Thursday, August 26, 2010

Meteoric brothers revolutionize art: Library mouse (05)

English brothers, who weren’t brothers, revolutionized art. Meteors, they blasted through accepted, even delightful, traditions at the end of the 19th century. Loved by collectors, critics and fellow artists (even those persnickety ones across the channel) and embraced sporadically by that then new breed of advertizing directors, they baffled and left emotionally unengaged too many consumers of the general public to be commercially successful. The partnership, founded in the summer of 1894, petered out by mid 1900, and the two brothers-in-law went their separate ways, professionally and personally. Who were they? The Beggarstaff brothers, of course!...More......

I came across this mind-boggling pair of artists during my M.A. research for a paper on poster art (I won’t say when…that would date me too easily). Their advances were only more fully understood in the Art Deco period, characterized by the stream-lined simplification necessary for their approach, and probably again in the 1960s, though the double-edged sword of their lessons are still timely.

Their mature designs created with stencils, though ultimately reproduced in lithograph, use broad flat expanses of color functioning actively both as background and foreground figure. Believe me, it’s a lot harder to do than it sounds, or than the stunningly simple results belie. (See their awe-inspiring “Girl reading”:, and, while you’re at it, sign up to this marvelous blog dedicated to the Fin-de-Siècle.)

Why, then, “double-edged sword?” Their commercial failure should be a clue.

They most often worked “on spec,” meaning that—as had increasingly become the case for artists, at least since the Baroque period, though also practiced, earlier—they first did the work, speculating, and peddled it, hoping to get paid, later.


So their generic designs didn’t always express the specific products as effectively as expected by their viewers, and their understated emotion didn’t grab the consumers by the…throat.

Sometimes the tenuous link between design and product was sufficient, as the case in the “KASSAMA CORN FLOUR” poster ( The enigmatic and typically emotionally distant image of a young girl carrying a market basket was sufficiently related by the lettering (also planned by the ‘brothers’) expressing the name of the brand and, in breath-taking simplicity, the WHAT. No long text detailing the innumerable superb qualities, the excellent price-quality ratio and the easy availability of the product (there’s a lesson in this for me, if I would just absorb it…). Just the gut impact of the sunny yellow and starkly simplified graphics—readily visible from afar and through polluted heavy fog, both essential characteristics—and the almost neutral image of the young shopper. (Who is she? A young servant, well or badly treated? The older child of a numerous poor family, whose father had died recently in a mining accident, whose mother was dying of TB, and whose fellow siblings, all under the age of 8, now weighed on her fragile slightly bowed shoulders for their survival, or was she from an up-and-coming middle class family, excited but intimidated by her first grown up chore all alone?) The poster was a success.

The disconnect between the product and the image was loudly criticized for the commercially and critically popular “Beefeater” poster, whose avant-garde bright red and black merged gradually in the viewers’ brains into the image of the guard, as if filtered through a heavy London fog, though this effect hadn’t been intended ( Produced “on spec” and intended for a beef extract product, for which it would have been humorously perfect at that time (the association of these historic guards and beef products was typical at the time), the poster’s radical simplification defied the powers of comprehension of the advertizing directors to whom it first had been proposed (after the artistically and commercially successful release of the poster lasting years, I can hear the presidents of the those companies, “You &%*£°§ idiot! You’re fired!”), luckily for the American magazine Harper’s, which wanted to break into the European market with startling graphics, already more advanced on their side of the great watery divide.

Lack of comprehension on the part of the general public and their ever (and rightly) sensitive commercial caretakers, the advertizing directors, lead first to the disconnect between product and poster and then to the financial impracticality and dissolution of the artistic team. James Pryde and William Nicholson, who had adopted “J. and W. Beggarstaff” as a full blooded English pseudonym, went their separate artistic ways, which also became personal, after the death of the artistically gifted Mabel, sister of the former and wife of the latter.

‘Leave them wanting more.’ That old show business adage applies equally as well to the Beggarstaffs and to the marvelous, but much too short book (even at 120 odd pages of well illustrated text), The Beggarstaff Posters by Colin Campbell (Barrie & Jenkins, 1990). I wish the book had added just a few more pages, giving at least hints of their painting and art, before and after (there are a few, but much too few).

Campbell’s book gives a well-rounded idea of these artists’ fundamental contribution to the birth of the modern poster, is a delightful read, and has served as mid-wife for the long awaited birth of my Beggarstaff-inspired needlepoint idea. Get in line, girl, there are at least 3, or 4, ahead of you, but now that you’re born, you needn’t fret. It will be your turn, too.

(Searching for “Beggarstaff” in Google images turns up skads of examples, not all originals. To train your eye to quality, try skipping over the sites advertizing reproductions, and go straight to the museum sites of poster collections, such as that of the V&A:

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