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Posters by the Bloomsbury Group

by Margaret Timmers

‘It is surprising what alacrity and intelligence people can show in front of a poster which if it had been a picture in a gallery would have been roundly declared unintelligible’ observed the art critic Roger Fry, reviewing an exhibition of posters by Edward McKnight Kauffer (1890-1954) in The Nation and The Athenæum, 23 May 1925. Fry was fascinated by the poster’s ability to evoke a quick-witted response that differed from what he called ‘the picture-gallery attitude’. Artists of the Bloomsbury Group attracted to the medium included Fry himself, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, while Mark Gertler, an occasional co-exhibitor with the Group, also made a foray into the field.

The earliest ‘Bloomsbury’ posters spring from the 1910s, the decade when Roger Fry sensationally introduced Post-Impressionism to the London art world through two exhibitions at the Grafton Galleries -– and also founded the Omega Workshops, with the aim of applying artistic talent to the decoration of furniture, furnishings and ceramics. Manet and the Post-Impressionists (8 November 1910 – 15 January 1911) was organised by Fry with the assistance of literary critic Desmond MacCarthy. It featured prominently the work of Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, as well as work by younger artists including Matisse and Picasso. Reproducing an image of Gauguin’s painting Poèmes Barbares (1896), an anonymous poster which must have originated from Fry or his close circle of artist friends aptly announced an exhibition that by the very nature of its art aimed to shock and disconcert. This pioneering show did indeed arouse public wrath and ridicule, but also intense admiration in some artistic circles.

The Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition, which opened on 5 October 1912, showed works by British, French and Russian artists chosen by Clive Bell, Fry and Boris Anrep, and was weighted towards the contemporary. The poster for the exhibition reflected its challenging modernity (fig.1). It was a remarkable communal effort, prefiguring the co-operative working practice of the Omega Workshops founded the following year. The concept of this poster originated with Fry and Vanessa Bell, the design was executed by Duncan Grant, whose own work was represented in the show, while the lettering was added by the artist Frederick Etchells (1886-1973). As Fry wrote to Grant in autumn 1912:

Vanessa and I have tried a lot of things, of which I send you some; I think the head and hand the best. If you agree, will you do something of that sort?

I think you could draw it better and perhaps make it more attractive without being less mysterious.

The image of the face with its disconcerting gaze and the gesturing upraised hand is indeed enigmatic, and at the same time arresting and compelling. Drawn with bold, rhythmic lines and incisive hatch strokes, embellished with swirls and zig-zags, the asymmetric composition may be intended to give a primitive feel, and perhaps also to indicate the decorative possibilities inherent in Post-Impressionism. The same design was used for the cover of the exhibition catalogue, and a collector’s edition of the poster, overprinted in orange or green, was also issued.

A fascination with decorative form and a delight in the spontaneous are revealed in a First World War poster by Duncan Grant entitled Wanted! Musical Instruments for the Front (fig.2). Between scalloped curtains, a fantastical French horn holds centre-stage, its snaking tube echoed by the free-flowing loops of the patterned border in a playful, almost Rococo, fantasy. The composition, including the delightfully impromptu lettering, is held together with a natural musical rhythm. Speculating upon the impetus for this poster, it may be significant that the impression in the Victoria and Albert Museum was presented in 1955 by Roger Fry’s sister, Margery Fry (1874–1958). From 1915, Margery (later a prison reformer and magistrate) had been involved in Quaker war relief efforts in France.

Margery Fry also gave to the V&A original designs for Omega artefacts and further rare posters, including one for an Exhibition of Modern Paintings, Dresses and New Omega Pottery held at the Omega Workshops in 1918, which is probably by Roger Fry (fig.4). Remarkably, the Omega Workshops had survived the Great War and, until 1919 when they folded, were still creating works of art and design in an individual aesthetic that challenged the orthodox and the commercial mainstream. The poster’s apparently simple design is open to various interpretations, offering a composite message about Omega productions. The symmetrically-curved white shape suggests both a mannequin (referring to the dresses of French seamstress Mlle. Gabrielle Soëne) and a double-hipped vase (connecting to the pottery), and also perhaps a paper cut-out. The dark textured background is painterly and intriguing. Below the text is lettered within a square the Greek letter W (Omega), its curves reflecting the outline of the main design. At Fry’s behest, Omega designs were anonymously produced, bearing only the W group symbol.

Posters by members of the Bloomsbury Group that were intimately connected with their own projects – conceived and executed within their own artistic milieu, local and short-term in scope, and with small print runs – were in the same individualistic genre as their designs for book covers, invitation cards, and other graphic ephemera. By the 1930s, however, a different challenge was offered – the opportunity to create designs for large-scale mass-produced commercial advertising. The poster was flourishing in an age of enlightened patronage, led by bodies such as London Underground, the railway companies, the Post Office, the Empire Marketing Board and Shell-Mex and B.P. While the choice of the right artist was seen as crucial for the commercial success of particular campaigns, artists themselves were attracted to an art form with contemporary, popular appeal.

Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Ben Nicholson and Graham Sutherland were among a prodigious array of artists invited to design posters for Shell, one of the best patrons of modern art between the Wars. Shell’s publicity aimed to create goodwill for the company and, responding to concerns about the despoliation of the countryside by obtrusive roadside hoardings, the company developed a new form of mobile advertising by placing their posters on the backs and sides of their delivery lorries. This initiative reaped praise for responsible advertising. By the 1930s, in campaigns such as See Britain First On Shell and Everywhere You Go You Can Be Sure Of Shell, the company sought to associate its name with nature and with art. Posters targeted a middle-class audience, encouraging motorists to explore the countryside while reassuring them of Shell’s presence everywhere: paradoxically, a timeless rural idyll was now accessible thanks to modern urban technology. Artists for the series, most commissioned by Shell’s enterprising Publicity Manager, Jack Beddington, were given their theme, but encouraged to develop it in their own idiom.

