Great Britain

How Edward McKnight Kauffer turned advertising into art

This article appears in the 27 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Trump

Edward McKnight Kauffer – “Ted” to his friends – was hardly the first artist, before or since, to butt his head against financial necessity. Kauffer fought to make something of his idealism but eventually he succumbed, gave up on the idea of being a great modern artist, and followed the money into poster design and advertising. Except that he never really tried to snuff out the painter inside him but took him along too: if he was going to design posters, he decided, then at least he’d ensure they were art.

In this second career, Kauffer (1890-1954) established the image of the new age of mass transport in the early decades of the 20th century. His work for Frank Pick, the visionary administrator who defined the look of the Tube system, saw him design 140 ­posters for London Underground and London Transport, and numerous others for the likes of Shell Oil and Great Western Railway. His work, which drew on modern art movements and showed a daring use of typography, encouraged metropolitans to get out to the winter sales or the South Kensington museums, to relish the countryside ringing London and, whether by public transport or private vehicle, to visit the New Forest, Stonehenge or the Cornish coast.

Kauffer, however, despite conjuring up quintessentially British jazz-age imagery, was not a native. He was born in Montana and left school early, dogsbodying for a theatre scene painter before studying art in San Francisco, where he subsidised himself by working in a bookshop (where he also, apparently, developed a mellifluous speaking voice). It was there in 1912 that he met a university professor called Joseph McKnight who was so impressed by the young man’s paintings that he offered to sponsor a study trip to Europe: Kauffer added McKnight to his name as a mark of gratitude.

Before he got to France, Kauffer visited the great Armory Show of 1913, which introduced European avant-gardism to an American audience. While it bewildered and appalled many of them, the work of Duchamp, Matisse, Braque, Brâncusi et al thrilled Kauffer. “I didn’t understand it, but I certainly couldn’t dismiss it,” he recalled. On crossing the Atlantic, the fired-up would-be modernist went first to Munich and then to Paris, where he studied for a year, until the outbreak of the First World War. By then he had met and married the American pianist Grace Ehrlich and since the couple didn’t want to return to the United States, they crossed the Channel and made England their home instead.

[see also: The dreamscapes of Maxfield Parrish]

Among the friends he made were members of the Bloomsbury group – he designed the logo for the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press and exhibited at Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops – and another American ex-pat, TS Eliot. Kauffer went on to collaborate on several of the poet’s books, including providing ­striking cubist drawings for the first printing of the Journey of the Magi (1927). Eliot recognised in him something of a fellow spirit and wrote that in his work Kauffer “did something for modern art with the public as well as doing something for the public with modern art”.

It was Pick, however, who was to be his most important new connection. Pick’s intention was to give the then Underground Electric Railways Company of London (ERCL) a unified and distinctive image, extending from the art deco architecture of many of the new stations, to the platform signage and advertising posters. To make the ERCL more profitable, he believed, it needed to attract more customers outside commuting hours. His own preference for the Tube network to showcase 20th-century design put him in perfect alignment with Kauffer.

In 1915 Pick commissioned a series of landscape posters from him – among them Oxhey Woods, In Watford, Reigate: Route 160 and The North Downs – and the relationship would go on to last for more than 25 years. In the posters of this period Kauffer’s influence was the japonisme that had proved so pervasive in the last decades of the previous century and had found its way into the art of everyone from Monet and Whistler to Van Gogh. Kauffer used it with wit and brilliance: through the motif of a wooden bridge he showed Watford as the twin town of imperial Kyoto; he saw Oxhey Woods near Pinner as a distant cousin of Japan in cherryblossom time (and managed to anticipate Clarice Cliff’s pottery designs for good measure); and presented the North Downs as a squat and verdant version of Mount Fuji.

The posters managed effortlessly to be both simple enough for mass lithographic reproduction but striking enough to snag the traveller’s eye. They also present an image of the Home Counties as a suburban arcadia. In the midst of the horrors of the First World War, Metroland became a home front worth fighting for.

Kauffer would be much more daring in some of his other graphic designs – his 1919 poster for the launch of the Daily Herald, for example, showing a flock of stylised birds in flight against a tall yellow void, was based on a drawing he made in 1913 and is a perfect example of vorticist art to match the work of Percy Wyndham Lewis and David Bomberg. Indeed, he was a member of Lewis’s radical Group X, though as a fine artist he found little favour and some hostility, his more outré pieces being dubbed “McKnightmares”. Graphic design was his true metier and he came to realise it himself: “Gradually I saw the futility of trying to paint and do advertising at the same time.”

And perhaps he was right; after all, he was the man who had found a way to make Waltham Cross, Chingford and Uxbridge appear as glamorous as the ski resorts of the Alps and the fleshpots of the Côte d’Azur. 

[see also: The wild pictures of Rosa Bonheur]

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