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100 YEARS AGO McKnight Kauffer Museum Posters

McKnight Kauffer returned to England in March 1922 after spending a relatively fruitless five months in the USA attempting to kickstart a career as a commercial artist in his country of birth. His perceived rejection by the New York advertising world spurred him on to achieve even greater heights in this country.

For this post I am looking at three Underground posters he designed for London Museums a hundred years ago. Two of these museums no longer exist as discrete London buildings.

The challenge of designing a poster to encourage the public to visit museums captured his imagination and reflected his literary sensibilities. When the printed results appeared on the hoardings many of them prompted a wide response from both the public and the press and helped to establish Kauffer and his work more firmly in the public domain.

E McKnight Kauffer London Museum of Practical Geology
London Underground

London Museum of Practical Geology Once the trade magazine Advertising World had discovered Kauffer, the journal publicised his posters on a regular basis. In the February 1922 issue a reviewer singled out the London Museum of Practical Geology poster as a success whilst recognising the fact that designing a poster for a geological museum was not an easy task. Kauffer chose to represent the museum with a Vorticist inspired image of a geological specimen he captioned "stibnites". The Underground travelling public were perplexed by this image and its caption. Newspaper offices and the London Underground itself received requests for clarity, resulting in the press department of the Underground issuing a technical definition of a stibnite!

Stibnite - sometimes called antimonite
- a sulfide mineral

The actual building that housed the exhibits was erected on a site (acquired by an Act of Parliament) that stretched between Jermyn Street and Piccadilly – the entrance in Jermyn Street.

Museum of Practical Geology Jermyn Street entrance

In 1935 the contents of the museum were moved to South Kensington’s Natural History Museum and the building demolished to make way for Simpsons of Piccadilly, designed by the modernist architect Joseph Pemberton.

The Royal United Service Museum

E McKnight Kauffer The Royal United Service Museum London Underground 1922

For this poster Kauffer selected a sailing ship (a frigate?) to represent the naval side of the museum, and a kettle drum and plumed helmets to symbolise the military side of the collection. The script lettering, probably not by Kauffer, gives the poster a stamp of authority. The design was lauded by a critic writing in the Advertising World magazine claiming the poster was typical of McKnight Kauffer’s work, meaning “no higher praise than this could be given”.

The Royal United Services Museum, part of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, was housed in the Banqueting House designed by Inigo Jones in Whitehall. The museum was disbanded in 1962 with its contents dispersed to other museums.

Victoria & Albert Museum, South Kensington: Kuan-Yin 1922

E McKnight Kauffer Victoria & Albert Museum "Kuan-Yin"

London Underground 1922

A glowing review of the Victoria & Albert Museum poster appeared in an issue of Commercial Art magazine. The critic stated that: “Not many people can have passed this beautiful poster without noticing it” and described it as “one of the most remarkable that have come to our notice.” The central image of the poster consists of a decorative illustration of ‘Kuan-Yin’ [usually referred to as Guanyin] , the Chinese goddess of compassion, with colours radiating in a geometric pattern around the figure. In an article in an April 1923 issue of Advertiser’s Weekly Kauffer explains, rather confusingly, his reason for choosing the Chinese goddess figure. The poster design

…is an attempt to convey within the conventions of poster design the mystery and dignity of a Chinese god -

intangibility and solidity are not attributes easily portrayed together, but portrayed they have to be if the fact that

you can reach the Museum by Underground is to be linked by a desire to go there.

Guanyin, Bodhissatva of compassion

Artist/maker Chaozong He, made circa 1580-1650 Dehua, China V&A Accession No. C.546-1910 Salting Bequest

The above museum posters were the first of twelve posters McKnight Kauffer designed for the London Underground between 1922 and 1929.


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