Celebrating the ‘Poster Girls’

By Eliza Williams

Fans of design are likely aware of the design heritage of London Transport. A go-to example of how an institution can use design to elevate its standing and convey its messages with panache, LT and the modern-day TfL is renowned too for the masters of illustration and art who have created posters for it, particularly during the Frank Pick era in the first half of the 20th century. Pick, famously, requested Edward Johnston to create the Underground’s typeface and introduced the distinctive roundels that are still used today, as well as commissioning a plethora of posters and adverts from artistic greats including Edward McKnight Kauffer, Abram Games and Man Ray.

So far, so familiar, you might think. Yet there is another story within London Transport’s design heritage that is told less often. This is the role that women have played in its poster design, and in turn, the role that LT played in promoting women as designers and illustrators. A major new exhibition at the London Transport Museum, titled ‘Poster Girls’, aims to remedy this, by looking back at the work by women created for the organisation over the past century.

Country Fair by Mabel Lucie Attwell, 1912. All images courtesy London Transport Museum
Poster Girls
Summer Sales Quickly Reached by Mary Koop, 1925

As is so often the case with London Transport, this story begins with Frank Pick. “It’s tricky not to put too much emphasis on Frank Pick,” agrees David Bownes, joint curator of ‘Poster Girls’. “You want to do an exhibition that re-evaluates the role of women designers, and it doesn’t feel quite right to say ‘and this is all due to a man’. But Frank Pick was an absolutely remarkable character…. He was somebody who genuinely believed in a progressive reform agenda for design.

“But this couldn’t have happened in a vacuum,” Bownes continues. “Pick was responding to all the ‘arts and crafts’ that he was influenced by as a young man, and the equal approach to employing men and women. At the same time there was something happening in London’s principal design schools, some reform agenda was taking place, which meant that it was possible to have a pool of trained women designers, in a way that didn’t exist before the First World War.”

Poster Girls
From country to the heart of town for shopping by Dora M Batty, 1925
Poster Girls
Regent’s Park Zoo by Arnrid Banniza Johnston, 1930

Poster Girls features over 150 posters and original artworks from a mix of famous names including Mabel Lucie Attwell, Margaret Calkin James and Dora Batty, as well as less well-known figures. The women learnt their craft at a range of institutions, though Central Saint Martins dominates in producing women who worked for London Transport, particularly during Pick’s period. This is largely due to the connections between the two institutions, says Ruth Sykes, a graphic designer and associate lecturer in graphic design at CSM, who has written an essay for the show’s catalogue.

“The Central School had a unique relationship with the Underground,” Sykes writes. “The two organisations were born in the same decade, and raised on the same design ideals. The Central’s first principal, William Lethaby, shared professional networks with Frank Pick along with a design philosophy of seeking closer links between design and the technologies of production, and between education and commerce. In contrast to the Central, established art schools retained a Victorian teaching style, with an emphasis on drawing classical forms and decorative designs. Lethaby’s teaching staff, however, combined traditional and contemporary print making technologies to striking effect.”

Poster Girls
Trooping The Colour by Margaret Calkin James, 1932
Poster Girls
Motor Show Olympia by Anna Katrina Zinkelsen, 1934

Pick’s era was something of a golden period for women at London Transport, and they produced around 25% of all posters at this time. “I would argue strongly that the best female designers are equivalent to the best male designers in the 20s and 30s,” says Bownes. “There’s possibly no woman who’s quite an Edward McKnight Kauffer figure, but certainly that other flight of top names that you get in the inter-war years, the most significant are absolutely the equivalent, in terms of modernism and freshness of approach.”

It is interesting to also note the differences in how women portrayed other women in posters from this period, in comparison to depictions by male artists. “Unlike their male counterparts, female designers showed women as subjects in their own right,” writes Susannah Walker from vintageposterblog.com, in another essay from the Poster Girls catalogue.

“For male designers, women exist in terms of their relationships, almost always appearing as mothers accompanying their children or partnered by a man,” Walker continues. “The only time women are shown as individuals is in their other traditional role as shopper. Only then are they allowed to wander the streets of London alone or in single-sex groups: on every other poster they are defined by the people who accompany them.

“In posters designed by women during the post-war years, women lead much more varied lives. Most striking is how they often appear alone. These new, independent women do not need to be a mother, wife or girlfriend in order to exist.”

Poster Girls
At the Theatre by Doris Zinkelsen, 1939
Poster Girls
The Rugby League Cup Final – Wembley by Dorothy Paton, 1929

As well as allowing women relative autonomy to depict their characters as they saw fit, Pick also commissioned female artists to cover events that would traditionally have been very much viewed as ‘male’, such as motor shows, or rugby and football matches. “That’s interesting and I think unique for London Transport,” says Bownes, “because other commissioners tended to think that women had a unique insight into what was called the ‘female mind’ or the ‘female condition’, so other big name commissioners, if they wanted a poster campaign for perfume or chocolate or flowers or textiles, they would try and find a female designer to do that, whereas that’s just not the case with Frank Pick at London Transport.”

