Edward McKnight Kauffer posters bring high culture to advertising at the Estorick

By Mark Sheerin | 18 August 2011
An early 20th century advertising poster for BP Ethyl
Edward McKnight Kauffer, BP Ethyl Controls Horse-power (1933)© BP Archive
Exhibition: The Poster King - Edward McKnight Kauffer, Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London, September 14 - December 18 2011

As many question the role of BP in sponsoring art, here comes a show from the days when British Petroleum company set direct briefs for the artistic avant-garde.

Shell-Mex BP Ltd was, in the 1930s, the main patron of a man known in London as The Poster King. This was painter/graphic artist Edward McKnight Kauffer, whose range of influences may surprise those more familiar with 21st century advertising.

Kauffer took on board Japanese art along with recent developments such as Fauvism, Surrealism and Constructivism. He has been credited with bringing the look and feel of Vorticism to a mass audience in Britain.

Even more surprising is adman Kauffer’s enduring friendship with writers Aldous Huxley, John Betjeman and the most challenging of modernist poets, TS Eliot. Book illustrations were another of his talents.

Some more common ground with Eliot would have been Kauffer’s status as a US émigré. He moved to London at the outbreak of the Great War and returned home in 1940. The years before his death in 1954 are said to have been filled with regret at his repatriation.

Britain would have missed him equally, as this show demonstrates. It draws from holdings at the V&A, London Transport Museum and the archives of both Shell and BP and relfects a bold contribution to our commercial landscape.

Both painterly and innocent, Kauffer’s classic posters have qualities you won’t find in much commercial art today. It is tempting to ask what went wrong, but probably also just too simplistic.

  • Admission £5/£3.50. Open Wednesday-Saturday 11am-6pm (Sunday 12pm-5pm).

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