Tag Archives: Duncan Grant

The Bloomsbury Group and the Post Office

The British Postal Museum & Archive’s poster collection holds designs by many giants of 20th century graphic design, including Edward McKnight Kauffer, Tom Eckersley, and Jan Lewitt and George Him. However, many of our posters also feature images from painters and artists too, and include work by famous 20th Century names like Ruskin Spear, and the brothers John and Paul Nash.

Two of the most fascinating are those designed by Vanessa Bell and by Duncan Grant, members of the famous Bloomsbury Group. Named after the area of London in which it was based, the group also included Bell’s sister, Virginia Woolf, the economist John Maynard Keynes, and the writer Lytton Strachey (Grant’s cousin) amongst others. Bell and Grant formed part of a complex web of relationships within the group: they had an affair which produced a child, Angelica, whom the art critic Clive Bell – Vanessa’s husband – brought up as his own. Grant, meanwhile, continued an on/off relationship with the writer David Garnett, who then went on to eventually marry Angelica, when she was in her early 20s. Despite their affair apparently ending shortly after Angelica’s birth, Bell and Grant remained close and lived together for more than 40 years until Vanessa’s death.

Just as interesting, however, is the story behind the work they produced for the General Post Office (GPO), and the different receptions it received. Both Grant and Bell accepted commissions to produce poster designs for the Post Office, and Grant’s 1939 design of a postman was successfully used in the schools educational series.

79,242 Postmen. Poster produced as part of a set of posters for schools promoting the General Post Office work force; featuring a postman. Artist: Duncan Grant. Date: March 1939. (POST 110/2501)

79,242 Postmen. Poster produced as part of a set of posters for schools promoting the General Post Office work force; featuring a postman. Artist: Duncan Grant. Date: March 1939. (POST 110/2501)

Bell’s 1935 poster ‘The Last Minute’ however, despite having been commissioned by legendary GPO publicity officer Stephen Tallents (who wrote to her suggesting that ‘Instead of merely commanding them to post early, we will show them how ridiculous they look, and what inconvenience they suffer, when they post late’), was eventually rejected.

The Last Minute. Poster promoting the benefits of posting mail early. Artist: Vanessa Bell. Date: 1935. (POST 110/2489)

The Last Minute. Poster promoting the benefits of posting mail early. Artist: Vanessa Bell. Date: 1935. (POST 110/2489)

Tallents’ successor Crutchley, writing to the Poster Advisory Group (whose members included Clive Bell, Vanessa’s husband) explained that

As regards ‘The Last Minute posters’ by Mrs Bell, however much one may admire it as a painting, I am afraid that it scarcely conveys the message which the Post Office wishes to convey on the subject of Early Posting and with great regret, therefore, I must inform you that this cannot be used.

While the posters differ stylistically, in substance they are similar: each highlights the human face of the Post Office, emphasising the service aspect and portraying postal workers as calm, collected and efficient. Equally, both represent a painterly style in contrast to the growing prominence of graphic design, which became the hallmark of GPO posters throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s.

Making up for its initial rejection, Vanessa Bell’s poster can now be seen in the BPMA’s poster exhibition ‘Designs on Delivery’, currently on show at the Great Western Hospital, Swindon.

See more posters from the Royal Mail Archive in our online exhibition Designs on Delivery.

Posters from the Post Office Publicity Department

by Vanessa Bell, Archivist (Cataloguing)

I have recently started cataloguing some of the posters forming part of POST 110, a class in our archive which consists of printed material designed to publicise Post Office services. Although the posters cover the period from 1934 (when the Post Office Publicity Department was created) to the present day, I am focussing on the earliest ones, with a view to making a listing available via the online catalogue.

I am going to write a bit here about two of the main series of posters: those with publication number IRP (Internal Relations Panel) covering the period from 1950 to 1967, and those with publication number PRD (Public Relations Department), covering the period from 1934 to 1968. This gives a flavour of what we hold; in future blogs I will focus on particular gems of the collection.

The IRP series is formed of posters produced by the JPC (Post Office Joint Production Council) for internal usage. They were designed to promote staff efficiency by reminding them of established procedures and recommending attention to detail. Staff are variously encouraged to focus on productivity, to handle mail correctly, to be aware of the need for security, to work as part of a team and to provide good customer service.

These posters were also used to encourage staff to be thrifty, with messages such as: ‘Save usable lengths of string. Avoid waste!’, ‘Save lead seals. Recovered lead is worth £90 per ton!’ and ‘Do not mis-use mailbags. They cost money’.

Some of the earliest posters in the PRD series were offered free of charge to schools and other educational establishments. They consist of sets of four posters illustrating particular themes.

The first in the series was produced by Harold Sandys Williamson on the theme of Post Office transport; images include ‘Mails for the packet steamers at Falmouth, 1833’ and ‘Loading airmails for the Empire, Croydon 1934’.

Such was the success of this series that it was followed by several other sets of posters, by artists such as Duncan Grant, Eric Fraser and John Armstrong. One key set by John Vickery entitled Outposts of Empire draws to mind a bygone era, featuring scenes from Barbados, Central Australia, Ceylon and Southern Rhodesia.

Other posters in the PRD series formed part of major publicity campaigns including those encouraging people to post early in the day, post early for Christmas, address their letters clearly and, with the introduction of postal coding in the 1960s, to include postcodes when addressing mail.

The BPMA exhibition Designs on Delivery: GPO posters 1930-1960 will open at the London College of Communication on 7th October and run until 4th November. For more information please visit our website.