There Will Be Fun....
That's the promise of a small exhibition currently running in The British Library, which showcases the popular entertainments of the Victorian era. Well, more specifically, it showcases the handbills, posters and flyers that advertised them, in all their blobby, misregistered typographic and illustrated glory, and therefore very clearly called for a Choo Outing.
And so the mammoth trek north was taken, and I eventually emerged above ground like a mole, blinking into unforecast sunshine that shone on the newly gentrified Kings Cross. I duly proceeded to wend my way up Pancras Road, in search of the aforementioned fun...
New Pennychoo range Big Top takes its lead from the (thankfully now rare) tradition of performing circus animals, and having done all of my research online, I was keen to see some original artwork first hand. The exhibition covered all aspects of Victorian entertainment – fairgrounds, music hall, pantomime, circus – and focussed especially on those two great Victorian fixations, magic and the supernatural.
Above 1: How To Do 40 Tricks With Cards, c.1875
Above 2: An 'expose of frauds' of Spiritualism by professional magician Professor John Henry Anderson. Estimated 1855.
So I don't simply regurgitate the exhibition here, I've focussed mainly on items characterised by strong or distinctive typography.
This poster (above) from 1885 utilises all the typical characteristics of posters of this era – limited colour, a lively mix of weights and sizes of type, and the whole lot fitting together in a slightly chaotic jigsaw of images and information, words running vertically, horizontally, and being shoehorned into any available space.
In his book, Type: The Secret History of letters, Simon Loxley has this to say about the typography used on advertising material of the era:
"The popularity of slabs was waning by the middle of the century and they were superseded by increasingly complex, largely ‘grotesque’ faces .... ornamented, outlined, with three dimensional ‘perspective’, shadow effects. These are the faces usually used in a typographical riot that typify the Victorian advertising handbill, the auction notice and the theatre poster. Because of their size, all these display types would have been cut in wood, not cast in metal. Their strength and energy are such that their use today inescapably conjures up a ‘period’ feel."
Above: Advert for George Sanger's amphitheatre c/o The British Library which uses one of the 'grotesque' three dimensional typefaces popular at that time.
Above: Poster for famous Victorian magician duo Maskelyne & Cooke (from the Egyptian Hall, London) playing ay The Argyll Theatre of Varieties, 1905. Contrasting type styles means that even using a single colour, the poster is still visually very strong and eye catching.
Above: Maskelyne & Cooke again, this time in posters advertising their apparently 'supernatural talents'. Having started out by exposing fraudulent spritualists by revealing their methods to audiences, the two men decided to use the trickery they learnt to form a successful magic act.
Above: An intricate poster advertising Manders' Royal Menagerie,1860. As well as a mix of typographic styles, the poster uses etched illustrations and decorative borders, to help convey the extravagant and exotic spectacle of the show
Above: A tall, narrow poster featuring a showcase of various artists.
In his book Encyclopedia of Ephemera: A Guide to the Fragmentary Documents of Everyday Life for the Collector, Curator and Historian (2000), Maurice Rickards explains this distinctive format:
Above: A mishmash of type fits together perfectly like a jigsaw in this poster for The London Palladium. I especially like the random use of type in 'Bobby Henshaw' and the tendancy to make the first and last letter of a word bolder than the rest.
Above: A textbook (no pun...) example of a Victorian poster/handbill: long, narrow format with a mix of type style including decorative and three dimensional type contrasting with plain sans serifs.
The distinctive visual style of Victorian woodtype handbills and posters continues to exert a strong pull on contemporary designers as this 'Wood Type Poster' by Zehra Sikandar, via Behance, shows:
There Will Be Fun continues at The British Library until March 12th, and is free.
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