Published: 15 September 2011
by JOHN EVANS
ARCH Vorticist Percy Wyndham Lewis dubbed his American contemporary “The Poster King”.
While never formally a Vorticist member, Edward McKnight Kauffer (1890-1954) was an ally.
Born in Montana, he had studied in France, moved to London at the outbreak of the First World War, and was to spend more than 20 years in the country which he adopted as a spiritual home.
As the Vorticists were influenced directly by the immediately pre-war Italian Futurists’ exhibitions (the term Vorticism itself from the idea of artist Umberto Boccioni that all artistic creation derives from an “emotional vortex”), Kauffer’s own style was to reflect the hard edge offered by the likes of Lewis and his collaborators and with their publication, Blast.
The show at the Estorick Collection in Canonbury, Islington, attempts to examine all the influences on Kauffer (he added the McKnight to his name to honour the benefactor who had first funded his move to study in Paris) but with an emphasis on his time in England, which ended in 1940 when, with wartime commissions elusive, he returned to the US in search of more regular work.
This exhibition offers us a series of cutting-edge posters, for which he became feted, but also includes original paintings, sketches, photographs, preliminary studies, illustrations for book publishers and more.
In his youth Kauffer had established himself with painting and worked on scenery in an opera house and for a travelling theatre group.
Ending up in a San Francisco bookshop/ gallery, studying in the evenings, he was spotted by Professor Joseph McKnight who offered the money to send him to Europe.
After a couple of terms at the Chicago Institute, at which time Kauffer also visited the legendary post-Impressionist 1913 Armory Show, he headed for Paris via Italy and Germany where, in Munich, he saw the innovative work of the German poster artists of the day.
The show looks at how Kauffer drew inspiration from, among others, Van Gogh, the Surrealists, the Constructivists and Japanese artists.
Kauffer produced his memorable posters for commercial enterprises such as Underground Electric Railways Co, the first in 1915, and 140 in all for “London Transport”. A series from the 1920s promotes travel to the winter sales; others advertise the capital’s museums.
But, by 1916, as a painter, Kauffer did join Lewis, Sickert and others in The London Group – his designs were used to promote its exhibitions – and he became its secretary in 1917.
Nearly two decades later another member Paul Nash would remark: “Kauffer is responsible, above anyone else, for the change in attitude towards commercial art in this country… the first artist to devote his energies to applied design who is conspicuously a draughtsman”.
Kauffer was part of the wider cultural scene, admired and liked, and well known to Eliot, Huxley, the Woolfs and the rest.
Fame was such that in 1925 London’s Art League of Service held a retrospective of his works in Bloomsbury which showcased his wide range.
In 1920 he began his association with oil giant Shell-Mex BP, which would later provide work throughout the 1930s.
A series of posters declaring: “Actors/ Musicians/Explorers prefer Shell; You can be sure of Shell,” are featured and lorry bills promoting the power of “BP ethyl”.
But he was also to design for, among others, Royal Wilton carpets, the BBC, and even for ballet at Sadler’s Wells. And publishing houses, too, including the Hogarth Press and notably the Nonesuch Press founded in London in 1922 by Francis Meynell, for whom he produced 150 drawings for an edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy, of 1621.
One of his most famous images, Flight (a 1916 woodcut) was incorporated into a poster for the Daily Herald in 1919, with Meynell being in charge of the publicity drive.
At nearly three metres, it provides a striking centrepiece to the exhibition.
• The Poster King: Edward McKnight Kauffer runs until December 18 at The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, Canonbury Square, N1,
www.estorickcollection.com • 020 7704 9522
Pictured: Top: Exhibition of Modern Art: The London Group, 1-29 November 1919 Poster, 76.2 x 50.8 cm Victoria and Albert Museum
Pictured: Bottom: Winter Sales are best reached by the Underground 1922, Gouache, 51 x 36.3 cm London Transport Museum