Art Exhibition Posters. A Buyers Guide
Regular readers of my blog will know by now how much I love vintage posters, especially British travel and propaganda designs. But there’s one type of poster that I’ve become more and more interested in over the last couple of years: original art exhibition posters from the post-war period. Relatively little has been written about this collecting field, which is a shame as exhibition posters are supremely evocative of their age and (still) offer excellent value for money.
So, here’s my attempt to answer some of the most frequent questions we get asked about exhibition posters. And, of course, you can browse our current selection here.
Eduardo Paolozzi, Tate Gallery, 1971
What are Art Exhibition Posters?
Let’s start with the basics. The posters we’re discussing in this blog were designed and printed to promote art exhibitions held at museums and galleries. All of the posters were published for public display at the stated date and are not modern copies or licensed reproductions.
Warhol, Tate Gallery, 1971
Why are they special?
Original art exhibition posters are incredible mementoes of some of the most significant cultural movements of the last 100 years. Often beautifully printed (frankly to a far higher standard than was strictly necessary), exhibition posters connect us directly with the excitement and buzz of dynamic moments in art history past and present. It helps, too, that they look great framed in domestic interiors (they were designed to look attractive, after all), and with perseverance you can find an authentic art-show poster in a style that means something to you.
David Hockney, Tate Gallery, 1980
But art exhibition posters are just photos of one the exhibits with some text, right?
Wrong! Several fine artists, including Paul Nash, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Roy Lichtenstein and David Hockney, painted ‘one-off’ poster designs to promote their shows, which are now among the most eagerly sought by collectors. Since the 1960s, the Royal Academy has made a virtue of commissioning RAs to paint the poster for the Summer Exhibition, with examples by Edward Bawden, Edward Ardizzone, Peter Blake, Mary Fedden and Eduardo Paolozzi (see my blog on RA posters here). Similarly, renowned artist-teachers and their students have created posters for progressive galleries and end of year shows – sometimes anonymously. Richard Hamilton, for example, is known to have designed posters for the Hatton Gallery while teaching at the Fine Art Department of Durham University.
Richard Hamilton, Joe Tilson, Hatton Gallery, 1963
And then there are the graphic designers who specialised in art exhibition posters, often combining an element of a featured artwork with a skilfully chosen font for maximum effect. Names to look out for here include Gordon House (Royal Academy) and Peter Branfield (V&A). Leading poster artists, too, occasionally turned their talents to creating a design for a contemporary art show, including Edward McKnight Kauffer and Tom Eckersley.
Jean Cocteau, Poteries, 1958
How have these posters survived?
Good question! Until relatively recently museum and galleries didn’t routinely sell spare copies of posters to the public. On the whole, they only printed enough for distribution purposes, with the result that print runs were relatively small. Posters for the Mansard Gallery of Heal’s Tottenham Court Road furniture store, for example, were rarely printed in editions of more than a few hundred.
Claud Lovat Fraser, Mansard Gallery, 1919
However, there were always a few copies saved at the time, perhaps by the gallery owner, printer, designer or far-sighted souvenir hunters. Whatever the method of preservation, exhibition posters from before about 1970 are astonishingly uncommon – even for major shows.
Roy Lichtenstein, Leo Castelli Gallery, 1963
Which are the best art posters to buy?
Beyond the obvious caveat that you should always buy what you like, rather than in anticipation of investment trends, it is safe to say that the most desirable art posters are those designed by the artists themselves and/or those promoting contemporary exhibitions of a living artist’s work - especially if the show was later judged to have been a landmark exhibition.
Peter Blake, Royal Academy, 1975
Its worth bearing in mind, too, how and where the poster was printed. Several fine art printers specialised in producing exceptionally high-quality exhibition posters. These include Mourlot Imprimeur (Paris) and the Shenval Press (London).
Pablo Picasso, Affiches Originales, 1959
So, how much should I expect to pay?
The good news is that entry level prices for original art show posters are very affordable, at around £50. Really good and interesting examples from the last 60 years can still be had for as little as £150-£300, although prices are creeping up with the very best art posters fetching up to £3000. But this is still an underrated market, given the rarity and level of interest in the subject (see, for example, the recent feature on collecting exhibition posters in the BBC Homes & Antiques Magazine, Best in Show, June 2021).
Lowry, Norwich Castle Museum, 1970
Have these posters been reprinted and how can you spot an original?
Some of the more iconic exhibition posters have, indeed, been reprinted over the years, often in poorer quality versions and in non-standard sizes. One of the best ways to spot a fake is to check that the poster includes the original print details at the base, which should be crisply printed. Reproductions often miss out this information altogether or, if generated from a digital file, the text can appear blurred or illegible. Check, too, that the poster is the right size. Most British exhibition posters from the last 80 years or so would have been printed in Double Crown format (30 x 20 inches), although there are exceptions to this rule.
Leger, Grand Palais, 1972
In addition to poor quality fakes, some museums and galleries, such as the Royal Academy, have re-published iconic designs to a high standard for sale. These are usually identifiable by size and type of paper stock, although the latter needs a trained eye to tell the difference.
miro rothko rietveld, Hayward Gallery, 1972
But if in doubt, the best bet is to buy from a reputable poster dealer, preferably one who is a member of the International Vintage Poster Dealers Association (IVPDA). And, of course, if a deal seems too good to be true, then it probably is!
Pop Art in England, York, 1976
How can I find out more?
The definitive story of art exhibition posters has yet to be written. But there are several excellent books about specific artists or galleries. The most informative of these are:
- Mark Pomeroy, Posters. A Century of Summer Exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts, Royal Academy of Arts, 2015
- Eric Shane, Hockney Posters, Pavilion Books, 1987
- Maria Costantino, Picasso Posters, Magna Books, 1991
You can also find lots more books and articles which include information about exhibition posters in our extensive online Bibliography.