Poster Girls

The latest exhibition at the London Transport Museum –  ‘Poster Girls – a Century of Art and Design’ – couldn’t be more timely in this, the 100th year since women got the vote. With over 130 posters and original artworks, the exhibition celebrates the role of female poster artists, revealing the fascinating story of how, and why, they produced the work they did.

poster-girls _Transport museum

Frank Pick, head of publicity at the London Passenger Transport Board in 1908, was revolutionary in encouraging women artists. Co-curator David Bownes is clear that Pick’s support and promotion of the women designers was crucial since he ‘… didn’t have the prejudices that some of his contemporaries would have had. He believed in equality and an egalitarian society. He commissioned irrespective of gender.’

With a strong interest in design, Pick had already recognised the importance of good branding – he introduced the iconic roundel (one of the most widely recognised logos in the world) and commissioned the typeface (known as ‘Johnston’, after its designer Edward Johnston), both still in use today.

poster-girls _Transport museum

Keen to encourage travel outside of ‘peak hours’, Pick commissioned artists to produce posters that would encourage travellers to come into town, and explore further afield, for leisure purposes: shopping, walking, visiting the theatre, or sporting events, such as Derby Day. In order to appeal to the widest number of travellers, he sought out illustrators, fine artists and graphic designers, including many women, who could offer a wide range of styles and subject matter.

poster-girls _Transport museum

The name of the exhibition, ‘Poster Girls’, is also a reference to models who were noted for their look; while some designer names will be familiar – such as Mabel Lucie Attwell, Laura Knight, Enid Marx and Zandra Rhodes – many more remain virtually unknown, even though their influence may have been more significant than previously thought, something the exhibition is keen to focus on. There is the diversity of style – some figurative, some modernist, using flat colour, bold abstract patterns, even collage or oil. Then there is the choice of subject matter; many women designers moved away from the traditional depiction of ‘woman’  –  on the arm of a man, with her children, or, when she was ‘allowed’ to be alone, shopping.


1983.4.8702- Autumn Gold, by Dora M Batty, 1927.

In her poster ‘Don’t miss Autumn’s Spendours’, Dora Batty, a ceramicist as well as designer, and head of the School of Textiles at Central School of Arts and Crafts, portrayed a glamorous woman, with fashionably short hair and her back to the viewer (and so refusing ‘the male gaze’), and in ‘There is the still the Country’, a lone woman stares wistfully into the distance, possibly alluding to the loss of so many men during the war.  Heather (Herry) Perry was another prolific designer, producing 55 posters between 1928 and 1937, including ‘Derby Day’, a spectacular piece that lightheartedly references Paolo Uccello’s classical painting of 1439, ‘The Battle of San Romano’.

poster-girls _Transport museum


TfL estimates that over 170 women have been commissioned since 1910, with their numbers swelling, unsurpisingly perhaps, during the war periods – a situation that reversed once the war was over.

poster-girls _Transport museum

Perhaps it’s worth remembering that, back in 1989, the feminist activists, Guerilla Girls, produced their poster ‘Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get into the Met Musuem’, citing the shocking statistic that, while only 5% of the art on display in New York’s Metropolitan Museum is by women, 85% of the nudes depicted are women. Almost 30 years later, on 1 February 2018, the Manchester Art Gallery removed a painting by Victorian artist, JW Waterhouse, ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’, which depicted naked adolescent girls, which was a decision made ‘in a move to ‘encourage debate about how such images should be displayed in the modern age.’ The debate continues.

A programme of related talks and other events will be held throughout the duration of the exhibition, including ‘Late Debate: Women of the Future’, which intends to ‘celebrate and champion women’s contribution to society over the past 100 years and debate the progress we are making towards equality in the 21st century’ on 8 February.

‘Poster Girls – a Century of Art and Design’ is on show in the Exterion Media Gallery, London Transport Museum, Covent Garden Piazza, WC2E 7BB until November 2018. Entry is included in the adult admission ticket, which allows unlimited daytime entry for a whole year.

Words:  Jan Fuscoe 

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