After being excited about the quantity of work produced by women in the 1920s and 30s for London Transport, it is disheartening to hear that this did not last, with a direct and dramatic drop off in work by female artists after Pick retired from the company in 1940. We have to wait until the 1990s and 2000s, when Transport for London introduced its commissioning programmes such as Art on the Underground, for women to make a significant appearance again.

“One of the things that I found most tricky about this exhibition, is from the point of view of writing a narrative, what would be ideal would be to have an arrow of progress starting in 1910 and continuing to the modern day,” says Bownes. “But in fact it’s not really like that. What you see is a spike in the 1920s and 30s, followed by a very steep decline in the 1940s and not many women employed by London Transport as poster designers in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. It’s only recently that the percentages have started to increase again. So the 20s and 30s were a remarkable period, for posters generally, but also for new opportunities for women I think.”

Poster Girls
Take cover, travel Underground by Kathleen Stenning, 1925
Poster Girls
England versus West Indies by Clifford and Rosemary Ellis, 1939

The reasons for this are manifold. As Bownes points out, use of poster design at London Transport declined steadily from the 50s onwards, though there are other cultural trends that are likely to have had an impact on the work of women designers. Bownes makes reference to the infamous ‘pram in the hall’ and the difficulties for women with children to work.

“One point that’s often made is that in the 1920s and 30s there were a lot more single women in Britain because of the impact of the First World War, and it’s noticeable how many of these top-flight female designers remained unmarried,” he says. “When you have a really successful female designer like Margaret Culkin James, who is married and has children, she is married to an incredibly rich guy so she has servants and childcare and is able to pursue her career in the way that a man at that time would, unencumbered with looking after children and making meals. This is a major issue. Dora Batty, who is my design heroine from this period, she remains unmarried and I think that’s a big factor.

“After the Second World War, it is sometimes argued that what you have there is a real desire nationally for a return to a perceived normality, and you have a lot fewer women working generally,” he continues. “But these are big issues and open to debate.”

Poster Girls
See London and London’s country by Sheila Stratton, 1954
Poster Girls
Pantomimes and circuses by Joan Beales, 1954

There are also questions regarding how much the work of women designers has been fully documented and introduced into the design canon, compared to that by men. Again the reasons for this are complex, though Bownes refers to distinctions in terminology between women and men, with men defining themselves as ‘designers’ or ‘fine artists’ whereas women tended to be seen in the comparatively ‘lower’ positions of ‘illustrators’ or ‘craftspeople’.

Men simply entered the design history books more frequently too. “The really big names in poster design like Edward McKnight Kauffer and Tom Purvis, these people bigged up their own careers during their lifetimes, they wrote books, they lectured and wrote articles and were very well known during their lives,” he says. “When you look through commercial magazines [from the time], the women that are featured in the exhibition are featured in these magazines but they are woefully neglected in the literature about poster art subsequently.”

Poster Girls
London’s Museums by Carol Barker, 1979
Poster Girls
Simply showbiz, by Tube and bus by Lesley Saddington, 1998

There is an almost tragic lack of knowledge of some significant designers as a result, with Bownes citing the instance of Dora Batty, a designer and teacher and a recognised influence on generations to come, whom the curators were unable to even find a photograph of, despite the fact that she died relatively recently in 1966.

“She didn’t get married, no kids, but I did get in touch with people who are descended from her family and they didn’t even know that she was a designer,” says Bownes. “How is this possible? Somebody who I would say is one of the most significant British designers, [and] you can’t even find a photograph of her? In Terence Conran’s autobiography, he said that Dora Batty was hugely influential on him when she taught him at Central, and switched him on to design, and other people have said that too – so a key figure in both education and as a practitioner, and what do we know about her? Nothing about her personality, no photographs.”

Poster Girls
Lift by Fiona Tan, 2003
Poster Girls
Richmond upon Thames by bus, overground and river by Esther Cox, 2017

It is for reasons such as these that an exhibition focusing on the contribution of women to poster design seems overdue, urgent even. “It’s like an entry level to a massive subject,” says Bownes of ‘Poster Girls’. “It’s like a necessary starting point. In a more sophisticated world where this neglect hadn’t taken place … you would not be doing an exhibition about all male poster designers, you’d be looking at schools of design, or a particular group of designers who were part of a movement.

“Whereas here, looking at all women, you’ve got very different styles and very different approaches and apart from being women, there isn’t a unifying link between, say, Mabel Lucie Attwell and Anna Zinkelsen. However, such is the low level starting point, that it is necessary.”

‘Poster Girls – A Century of Art and Design’ is on show at the London Transport Museum from October 13 until January 1, 2018; ltmuseum.co.uk

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