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Desk of McKnight Kauffer

Updated: Feb 3, 2022

McKnight Kauffer Musings 5

Desk of McKnight Kauffer

This photograph (uncredited) of McKnight Kauffer in his Swan Court studio was published in The Artist magazine in March 1939. To me, it tells a number of stories. It shows Kauffer at the height of his career, posing in a well-ordered designer’s studio – the consummate businessman. I will look at some of the indicators that make up this modernist atelier.

Sadly, we know that in 6 months’ time all this will come to an end

Firstly, consider that the studio accommodation in a 1930s apartment block was purpose built, situated just off the King's Road in Chelsea. With flats of different sizes, from 2 rooms to 5 rooms, aimed at attracting singletons and families, the studio apartments on the eighth floor hoped to appeal to Chelsea's ubiquitous artistic fraternity.

Typical 1931
newspaper advertisement

McKnight Kauffer and Marion Dorn were amongst the first residents of Swan Court. In 1931 they took two adjoining studio apartments on the eighth floor. Many of their friends and acquaintances also took apartments there. Among them was the American-born experimental photographer Francis Brugière; the editor, critic, and bibliophile, John Davy Hayward; Eric Craven Gregory (also known as Peter Gregory), joint managing director of Lund Humphries; the author Bryan Guinness (2nd Baron Moyne), heir to part of the Guinness brewery fortune (once married to Diana Mitford – who left him to marry Oswald Mosely); sculptor Antony Gibbons Grinling.

Full-page advertisement
Evening Standard
May 1932

The studio apartments on the eighth floor
can be clearly seen in this photograph

Returning to examine the studio photograph above, it is clear that Kauffer had a great deal of bespoke cabinet-making work carried out, with inbuilt cupboards and shelving. The wooden desk is sleek and modern, constructed to match the rest of the interior. An anglepoise lamp is prominently placed on the window sill, casting a light on Kauffer’s face. Research tells me that it was the first anglepoise marketed by Herbert Terry of Redditch, their 1208 model, launched at an industries fair in 1934.

a reconditioned example of Terry's 1208 anglepoise lamp
– note the tall stand and metal lampshade

The telephone ( GPO No 10 Bakelite desk phone, 1936), a signifier of a businessman rather than a struggling artist. The curtains, difficult to see in this photo, are by Marion Dorn. The cylindrical metal (stainless steel?) wastepaper bin, possibly by Dutch company, Brabantia.

Paint brushes and pencils, all neatly arranged. Sidney Garrad, Kauffer’s studio assistant from 1932 until 1939, said that he (Kauffer) was extremely fastidious – “…everything had to be square – if something was moved he’d tut tut and move it back himself”. After taking Timsey, Kauffer’s and Dorn’s cairn terrier for a walk Garrad was expected to dust the studio, even though the maid had already done so, and make sure the dog did not leave marks on the white linoleum floor. In Garrad’s early Swan Court days he often started the day’s work by running errands, buying cigarettes for example. Is the glass vase like object in the foreground an ashtray?

Immediately behind Kauffer are a selection of French curves, template aids for drawing smooth curves. A row of ink bottles below. Magazines are neatly arranged. I can also see a Shell oil can with his lay-figure robot man design printed on it. The idea of using a lay-figure was to show how easily it moves – well-oiled joints. The symbol was used on a wide range of oil dispensing products, and on Shell publicity items including posters designed by McKnight Kauffer himself.

Kauffer always dressed smartly – although in The Artist magazine photograph he is wearing a casual, loose-fitting jacket. His close friend T.S. Eliot (I will write about their friendship in another blog post) was in awe of Kauffer’s dress sense. In a letter to Kauffer in New York, Eliot wrote that he tried to buy a similar pair of trousers to the ones Kauffer wore, but his pair of Daks did not match up to the look and cut of Kauffer’s corduroys (in 1934 Alexander Simpson, founder of Simpsons Piccadilly, introduced a revolutionary new concept by introducing an adjustable waistband to Daks trousers).

In contrast to Kauffer's serious, businesslike appearance I have noticed in photographs of other poster artists of the 1920s and 1930s that the majority of them are wearing artist's smocks, often with palette in hand standing beside an easel. I include one example by the society photographer Harold Coster, circa 1927, of the poster artist Verney Lionel Danby Danvers stiffly posing with palette and brushes and wearing a paint-spattered warehouse coat.

Howard Coster, circa 1927
Verney Danvers (1895-1973)
National Portrait Gallery

Another example is this (rather blurred) photograph of Austin Cooper who rose to fame as a poster artist in the early 1920s. His idiosyncratic poster designs of the 1920s and 1930s rivalled those of contemporaries such as Tom Purvis and Frank Newbould. The contrast between Cooper's and McKnight Kauffer's orderly studio arrangement can immediately be seen.

Circa 1928 Austin Cooper (1890-1964)

As stated above, the desk of McKnight Kauffer photograph was published in the March 1939 issue of The Artist. It appeared at a time when he was at the very pinnacle of his career, but six months later Great Britain declared war on Germany and his reign as the "[poster] king of them all" was to come to an end, at least in Britain.

Review of Shell-Mex poster exhinbition by 'Pendennis'
The Observer 3 July 1938

Once again, at the outbreak of a world war, McKnight Kauffer found himself in Paris. With the news that the invasion of Poland by German troops was imminent he and Marion Dorn, who were there on a short holiday, drove back to London only days before war broke out only to find all his commercial work was cancelled. They immediately travelled to the White House, their weekend retreat in Northend, Buckinghamshire, to take stock of the dire situation they found themselves in. In addition to Kauffer's predicament, Marion Dorn too lost her successful Lancashire Court business. In some ways they enjoyed life in the country. They brought many books with them (from Swan Court) and Dorn enjoyed playing the clavichord – which she later managed to take with her on their hurried return to the USA. I mentioned the necessity of taking flight back to New York in my Autumn Beech Woods post. I remarked that it was the last wartime crossing made by the SS Washington – its previous crossing had been a perilous one as the liner was halted by a German U-Boat and threatened with sinking. They set off from Galway on 7 July 1940, arriving in New York on 13 July. Much was made in New York and regional newspapers of the relief that the crossing passed without incident. Kauffer's mother, Anna Rees informed her local Evansville newspaper of her son’s latest news - news that he was on board the SS Washington making his way to an uncertain future in the USA. Amongst well-known passengers on board were Lord and Lady Mountbatten’s daughters, Patricia and Pamela - evacuated for safety to live with Grace Vanderbilt.

On arriving in New York Kauffer commented that a whole career and a third of his life

had been left behind.


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