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Originally published in December 2011 in ILLUSTRATION Winter 2011

The gifted graphic artist Edward McKnight Kauffer was a pioneer in every sense of the word. Perhaps better known in England than in his American homeland, he was strongly influenced by different forms of modernist movements in art. Significantly, he understood the importance of commercial art in the early years of the twentieth century and his uncompromising graphic designs bridged the divide between fine art the art of advertising.

E. McKnight Kauffer – POSTER PIONEER
by Abby Cronin

The gifted graphic artist Edward McKnight Kauffer was a pioneer in every sense of the word. Perhaps better known in England than in his American homeland, he was strongly influenced by different forms of modernist movements in art. Significantly, he understood the importance of commercial art in the early years of the twentieth century and his uncompromising graphic designs bridged the divide between fine art the art of advertising. His posters ranged in style from slightly formalised landscapes to more geometrically vorticist designs. When, in 1928, the Royal Academy of Arts held an exhibition of posters for the London Underground, a sign on the front desk read: ‘There is no catalogue; A good poster speaks for itself!’(1) Posters are telegrams, wrote Kauffer. ‘He made the poster a subject of study, and it has remained so ever since – more important now than ever in our world of corporate branding and media.’(2)

Edward Kauffer was born in 1890 in Great Falls, Montana, the only child of John and Anna Kauffer. Sadly, when his parents divorced at the age of three, he was put into an orphanage. Young Ted spent two years there while his mother went out to work. When his mother remarried happily in 1899 Kauffer’s childhood was markedly more stable and the family settled in Evansville, Indiana. Kauffer remembered those early years as ‘lonely, nostalgic and uninspiring’. He was a solitary lad and spent time sketching flowers and copying images from Wild West paintings, notably those of Frederic Remington. Yet beneath his quiet facade, there was a pioneering spirit, a desire to get away – like the galloping pace of Remington’s horses, a momentum which was to characterise his development as an artist.

In his teens, encouraged by his stepfather to pursue his artistic bent, Kauffer found work as a scene painter with a travelling repertory theatre company which took him to California. There he studied at an art school in the evenings while working as a bookseller during the day. In the bookshop he met Professor Joseph E McKnight, a regular customer. The professor admired Kauffer’s paintings and recognised his artistic promise. They formed a strong friendship and the professor offered to loan the young Kauffer enough funds to continue his studies in Paris. Ted was so grateful to McKnight for his generosity that he adopted ‘McKnight’ as his middle name and has been known as Edward McKnight Kauffer ever since.

Before travelling to Paris, Kauffer spent six months in Chicago where he took courses at the Art Institute. The timing of his stay coincided with the remarkable Armory Show of 1913. This exhibition displayed important post-impressionist paintings by European masters whose art had not yet been seen in the United States. Works by Picasso, Duchamp, Kandinsky, Matisse, Gauguin and Van Gogh outraged many critics and students, but the impact of these artists’ visions opened Kauffer’s eyes to recent movements in modern art. Just before the outbreak of the First World War, Kauffer left Chicago for Europe. He lived briefly in Munich, a city throbbing with artistic, musical and choreographic experimentation. There Kauffer became acquainted with the poster art of the Munich realist school designer Ludwig Holwein. The elegance and simplicity of Holwein’s designs were stimulating; they helped him appreciate the importance of typographical content in posters. It was through Holwein’s poster designs that Kauffer came to understand that art could be used to advertise, provide information and promote commercial enterprises. Indeed, posters by Mucha, Lautrec and Cheret were already integral to the surface life of city streets in the 1890s.

When the war broke out in 1914 Kauffer went quickly to Paris and then to England. Now married and in search of work, he and his American wife found themselves in London where friends introduced him to Frank Pick, publicity manager for London Underground Electric Railways. Pick was instrumental in modernising publicity for London Underground. He understood that posters were a strategic way to achieve this. Posters could tell many stories when displayed strategically both inside and outside stations, on main walls and platforms, and changed frequently. It was Pick who commissioned Kauffer to design posters for the Underground. Thus began a relationship which established Kauffer as one of Britain’s most celebrated graphic designers. Through the inter-war years, from 1915 to 1940, Kauffer created an extraordinary variety of posters for the London Underground and Shell-Mex, the joint publicity branch of Shell and BP.

His first posters for the London Underground were painterly landscapes which prompted visits to suburban areas of beauty. In Watford, 1915, was followed by other boldly painted views of the countryside such as Oxley Woods and Surrey, 1916. Kauffer’s use of colour and space in these early posters revealed the influence of Japanese colour woodcuts, Van Gogh and the Fauves. A few years later and heavily influenced by the Vorticist group, the style of his posters became increasingly hard-edged. In his poster, Exhibition of Modern Art: The London Group, designed in1919, there are primitive figures, no doubt an explicit reference to the sculptures of Gaudier-Brzeska and Epstein. It was the Vorticist painter Wyndham Lewis who described Kauffer as ‘The Poster King.’

In several early posters McKnight Kauffer achieved a stunning balance between visual and typographic content. One of his most successful designs was Flight, 1919. He developed this image from a woodcut into a more sophisticated poster which was bought by the Daily Herald and used to launch that newspaper in 1919. The elegance and simplicity of Flight captured the energy of splintered planes in geometric clusters against a yellow background. The full title of this poster: Soaring to Success! Daily Herald – The Early Bird perfectly expresses this dynamism. Throughout the 1920s commissions continued to come from London Underground and his clientele expanded to include commercial work for London’s museums, book publishers, newspaper advertisers and numerous independent firms.

