Which does make me wonder whether Sotheran’s buyers are too foppish and tweedy to have come across the internet at all.

But it goes further.  There are a slew of posters on there without much in the way of merit.

Birthday Savings vintage post office savings bank poster Rex Moreton 1960
Rex Moreton, 1960, £195 – sold

Happy and Carefree vintage Post office savings bank poster GPO 1960
Anonymous, c.1960, £125

They’ve sold too, when you’d struggle to get a tenner for them on eBay.  Really, who are these people? And how can I sell them some posters?

To be fair, there are also one or two nice GPO posters in there too, like this Eric Fraser.

Eric Fraser, vintage GPO poster, Neutron generator c1930-40
Eric Fraser, c.1930-40, £225

Along with one or two good LT ones too.

Peter Roberson London Museums vintage London Transport poster 1956
Peter Roberson, 1956, £500

Enid Marx vintage London Transport poster 1965 The Science Museum
Enid Marx, 1965, £500

Although this William Fenton has to be in the ‘stretching it to get a tenner on eBay’ category.

William Fenton dull bus vintage London Transport poster of dull buses
William Fenton, 1969, £250

While you’d have to pay me to take this one away.

Bus Stop Poster 1970
Anonymous, 1970, £55

Worth noting too is this Mount Evans, which has to be one of the better pieces of post war design in the whole catalogue.

Mount Evans Britain CoI poster 1967
Mount/Evans, 1967, £350

The style is modern rather than kitsch, but it still represents the same movement away from landscapey railway posters and towards something more interesting (at least if you’re me).

So what does it all mean?  My first guess would have been that the world is running out of railway posters and so dealers like Sotherans have been forced to diversify.  But in fact, it’s the more modern posters which have been selling for them, leaving more traditional fare like the Somerset posters still for sale.  So this must be what people, even the rareified breed who go to Sotherans want these days.  Which is probably worth noting, not least because it gives the rest of us a good chance to do some upselling from eBay.

Now, I would send you off to the Sotherans catalogue to take a look at what’s sold for yourself.  But literally while I was typing this post, they took that page down, although you can still see an online version of the print catalogue.  So I think that more of the posters than I have listed are sold, but I’m not able to check that any more.  They have, however, replaced it with a new set of posters for sale, including a very interesting set of GPO Savings posters. I’ll take a proper look at them (and their prices) soon, but if you want to take a peek before then, you can find them here.

Don’t mention (all of) the war

Back in my student days, now rather some time ago, I was sent to chaperone some Belgian friends of the family when they made a short visit to London, to assist with the language and the mysteries of the London Underground. There are three things that I remember clearly from this trip: a meal out at an Aberdeen Steakhouse (an experience I have never found it necessary to repeat), seeing what was apparently ‘the last bomb site in the City of London’ on a guided tour, and taking them to the Imperial War Museum. From the last I brought back souvenirs, postcards of World War Two posters.

Vintage World War Two Make do and Mend poster c1943

This has to have been one of the experiences which turned me into a poster collector, although at the time I had no idea that such a thing was even possible. I just bought the postcards and stuck them on the wardrobe door in my student rooms.

James Fitton Turn Over A New Leaf vintage world war two posters

I have said this before, but it is very satisfying to now have a genuine copy of the James Fitton hanging on the wall when it was one of the ones which I had picked out as a postcard.

But this isn’t just an anecdote about one of the ways in which I discovered posters, I remembered it because I’ve been thinking about how World War posters are used.  Both then and now, it seems that we only want to see in them a highly selective version of the Home Front experience. This is something I say about poster history often enough, but I do find these choices and omissions particularly revealing.  There were a huge number of posters produced during the war, and so the relatively few we pick out end up telling us as much about ourselves and our present day anxieties as it does about the war.  After all, why would we need propaganda anyway these days?

Churchill speech vintage world war two propaganda poster

That there is a ‘myth’ around this era, a vision of World War Two as the high point of the British nation when everyone pulled together selflessly and class-consciousness disappeared in the heat of the battle, is not a new idea. It was first expounded by Angus Calder in The Myth Of The Blitz in 1991 and is now an established part of historical thinking about the period.

