Likable Advertising: An Oxymoron?

I have a tendency to shudder at the mere thought of advertising. The idea of television programmes which tantalisingly countdown the top 100 adverts fill me with dread, on many levels. Can something so inherently awful ever be beautiful? Of course, it turns out that the answer is yes.

Until now this blog has focused exclusively on items from the Bartholomew Archive Printing Record. Yet the Printing Record is merely one component of this impressive and extensive Archive. Departing from the norm, this entry is dedicated to some of the beautiful, and dare I say it charming, advertising from the Bartholomew Archive Business Record.

This is perhaps the quintessential Bartholomew advert. It dates from the late 1920’s into the 1930’s. It manages to capture something of the excitement and freedom that newly available automobiles offered. Who knows what lay over yonder hill, who can tell the wondrousness just encountered in the valley behind? Of course, the answer is anyone with a Bartholomew map! At this time there is a real explosion in the number of maps Bartholomew were explicitly aiming at this market. It is an extension of the contacts which they had long since forged with groups such as the Cyclist’s Touring Club or the Caledonian Railway, producing maps of cycling or railway routes and lines. Now however, the clients included the A.A., the R.A.C. and the Royal Scottish Automobile Club.

Images such as these typify this period in time. Any episode of Poirot or Miss Marple worth their salt would have images such as these discreetly in the background, conjuring up a sense of a bygone era. They are somehow familiar, comforting and satisfyingly traditional – qualities Bartholomew would have been eager to convey. Yet they are also, surprisingly, in the minority of the advertising material in the Archive which in fact shows a tendency towards the unusual, the modern and the vaguely dangerous.

Photography is perhaps not the first medium which springs to mind when imagining 1930’s advertising, yet here’s Bartholomew experimenting in just this way.

And this is just what they are, experiments. No evidence (so far) exists which proves that Bartholomew pursued these images, of which there are a total of five. There is a narrative here, a mystery. Who are they? Where are they? What are they doing? They intrigue and beguile, surely everything an advert at its best ought to do? They mark a stark departure from the bucolic connotations of the watercolours. Perhaps too stark of a departure for an essentially conservative, genteel and traditional firm.

But contradicting that are a set of images which Bartholomew did print, albeit in a very small quantity. A set of four photographs, similar in style to the one above were printed in 1935. A mere 150 copies were printed demonstrating a tentative reticence, a testing of the water perhaps. This does not appear to be a style that they pursued with much vigour or conviction.

As well as printed copies of advertising, the Business Record also contains proofs and drafts, such as above. The route from original sketch to finished product is sometimes possible to reconstruct. Just who the artists were remains a total mystery. Signatures appear on some, others are anonymous. The name most often encountered is J. G. Rennie, but just who this is, I do not know. Records from the Business Archive detailing advertising matters are rare, very rare, indicating two possibilities. Firstly, that they haven’t survived, secondly, that there was a certain embarrassment, a cloak-and-dagger nature to these dirty dealings. My money’s on the second. Bartholomew did not even have a dedicated marketing team until the 1970’s.

For all of their charm, inherent beauty, social relevance, the thing that I love most of all is the women. Women in this make believe Bartholomew world are dominating the skill of map reading. This is a small but interesting detail. Historically, companies including the venerable Ordnance Survey, tended to show women as peripheral by-standers in a world where men did the map thing. So, if only for this fact alone, here’s a cheer for Bartholomew!