Whether you are looking to buy a vintage poster for interior decoration, as a special gift, or thinking of starting a collection, we can help source the perfect poster for you. But for the first time buyer it can all feel a bit daunting. In this guide, poster expert David Bownes answers our most frequently asked questions to help you on your journey to becoming a poster aficionado.
What is an original vintage poster ?
Put simply, an original vintage poster is one printed at the stated date and from the first print run. In other words, if you see a poster on our website dated ‘1935’ it will have been printed in 1935.
How can you tell that a poster is original, rather than a reprint ?
There are several ways to distinguish between an original poster and a modern reprint. Firstly, original vintage posters tend to be printed in specific sizes which are not generally available today (see ‘sizes’ below). Authentic posters do not normally have a glossy finish and were printed in ink on light-weight paper using a process called lithography. This creates blocks of deep, solid, colour, which can sometimes be seen from the reverse of the poster. Modern copies are often printed on heavier paper, where the image cannot be seen from the reverse and where the image itself is made up of thousands of small dots, rather than a solid colour. Very modern copies are usually generated from a digital file which can result in a loss of definition when enlarged to poster size. Watch out for blurring, especially around the edges of lettering, as original posters were always crisply printed. Lastly, look out for the ‘print details’ at the base of the poster. These will tell you who printed the poster, and sometimes include the date and print run. Again, this information should be crisply printed.
But don’t worry if all this sounds a bit technical, as we only sell ‘the real thing’, allowing you to buy with confidence.
How have original posters survived ?
Most posters were pasted up and eventually torn down or pasted over. But some were unissued at the time, and these are the ones that survive today. Printers and publicity offices, for example, often kept copies as a record of their work. Poster designers were usually sent a couple of posters for their portfolios, while some of the big poster commissioners (such as the railway companies) sent spare copies to educational establishments or offered them for sale to the public. London Transport even had a shop at St James’s station in the 1930s where you could buy the latest Underground design. And sometimes vintage posters turn up in unexpected places, such as lofts and even under flooring, where they have remained forgotten for decades.
London Transport poster shop, c.1935
How many copies of a poster were printed and were they reprinted at the time ?
There’s no easy answer for this. A company like London Transport that prided itself on the freshness of its publicity campaign, might commission dozens or different designs a year, each printed in relatively small numbers (typically 800-1200) and not reprinted again. On the other hand, a nationwide distributor, such as Guinness, would print thousands of copies of the same poster for a specific campaign. Some government posters, such as wartime notices, were printed in very large numbers indeed, while companies with a strong unchanging brand would certainly have reissued a successful design over a number of years. None of this, however, means that mass produced posters are common today. The print run was based on the intended distribution, with most posters ending up on the hoardings.
What effects the value of vintage posters ?
Rarity, quality, desirability and condition all play a part in determining the value of an original vintage poster. In general, a poster by a leading designer, like Edward McKnight Kauffer (1899-1954), will always be more valuable than an unsigned example or a poster by an unknown artist. Strong design is equally important, and some subjects have wider appeal than others. With prices ranging from a few pounds to several thousand pounds, its always a good idea to make sure the seller is a reputable poster expert, and ideally a member of the International Vintage Poster Dealers Association (IVPDA) – a peer viewed association of the world’s leading poster dealers.
How big are original posters ?
In Britain, poster sizes were based on Imperial measurements. We’ve produced an illustrated guide to explain the principal sizes, but these are the most common you will come across on our website:
- Quad Royal (40 x 50 inches): primarily used by railway companies for large format posters
- Double Royal (40 x 25 inches): again, mainly used by railway companies and London Transport
- Double Crown (30 x 20 inches): the principal format for commercial posters
- Four Sheet (40 x 60 inches): the larger format for commercial posters
- Quad (30 x 40 inches): standard size for theatrical release film posters
The USA had slightly different paper sizes, also based on Imperial measurements, while continental Europe used the Metric system.
It can sometimes be difficult to visualise how these sizes might work in a domestic interior. A framed Quad Royal, Quad or Four Sheet poster will need a lot of space and will be hugely impactful in all but the largest of rooms. Double Royal posters are ideal for narrower spaces, although can look outstanding grouped together in a row or grid pattern. Double Crown posters are great for smaller spaces.
Our customers are often surprised by how well printed original posters are, and also by the depth of colour and vibrancy. This is because posters were printed lithographically by highly skilled technicians using modern printing presses. The leading UK printers, such as the Baynard Press, Curwen Press and Dangerfield’s, were masters of their art and the published posters would be considered fine art standard today. Indeed, many prominent twentieth century artists, including the likes of Edward Bawden (1903-1989), are known to have collected posters because they were the best quality reproductions of modern design available at the time.
How should I frame an original poster ?
The type of frame you choose, or whether to use a card ‘window’ mount, are matters of personal taste, but you’ll want to avoid using material that will damage the poster over time. Certain glues and types of card ‘off gas’, causing paper to deteriorate. Ask your framer to use ZFMDF backing board, which has zero formaldehyde content, and insist on conservation grade mount board. It’s a good idea to put a sheet of mount board between the poster and the backing board, even if you are not using a window mount, as this will provide extra protection for the paper. In no circumstances should an original poster be glued down to the backing board, as this will eventually discolour and weaken the paper and destroy the value.
Using UV filtered glass will help protect the poster from fading, but can dull the appearance of the image (in our experience). ‘Crystal-clear’ UV filtered Perspex is a good alternative, but the best solution is to avoid placing a framed poster in direct sunlight. Certain ink colours, especially red, can fade very quickly if exposed to the sun.
At Twentieth Century Posters we're happy to arrange the framing for you, and work with several leading London framers.
Where can I find out more about vintage British posters ?
Luckily, there is no shortage of information about posters and their designers. You can find our comprehensive bibliography of British poster history here, and we publish regular blog posts about poster design.
Important museum collections of British posters are held by the Imperial War Museum, London Transport Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Science Museum – all of which give excellent online access to their collections.
Have a different question ?
Contact David Bownes directly by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone (07718 064 205) with your poster queries. We are always happy to help, and if we haven’t got what you’re after we might be able to point you in the right direction.