Exhibitions | June 2020 | Alex Johnson

The Bodleian Surveys the Art of Advertising

© Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. John Johnson Collection.

An 1897 chromolithograph advertisement for Golfer Oats printed in Edinburgh and featuring Queen Victoria.

Among the exhibitions that agile curators have successfully adapted for online consumption is the excellent The Art of Advertising, at Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries. It covers more than two centuries of advertising, from black and white letterpress trade cards for coffins and packing cases, to colorful 1930s chromolithographic posters extolling the delights of the new Morris Oxford Six cars for female drivers.

The exhibition heavily mines the library’s John Johnson Collection, one of the world’s finest archives of printed ephemera, described by the eponymous Oxford printer as “everything which would ordinarily go into the wastepaper basket after use, everything printed which is not actually a book.” The online incarnation of the exhibition broadly traces the history of printed advertising from the 1740s to the 1930s.

© Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. John Johnson Collection.

A chromolithograph pop-up advertisement for the Express Dairy Company, c. 1890s-1900s.

But there are also themed sections looking at printing techniques, examples of inventiveness (such as the Wynter’s Glow For Your Hands point of sale boards promising to alleviate chapped hands), the cry to ‘Buy British' (Matchless Metal Polish very specifically demands users ‘Don't Purchase Foreign Polishes’) and how and why women were targeted in advertisements.

There are also some bold boasts on show, such as a 1920s ad for Craven A cigarettes which apparently were “made specially to prevent sore throats.” George Packwood’s Hunting Razors from 1800-1810 promise to make shaving easy on horseback! Here too are the earliest days of celebrity endorsements, with actress Ellen Terry expounding on the fabulous Koko for the Hair.

A series of blog postings provides longer, detailed analysis of the exhibition and there is also an excellent accompanying catalogue/book by Julie Anne Lambert.