Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Man alone: advertising in a colonial culture

Promoting prosperity: the art of early New Zealand advertising
by Peter Alsop and Gary Stewart
Craig Potton, $79.99, October 2013, 978 1 877517 96 9

Pākehā New Zealanders like to regard themselves as being a reticent society, awkward with words and uncomfortable with art. This hesitancy, a trait shared with other white Anglophone frontier populations, is part of the settlement myth. It conjures up the archetypal lone, grizzled, laconic, male, one suspicious of urban luxury; a bloke who calls a spade a grunt. It’s reflected in the utilitarian Pākehā place names of New Zealand: North Island, Bridge Road, New North Road, Cloudy Bay, Black Range and in the settlement names with which the newcomers invested the country, either replicated from Britain or appropriated from Māori: Auckland and Cambridge; W[h]anganui and Hokitika. It’s a mentality that privileges faux commodity by engaging with the concepts of make-do and ready-made; the ‘number eight wire’ solution to perceived problems. It’s the favouring of physical sports over the arts. It’s the simple suspicion of the provinces when confronted by the sophistries of the metropolis. James Belich, notably in Replenishing the earth (2009), is one of a number of historians who has observed the settler myth as complicit in an un-nuanced strategy aimed at concealing the twin processes of colonisation and industrialisation.

Simplified myth permeates Promoting prosperity: the art of early New Zealand advertising As Susan Buck-Morss observes ‘Myths give answers to why the world is when an empirical cause and effect cannot be seen, or when it cannot be remembered.’ (S Buck-Morss, The dialectics of seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1989, p. 78). Memory or, more precisely, invented memory, frames the book's stated purpose of, as the introduction avers, ‘circumnavigating the nexus of art and early advertising’. Rediscovered 'memory' comprises the core of this visually-driven account of the history of advertising in New Zealand; an exercise in a nationalistic visual mythology, Kiwiana, you could say.
[Stanley Davis (1882?-1938)] for Railways Studios.'New life; Lanes emulsion restores and maintains health', [1927].
Alexander Turnbull Library Eph-E-PHARMACY-1927-01
One of the key aims of the book is about mainstreaming what is conventionally recognised as ‘commercial art’ into ‘legitimate fine art’; a reconfiguring of what Peter Alsop describes as ‘the tainted trade’ (p. 20). He asks us to recognise a new canon by demonstrating how ‘commercial art’ obtains a level of criticality that enables it to transcend the stigma of advertising, revising a myth by altering its older narrative. Alsop’s revisionism is a fraught ideological process requiring us, among other things, to understand visual culture through, as Tony Fry observes, 'a "high/low culture" framework, which excludes "low" objects as cultureless' (T Fry, Design history Australia (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1988), p. 27). Attractive as it might seem to some, Alsop’s revisionism is at odds with his subject. When seen from the wider perspective, it is not so much about elevating a disregarded set of cultural objects, but more about the growing visuality of New Zealand culture.

Walter Benjamin observes in his essay ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’ - a key discussion about the impact of technology on the arts and design that is inexplicably ignored by the authors of the text - that ‘The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well.’ (W Benjamin, ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’ in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 2007, 217-251, p. 222). While ‘nature’ is essential to an understanding of the technologies involved, the condition of ‘historical circumstances’ is critically absent in this instance. If the intention of the book’s editors, is to ‘rehabilitate’ commercial art, they seem unaware that they are merely revisiting a nineteenth century dispute about the artistic value of painting versus photography. This was a debate that Benjamin adjudged ‘devious and confused’, observing that it ‘was in fact the symptom of a historical transformation the universal impact of which was not realized … When the age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in cult, the semblance of its autonomy disappeared forever.’ (p. 226). This revalidation of the achievements of ‘commercial artists’ is more about the creation of a false cult rather than investing their work with a status it has hitherto lacked. The subject of this book isn’t art but it is design and its texts and images document the processes embraced by that understanding.

