Both beautiful and inspiring, the artwork that Shell used on their posters was a shift in advertising for two reasons: They were selling the ambitions of the motorist beyond commuting; a generation of day-trippers without trains. Also they were presenting modern art to the public in an era when museums charged admission. The posters were pasted on the sides of petrol stations, lorries and billboards with that simple line “You Can Be Sure of Shell”.
Shell Mex Limited appointed a new Publicity Director in 1932, Jack Beddington. His insight turned the British Shell advertisements of the 1930s into one of the classic campaigns of the twentieth century. The genius of the campaign was to let artists depict Britain in their own styles, they would paint an image and whatever their style, it was surrounded by text. There would be no need for product placement, for models holding petrol cans, it was a campaign exposing the beauty and wonder of Britain and modern art.
Some of these posters were exhibited at the New Burlington Galleries in 1934. Below are two quotes from different reviews on the exhibition that show the surprise of critics to Beddington’s use of modern artists in poster design.
It is now a good many years since, under the able directorship of Mr Frank Pick, some of our best designers were encouraged to show their works in public – using the expression in its broadest sense. People who never though of going to picture galleries could, for the first time find delight in good pictorial art even in an Underground station and in the street. –
Apollo, January to June, 1934, p322 †
If it can be hoped that big firms like Shell-Mex are really going to patronize art as intelligently as this, we shall expect to be seeing in a few years’ time at Christie’s, not the sale of the collection of the Duke of Frumpshire, but of the Gas Light and Coke Company. If the princes of commerce are going to behave like princes we shall have some fun. ‡
The Everywhere You Go series is one of the more curious for it is before the typographic design for the posters had settled down, a range of typefaces, colours and sizes are used. The first offering by W J Steggles has the tag line in lowercase. Steggles was part of the now fashionable, East London Group of artists, he painted various scenes for Shell posters, as did his brother Harold and
Walter James Steggles – The Thames at Cookham
Edgar Ainsworth – Gordale Scar
Elwin Hawrhorne – North Foreland Lighthouse
Robert Miller – Devil’s Elbow, Braemar
Harold Steggles – Bungay
Rosemary and Clifford Ellis – Lower Slaughter
Graham Sutherland – Oust Houses nr Leeds, Kent
M. A. Miles – Polperro Cornwall
Charles Mozley – Boxhill
John Armstrong – Newlands Corner
Graham Sutherland – The Great Globe, Swanage
George Hooper – Kintbury Berks
John Armstrong – Near Lamorna
Paul Nash – Rye Marshes
Edward Wakeford – Gravesend
† Apollo, January to June, 1934, p322
‡ W.W.Winkworth – The Spectator – 29 JUNE 1934, p15
Catherine McDermott – Design Museum Book of Twentieth Century Design, 1998, p319
Rosemary Ellis née Collinson was born in Totteridge, North London in 1910. Her grandfather was the leading designer of furniture company Collinson & Lock and her father trained as a cabinet maker and started the firm Frank Collinson & Co.
Clifford Ellis – The Farm, 1945, from my collection.
Rosemary’s father served in WW1 in France and Italy. Having survived this conflict he died of Spanish Flu in 1919 and so Rosemary and her siblings moved in with her mother’s parents in their large house at Netley Marsh in the New Forest. In this environment she developed a love of the forest and its animals. Some time later, the family moved to London.
Rosemary went to study art at the Regent Street Polytechnic in 1928. It was here that she met her future husband Clifford Ellis who was her tutor at the Polytechnic.
Rosemary Ellis – View of Holcombe from Dawlish, 1945, from my collection.
Clifford and Rosemary Ellis were at once husband and wife and an artistic partnership. Their collaboration began in 1931, the year of their marriage, and subsequently almost all their published freelance work is signed jointly. By the time the New Naturalist jackets were designed they had taken to using the cipher C&RE to express their joint authorship. Such consistent use of a joint cipher is unusual, and needs a little explanation. The initials were put in alphabetical order, not out of any sense of seniority. †
The couple as artists and designers joined the ranks of Ben Nicholson, Eric Ravilious, Barnett Freedman and Edward Bawden as artists who could create both posters for advertising and book dust jackets. They would join many of these artists in working for Shell Mex and for London Transport on posters.
