As a historical picture library, anniversaries frequently punctuate our working year, but there’s a significant anniversary this week which will probably pass most people by. One hundred and fifty years ago, on the 21st May 1868, one of the most popular artists of the early 20th century was born – John Hassall. I’ve been a fan of Hassall’s work for some time and, having written a number of books and articles about illustrators, hope to make John Hassall’s life and career the subject of my next book. But mention of this to most people usually illicits the response, “Who? I don’t know him.” The penny drops when I ask if they know Hassall’s most famous work, his ‘Skegness is SO bracing poster’ featuring a carefree, jolly fisherman prancing along a beach and designed for the London North East Railway in 1908, but by and large, John Hassall’s name has disappeared from public consciousness.
A century ago, every man and woman knew who John Hassall was; he was ‘The Poster King’ and, although he was an artist talented in many disciplines, it was the advertising hoarding that was his kingdom and which was to make him a household name. An article in Answers magazine from 1912, entitled, ‘The Poor Man’s Picture Gallery’ gives some indication of the impact of the picture poster in the early years of the twentieth century.
“The development of British poster art in the last few years has been altogether astounding. Not many years ago, the mention of the word ‘art’ in connection with the hoarding would have raised a smile. Poster advertising has gone on in leaps and bounds until today it has been fitly termed, “the poor man’s picture gallery”
Later in the article: “Probably no poster artist has enjoyed so great a success as John Hassall…The mistake that too many poster artists make is crowding too many figures into one picture. This is never a fault of Hassall. His faces are good-humoured and a feature of his work.”
Born in Walmer, Kent, John Hassall was educated in Worthing and then, as a young man, after failing to gain entry to Sandhurst tried his hand at farming, moving to the remote wilderness of Manitoba in Canada with his brother Owen. During that time, he began to draw, and on successfully entering several local art competitions, realised he had a talent. Returning to England in 1890, he befriended fellow artists Dudley Hardy and Cecil Aldin, both of whom would become lifelong friends, and travelled to Paris and Antwerp to study art, there becoming influenced by great poster masters such as Cheret and Mucha. His career took off in 1895 when he was engaged by the poster printing firm David Allen & Sons, a relationship that would last for most of Hassall’s lifetime. Aside from the ubiquitous Skegness poster, Hassall produced designs for well-known brands such as Bovril and Colman’s Mustard, countless posters for theatrical productions (600 alone between 1896 and 1899) and, intriguingly, a number of posters and postcards for the anti-suffrage campaign, including the famous, ‘A Suffragette’s Home’ in which a working class man returns home at the end of the day to find his home in disarray due to the activities of his politically enlightened (but apparently neglectful) wife. Developing an eye-catching and engaging style, Hassall’s designs used bold outlines, flat colour and made spatially confident decisions demonstrating not only the influence of Japanese art on British design at the end of the nineteenth century, but how this technique could translate into bold and effective advertisements.
Aside from posters, Hassall, a prolific artist and lifelong workaholic, worked across a variety of media and disciplines, showing himself to be a designer of great versatility. He was a painter in oils in the traditional manner who exhibited at the Royal Academy; a book illustrator, and a humorous ‘black & white’ artist for magazines, particularly for The Sketch, which is held here as part of the Illustrated London News archive. In 1905, he founded the New Art School which could count H. M. Bateman and Annie Fish among its illustrious alumni. When war broke out, the school continued as a highly popular correspondence course. He was a designer of toys, figurines, pottery and nursery décor and ever the innovator, he was keen to push boundaries, working with the Animated Hoardings Company before the Great War to create mechanised advertising posters.
Journalists flocked to his studio, built in the garden of his home at 88, Kensington Park Road, to interview the poster king who was a generous and talkative host, full of stories and anecdotes about his life and working methods. Last year, I visited the University of Essex where the archives of John Hassall are held including his diaries, log books and photograph albums. With only a brief day to skim through the wealth of material, it nevertheless soon became clear that John Hassall was a man of great charm and energy with a wide circle of friends, acquaintances and admirers. A long-serving member of both the Savage and Sketch Club, he was at the very centre of London’s artistic community and his home was always busy and open.
He was someone who was generous with his time and took delight in his family. Hassall was married twice with three children by his first wife (Isabel Dingwall who died in childbirth in 1900), and two by his second, Maud Webb. The daughter of his second wife was the renowned book illustrator and engraver, Joan Hassall; his son by that marriage was Christopher Hassall, actor, poet, lyricist and dramatist. The family would spend each summer at a holiday cottage at Walton-on-the-Naze on the Essex coast where he took a keen interest in finding and accumulating a world-class collection of prehistoric flints.
When war broke out in 1914, Hassall was approaching 50 and too old to join up. Instead he served as a special constable and increasingly gave his time for free producing countless sketches and drawings at the request of stage stars such as George Robey to promote or sell at charity auctions, matinees and shows. His log books from this period are something to behold – full to the brim with commissions, at least half of which he carried out without charge. Although Hassall’s style would begin to fall out of fashion, in 1939 he was granted a civil-list pension for services to poster art and he continued to work until shortly before his death in 1948.
Here at the library, John Hassall’s work crops up frequently, either in illustrated magazines, in children’s books and, more recently, in the numerous theatrical posters making up the Michael Diamond Collection. This week, to mark the 150th anniversary of Hassall’s birth, it seems like a timely moment to share and celebrate the work of an artist whose talent gave so much pleasure to so many. It’s time for the Poster King to return to his throne.