Promoting prosperity comprises over 750 high quality images, of mostly New Zealand produced advertising, along with an introductory essay, a brief account of the history of advertising and nine case studies investigating, in a broad sense, aspects of the history of advertising in or about New Zealand. Despite the textual contributions, it’s the images that provide not only the main achievement of this hefty volume but also its primary raison d’être. They include photographs, posters, banners, playing cards, book and magazine covers, organised under general thematic headings and reproduced in full colour with endnotes as to dates and ownership. It’s an invaluable visual resource, even if the information accompanying the images borders on the sparse; an indication of dimensions and the methods of reproduction would have been useful. With all this visual splendour in a book that makes claims to redefine a narrative, you would imagine the editors would have realised the importance of getting the text right, by locating the images in a tightly defined theoretical and historical discourse, but it seems they are convinced that the impact of the images alone is sufficiently compelling an argument.
Cover of the first number of Cuts, a black and white block proof catalogue published by J Ilott Ltd from 1916.
From Creating customers: the story of Ilott Advertising New Zealand: 1892-1982 (Auckland: Richards, 1984)
Ian F Grant’s ambitious chapter describes an outline history of advertising in New Zealand up to the 1960s that seems intended to provide the chronological narrative on which to locate the subsequent eight essays. Grant specifies the origins of the New Zealand practice in two ‘advertising agencies’ operating in Dunedin and Christchurch prior to 1891. If the British model of the mid-nineteenth century advertising agency was that adopted by these South Island agents then their primary function was to act as a conduit between retailers, manufacturers and importers and selected papers while undertaking responsibility for payments. They also passed information between local newspapers, and supplied copies of other provincial and overseas newspapers to the newspapers they represented. They were more a cross between a subscription agent and a jobbing journalist than an advertising agency as the role is understood today. While these agents may have had input into the language used, they had very little to do with the composition and layout of advertisements, a function usually handled by outside studios or independent commercial artists.

An overwhelming expansion in commodity production combined with an explosion in literacy and advances in printing technologies gave advertising critical mass during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The connection between the development of advertising and the availability of technically superior printed media has long been recognised and is demonstrated, quite graphically, from the returns of advertisement duty connected with newspaper taxes collected between 1800 and 1853 when it was abolished (see T R Nevett, Advertising in Britain: a history (London: Heinemann, 1982), pp. 26-27). Grant undervalues the colonial dimension, opining ‘the United States [was] the birthplace of modern advertising techniques’ (Promoting prosperity, p. 26). Advertising agencies in the United States at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries may well have been the hotbed of ‘modern advertising techniques’, but in New Zealand, well until the 1950s, these practices were mediated through Britain.
Advertisement from the British trade publication Advertisers Weekly (27 May 1927). 
From Creating customers: the story of Ilott Advertising New Zealand: 1892-1982 (Auckland: Richards, 1984) 

By making his chronology so tightly focussed on New Zealand and because histories of advertising in New Zealand are so thin on the ground Grant depends on the canonical trope of the heroic pioneer, the dynamic leader setting the ground for lesser men - and they are all men - to follow. From the South Island pioneers he progresses through a ‘late 19th century revolution in printing techniques’ interpretation of the rise of advertising – although there’s no mention of the extraordinary New Zealand printer, typographer and journalist Robert Coupland Harding –  and into the twentieth century, a period that saw the formation of what might be described as modern advertising agencies: J Inglis Wright, Charles Haines Advertising and J Ilott Ltd being the three local agencies deemed worthy of mention. Then, in the afterglow of the agencies, advertising clubs emerge; like the agencies, they appear to have developed fully formed out of nowhere. 

In the 1920s we see the establishment of new competitors to this recently formulated establishment, organisations such as Carlton Studios, the Government Publicity Studios and, about 1928, the Goldberg Advertising Agency. This singularity is remarkable: in this ‘man alone’ version of the history of advertising in New Zealand there’s no evident political, cultural, social or economic context; New Zealand is no longer enthralled by a colonial relationship with Britain; the First World War hardly impinges on things while the Second World War merely enables agencies to ‘[gain] a new level of respectability […] with campaigns that filled war loans and boosted morale’ (p. 32). In Grant’s assessment it would seem that New Zealand advertising agencies functioned largely uncontaminated by overseas connections, despite having offices overseas, recruiting from overseas, modelling their organisations on overseas templates, reading overseas publications such as Modern publicity and Advertiser's weekly, losing their personnel to overseas wars and, not least, relying on technologies and strategies first developed overseas. 
Edward Bawden (1903-1989), dust jacket for Modern Publicity: 1939-40.
Ed by F A Mercer and W Gaunt (London: Studio, 1939).
This much-repaired example was retailed by the Dunedin bookseller Hyndman's 
The remaining essayists adopt two modes of approach: the opinionated anecdote and the populist academic. Dick Frizzell's contribution incarnates the anecdotal with a racy autobiographical reminiscence of his experiences in the advertising industry. Brian Sweeney's chapter on myth-making 'Kiwi chutzpah: the art of the sale' also relies on an anecdotal, loose-with-the-facts approach to the subject. While the inclusion of such views might broaden the book's popular appeal, from a design historical perspective it’s the second, more rigorous, approach that's of interest. This counterpoints the archive against a set of identifiable historical benchmarks and processes, enabling a more informed and nuanced analysis. 

