The golden age of urban attractions

By Zorian Clayton, Assistant Curator (Word & Image) at the Victoria and Albert Museum

During this unprecedented time of global lockdown, the following selection of posters from London Transport Museum and V&A poster collections showcases a golden age of illustrative graphic design in the UK. Originally compiled for the Poster Power Open Weekend at the Museum Depot, it has been reorganised as a virtual trip down memory lane, looking forward to the time when we can get back to enjoying the rich cultural offerings of city life.  Join us on a nostalgic look at the history of urban attractions and the advertisement of days out to museums, cinemas, and shows in London and beyond.

Coloured poster depicting people sat in a cinema hall looking at a projection on the wall
Curzon Hall, Birmingham, Albert Morrow circa 1902. Collection ref. E.3312-1932 © V&A Museum

This charming poster by Irish artist Albert Morrow depicts an audience dressed up to the nines for an evening out to enjoy the new pastime of cinematic entertainment. From 1896, variety theatres and music halls in Britain started to show the novel art form of moving pictures, spawning a whole new genre of poster art in the process.

By bus to the pictures tonight, by Tom Eckersley and Eric Lombers, 1935. Collection ref. 1983/4/9728, London Transport Museum

The most valuable and widely collected posters of all time advertise films of the 1920s and 30s.  This 1935 gem by design duo Tom Eckersley and Eric Lombers advertises bus services to go out to cinemas.  They worked together from 1934 to 1940 after both studying in Salford School of Art. The actress on the big screen resembles the star of the decade, Jean Harlow, with pencil thin eyebrows and large blue eyes.  There is a surreal cheekiness in the superimposing of her face onto the plain everyman in the audience.

Sunday Concerts, Fred Taylor, 1912. Collection ref. 1983/356 London Transport Museum

This sumptuous interior view depicts the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place, home of The Proms before the venue was destroyed in the London Blitz, never to be rebuilt.  However, the message again is the mode of transport to attend evening events by Tube, so is not a recommendation for any single concert or artist.

Artist Fred Taylor (1875-1963) was one of the favourite designers for the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), London Transport, and other travel companies from 1908 to the 1940s. He was one of the first ten designers who were conferred with the title Designer for Industry (DI), considered the highest accolade in the UK. Best known for posters highlighting train travel to cathedrals and castles up and down the United Kingdom, he fell into this style rather by accident, starting out as a figure artist. After 30 years of working in the same vein, in 1938 he said he longed for a change.

Ausstellung Englische Graphik, 1923. Collection ref. E.3707-1923 V&A Collection

In just over a year, change and tragedy was thrust upon the entire world at the outbreak of World War II.  Taylor moved to work on naval camouflage, a tactic of dazzle design invented by Norman Wilkinson during World War I.  An example of it can be seen in this poster designed by Edward Wadsworth (1889-1949) advertising an exhibition on English graphic design at the Kunstsalon Wolfsberg in Zurich.

Wadsworth was an official dazzle artist himself, aligned with the short-lived Vorticist group of artists who launched in 1914 and broke up shortly after war broke out.  It was also around this time that the Imperial War Museum was founded in 1917, first opening to the public in 1920 at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham Hill.

Souvenirs: Imperial War Museum, Austin Cooper, 1932. Collection ref. 1995/4071 London Transport Museum

This sombre poster marks the souvenirs of war as tanks, bombs and destruction. A bold and hard-hitting design choice by Austin Cooper (1890-1964), he was a Canadian-British artist who created posters for many of the London museums.  Note the South Kensington address, the IWM was then housed in the Imperial Institute on Exhibition Road before moving to its current home on Lambeth Road, 1936.

The South Kensington area has been a museum hub since the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Science Museum and the V&A were once part of the same institution called the South Kensington Museum. In 1909, they split into separate museums with science and technology on one side of Exhibition Road and art and design on the other.

Bicyclism: The Art of Wheeling, Austin Cooper, 1928. Collection ref. 1983/4/2563 London Transport Museum

Cooper’s multi-faceted style was put to excellent use by the Underground Group for 22 years. This jaunty example advertises historic bicycles in the Science Museum collection, nostalgically looking back to the late Victorian and Edwardian era.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, by B Swiderska, 1967. Collection ref. 1983/4/7649 London Transport Museum

This similarly fun poster of 1967 by Barbara Swiderska sports some opulent historical fashions to advertise the Victoria and Albert Museum. Little is known about this illustrator except that she continued to work throughout the 1970s as a cover designer for a number of children’s books. The poster text describes the museum as a sort of Aladdin’s cave to be explored at your whim, inviting audiences to put themselves in the picture:

 ‘… these are showcases, brilliantly illuminated and filled with figures from nearly 400 years of fashion’s pageant, from Jacobean gallantry via Georgian magnificence, Victorian upholstery, Edwardian confectionery and the twenties to Dior’s ankle-flapping New Look. Imagine your own choice of outfit – yesterday’s trend is often tomorrow’s…’.

