by Steph Webb (Curator), Wakefield Museums & Castles
Here at Pontefract Museum, we have recently opened our latest special exhibition, a celebration of the Pontefract-born artist, Charles Pears (1873-1958). The first retrospective of Pears’ work in his hometown, the exhibition focuses particularly on his prolific career as a travel poster artist in the interwar period. National and leading art collections have kindly lent posters and original artworks to the show, including some that might even have been seen on platforms at Pontefract’s three rail stations in the 1930s.
The era marked a golden age for rail travel, the British seaside holiday and poster design. Many of Pears’ works reflect the Art Deco and modernist movements of the time. Over his commercial career, Pears increasingly adopted the hallmarks of Art Deco design, using blocks of bold colour, geometric lines and streamlined shapes. His enticing scenes depict elegance, glamour and luxury. Although his river and coastal landscapes were often tranquil, he could also inject energy and dynamism into his designs.
Charles Pears first honed his artistic talent whilst growing up in Pontefract. He went to school in nearby East Hardwick and attended Pontefract College. As a young man, he moved to London and began his career as a cartoonist and illustrator, becoming a regular contributor to Punch and illustrating famous titles by authors like Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens.
The books that Pears brought to life often had a nautical theme. He was an enthusiastic sailor and was himself the author of several books on the subject. He earned a reputation as a renowned marine artist and served as an official naval artist during both World Wars.
It was between the wars though that Pears perfected his trade as one of the travel industry’s go-to poster artists and enjoyed a successful commercial career. At this time, new public holidays and paid annual leave meant that people were enjoying more leisure time and heading off on holidays and day-trips. New tourist destinations began to flourish, particularly along the coast as more Brits than ever before flocked to the beaches with their buckets and spades.
Most holiday-makers at the time travelled by train, taking advantage of summer timetables and special fares. In only the early days of radio and before television, the poster was the most effective means of mass communication and became the rail companies’ primary marketing tool. They turned to leading artists like Pears to produce the most appealing representations of resorts.
It was Frank Pick, the Publicity Manager at London Underground, who initially recognised the potential of the travel poster. Pears was one of the first artists Pick worked with on an initiative to promote travel by public transport in leisure time as well as for commuting. As a marine specialist, Pears’ posters often promoted daytrips away from the hustle and bustle of the city along the picturesque banks of the River Thames.
Pears’ earliest commissions for Pick take a traditional style arguably more typical of art galleries than Underground platforms. However, by the 1930s his work is bolder and more graphic in style, and the influence of Art Deco is becoming clear. Although 1914’s Up river and Spring on the River Thames, the artwork for the 1935 poster Twickenham, Walton and Windsor, have the same subject matter, the later boating scene is much more modern and streamlined with clean, sharp lines, and block colours in the expansive sky and wide river. Geometric shapes create the trellised platform and suggest the gentle current of the Thames, whilst the families relaxing on the punts are dressed in the latest fashions. The overall impression is of a lazy summer afternoon but the trajectory of the boats, including a pleasure steamer in the background, suggest a subtle forward motion more in line with the usual dynamism of Art Deco graphic design.
Pears most modern design for London Transport is perhaps this poster from 1930, featuring rowers from the annual Cambridge and Oxford Universities boat race. The simplified outlines, flat colours and strong symmetry all show an artist truly engaging with the design trends of the time.
Sun, sea and sand
Inspired by Frank Pick’s successful poster campaigns in London, railway companies also began to invest in the best artists for their adverts. After Britain’s many individual rail lines were grouped into the ‘Big Four’ in 1923, the newly formed regional companies each established advertising departments. They were competing with each other to attract tourists to the resorts on their lines, and only the most persuasive artworks would do. Railway posters were soon some of the finest examples of commercial art at the time.
As an expert sailor and marine artist, Charles Pears was in high demand to provide seascapes that would tempt holiday-makers to the coast. He was no stranger to advertising the great British seaside. Between the wars, London Transport ran special excursion services to Southend, the nearest beach resort to the capital. Pears produced no fewer than 14 different poster artworks for Southend, showing boating scenes, water sports, local landmarks and all the attractions on offer.
In keeping with Art Deco conventions, this vibrant design from 1934 uses a bright palette of just a few bold colours. It is full of vitality and its young bathers are again attired in the latest trends. The bathing belle often took centre stage in railway posters as a device to grab passengers’ attention and present the seaside as the place to be for fashionable young people. She was an aspirational figure shown modelling swimwear that was often quite daring for the time with its halter necks and high legs in eye-catching colours.
Pears also painted his glamorous bathers as stylised figures. Their silhouettes are streamlined with sleek, smooth limbs that both suggest an ideal of beauty and capture the essence of Art Deco design. They are not static models though. Pears repeatedly has his beach beauties waving a red towel in the air. The shock of colour is eye-catching and the towels are shown rippling in the sea breeze, imbuing the image with movement and energy.
Full steam ahead
Ocean travel was also enjoying a golden age during the 1920s and 1930s. Its main purpose had evolved from migration to tourism, and shipping companies like Cunard and Orient were keen to present ocean liners as the most glamorous way to travel. Their ships were designed to be ‘floating palaces’, as opulent as the grandest hotels and boasting all the latest innovations and design trends. Shipping posters often took an Art Deco style to reflect the luxurious interiors on board.
Pears’ naval experience meant he was ideally placed to provide artwork for ships like Orcades, one of the two largest liners in the Orient Line’s fleet at the time. Shown in profile at the centre of the image, Orcades is clearly presented as the main attraction, a symbol of the modern technological progress that inspired the Art Deco movement. Meanwhile, the vibrant colour of the foliage that frames the scene hints at the exoticism of the destination.
Whilst the well-to-do enjoyed adventures to America and Australia in the 1920s and 30s, many of us will be staying closer to home this year. Visitors to Pontefract Museum will be able to enjoy these posters for themselves, and admire even more of Charles Pears’ skill and artistry up close. They might even take inspiration for their next trip to the coast or the capital.
The exhibition was made possible with a grant from the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund.
With thanks to the Royal Society of Marine Artists.