Gail Ross’s  account of the Auckland Quoin Club, a graphic arts ‘club’ established by Thomas Gulliver and Arnold Goodwin in September 1916 seems intended to support the revisionist editorial aim. Modelled on London prototypes, the club functioned as an Auckland hybrid of the independent studios - such as the Carlton Studios - who supplied many of the London advertising agencies with commercial art combined with the clubs – such as the Column Club, which provided art workers with training and social facilities. Ross’s essay seeks to locate the club and its activities within the Auckland art establishment by de-emphasising its commercial character. In fact, the Quoin Club with its practitioner base and emphasis not only on commercial art but also design – the applied arts and crafts – was, rather than being ‘an independent art society’, a predecessor organisation of the Auckland Design Guild (1949) and the New Zealand Society of Industrial Artists (1959) later incorporated as the New Zealand Society of Industrial Designers (1962).

Noel Waite’s contribution on New Zealand industrial exhibitions provides a useful overview of this significant aspect of national self-regard. New Zealanders were fascinated by the idea of these 'secular cathedrals' from the first. As early as May 1850 the Southern Cross  was suggesting that there should be a New Zealand contribution to the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, the London spectacle that determined the template of them all, declaring that: 
The advantage to be derived by such a contribution must be obvious to every one, since, however comparatively obscured by the more gorgeous displays of the arts and industrial skills of wealthy and populous Europe, the very fact of the productions of the Colony being admitted into such gay and goodly fellowship, must prove to be an instrument far more effective than the most elaborate Standing Advertisement, the most powerful Leading Article, or the most painstaking Book.
Waite’s account is equally upbeat. He argues that ‘from the beginning [New Zealand exhibitions] sought not ephemeral vistas but remarkably tangible and productive vistas that would sustain the industrial and social infrastructure of cities, regions and the nation well into the 20th century.’ It’s a moot argument and, with the essay’s focus restricted to the so-called ‘international’ exhibitions held in New Zealand, one based on a partial account of the phenomenon.

