In the years after the Second World War commercial art in Britain was booming. A new generation of designers and illustrators brought a cheery, optimistic, aesthetic to advertising that saw its greatest expression in the posters and publicity of progressive commissioners, such as the General Post Office (GPO), London Transport and Shell-Mex. The government, too, was at the forefront of commissioning new and emerging talent, with the 1951 Festival of Britain (in particular) providing a platform for a wide range of artists, designers and architects. Some, like Abram Games and FHK Henrion, have become legends in the story of British design. But many more are largely forgotten today. Over the coming weeks I’ll be looking at the careers of some of these neglected artist-designers whose work enlivened the hoardings and magazines of the post-war era.
Bruce Roberts in Merchant Navy uniform
Bruce Roberts was one such artist-designer who came to prominence in the 1950s and 60s. Born in Southport in 1918, Roberts studied at the Liverpool City School of Art before moving to London. During the war he initially served as a radio officer in the Merchant Navy, but by 1943 he’d joined the growing team of designers working for the Ministry of Information. One of his earliest assignments was a window display for the Ministry of Supply (illustrated below), promoting the collection of animal bones as part of the national salvage drive.
Ministry of Supply, 1943 (b/w photo)
Very little appears to have survived of Roberts’ work from this time, or rather very little that can be confidently attributed to him. An exception is an excellent, but alas undated, poster for the Post Office Savings Bank, a copy of which is held by the Imperial War Museum. Executed in a modern style, it was the first of several posters Roberts was to design for the GPO from about 1945 to 1956.
The majority were concerned with conveying practical information simply and clearly and were typically printed in a small format for display inside Post Office branches. In my opinion, these breezy, yet informative, posters are among the best commercial work of Roberts’ career and must have brought him to the attention of a wide audience.
Like so many artists of his generation, Roberts was asked to contribute to the Festival of Britain in 1951. A photograph shows him at work on a large-scale panel, presumably for installation in one of the London pavilions or cafes, although the exact location is yet to be re-discovered. He was also commissioned to design elaborate decorative borders for press and railway advertisements promoting the Festival, where the text would have been added later to give specific event and travel information.
By the early Fifties, Roberts was an established commercial artist and an active member of the Society of Illustrators, Artists and Designers (SIAD). He was represented professionally by Artist Partners, a particularly illustrious agency whose contemporary roster included Saul Bass, Tom Eckersley, George Him, Savignac and Feliks Topolski. With a growing client list and profile, it was perhaps inevitable that Roberts would eventually come to the attention of London Transport (LT), still regarded in the 1950s as one of Britain’s most prestigious commissioners of graphic design. The Publicity Officer at this point was the cigar-smoking Harold Hutchinson who had firm views on what made for a good poster and was keenly aware of the Underground’s reputation for quality.
Roberts was first commissioned by Hutchinson in 1954 and eventually produced half a dozen or so illustrations for LT that were used to support text-heavy posters. This is a shame, as the resulting images lacked the prominence given to Roberts’ GPO designs. Probably the best from this period was Roberts design for a small format panel poster promoting bus ‘excursions and tours’ (1955). Printed in at least two distinct colourways, the image features famous London landmarks and sights. Stylistically, the poster is a world away from his first graphic design for the Post Office Savings Bank ten years earlier and prefigures the more illustrative approach that was to characterise his work in the 1960s.
Unused London Transport poster design, c.1959
In the archives of London Transport Museum there is, however, a superb painting commissioned from Roberts in 1959 for a full-size poster advertising London Zoo. Quite why this design remained unused is unclear, although correspondence between Hutchinson and Roberts suggests that it was still under consideration for printing as late as 1961.
In the 1960s, Roberts moved away from poster advertising to concentrate on book illustration, press ads and other graphic work. He had, in fact, been active in these fields for some time, designing his first known book cover, for Edgar Lustgarten’s Verdict in Dispute, in 1949 and creating numerous magazine and brochure illustrations for a broad range of clients throughout the 1950s. These included British Overseas Airways Corporation, Radio Times, ICI, Shell Mex, Pears Cyclopaedia and the BBC. He now became especially associated with children’s book illustration providing, for example, artwork for the BBC’s Schools Television Broadcast publications. He also held several influential teaching posts throughout his career at Kingston School of Art, the Central School of Art and the London College of Printing.
Girl in a Straw Hat, c. early 1960s
In addition to his undoubted skill as an illustrator and designer, Roberts was an accomplished fine artist, who exhibited at the Royal Academy, the London Group, the Museum of Modern Art (New York), Artifax Gallery (Sussex) and the Peterloo Gallery (Manchester). Examples of his commercial work can be seen in the collections of the Imperial War Museum, the National Railway Museum, London Transport Museum and the Postal Museum.
Illustration from Artists Partners brochure, mid-1950s
In putting this blog together, I am grateful for the generous assistance of Roberts’ daughter, Jane Devonald, in providing images and information. All photographs of Bruce Roberts remain the copyright of the family and cannot be reproduced without permission.