Clifford and Rosemary Ellise – Appledore – ‘Shell Landmark’ Series No. 491
Work that would welcome further investigation includes posters by Barnett Freeman, Edward Bawden, Richard Guyatt and Clifford and Rosemary Ellis. Another area that was constrained from further investigation by lack of space was the way in which Beddington provided opportunities for women to produce art for commercial use. Women artists were given very little press attention in the 1930s and, although artists such as Barbara Hepworth were active exhibitors, critics rarely reviewed their shows. Apart from Vanessa Bell, six other women artists produced posters for Shell, including Pamela Drew, Eve Kirk, Cathleen Mann and Margaret Brynhild Parker. The reason for the prominence of women in poster design is a potentially interesting area of research that could illuminate issues of female participation in the arts, gender prejudice, and education in the 1930s. ‡
By the time of WW2 Clifford Ellis was the headmaster of the Bath School of Art. He then served as a camouflage artist and official war artist with Grenadier Guards during Second World War.
Rosemary too was a official war artist working on the Recording Britain project with Clifford. Above is a beautiful view of a graveyard in Bath. It is one of the most gothic and romantic works she produced and looks more like a John Piper study. The painting above ‘View of Holcombe from Dawlish’ also has elements of John Piper in it: the loosely constructed house, the abstract boat off the shore and the dark sky.
Rosemary Ellis – Teignmouth Bay, 1945, from my collection.
The couple would also be selected as artists for the Lyon’s Lithograph series in 1947. The aim was to produce large lithographs that could cheaply be bought by members of the public but also be displayed to brighten up the tearooms Lyons owned. The Ellis’s submission of Teignmouth was described as almost being a painting rather than a lithograph.
Between 1946 and 1955 the company commissioned three series of prints, some 40 in all, from most of the leading British artists of the day. The lithographs were not advertising per se (the Lyons name only appeared in small type at the bottom of each), but they were branding by association.
To help, he brought in the artist Barnett Freedman as the technical director. He had long experience as a lithographer and had been both an official war artist and a teacher at the Royal College of Art. ♠
R&CE – Teignmouth From the Lyons Lithographs First Series 1947.
The painting of Teignmouth Bay from 1945 would have been a study around the time of the Lyons lithograph above but looking back and forth onto each other.
Teignmouth Painted by Clifford and Rosemary Ellis: For the lithographs worked up at Chromoworks from originals, (Barnett) Freedman’s input at the proofing stage was crucial. In response to his comments about the proof of Teignmouth, for example, (Frank) Oppenheimer noted at the printers that they would ‘try a light grey printing over the sails etc … alter the colour of the light brown high light in the hills in printing [and] … make the colour of the sky and sea slightly warmer. ♣
Rosemary Ellis worked with her husband Clifford to design over 60 of the dust jackets for the New Naturalist book series, after volume 71 the artist Robert Gillmor took over.
R&CE – Butterflies by E. B. Ford, Collins, 1945
Today these jackets are their best-known work, though book lovers may know some of their other jackets before and after the war, for the Collins Countryside series in the 1970s, or their design for John Betjeman’s Collins Guide to English Parish Churches. Within the art worked they are remembered more as innovative teachers, Clifford Ellis having run the Academy of Art at Corsham Court for a quarter of a century with his wife Rosemary as a leading member of the staff. †
The pair also designed two of the covers to the King Penguin Series.
R&CE – A Book of English Clocks by R.W.Symonds, 1946, King Penguin Books.
The original idea for King Penguins came from the small Insel-Verlag books which were published in Germany before the war. Why, we felt, should there not be a similar series of books in this country? The experiment, started a few weeks after war broke out, turned out to be successful. One of the most distinctive features of this series is their decorative covers. ♦
The King Penguin series itself struggled to make money, because of the costs of colour printing, and it was cancelled in 1957. ♥
R&CE – Flowers of the Woods by E.J.Salisbury, 1947, King Penguin Books.
† Collecting the New Naturalists by Tim Bernhard and Timothy Loe, 2015.
‡ Shell’s England by Malcolm V. Speakman, 2014.
♠ Bawden and battenberg by Michael Prodger, The Guardian 12 July 2013.
♣ Tea and a Slice of Art: The Lyons Lithographs 1946-1955 by Charlie Batchelor.
♥ Reading Penguin: A Critical Anthology by William Wootten and George Donaldson, 2014.
♦ Pevsner: The BBC Years: Listening to the Visual Arts – Page 75
Recording Britain. Volume 4, Edited by Arnold Palmer, 1949.