With the exception of the State of California exhibit at the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition of 1940 (located, appropriately, in the Motors and Transportation Court and a trade off for New Zealand participation in the 1939 San Francisco Golden Gate Exposition), ‘international’ in the New Zealand exhibitions context meant British empire. Rather than the prestige of state-sponsored foreign exhibits any non-imperial involvement was generally undertaken by manufacturers’ local agents. For example, Belgian representation at the 1925 Dunedin New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition seems to have been restricted to commercial displays on behalf of a safety match manufacturer, Union Allumettière SA of Brussels and a wallpaper manufacturer Usines Peters-Lacroix SA, also of Brussels. The United States was represented by a display of canned vegetables and soups manufactured by Libby, McNeill & Libby of Chicago and by a small selection of heating devices sourced from various manufacturers including the Edison Electric Appliances Co Inc also of Chicago. Nonetheless, these displays demonstrated the allure of the visual in terms of the packaging of their products. Their appearance alone would have led them to stand out in contrast to the more familiar and conventional packaging design of local and imperial products.
Burton Brothers (fl 1866-1914), [Industrial Exhibition Building (1885)].
Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa Tongarewa C.11315
Probably the most ‘tangible and productive’ exhibitions held in New Zealand are ignored in this account, possibly on the grounds that they lacked an international component other than those exhibits sourced from Britain. Prime among the roll call of the absent is the 1885 New Zealand Industrial Exhibition held in Wellington, which, like the 1865 New Zealand Exhibition, was an initiative of the premier, the exhibition-minded Julius Vogel. The exhibition had the general purpose of gathering 'material evidence of all that the colonists could accomplish in the way of useful productions and manufactures' but its primary purpose was to attract both capital and trained artisans to the country, something that explains why such a relatively modest exhibition had so immodest a published record; it was produced for external consumption. It was also the catalyst for an essay-writing competition on the subject of ‘New Zealand Industries, the Past and the Present’ and the winning essays were published in the Official record as a further lure for investors. But while this move toward a degree of industrialisation garnered support from the urban population, it was anathema to those members of the agricultural industry dominating the legislature.
Cover of New Zealand Industrial Exhibition, 1885, Wellington: the official record (Wellington: Government Printer, 1886)
Other hiatuses in the list include the 1898-99 Auckland Industrial and Mining Exhibition and the 1913-14 Auckland Industrial, Agricultural and Mining Exhibition. While the former, held on the site now occupied by the city campus of the University of Auckland was adjudged a success, the latter, held in the Auckland Domain, was the subject of a slew of criticisms for its empty halls and reliance on visitors attending the associated fun fair, Wonderland. It’s pertinent to this text to question whether or not these exhibitions had anything to do with the emergence of advertising art in New Zealand. Surviving photographs of the displays suggest not; to the contrary, most publicity seems to have been organised by importers, producers and retailers. The dominant visuality of these commodity spectacles seems to have been the objects on display rather than the promotional art.
View of the Palace of Industries and Exhibition Towers, Auckland Exhibition, Auckland Domain. 
William Archer Price (1866-1948) collection of post card negatives.  
Alexander Turnbull Library 1/2-001152-G
There’s another aspect of the New Zealand exhibition phenomenon that’s also omitted, one that possibly had a more significant impact on the way the country both perceived and promoted itself. The first independent New Zealand representation at an international exhibition occurred at the 1873 Vienna Welt-Au­ßtellung; participation in this non-British spectacle was another Vogel initiative and its primary purpose was to attract settlers, both urban and rural. This foray into overseas exhibitions was followed by New Zealand displays at Philadelphia (1876) and Sydney (1879), Melbourne (1880 and 1888), London (1886, 1909  and 1924-25), Paris (1889), Louisiana (1904), San Francisco (1915 and 1939), Johannesburg (1936) and Glasgow (1938). A display at the 1878 Paris Exposition Universelle was aborted at the last minute owing to government incompetence. In fact, none of New Zealand’s overseas promotions seem to have been effective, even by the hardly challenging standards of the day. They were under-resourced and poorly designed: a visitor to the Philadelphia exhibition expressed his astonishment that ‘nothing appeared in the [New Zealand] court but a case like a large packing-case made of rough timber, something like a cucumber frame, […] covered over with wire netting [and] all the wool and grain exhibits.’ It’s this amateurism, the absence of a coherent visual narrative, that seems to be a more authentic reflection on the condition of the New Zealand promotional industry during the period under interrogation. Not so much of a ‘tangible and productive vista’ but more a myopic and uncritical sense of national hubris.
Gregory Brown (1887-1941) for the Empire Marketing Board, 'Sheep raising - New Zealand' [about 1926].
National Archives of the United Kingdom CO 956/528
It’s an essay discussing an overseas political initiative that provides the vital key to understanding both the political economy of advertising in New Zealand and the mechanism through which its practitioners embraced new visual forms and concepts. Felicity Barnes’s essay ‘Britain’s farm: empire marketing at home’, an exploration of the activities of the British Empire Marketing Board (EMB) in relation to New Zealand, not only articulates the prepotent political, social and economic links between the two countries but also raises the possibility that the local circulation of these arresting images, which represented the way New Zealand was perceived by the former colonial power, had a marked effect on the practice of design in the country.  Not only was a selection of the 800 EMB posters toured around New Zealand in 1929 but also their display in Britain was reported in local newspapers.
Empire Marketing Board British promotions publicised in the Auckland Star (26 July 1933)
One of the great debates of the early twentieth century, in Britain at least, was the Liberal ideal of free trade. Unlike their neo-liberal descendants, free traders argued that a global competitive market would not only reduce prices but also empower labour and make the world a better place for all. Conservative interests rejected this stance arguing that the imperial interests would be best served by a tariff preference that favoured imperial goods. Britain would sell its manufactured commodities to the empire while the dominions and colonies would sell their unconverted raw materials and foodstuffs to Britain. It was a view that found acceptance amongst the agriculturally-minded, conservative New Zealand government, keen to ensure continued access of its primary produce to what, in effect, was a captive market.

