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From October 1936 until May 1937 a set of four illustrated posters, placed in a row or in pairs forming a square, were displayed on London Underground station platforms.

Each illustrated poster depicted a French drawing room scene of the late 19th century. The captions simply read “Piano by Barnes 502-4 Oxford Street”. The piano company W.H. Barnes, with a head office in Peckham, had showrooms all over London with its flagship store at 502-4 Oxford Street.

The water colour illustrations were by German born artist, Richard Lindner (1901 – 1978). At the time of the commission Lindner had fled Germany and was living in Paris. A friend of Lindner’s visiting his studio in Paris noticed a water colour hanging on the wall. Drawn in a caricature style it depicted French couples being entertained by a piano player. Lindner’s friend asked if he could show it to his boss at Colman, Prentis & Varley, the advertising agents he worked for in London. A representative of the advertising company in turn showed it to John Barmas, the publicity manager at the W.H. Barnes piano company. Barmas was delighted with the painting and immediately asked the agency to commission 3 more illustrations in the same style – each showing a piano in a French 19th century interior.

The poster campaign was ambitious by any standards. 10,000 copies of each poster were printed at double-crown size (50.8 x 76.2 cm). Altogether 4,000 posters were placed in groups of four on 1,000 different sites on the Underground, but concentrated heavily on Underground stations closest to the Oxford Street address. The posters attracted numerous Underground travellers who wrote to the company asking to buy copies. The idea that the public might want to acquire a copy of one of the posters was always in Barmas’ thinking. He imagined them cutting out the illustration and framing it.

After the campaign had run for 5 months a radio broadcast announced that the remaining 6,000 posters would be offered free to anyone who wrote to the company. The publicity manager’s hunch worked. Over 6500 letters were received asking for sets of the four posters. A commercial success for W.H Barnes?

In the 1950s the popular Lancastrian singer Gracie Fields endorsed Barnes pianos

Although an accomplished illustrator Lindner is better known for his paintings and prints of New York street life, seen from his idiosyncratic perspective. His major success did not come until the 1960s, coinciding with the Pop Art scene. He contended that his was not pop art, but the work of an outsider.

1 Comment

David Phillips
David Phillips
Mar 22, 2022

It would be intersting to know where their head offfice was in Peckham. Of course Peckham was then a rather posh area and it had many manufactures.

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