Myths don’t arise just by accident, though, they always have their uses. Calder, in his preface, is completely open about why he wants to question the established story of Britain during the War,

My anger, firstly over the sentimentalisation of 1940 by Labour apologists, then over the abuse of ‘Churchillism’ by Mrs Thatcher during the Falklands War, led me to seek, every which way, to undermine the possibility of the mythical narrative.

Even though Calder exposed its mechanics, the myth has refused to disappear. The darkest days of World War Two still represent an apotheosis of Britishness, and one of the ways by which we maintain this idea is through the Home Front posters that we choose to like.

People certainly do like them. Not only do they fetch increasingly high sums at auction when they appear, but a single Home Front poster, Keep Calm and Carry On, has become the Athena poster for the start of the twenty-first century, reproduced, parodied, everywhere. So why do we want to keep repeating these stories, and what use are they to us now?

Keep calm and Carry on original image 1939 not the reworking

The core belief is the same as it was when Calder described it:

a myth of British or English moral pre-eminence, buttressed by British unity.

This is still the ideal which has singlehandedly sold almost every copy of Keep Calm and Carry On. But there is not just pride in our achievements here, behind it also lurks anxiety. We wouldn’t need to keep reminding ourselves that Britain was once great if that was still indisputably true. The fear is now that we may be a second-tier nation, dependent on others; perhaps also we are afraid that we have lost our traditional grace under pressure. Perhaps, even, we are afraid that if we were tested so severely again we might be defeated this time. And so we need to keep reassuring ourselves with the story of the war and how well we did.

These are thoughts which are not often articulated elsewhere in our culture. So the posters function like dreams, dragging thoughts up from our subconscious which are not quite safe to express in any other ways. Like dreams, they are visual more than verbal too, so we don’t have to put into words the ideas they express, which might force us to analyse these uncomfortable truths.

Behind other posters lurk other fears too. Still much-loved are those for the various kinds of salvage and austerity; we repeat the slogans and reprint the images.

Mrs Sew and Sew Make do and mend vintage world war two propaganda poster

Some of these, particularly ‘Make Do and Mend’ weren’t in fact popular then – housewives felt that they were already doing as much as they could to reuse and repair and some of the tips were therefore a bit insulting. But they are popular now. Even as we buy more phones, more fast fashion and throw more food away, we also know that we consume too much and waste too much. Perhaps we would be better people if we did not, perhaps we might even be more British.

Any Old Iron salvage vintage world war two propaganda poster

The other really popular category are those about food, and in particular, growing your own.  It’s no surprise really that the ‘Dig for Victory’ posters are popular in an era where allotments are over-subscribed and the provenance and Britishness of food is becoming more important.

A E Halliwell vintage world war two poster Dig for Victory

Their message seems quite clear if we want to read it, that we are too dependent on the supermarkets, we don’t know where our food comes from, that self-sufficency has to be a good thing.

WW2 pig food vintage propaganda poster

But there’s also a deeper undertow at work here. One of the cores of Britishness is an identification with the land and the countryside (see David Matless and Patrick Wright if you want to read some much deeper thinking than mine on the subject). So there is also a fear that as we become more urban, more detatched from the land and its produce that we are losing sight of our essential selves. If we all had a spade and a piece of soil, might we also be better Britons too?

WW2 dig for victory vintage photographic propaganda poster

At this point you may be thinking, yes, well, this is all fine and good but isn’t it reading just a bit much into some old posters which people like because they are pretty and cheerful? Another way of making the point, though, is to look for the absences, the posters that we don’t tend to look at and remember.

A fascinating example of this came with the MoMA exhibition about kitchens earlier this year, which included a set of British Home Front posters by Henrion and the mysterious Herbert Tomlinson.  They don’t tend to get reproduced much in this country, even though they are on the perennially popular subject of food.

Anti vermin poster world war two home front propaganda Herbert Tomlinson

World war two anti vermin propaganda poster home front herbert tomlinson

MoMA has as its founding principle a wholly other myth, which is the inescapable rise and total superiority of International Modernism. These posters (unlike the vast majority of Britain’s wartime output) fit into that very nicely, so the museum has collected and displayed them. Over on the other side of the Atlantic, though, this is not how we want to remember the war, as a grubby fight against vermin in bomb-damaged homes.