Kauffer’s 1922 poster Winter Sales are best reached by Underground has a swirling central focus where silhouetted figures push against the rain in London’s streets. It is just one of a set of remarkable posters he designed to promote Winter Sales between1921 and 1924. These posters are exceptionally atmospheric with scenes of whirling snow, stylised umbrellas, and winds rushing through the Underground’s tunnels speeding bargain hunters on to the sales. In the poster Vigil the Pure Silk, 1919, there are echoes of Vorticist influence. Here the composition juxtaposes complex geometric schemes in a commercial design for the fabric patterns of Vigil, a silk manufacturer. His poster for the Museum of Natural History South Kensington, 1923, also develops Vorticist principles. Simple concentric circles of colour radiate out from behind a mammoth and the viewer’s attention is drawn towards the centre of the composition. Kauffer’s aim was to convey information to the passing crowd. This was one of his most successful designs; it held the viewer’s attention just long enough to implant the idea of visiting the museum. Several Kauffer book jackets graced publications by the Hogarth Press, Gollancz, and the BBC handbook, to name but a few. His extensive repertoire also included illustrations for books, tickets, theatre programmes, calendars, film posters, photomurals, costumes and stage sets.

By the mid-twenties he had separated from his wife and daughter and established a permanent relationship with textile designer Marian Dorn. Together Kauffer and Dorn designed for avant-garde interiors. Their furnishing designs were widely admired. One of Kauffer’s abstract rugs, 1929, consists of a pattern heavily influenced by the geometry of Constructivism. Kauffer explained ‘the pattern should be self-contained. Many of the old designs were of the all-over type…repeating itself infinitely’. (3) Toward the end of the twenties The Studio magazine, widely read by followers of the decorative and fine arts, featured a cover designed by Kauffer in the August 1929 issue. The design incorporated the classic tradition of the West in the form of ‘Greek sculpture, silhouetted against the symbol of the new age, the aeroplane, pointing upwards as if to soar to heights yet undreamed of’ (4). And several of Dorn and Kauffer’s rugs were pictured in the January 1929 issue of The Studio.

Throughout the twenties and thirties one of Kauffer’s main patrons was Shell-Mex. He did a series of ‘lorry bills’ displayed on the sides of the company’s delivery lorries. The series was instrumental in establishing Shell as a brand. A fine example of these lorry bills is the 1933 poster BP Ethyl Controls Horse-power, a clever blend of Vorticist elements, precise typography and a photo image of a powerful male figure reining in the horse. Ever fascinated with theatre and dance, Kauffer created stage sets and costumes for a number of major theatrical productions. Perhaps he is best known for the set and costumes he designed for Ninette de Valois’s ballet Checkmate, 1937, performed in Paris by the Sadler’s Wells Company, at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1949, and in the repertoire of the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden. These designs are still in use and will be seen again at Sadler’s Wells in October 2011 when the Birmingham Royal Ballet performs Checkmate as part of its Autumn Glory programme.

Although Kauffer is better known in England than in America, a retrospective exhibition (1937) of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York enhanced his reputation in the United States. Towards the end of the thirties work in England was harder to find, and since he had not taken British citizenship, he was regarded as an alien. War was looming and American citizens were considered a liability. The option to remain in England faded and in 1940 he and Marian left on the last passenger ship to the United States, leaving most of their belongings behind. They settled in New York for fourteen years until his death in 1954.

Though Kauffer worked for various American clients throughout those years, he missed England deeply. In a letter to a friend read he wrote: ‘My American youth may now be useful at last.’(5) Indeed, it turned out to be so. With a generous commission from American Airlines, he produced numerous posters between 1946 and 1953. This work, together with illustrations for books, Barnum and Bailey’s circus, the New York subways and many other institutions, made it possible for Dorn and Kauffer to survive financially. Public recognition came when he was awarded a ‘Certificate of Honor’ from the American Red Cross in 1945 and made an Honorary Advisor to the Department of Public Information of the United Nations in 1947. In 1950 he revisited the American Southwest and called it ‘a good kind of reality – robust, uncomplicated, direct, with brilliant light and great spaces’.(6) Kauffer’s career was like his most famous design Flight, constantly forward-looking, aspiring and visionary. He was a pioneer to the end.
An exhibition: The Poster King: Edward McKnight Kauffer opens at The Estorick Collection, 39a Canonbury Square, London N1 2AN on 14th September 2011 and closes on 18th December 2011. www.estorickcollection.com
Images courtesy of: The Victoria and Albert Museum, London Transport Museum, BP Archive, Birmingham Royal Ballet, The Studio magazine cover January 1929, Mike Ashworth on Flickr, Sue Bond Public Relations.
Contact: Abby Cronin
Website: www.abbycronin.co.uk
1. The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art. The Poster King: Edward McKnight Kauffer. Catalogue for the exhibit at the Estorick Collection. 2011 p.6
2. Ibid. p. 6
3. Haworth-Booth M. E McKnight Kauffer: A Designer and His Public V&A Publications 2005 p.57
4. Skipwith P. E. McKnight Kauffer Design Antique Collectors’ Club 2007 p.60
5. Skipwith P. Ibid. p.31
6. Haworth-Booth M. E Mcknight Kauffer: A Designer and His Public V&A Publications 2005 p.106