THE STORY OF THE PICTORIAL POSTER.
It would be merely foolish to pretend that the pictorial poster, looked at from the point of view of art, is of the same importance as a portrait by Velasquez or an etching by Rembrandt. Its æsthetic qualities have of necessity to be subordinated to its commercial qualities; the artist is the servant of the tradesman. His first business is not to achieve a decoration, but to call the attention of the man in the street to the merits of an article. He may be fantastic only in so far as his fantasy assists the advertisement; he must ever keep before his eyes the narrow object of his effort. The closest limits are set to his invention; it is not for him to do what he will, but rather to do what he must. Under such circumstances, it is, at the first blush, somewhat surprising that artists have condescended to the poster at all. The bounds of freedom in the cases of painting and of sculpture are, comparatively speaking, so wide that one is not unnaturally amazed that the artist of talent is willing to work within the strict limitations imposed on him in the production of a pictorial poster. And yet, after all, to the ingenious designer there is a certain fascination in the very strictness of these limits; the complexity of the problem allures him, and gives him the appetite for experiment. Moreover, if he believe that art is something more than a vague grace, a non-essential luxury, he is ever anxious to extend her domain, to make her empire universal. He believes it to be his mission to touch some ugly necessity, to inform it with art, and, in doing so, to adorn it. He is restless for new worlds to conquer, for fresh fields to occupy. His ideal is art everywhere, art in all. He would fain give style and grace even to the paraphernalia of commerce: the necessities of trade shall not be hideous if he can make them otherwise. And so it happens that he is willing, nay eager, to turn his attention to the poster, with the result that the hoarding becomes an interesting, even a charming, gallery of designs. What was one of the most hideous of human inventions is transformed into a delight to the eyes. Colour and interest are added to the street; the gay and joyous take the place of the dull and ugly.
It follows, supposing that I have stated the case fairly, that it is not derogatory to the dignity, even of a very great artist, to apply his talent to the poster.
It is clear that the poster is one of the oldest and most obvious forms of advertisement. It is almost impossible to conceive a time in the history of man, once he had learned to express his thoughts in design or in writing, when the idea of the thing did not exist. It must have been an incident of the most crude and ancient of civilizations; even the cave-dweller in the dim and distant past must surely have possessed the essential idea of it. From the cave-dweller to the comparatively complex civilization of the ancient and greater Egypt is a far cry. That the mural inscription, which is obviously the germ of the poster, flourished exceedingly in the Land of the Pharaohs is matter of history. A papyrus is comprised in the collections of the Louvre, which may fairly be described as a poster. It is dated so early as 146 B.C., and deals at length with the escape of two slaves from the city of Alexandria, offering a reward to anybody who should discover their place of retreat. Still more interesting, though less ancient, is an inscription in Greek, discovered in the Temple at Jerusalem, in 1872, by M. Clermont-Gannerau. It was issued during the reign of Herod the Great, and forbids the entry, by foreigners, to certain parts of the Temple on pain of death.
Of the poster in Greece we know very little. Legal inscriptions were undoubtedly written on whitened walls, or on axones, the latter being wooden tablets painted white, and made to revolve slowly on an upright axis. In passing from Greece to Rome, we pass from somewhat fragmentary to comparatively exact information. The Roman notice-board was called an album, and it is a matter of dispute whether it was white with black letters, or of a dark colour with the text in white. Anybody who took away, destroyed, or mutilated an album was liable to an actio albi corrupti, and to heavy damages besides. It appears to have been invented in the first place, in order to give publicity to the annual edict of the Prætor; subsequently, however, the word album was used to signify any tablet on which a public announcement was inscribed. The ruins of Pompeii have furnished us with at least one interesting fragment of an album, on which are written notices of the most diverse kinds. Amongst them are the following:
FAMILIA . GLADIATORIA
VENATIO . ET . VELA .
A. SVETTII . CERII .
AEDILIS . FAMILIA. GLADIATORIA . PUGNAVIT .
POMPEIS . PR . K. IVNIAS . VENATIO. ET . VELA.
THERMARUM . MUNERIS .
ENAI . ALLEI . NIGIDII .
MAII . VENALIO . ATHELA .
SPARSIONES . VELA .
ERUNT . MAIO . PRINCIPI .COLONIÆ . FELICITER .
As for the Roman bookseller, he was in the habit of placarding his shop with the titles of books just published, or about to be published. Take, for instance, the shop described by Martial in the lines:
"Contra Caesaris est forum taberna,
Scriptis postibus hinc et inde totis,
Omnes ut cito perlegas poetas.
Illinc me pete.
