Tag Archives: poster exhibition

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.

Postal posters exhibition in Swindon

From Tuesday 19th March to Thursday 27th June 2013 selected posters from The BPMA’s Designs on Delivery exhibition will be on display at Great Western Hospital, Swindon.

Design played a crucial role in promoting social progress and technological change across Britain between 1930 and 1960. The commercial poster reached cultural maturity during this period and became the most eloquent of the mass media.

Please pack parcels very carefully, 1957. Designer: Tom Eckersley. (POST 110/2592)

Please pack parcels very carefully, 1957. Designer: Tom Eckersley. (POST 110/2592)

From the 1930s onwards the Post Office became a leader in the field of poster design, commissioning some of Britain’s most recognized artists and designers. This success owes much to the appointment of Stephen Tallents as the Post Office’s first public relations officer in 1933. Under his guidance a Poster Advisory Group composed of key figures in the arts and business led the commissioning process.

Buy stamps in books, 1959. Designer: Pieter Huveneers. (POST 110/2536)

Buy stamps in books, 1959. Designer: Pieter Huveneers. (POST 110/2536)

Some of the posters commissioned were commercially driven. Others were intended simply as self-publicity or for creating goodwill among its publics. The Post Office’s rich store of material could also, wrote Tallents in 1935, make a contribution to the ‘picture of Britain’.

Post your letters before noon, 1941. Designers: Jan Lewitt and George Him. (POST 110/3184)

Post your letters before noon, 1941. Designers: Jan Lewitt and George Him. (POST 110/3184)

GPO posters included work by those associated with both fine art and graphic design, demonstrating the blurring of the boundaries between high art and popular culture that poster design encouraged. This exhibition showcases the best of these posters.

The exhibiting of Designs on Delivery has been made possible through a partnership with Paintings in Hospitals. Paintings in Hospitals is a registered charity that uses visual art to create environments that improve health, wellbeing and the healthcare experience for service users, their families and staff.

The Post Office handles 23,000,000 letters a day, 1947. Designer: G R Morris (POST 109/195)

The Post Office handles 23,000,000 letters a day, 1947. Designer: G R Morris (POST 109/195)

Designs on Delivery will be exhibited in the Temporary Exhibition Space (Main Entrance – Ground Floor) at the Great Western Hospital. The exhibition is open daily. Entry is free of charge and open to all. For opening hours, please see the Hospital’s website www.gwh.nhs.uk or for more information on the exhibition please see our website.

If you would like to share your feedback on the exhibition, please contact the BPMA Exhibitions Officer on dominique.gardner@postalheritage.org.uk.

Dominique Gardner – Exhibitions Officer