Here is the cover of a railway guide to the Cornish Riviera, published by the Great Western Railway in 1934. The text is by SPB Mais and the cover is by Edward McKnight Kauffer.
Kauffer was a genius of graphic design before the term really existed…He’s included as his own section in my book, Modern British Posters (2010). Here’s the text of that section…
The American artist and poster designer, Edward McKnight Kauffer (1890-1954), made a crucial contribution to design in Britain during the period before WW2.
Kauffer was born into the relative isolation of the American mid-west. His precocious artistic talent first expressed itself through sketching and painting. In 1907, Kauffer joined an itinerant theatrical troupe as a kind of factotum with responsibilities extending from scenery painting, to sales, and advertising. Kauffer was persuaded in 1910 to travel westward, to Calfornia, by an actor colleague and friend, Frank Bacon. In San Fransisco, Kauffer was introduced, through Bacon, to the artistic circle of the bookseller and art-dealer Paul Elder. It was whilst working in Elder’s gallery that Kauffer met Professor Joseph McKnight, Professor of Elementary Education at the University of Utah.
McKnight quickly recognised Kauffer as a promising, but unformed, artistic talent and resolved to help. His motives appear to have been entirely generous and derived from a combination of religious conviction and belief in the transforming power of education. McKnight sponsored Kauffer, in 1912, to study in Chicago and to travel to Paris, and across Europe, to advance his artistic development.
Whilst in Chicago, Kauffer was able to visit the Armory Show, which after its notorious debut in New York, had travelled into the American heartland. The Armory Show introduced America to the major artistic developments of European painting and sculpture ranging from Delacroix to Duchamp and from Picasso and Braque to Kandinsky.
The response to the show, amongst Kauffer’s colleagues in Chicago, was one of cultural outrage. For Kauffer, and based on what he had seen at the Armory Show, Europe offered a compelling combination of artistic ferment and advanced cultural tolerance. In 1913 Kauffer travelled to Europe, where his itinerary took him to Venice, Munich and Paris. In the end, Kauffer’s stay in Paris was curtailed by the beginning of WW1. In 1914, Kauffer moved to London, expecting to travel onto America without delay.
A combination of factors made Britain seem especially attractive to Kauffer. The general cultural atmosphere in London was more advanced and adventurous than in Chicago whilst, at the same time, appearing less obviously intimidating than that which he had encountered in Munich and Paris.
Kauffer resolved to commit himself to an artistic career in Britain and to stay, by his own efforts, for as long as possible. His interest in both landscape painting and formal experiment allowed his to join both Roger Fry’s Bloomsbury group and the more obviously avant-gardist grouping of Vorticist artists around Wyndham Lewis.
The response to Kauffer’s painting was not encouraging. In an effort to support himself he began to search out poster commissions and other design work. A meeting with John Hassall, in 1915, provided him with an introduction to Frank Pick…
The circuitous route by which Kauffer and Pick came to meet is important because it describes the combination of influences that Kauffer brought to poster design after 1915. His beginnings as a theatrical scenery painter, in Amerca, provided him with a clear sense of how scale, colour and simplification could be combined effectively. In Europe, Kauffer immediately responded to the sophisticated simplifications of Ludwig Hohlwein’s poster designs in Munich. By the time Kauffer reached Britain, he was familiar with a wide range of artistic ideas from across Europe.
Kauffer’s instinctive disposition towards the scale and drama of the poster, along with his conceptual and artistic sophistication, was unusual in Britain. The combination was attractive to Pick who, as a founder member of the DIA, was committed to improving general standards of design. Pick immediately began to commission poster designs from the young American. In the end, Kauffer and Pick worked together until 1939
McKnight Kauffer provided a new kind of bridge between the separate worlds of fine art and poster design. The first artists to attempt poster design had, typically, simply produced their usual work in poster form. Kauffer was able, by temperament and opportunity, to develop a visual language that synthesised a number of different visual elements from modern art into poster design. By producing, over time, a coherent visual language that combined colour, scale, abstraction, simplification, and integration, Kauffer was able to advance the scope of poster communication beyond the prosaic demands of the advertising industry. Suddenly, posters appeared bigger and brighter and more audacious.
In 1924 Kauffer wrote his Art of the Poster, an important book that established the historical and aesthetic developemnts that defined the modern poster. This intelligent and rigorous engagement with the activities of graphic design began to establish a new standard of professionalism and conceptual sophistication for the industry.
During the 1920s and 1930s Kauffer established himself as the most important poster and graphic designer in Britain. He worked for Pick and for Stephen Tallents at the Post Office and for many, many other clients.
Kauffer forged an especially productive relationship with the sophisticated Jack Beddington of Shell. A more-or-less continuous stream of Kauffer posters contributed to the Shell campaign from 1929 onwards. The posters show the constant experiment and range of influences that drove Kauffer onwards.
In addition to the consistent patronage offered him by these figures, Kauffer was also helped by the support of Peter Gregory, a director of the printing firm Lund Humphries. The printers were also the publishers of The Penrose Annual. This book was the trade annual in which were combined writings and examples of technical innovation, aesthetic experiment and cultural engagement.
Gregory was conscious of the relationship between modern technological development in the print industry and the opportunity for new forms of visual communication. Lund Humphries positioned themselves, within the print industry, as pioneers of both technological development and innovation and also of design and visual invention. In practical terms, this meant attempting to understand how photographic elements could be integrated into the existing visual language of the print economy.
In order to drive this project forward, Gregory gave Kauffer a studio at the firm’s London offices in Bedford Square. With the resources of the printing firm behind him, the Kauffer studio became a kind of visual laboratory. The studio was a bigger and more collective environment in which to work. The implicit direction, across every activities of the studio and its resources, was towards experimentation and problem solving in creative design.
The offices also included a gallery space where exhibitions of international and new work were presented to the public. These spaces became, by the end of the 1930s, the main entry point for émigré artists and designers into London’s creative economy.
By the 1930s, Kauffer had become established, by reputation and work, as the major modernist designer in Britain. His work for Shell provided him with a direct association with one of Britain’s largest companies. The campaign was recognised as the most sophisticated of artistic advertising and the work was seen and recognised at local and international level. In addition, his studio at Lund Humphries became the starting point for a dialogue, with other designers, about efforts to integrate surrealist and photographic elements into the visual repertoire of poster design.
Kauffer designed a number of posters for the Great Western Railway for holiday destinations in Cornwall and Devon.