So the Central Office of Information is to be no more (news here in the Guardian).  This is a sad end because once upon a time they produced some rather wonderful posters.  Here’s a handy thought from them for this time of the year.

COI remember your passport when travelling abroad Reginald Mount Eileen Evans vintage poster

Coincidentally, I reccently bought a history of the COI from Abebooks.  (I don’t suggest you do the same: this would be the driest book I have come across for some time, had it not been beaten by History of The Second Word War: Food Volume 2 – Studies in Administration and Control which currently sits on my desk, waiting to bore me out of my wits.)  The real problem, at least as far as I am concerned, is that the book  doesn’t mention posters much.  Here’s pretty much the most interesting – or at least relevant – paragraph in the whole thing.

Over this entire period [i.e. since 1946] the COI has also had the part-time services of Reginald Mount and Eileen Evans as consultants and designers of a long succession of award winning posters, most notably for health education.

Posters like this.

Mount Evans hand palmistry stop smoking vintage poster central office of information

Which does at least answer the question I raised a few weeks back, which was when did Mount/Evans leave the COI and set up on their own?  Although the answer does seem to be a kind of Schroedinger-esque uncertainty principle in which they both left in 1946 when the COI was founded and at the same time never left.  I suppose that as long as we never look in the Ministry box, it will be fine.

What does seem to be true is that the vast majority of the COI posters I have come across seem to be by either Mount/Evans or Reginald Mount on his own.  My very slightly anal database tells me that we have had 28 COI posters at various times, but with very few other artists represented.  One is Thelwell, who produced a whole series of Countryside Code cartoons.

Thelwell Countryside code poster Central Office of Information

While the other is the magnificent Royston Cooper.

Brian the Lion Royston Cooper vintage poster Keep Britain Tidy Central Officec of Information

I also suspect that this Henrion may also be a COI production, but can’t prove it.

FHK Henrion vintage poster Keep Britain Tidy exhibtiion

But that’s almost it.  Which is surprising, because the COI book has a list of designers who worked for them, and it reads like a who’s who of graphic design in the 1950s and 60s.

For posters and book illustrations in the department’s lifetime these have included Rowland Hilder, Milner Grey, John Minton, Topolski, Ardizzone, Abram Games, Ashley Havinden, F H K Henrion, Hans Unger, Eckersley, Laurence Scarfe, James Fitton, Ronald Searle, Edward Bawden, Andre Amstutz, Tunnicliffe and the Crosby/Fletcher/Forbes group.

Now, I can see that our collection is a bit skewed, simply because we bought a lot of Mount/Evans posters at auction a few years ago when what I suspect was their studio archive was being sold off.  But even then, whenever we’ve seen and bought other COI posters they’ve been by them too – like this Keep Britain Tidy design by Reginald Mount.

Keep Britain Tidy vintage poster Reginald Mount for COI

A search of auction houses and archives like VADS reveals pretty much the same pattern – much Mount/Evans and Mount, very little else from the COI.

One reason for this may lie in the history of the COI itself.  The Central Office of Information was formed in 1946 as a replacement for the Ministry of Information, which had produced most of the government’s publicity and propaganda requirements during the war.  But for many people, propaganda of any time was seen as fundamentally not British and unsuited to a democratic state – i.e. this was something that the Nazis did and therefore, by definition, we shouldn’t.  It could only be justified by the needs of war, and so the Ministry had to go at the end of hostilities.

The problem with this was that the war itself didn’t finish so neatly.  Austerity and rationing continued right into the early 1950s, and indeed was stricter in the late 1940s than it had been during the war.  This in turn meant that much of the wartime instruction and exhortation to work hard and make a nutritious meal out of little more than cabbage had to carry on too.  So when the Central Office of Information was founded, it had quite a lot of work on its hands, and I suspect that many of those artists worked for the COI in those early years.

However it’s very hard to tell which these are; my suspicions are that most get lumped in under the heading of ‘World War Two’ posters.  For example, I’ve seen both of these posters, by Lewitt-Him and James Fitton respectively, dated to 1947 rather than during the war itself.

Lewitt Him Vegetabull vintage poster Ministry of Food

Turn Over A New Leaf vintage poster James Fitton Ministry of Food

Neither of these would have been produced by the COI, since the Ministry of Food ran its own posters and publicity throughout the war and I can’t imagine changed that afterwards, but they are good examples of how the wartime messages carried on past 1945.  The only COI poster I know of which is definitely from this period is by Dorrit Dekk.

Dorrit Dekk bones still needed for salvage vintage poster Central Office of Information

Dorrit Dekk only started producing posters in 1946, when she was demobbed from the WRNS and went to work for Reginald Mount at the COI, so this must be from between then and 1948 when she left.  But without knowing this biography, it would be impossible to date the poster and it too would probably be ascribed to the war years as well.  So I imagine that vast swathes of the COI’s early output has either disappeared, or been labelled as ‘wartime posters’ and, unless someone puts in a formidable piece of archival research one day, will never be known.  I also suspect that those were the posters designed by that great list of artists in the book.

As the years went on, the need for government publicity decreased – although this anonymous COI poster is reminiscent of wartime appeals.

Civil Defense COI vintage poster

Judging by her hairdo, I’d put this at quite soon after the war anyway, but I’d be interested to hear if anyone else knows more.

By the late 1950s or early 1960s though, the government just didn’t have as much to say.  Get a passport on time, don’t drop litter, smoke a bit less.  Don’t drink and drive.  And remember to tell the milkman when you go on holiday.

Mount Evans stop the milkman when you're off on holiday vintage poster

It doesn’t have quite the same heady excitement as the war years.  Although the designers were allowed out for a few digressions, such as United Nations Day.

Mount Evans United Nations Day poster 1967

Not every COI poster was aimed at the general public either; Mount/Evans also produced a number of internal campaigns for the government, most notable ‘Keep Our Secrets Secret’ which I’ve mentioned before on here but which are so excellent that I can’t resist posting one more time.

Mount Evans vintage combination  number poster COI

What Every Girl Should Know Mount Evans secrecy poster Central Office of Information

The other reason why there were fewer posters, of course, is that they were no longer the biggest game in town.  More and more, the COI’s main campaigns were conducted through short films, whether in the cinema or in public information slots on the television.  (Should you be interested, the National Archives have put tons of these online for your amusement).  Only the less important messages like UN Day or internal communications would have been put out by posters alone.

But all of this has now gone, and every government message will just be put out by advertising agencies and be indistinguishable from commercial campaigns.  Perhaps one day someone will produce an illustrated and possibly even interesting history of the COI, to show us just what design classics they did produce in their heyday.

Small but perfectly formed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

there are also posters by Henrion.

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

And Beverley Pick and Reginald Mount too.

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

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

And even Robin Day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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