Last month two poster-based exhibitions opened in London. The first, at London Transport Museum in Covent Garden, champions the neglected role of women designers in the story of C20th British poster history. The second, at the Jewish Museum in Camden, examines the extraordinary influence of European émigré designers on Britain from the 1930s onwards.
Collectively this reassessment of the cultural impact of previously marginalised groups is both welcome and timely. It also provides an opportunity to compare the work of continental ‘modernists’ with home grown talent, although only one designer, the Czech-born Dorrit Dekk, appears in both exhibitions.
But for me the most surprising discovery is the striking similarity between two posters by two very different featured designers: Sheila Stratton and FHK Henrion. Both posters were commissioned by London Transport in the 1950s and their remarkable similarity raises intriguing questions about artistic influence and lasting fame.
The first poster, or rather pair poster, See London and London’s Country, was designed by Sheila Gillian Branthwayt Stratton (1928-2008) in 1954. One half of the design features an outline of a possibly female form with one arm raised and the other holding a London Transport guide book. The body is formed from a collage of London landmarks, including Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. The second half of the pair poster (which would have been displayed alongside the main image) contains more practical information about bus and coach tours in London and the surrounding countryside.
The second poster, Visitors London, was designed by Frederick Henri Kay Henrion (1914-1990) in 1956 – two years after Stratton’s design hit the hoardings. Like the earlier poster, it features the outline of a possibly female form, with one arm raised to the head and a body formed from an inverted image of the Eifel Tower intersected with an illustration of Buckingham Palace. But the similarities don’t end there. Both posters use very similar colour schemes with the main figure imposed on the background. Look, too, at the common use of the London Transport roundel logo for the mouth, the use of a bold defining white line on the left of the figure and the positioning of open LT guidebooks to the centre left of the designs. Even Stratton’s placing of miniature trees in the foreground is mirrored by Henrion’s diminutive guardsmen.
Now, I’m not saying that these two posters are identical, but they bear more than a passing resemblance. And in keeping with London Transport Museum’s narrative that women designers have been somewhat overlooked in the story of poster history, it is revealing to note that Henrion’s design is the better-known today, having been republished in anthologies of Underground posters and repurposed for souvenirs. In contrast, I can’t recall having seen Stratton’s poster before, although it was reproduced in the German design magazine Graphis at the time as an outstanding example of British commercial art.
One reason for this neglect, of course, is that Henrion is by far the more famous of the two designers. Born Heinrich Fritz Kohn to Jewish parents in Nuremberg, Henrion studied poster design in Paris under the direction of Paul Colin. He came to England in 1936 to further his career and escape the violent anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany. Briefly interred as an enemy alien during the war, Henrion went on to produce outstanding propaganda on behalf of the British and American governments in London. After the war, he became a renowned pioneer of corporate identity, as well as a highly regarded teacher at the Royal College of Art and the London College of Printing.
In comparison, Stratton’s career is frustratingly difficult to piece together. Born on the Isle of Wight, she trained at Canterbury College of Art and the Royal College of Art. A member of the Royal Institute of painters in water colours (RI), she appears to have worked as a graphic designer in the 1950s with clients including London Transport, the publisher Jonathan Cape and the cosmetics retailer Gala of London.
All of this may seem like a rather academic comparison between two similar posters that nobody seems to have commented on at the time. But there’s an interesting coda to the story, as Henrion and London Transport were sued over a copyright infringement on Visitors London, but not by Sheila Stratton.
The central image of Buckingham Palace on the Henrion poster was by another female artist, Judith Bledsoe, and her agents (Archives Designs Ltd) were far from happy about its uncredited use. After a flurry of legal letters, LT eventually agreed to remove the poster from circulation and pay a fine of £150 plus costs to the artist’s agent. Henrion was at first nonplussed by all the fuss, complaining to LT’s Publicity Officer, Harold Hutchinson, that the one disputed “element” did not “take away from its merits as a design” and hoped that the poster might be re-issued in the future. Hutchinson had other ideas, however, replying on the 8th April 1957: “I can only repeat that we cannot allow any further use of the Eiffel Tower [sic] poster for any purpose or in any way whatsoever”.
Despite this, Visitors London has been used since, while Stratton’s design has not. Both are excellent examples of London Transport posters from the 1950s, and let’s hope the inclusion of See London and London’s Country in the LTM exhibition and accompanying catalogue will help to establish Stratton’s credentials as a design innovator.
Poster Girls. A century of art and design, is on at London Transport Museum, Covent Garden, until January 2019 (www.ltmuseum.co.uk/whats-on/exhibitions)
Designs on Britain, is on at the Jewish Museum, Camden, until 15 April 2018. (www.jewishmuseum.org.uk/designs)