Two posters by Henrion telling you to turn nice fluffy rabbits into PIE

And we certainly don’t even want to think about eating rabbits which have, in the last seventy years, almost completely made the journey from food group to pet. So we have edited them out of the collective record (despite the fact that these are all in the IWM collections too).

The same might be said about posters informing people about VD. This design by Reginald Mount is a design classic, but that still doesn’t mean you’re likely to see it republished very much.

REginald Mount VD vintage world war two propaganda poster

Nor, indeed, this one, for slightly more complicated reasons. The lines are from G.K. Chesterton, the sentiment almost impossible to imagine nowadays.

Early world war two vintage propaganda poster oddly indeed

A more subtle example is provided by this Zec poster, which is one of the ones I bought as postcards from the IWM all those years ago.

Zec women of Britain come into the factories vintage world war two home front propaganda poster

Then, it was very popular, but this was a time when feminism was more vocal and more active, campaigning for greater workplace equality for women rather than proposing pole-dancing as a form of liberation. So the war could and was represented as a time of emancipation for women when they could do any job they chose, including the dirty factory ones. Nowadays we believe, whether it is true or not, that this particular battle is over and women can do whatever they want; there is no anxiety there any more so we no longer need the poster to express our thoughts and it has sunk below the horizon once more. Its Sovietesque stylings may also have been its undoing too, now that there is little of the heroic to be found in Communism any more, not even for students.

Sometimes the myth requires that we ignore the evidence which is in front of our eyes.  One of the reasons that we want to remember the Home Front is the sense of collective effort, the idea that every single person’s attempts to salvage or save or grow some greens made a difference to the common cause.  It’s a satisfying idea, and not a belief which is easy to have today.

But at the time, the British self-image was very much one of individualism, in clear contrast to Germany, where the individual was subsumed into the masses of the Nazi state.  So if you look at these, and indeed almost any World War Two poster, what you will find time and again is a single person (or indeed elephant) doing their bit out of choice, not as part of a mass movement.

Eckersley Lombers green vegetables poster vintage world war two propaganda

Even in the case of the forces, where you might think that it was good to show that we did have plenty of man-power, the image is much more likely to be of a single ship than a whole marching platoon of men.  The poster below is perhaps one of the more populated ones that British propaganda ever produced.

The Few Vintage world war two propaganda poster

But even then, the men are not only clearly represented as individual people, but also characterised as ‘The Few’.  However much we like the idea of the wartime social spirit, we’re never really going to find it in the posters.

A more complex example are the set of posters by Abram Games imagining post-war life in comparison with what had come before. They are (and I will come back to this aspect of Games’ work during the war another day) quite exceptional, in that generally British posters and propaganda avoided considering the world after the war had ended.

Vintage World War Two ABCA poster Abram Games your Britain fight for it now

The poster of Finsbury Health Centre below is particularly famous, mostly because Churchill very much took against it. He ordered the poster to be suppressed, complaining that it was a ‘disgraceful libel on the conditions prevailing in Great Britain before the war’.

Abram Games abca Finsbury Health Centre rickets vintage ww2 poster

It could be argued that it was the controversy which made the poster’s mark on history. But other poster controversies during the war ended up forgotten; these posters are remembered because they have important resonances as well. For a long time World War Two has been seen as the crucible which dissolved class consciousness and lessened ingrained inequalities, an achievement which was an essential part of the myth. For Calder, this was one of its redeeming qualities.

…at least the Myth had fostered the notion of the mutual responsibility of all for the welfare of all.

But there are not many posters which reflected this ideal, so the few which do are particularly valuable.

Vintage world war two poster ABCA Abram Games

Or at least they were. We live in a time when many of the egalitarian achievements of the post-war reconstruction – universally available higher education, council housing, a moral investment in state education and social care – are being undone, will these posters in their turn disappear from view? I hope not. Now more than ever we need the reminders that these values are still very much worth striving for.

(Almost all the images are from the Imperial War Museum collections on VADS).