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.
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.
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.