The Beautiful Poster Lady: An Interview with William S Peterson about Ethel Reed

Dr. William S. Peterson, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Maryland, has written a new biography about Ethel Reed, “one of the most elusive figures in the history of American graphic design.”  The book, entitled “The Beautiful Poster Lady: A Life of Ethel Reed,” is out now with Oak Knoll Press. I recently interviewed Dr. Peterson over e-mail:

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So, let’s start at the beginning -- who was Ethel Reed?

She was a Boston poster artist who achieved international recognition in the 1890s when she was only twenty-one. This happened to her almost overnight, and newspapers and magazines were soon describing her as the foremost woman graphic designer in America. I decided to write a biography of her because her posters (and book illustrations) are so distinguished -- but also because her personal life was so mysterious. She was a woman of many secrets.

Was she trained or self-taught as a designer?

Very early in her life she fell under the influence of Laura Coombs Hills, a Newburyport artist, and took some lessons from her. Later, in Boston, she also studied briefly at the Cowles Art School, but I think it would be accurate to describe her as largely self-taught. She always claimed that her work was spontaneous and intuitive. In an interview published in 1895, for example, she said, “I’m afraid you will think me an unaccountable sort of person, for all I can say is that when I have an idea I simply sit down to the paper, and the drawing and colour come to me as I proceed.”

What characteristics distinguish her work?

Her contemporaries noticed immediately that there was some resemblance to Aubrey Beardsley’s work. In almost all of her posters there is a solitary female figure, often brooding over a book, with a billowing gown and, in the background, enormous, almost menacing flowers. Ethel Reed’s women seem to be in a meditative mood, but at the same time they are subtly erotic figures.

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What are some of her more famous pieces or contributions?

She first caught the attention of the public with a series of posters for the Boston Sunday Herald in the the spring of 1895, and for the next two years she was much in demand among Boston publishers. She did a lot of work during that period, especially for Copeland & Day and Lamson, Wolffe. My personal favorites are a poster she produced for a novel by Albert Morris Bagby, Miss Träumerie, and the poster and illustrations for Gertrude Smith’s The Arabella and Araminta Stories. Then, after she moved to England, she contributed some very interesting illustrations to the Yellow Book.

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I understand that Ethel was almost as famous for her personal glamour as for her design work. Could you tell us a bit more about that? Was she a fashion trendsetter?

From 1895 onward the American press was filled with gossip about her, and then in January 1896 she visited Washington, D.C., for a poster exhibition and met Frances Benjamin Johnston, a local photographer of considerable reputation. Johnston took a series of very striking pictures of her in a glamorous black dress, and thereafter, whenever a journalist approached Ethel Reed, she supplied copies of those photographs, which were then published across the continent. I think we would describe her today as a media celebrity. I found it interesting that much of this promotion of her public image came from Ethel Reed herself.

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After 1896, Ethel disappeared from public view.  What happened?  Why did she stop designing?  Where did she go?

In the spring of 1896, following a collapsed engagement, she sailed for Europe and led a somewhat wandering life thereafter. She visited France and Germany, lived in Ireland for two years, and eventually settled down in London (where, as I said before, she did some work for the Yellow Book). Meanwhile she had a succession of lovers, bore two children by them, and in 1903 married an English army officer, but the marriage fell apart immediately -- on the honeymoon, no less. In her final years she sank into poverty and obscurity and died of an overdose of sleeping tablets in 1912. There is no simple answer as to why she was unable to relaunch her artistic career in London, but it is worth noting that she became an alcoholic, was addicted to several drugs (including opium), had an extraordinarily turbulent love life, and frequently complained of depression and poor health. In other words, she struggled with a lot of burdens. Why she, in effect, made herself invisible to the public and to her old Boston friends is ultimately a mystery, and I do not claim to have solved it, but at least I have been able to reconstruct, for the first time, the hidden years in London.

How is Ethel Reed viewed by collectors and scholars today? What has been her legacy?

She still has a considerable reputation as a poster artist: her posters continue to sell at high prices, and art historians nowadays regard her as one of the leading figures of the poster revival in the United States, France, and Britain at the end of the nineteenth century. As I wrote in my biography, “The Ethel Reed girl, redolent of the fin de siècle, remains a recognizable feminine type in our cultural memory.”

You can order a copy “The Beautiful Poster Lady: A Life of Ethel Reed” from Oak Knoll Press. Peterson also maintains a blog about Ethel Reed.

Images from Peterson’s blog and used with his permission.

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