Kew Gardens by tram, Ella Coates,1910

the first women poster pioneers

A Room of One’s Own

David Bownes, co-curator of the Poster Girls – a century of art and design exhibition

90 years ago, the author Virginia Woolf argued that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. This call for a literal and figurative space, free of male control and domestic responsibilities, applied equally to all areas of female creative endeavour. Yet as Woolf knew all too well, women had few opportunities for genuine financial and creative independence in the 1920s. Commercial art, as graphic design was then known, provided one of these opportunities, and London Transport was at the forefront of commissioning female talent. How did this come about?

When Frank Pick took charge of the Underground’s publicity in 1908 the male-dominated advertising industry regarded women artists, at best, as suitable for illustrating ‘feminine’ subjects or children’s books. From the start, Pick took a progressive view towards commissioning irrespective of gender or subject matter. The first poster by a woman appeared on the company’s trams in 1910, and by 1930 over 25% of all Underground publicity was designed by women.  No other British company or government agency took such an enlightened stance or promoted female designers to the same extent.

In finding young artists Pick was greatly helped by a revolution in the teaching of art and design in London, led by the Central School of Arts & Crafts. Women made up a disproportionate number of the students on commercial art courses, and in Pick they found a willing patron able to jump start their careers with the gift of well-paid and high-profile poster commissions.

But it wasn’t a feminist triumph in the modern sense. Male designers were still paid more and achieved greater fame than their female colleagues. And many promising careers were cut short by marriage and the expectations of childcare and running the family home. The names of these female poster pioneers, too, have been criminally neglected by history. Who now has heard of Nancy Smith, Dora Batty, Herry Perry, Margaret Calkin James, or the dozens of successful women designers whose work enlivened the hoardings in the first 50 years of the twentieth century?

On 25th January design historians Oliver Green, Ruth Sykes and Susannah Walker will be exploring these themes in more detail at London Transport Museum’s A Room of One’s Own evening event www.ltmuseum.co.uk/whats-on/events-calendar/talks#room Starting with the first commissions in the 1910s, the speakers will chart the crucial role of London art colleges and London Transport in providing training and employment opportunities for women designers and ask whether female artists bought a new aesthetic to the male world of commercial art.

Lambourne End

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