Museum of Natural History, South Kensington, Edward McKnight Kauffer, 1924. Collection ref. E.96-1924 V&A Collection

The final behemoth of the South Kensington area is of course the Natural History Museum, superbly represented here by the woolly mammoth beneath an eye-catching rainbow motif by Edward McKnight Kauffer (1890-1954).  The Natural History Museum was originally an offshoot of the wide-ranging British Museum collections, the two institutions separating completely in 1963.  The NHM as we know and love it today has been in its present home on Cromwell Road since 1881.

Dubbed ‘The Poster King’, this extraordinary Montana born artist emigrated to the UK aged 25 and promptly became a graphic design tour de force.  Weaving avant-garde and dynamic motifs into advertisements for airlines and department stores, it is his work for the London Underground which is the most celebrated.  From his arrival in London in 1915 until his return to the USA in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II, around 140 of his poster designs brightened up the city under the commission of Frank Pick and the Underground Group.

The treasure house of London, by Freda Beard, 1921. Collection ref. 1983/4/1184 London Transport Museum

This swirling dragon piece summarises the South Kensington museums, the British Museum, and the London Museum (a precursor to the Museum of London) all promising a dry and comfortable indoor experience on rainy days.  It is by Freda Mildred Beard (1897-1984) who designed for the Underground Group between 1921 and 1926.

She was born in Clapham and besides working for the Tube poster campaigns, she designed advertisements for foodstuffs including many brands still going today like Jacob’s cream crackers, Cadbury’s chocolate, and Hartley’s jam.  This poster drew high praise in ‘Advertising and British Art’ (1924) saying that Beard had adapted ‘the astonishing sea serpent’ from a Japanese cloisonné vase and that this creature was imbued with more imagination than was present in most modern British branding.

South Kensington, by John Banting, 1936. Collection ref. E.124-1961 V&A Collection

This rather naïve butterfly design by John Banting (1902-1971) is another summary of some of the South Kensington Museum transport links and shows an African Emperor Moth. This is actually an entire genus of moths in the Saturnia family of many varieties of evocative names such as the Cavorting Emperor, the Pallid Emperor, and the Confused Emperor!  This one is commonly known as a Bulls Eye Silk Moth and perhaps was chosen by the artist due to the markings resembling a tube stop and the yellow Circle line.

For the zoo, by Dorothy Burroughes, 1922. Collection ref. 1983/4/1346 London Transport Museum

Some of the liveliest posters to advertise attractions include animals, and in urban areas that usually means circuses or zoos.  Many of the best posters for the London Zoo were done by female artists of the 1920s and 30s.  Dorothy Burroughes was one such artist who achieved her first commercial break with a London Underground commission in 1920 depicting a trio of primates playing on a tree branch.   Her second in 1922 was one of the most popular of the time, with requests pouring in for reproductions.

While her name will forever be synonymous with zoo posters, in an interview with Drawing & Design (1923) she spoke at some length over her sadness at seeing animals in captivity.

David Bownes, previously Head of Collections at London Transport Museum, wrote an excellent article on Burroughes which you can read here.

For the zoo; sealion, by Ruth Sandys, 1925. Collection ref. E.1019-1925 V&A Collection

Another of my favourites is Ruth Sandys (1884-1941). These 1925 designs precede John Gilroy’s famous seals utilised for the Guinness posters by a decade.

Ruth was the daughter of the artist Frederick Sandys who had ten illegitimate children with the actress Mary Jones.  Many of them were trained in artistic pursuits and include the portraitist Winifred Sandys. Ruth was active between 1912 and 1940 but it is this poster commission for the London Underground which remains her most well-known work.

This is of course just a tiny taste of our poster collections. While we are all unable to visit the museums in person at the moment, we hope you enjoy delving into London Transport Museum’s and V&A’s  online catalogues to discover more until we are all able to get out and about into our cities once again.

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