A modern couple who bought a new aesthetic to 1930s poster art
Unique among the artists featured in London Transport Museum’s Poster Girls, Clifford and Rosemary Ellis were a husband and wife design partnership. They married in 1931 after meeting at the Regents Street Polytechnic, and henceforth virtually all their commercial work was jointly signed, often with the initials ‘C&RE’. At the time, this was an unusual demonstration of artistic and marital equality, underlined by the occasional use of the signature ‘Rosemary and Clifford Ellis’ (rather than ‘Clifford & Rosemary’) which can be seen on one of the London Transport posters in the exhibition. In describing their collaborative approach, Rosemary explained that either one might have the original idea for a design which they would then finalise together.
Whatever the origins of their ideas may have been, the results were extraordinary. Their unmistakable style was characterised by a lively use of colour and form, creating unusual and memorable poster designs. Travels in Time (1937), for example, is almost surrealist in its depiction of a disembodied Charles I against an imagined landscape. Luckily for Londoners, this bewildering image was paired with an explanatory poster (also designed by Rosemary and Clifford) promoting the Capital’s museums. In contrast, their representation of animals and birds, seen in their designs for Green Line Coaches (1933), was wonderfully naturalistic and alive with movement.
By the late thirties, the couple were much in demand, having designed posters for London Transport, the Empire Marketing Board, the Post Office and Shell-Mex. Their joint output included book jackets, lithographs, murals, mosaics and wallpaper. Clifford was also the headmaster of the Bath Academy of Art and instrumental in re-establishing it as one of Britain’s foremost art colleges at Corsham Court after the Second World War. During the war, Rosemary and Clifford worked together on the monumental Recording Britain project, but are perhaps best remembered today for the 60+ dust jackets they designed for the long running New Naturalist book series.
The couple’s extensive personal archive was auctioned in 2017 following the death of their only child, the sculptor Penelope Ellis. London Transport Museum acquired two rare ‘proof’ versions of ‘Museums’ (1937), showing annotations made by the artists before final printing. These included the replacement of the printed London Transport logo with a hand drawn alternative, which was accepted for the final design.
To find out more about Clifford and Rosemary Ellis, visit the Poster Girls exhibition at London Transport Museum in Covent Garden, or go behind the scenes to explore the Museum’s famous poster collection at Acton Depot Open Weekend, 21-22 April. Full details of Depot tours and times can be found here www.ltmuseum.co.uk/whats-on/museum-depot/open-weekends
David Bownes is co-curator of Poster Girls and director of Twentieth Century Posters (www.twentiethcenturyposters.com)