In Alfriston / See Britain First On Shell (1931) (fig.3), Vanessa depicted in almost Pointillist technique a shimmering view of the Sussex village that lies not far from Charleston in the Cuckmere Valley. With others from the same series, her original painting was shown alongside the lithographic poster in an Exhibition of Modern Pictorial Advertising by Shell at the New Burlington Galleries in 1931. In his landscape St. Ives, Huntingdon for the second ‘countryside’ series, Everywhere You Go You Can Be Sure Of Shell (1932), Duncan Grant transformed the historic St. Ives Bridge into a proscenium arch through which are viewed riverside buildings reflected in the Great Ouse. He had painted St. Ives on visits to David Garnett in nearby Huntingdonshire. Shell gained prestige from the way such art was conceived, displayed and reviewed.

Among the most enthusiastic patrons of the poster was the Empire Marketing Board, the public body set up by Government to promote trade with the Colonies and Dominions. Its Secretary was the visionary civil servant Stephen Tallents, while Frank Pick chaired its Poster Sub-Committee. Recognising the power of propaganda, the Board launched a sophisticated poster programme to influence consumer choice in buying Empire foodstuffs. Specially-designed wooden hoardings were erected at nearly 1000 sites around the country, each composed of three large landscape-format panels interspersed with two smaller portrait-format panels and headed by a title strip.

Pick approached a range of distinguished artists, among whom were Frank Brangwyn, Paul Nash and William Nicholson. Duncan Grant was considered, but does not seem to have been formally approached. However, the painter Mark Gertler, whom Fry had helped professionally early in his career, and who had been drawn into the Bloomsbury group through the social milieu of his patron Lady Ottoline Morrell, was one whom Pick did commission. His proposed designs took the form of three large oil paintings entitled Spring (fig.5), Summer and Autumn (1931). Displaying the artist’s love of form, texture and vibrant colour, each is a still life depicting a lavish display of home-grown and exotic fruit, signifying that thanks to trade links with the Empire, fruit in abundance was available all year round. The designs were duly accepted for £100 each, but unfortunately their use was ruled out on grounds of printing costs. In March 1934, a year after the Board was abolished, they were exhibited with other original EMB designs at the Imperial Institute, and subsequently presented to the V&A.

Although the Post Office was late in exploiting the full potential of commercial advertising, once launched its publicity output was admirable and distinguished. Sir Stephen Tallents became Public Relations Officer in 1933, and with his formidable Poster Advisory Group including Kenneth Clark, Clive Bell and Jack Beddington, had access to a great range of artistic and design talents. A major initiative launched in 1934 was the School Posters series, in which sets of posters were offered free of charge to approximately 26,000 schools on subjects such as the history and development of postal communications. Some of these poster designs were also displayed in Crown post offices in a larger size to fit the frames available there. Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were among a roll call of prominent British artists invited to submit designs.

Then as now, encouraging the public to use postal services efficiently (post early, address letters clearly, etc.) was a key element of publicity, and Tallents’s invitation to Vanessa of 25 July 1934 explored the notion that she might create a satirical design to enlist the help of the public:

Instead of merely commanding them to post early, we will show how ridiculous they look, and what inconveniences they suffer, when they post late… From time to time our Post Office walls shall be a mirror of the public’s folly. This should amuse the public and delight our staff, who cannot individually answer back our more tiresome customers.

On 17 March the following year, Vanessa replied disarmingly about the length of time it had taken her to do her design entitled The Last Minute Posters (fig.6):

I don’t know why it has been so, but for some reason it has taken me ages to do anything I thought would do at all – I think partly because of the difficulty of getting several figures into a small space and yet making them tell at a distance. I have stood about in Post Offices until your employees looked so suspicious I had to leave! – and yet I don’t know that in the end what I have done has much resemblance to a Post Office. However, there it is…

These letters are preserved in the British Postal Museum & Archive. Vanessa’s design presented a visual contrast between the cool, calm space occupied by the counter clerk to the left of the dividing screen, and the crushed confines to the right, crammed with hot, flustered customers desperate to catch the post. Colour proofs in the collection of the BPMA, one meticulously corrected by the artist herself (‘the colour of the counter clerk’s face is rather too pink …the dial of the weighing machine should be a little more blue…’) show the subsequent stages, yet in spite of Vanessa receiving a fee of 50 guineas, and the design being printed by Vincent, Brooks, Day and Son, the poster was never actually issued.

Duncan Grant’s designs for the Schools series fared better, and his roughs for four types of Post Office workers were accepted in 1937. With interim amendments, they were eventually issued as a set in 1939, the titles illustrating the staff strengths in various parts of the Post Office organisation: 79,242 Postmen; 7,681 Telegraph Messengers; 20,011 Telephonists; and 14,272 Engineering Workmen. Grant’s individualised portraits – the first image in the set, for example, shows a modern postman studying an envelope that he is about to deliver – transformed promotional statistics into sympathetic portrayals of human industry. Indeed Bell’s and Grant’s designs for Shell and the Post Office are fascinating examples of how their artistic statements could be ingeniously harnessed to the cause of corporate publicity.

Thanks are due to the following for their help in the preparation of this article:

The British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA): www.postalheritage.org.uk
The Charleston Trust: www.charleston.org.uk
The Victoria and Albert Museum: www.vam.ac.uk

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