In an effort to win over a sceptical public, a British Conservative government, on the advice of Leo Amery, Secretary of State for the Dominions, formed a partnership between the state and private sectors to facilitate and promote imperial trade. Endowed with an sizeable budget, the EMB’s activities were not only aimed at promoting imperial produce to British consumers but also improving the quality and efficiency of colonial and dominion production. In pursuit of the former objective the EMB established a Publicity Committee, whose vice-chairman (not, as Barnes avers, its ‘head’) was William Crawford of the eponymous advertising agency W S Crawford Ltd, a progressive British agency and one of the first to identify design as a discrete practice. He was also principal advisor to its Poster Sub-Committee, chaired by Frank Pick of the London Passenger Transport Board responsible for one of the largest poster campaigns ever undertaken anywhere in the world.   
Léon Gischia (1903-1991), cover of Gebrauchsgraphik, 8:5 (May 1931), a Berlin-based monthly magazine for promoting art in advertising 
and the official organ of the Bundes Deutscher Gebrauchsgraphiker
Crawford, who had been educated in Germany, was a promoter of modernism: the advertising he promoted was pared of ornament, rich with colour and entranced by the mechanical; his London office was housed in modernist, sub-Corbusierian, construction; and he was an equal opportunities employer avant la lettre. In 1925 he arranged a visit to London by members of the modernist Bundes Deutscher Gebrauchsgraphiker (the Association of German Commercial Graphic Designers), which inter alia prompted the formation of the British Society of Industrial Artists in 1931. This formal connection between the design practiced by the members of the Gebrauchsgraphiker and that promoted by Crawford in his role at the EMB is of particular interest because it also descries a link connecting the graphic arts of Weimar Germany with those of 1930s New Zealand.  

In 1927 the Wellington-based advertising agency J Ilott Ltd opened an office in London to both service the company’s Glaxo account and capture those of British manufacturers selling in New Zealand. While Ilotts was proud to claim that it ‘was the first New Zealand advertising agency to bring copy and art specialists from overseas’, this almost accidental internationalisation of New Zealand advertising prompted the company into recruiting British art directors such as Eric Lee-Johnson (a New Zealander working in London) and Howard Wadman to ensure that its advertising remained on a par with that of the metropolitan centre (J Ilott, Creating customers: the story of Ilott Advertising New Zealand 1892-1982 (Auckland: Richards, 1985) p. 142). Wadman and Lee-Johnson were both members of the Society of Industrial Artists and, following their stints at Ilotts, separately edited Harry Tombs’ Year book of the Arts in New Zealand. While Lee-Johnson was the subject of the first monograph devoted to a New Zealand artist - Eric McCormick's 1956 publication, his move from ‘commercial artist’ to ‘professional artist’ came at considerable personal cost and saw him actively suppress his earlier achievements as both a graphic and an industrial designer.

Barnes has previously explored the impact of the EMB on New Zealand in New Zealand's London: a colony and its metropolis (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2012) although she curiously ignores the fact that the board's secondary aim of improving production standards forced a reluctant New Zealand government into establishing the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in 1926. As she asserts, the EMB had a significant cultural impact, in ‘epitomising the idea of New Zealand, and the other dominions, as rural hinterlands of Britain’ through its films and posters. She notes too that this fantasy of New Zealand cows and farmers being displaced Britons ‘managed to overlook the innovations of Taranaki-based, Chinese dairy farmer Chew Chong, Danish and American contributions to the industry; and of course Māori dairy farming.’ This was myth making in the service of the state: one of the EMB posters used to illustrate the essay, by Frank Newbould, depicts a ‘New Zealand’ mustering scene; the central figure is a lone, mounted shepherd. Newbould’s poster not only conveyed the EMB’s emphatic message to British consumers that empire was theirs but it also provided Pākehā New Zealanders with a visual fiction that eradicated not only the distance between metropolis and the frontier but also the compromises and the economic, environmental and social damage inherent in colonialism.

Promoting prosperity, like its companion volume Selling the dream: the art of early New Zealand tourism published in 2012, represents a significant commitment on the part of the editors and their publisher Craig Potton Publishing to making available to a wider public one of the more extraordinary visual archives to be found in New Zealand. It's an impressive achievement. Future publications though would benefit from being more than vehicles for personal rediscoveries of this long disregarded body of work. A preponderance of the texts accompanying the images suggest that the contributors to these volumes see their subject matter in purely formal terms, disconnected from wider, social, economic and political narratives. This position is exacerbated by both a disregard of theory and an undeveloped sense of where 'commercial art' - or, deploying a more contemporary term, graphic design - fits into the wider visual culture of New Zealand. If graphic design in the service of advertising and promotion was all about creating an alternative visual narrative to the humdrum existence of provincial life, then Promoting prosperity succeeds in conveying the richness and diversity of the archive it produced. The book is less successful in its aim of transmogrifying ‘commercial art’ into the canon of 'legitimate fine art' because, ultimately, such a model has neither historical validity nor practical justification. A more nuanced and appropriate approach, as both the archive and historical circumstance suggests, would be to see this body of work as a part of a yet unwritten history of design in New Zealand.