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Author: Karl Hack

Selling Empire: Posters

Updated Monday, 21st January 2013

Explore the Empire Marketing Board’s posters in more detail, starting with the Highways of Empire poster.

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The Empire Marketing Board (EMB) produced many posters for billboards. It also produced smaller versions that the public could buy for 1s 6d, and by 1933 had 27,000 schools on its distribution list. For its 1931 ‘Buy British’ campaign, the EMB printed more than four million posters, right down to miniature versions for car windscreens, and famous aviator Amy Johnson’s aircraft flew over London with Buy British posters plastered to its wings, and more in its belly as cargo (Straits Times, 18 December 1931, p. 19).

The EMB’s posters thus reflected, and contributed to, the increasing intensity and sophistication of advertising in the 1920s and 1930s. They were also an example of the early development of ideas about the need for both companies and public institutions to conduct ‘public relations’.

Highways of Empire

Highways of Empire was the first poster issued by the EMB after its creation in May 1926.

Highways of Empire 'Highways of Empire'; (TNA) CO956-537A

It was displayed in January 1927 on massive billboards, 20 feet across by 10 feet high. The EMB commissioned MacDonald Gill to design the poster, dictating a semicircular projection to suit its size. Gill was already famous for his playful pictorial underground map (The Wonderground Map of London Town, 1914), with its whimsical speech bubbles and rhymes designed to entice the viewer to visit new locations. Gill placed Britain at the centre of Highways of Empire, and let loose his artistry and playfulness. He even misplaced polar bears in the Antarctic, with a speech bubble that asks: ‘Why are we here?’

How should we read the poster?

Empire is depicted as the very model of modernity, with global transport creating one system of trade. Routes are shown, with ships and even an aircraft. The latter anticipates the first Imperial Airways services to Empire, which started in January 1927. Its speech bubbles evoke modern cartoons, and the length of shipping routes is given with precision. But the poster also evokes nostalgia and tradition, and an older age of exploration and uncertainty. Its sea monsters, stars and anemoi (Greek gods of the winds) echo early charts. These, and quotations of Shakespeare and Pope, ensure that it simultaneously suggests that the British Empire is unified and modernising, and yet deeply rooted in British culture and history.

Empire Marketing Board Posters as art

In order to try and capture the widest possible audience for such themes, the EMB’s poster subcommittee tried to employ the best poster artists, in what was arguably a golden age of artist-produced British posters. Hence MacDonald Gill was employed on the strength of his previous Wonderground Map of London Town and other transport posters. Artists used to depicting bucolic English landscapes for railway posters were commissioned, and depicted both British and Dominion pastoral landscapes in soft shades.

Even when portraying Britain, though, many different artists and styles were employed. Clive Gardiner’s set of posters for Empire Buying Makes Busy Factories (many EMB posters were produced and displayed in sets of five) were starkly modernist and partly abstracted. His work is sometimes described as having elements of Cubism and Futurism.

EMB poster Motor Manufacturing 'Motor Manufacturing', by Clive Gardiner, from the 'Empire Buying Makes Busy Factories' series of posters; 60 x 40 ins, displayed September 1928; Waterlow and Sons Ltd; EMB ref C1; (TNA) CO956/258

Any attempt to claim that EMB posters adopt particular styles to emphasise British superiority are, therefore, suspect. Whether for Britain, Dominions or colonies, the styles employed are as varied as the artists commissioned. The emphasis was on moving hearts and minds by using works of the highest aesthetic quality to touch people’s imaginations. That said, certain broad themes and absences can be discerned in the posters. These themes relate not just to interconnections (the Highways of Empire map) but also to the nature of different types of colony.

The Empire Marketing Board and the settlement colonies

When Highways of Empire appeared in January 1927, The Manchester Guardian noted that it ‘proved so attractive as to cause congestion along the highways of London,’ (Manchester Guardian, 1 January 1927). But it also noted that, ‘This is Imperialism without the tears’. Hence images of the Dominions never included indigenous inhabitants. Instead, landscapes are shown as wilderness to be tamed by white men, as vast tracts of land transformed into pasture for cattle and sheep, or as rows of crops ready to be exported to Britain.

EMB Canadian lumbermen 'Canadian Lumbermen', by Frank Newbould, from the 'The Empire is Still Building' series of posters; 60 x 40 ins; displayed September-October 1930; (TNA) CO956/225

The emphasis was also on the Dominions as producers of commodities and consumers of British products. Hence the underlying EMB line that buying Empire created British jobs. Yet the reality was, for instance, that Australian aboriginals had lost almost all the most fertile land and were widely discriminated against until well into the 1960s and 1970s.

Colonial development

If the Dominions and India were some of Britain’s best customers, many other African and Asian colonies were relatively underdeveloped. If the EMB image was of ‘one family’, then a hierarchy emerges, in which Britain is the parent, the Dominions grown children in relations of interdependency, and other colonies younger, adopted children in need of education.

EMB East African Transport Old 'East African Transport Old Style', by Adrian Allinson, from the 'Colonial Progress Brings Home Prosperity' series of posters; 60 x 40 ins, displayed December 1930-January 1931; Waterlow and Sons Ltd; EMB ref BR1; (TNA) CO956/211

Though many posters depict non-Europeans in much more flattering light than the above – some attempting a sympathetic realism – they are almost always shown working, often under a European supervisory gaze, and occasionally with exaggerated or exoticised features. Very few of the artists were from the colonies depicted, and many had not visited them. The fact that much of the best land had often been reserved for Europeans – as in Kenya – is something the posters naturally do not hint at.

EMB East African Transport New 'East African Transport %u2013 New Style', by Adrian Allinson, from the 'Colonial Progress Brings Home Prosperity' series of posters; 60 x 40 ins, displayed December 1930-January 1931; Waterlow and Sons Ltd; (TNA) 956/215

The broader context for the ‘development’ theme was that there had been incipient labour unrest and nationalism in African, Caribbean and Asian colonies in the 1920s. The 1929 Colonial Development Act (CDA) set up a small Colonial Development Fund. In 1940, the CDA was succeeded by the Colonial Development and Welfare Act (CDWA), which included development of social services. So hope of improving the colonies’ trade combined with need to counter growing restlessness, and forestall international criticism.


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