The actor has never been inclined to hide his light under a bushel. Advertisement has always been dear to him, and it is not surprising to find that the Roman actor made the most of the opportunity of the publicity offered to him by the album. Not content with having his name inscribed in gigantic letters, he went a step further, and anticipated the illustrated affiche. Just as Sarah Bernhardt employs the decorative skill of Grasset to depict her as Joan of Arc, so did the old Roman actor employ Callades, an artist mentioned very favourably by Pliny, to portray him in his favourite parts. Callades would seem to have been the Chéret of his age: he was the great artistic advertiser of ancient Rome, just as Chéret is the great artistic advertiser of modern Paris.
It is obvious, then, that the idea of the illustrated poster existed among the Romans: the difference between Callades and Chéret is one of method rather than of vital principle. And even the difference in method is slight.
Of the poster in the time which immediately succeeded the fall of the Roman Empire we have very little trustworthy information. It is possible that the Romans introduced the album into Gaul and into Britain, and that the sight of it became as familiar to the inhabitants of Eboracum and Uriconium as it was to the natives of Rome and Pompeii. A French historian of distinction has stated that the affiche was employed by the earliest of the kings of France, but this statement can hardly be said to be borne out by facts. It is at least certain that the signboard, which is a variation of the pictorial poster, was employed in the early part of the Middle Ages. The poster, unless illustrated, would have been useless in a community in which the art of writing was held effeminate, in which the most illustrious knight openly boasted of his inability to sign his name. The principal means of advertisement at that time was the public crier. As early as the twelfth century the criers of France formed an organized body, "for," as Mr. Sampson tells us in his History of Advertising, "by a charter of Louis VII. granted in the year 1141 to the inhabitants of the province of Berry, the old custom of the country was confirmed, according to which there were to be only twelve criers, five of whom should go about the taverns crying with their usual cry, and carrying with them samples of the wine they cried in order that people might taste. For the first time they blew the horn they were entitled to a penny, and the same for every time after, according to custom. … These wine-criers are mentioned by John de Garlando, a Norman writer, who was probably contemporary with William the Conqueror." The wine-crier is frequently mentioned in early French street-ballads. To instance one of them:
"Si crie l'on en plusors leurs
Si bon vui fort a trente deux
A seize, a douze, a six, a huiet."
In England also the crier was an early institution, for we find one Edmund le Criour mentioned in a document dated 1299. Even when the crier was the pre-eminent advertiser, the poster, or at least the handbill, had its place. At first the bills were written, but almost as soon as Caxton introduced the newly-discovered art of printing they were produced by that method. Perhaps the earliest English poster is that by which Caxton, about the year 1480, announced the "Pyes of Salisbury Use," at the Red Pole in the Almonry at Westminster. The size of this broadside is five inches by seven, and the text runs as follows:
"If it please any man spirituel or temporel to bye our pyes of two or thre comemoracio's of Salisburi use, emprunted after the form of this prese't lettre, which ben wel and truly correct, late hym come to Westmonster, into the almonestrye at the reed pole ane he shall have them good and chepe.
The "pyes" in question, it may be noted, were a series of diocesan rules.
It is in the sixteenth century that we meet with the poster properly so called. For example, we have a royal proclamation of François I relating to the police of the city of Paris, which runs: "Nous voulons que ces présentes ordonnances soient publiées tous les moys de l'an, par tous les quarrefours de cette ville de Paris et faux bourgs d'icelle, à son de trompe et cry public. Et néantmoins qu'elles soient attachées a un tableau, escriptes en parchemain et en grosse lettre, en tous les seize quartiers de ladite ville de Paris es esdictz faux bourgs, et lieux les plus éminents et apparens d'iceulx, afin qu'elles soient cognues et entendues parfun chacun. Et qu'il ne soit loysible oster les dictz tableaux, sur peine de punition corporelle, dont les dictz commissaires auront la charge chacun en son quartier."
The words "attachées a un tableau, escriptes en parchemain et en grosse lettre" leave no doubt that the poster as we now know it was a usual method of advertisement in the reign of François Ier. The affiche soon after received the attention of the French legislature, for the production and exhibition of posters of certain kinds in France, was expressly forbidden by "un arrêt du Parlement" dated the 7th of February, 1652. To publishers and booksellers, however, the privilege of posting the titles of their new books was specially reserved.
As printing became less expensive and methods for the mechanical reproduction of pictures and designs were discovered, it needed no great ingenuity to add emphasis to the poster by means of pictorial illustration. Acrobats, the stall-keepers at fairs on the ice, and the like, were speedily induced to adorn their advertisements with rude drawings, while Royal proclamations were usually decorated heraldically. Early in the eighteenth century, the bills announcing the departure and arrival of coaches were headed by pictures, as for example the one which related to the Birmingham coach in 1731.
Even earlier in date, there are illustrated advertisements relating to the Roman Catholic church. One of these, produced in France, dated 1602, is very curious and elaborate in design. While, however, many posters such as this are profoundly interesting to the archæologist, they can hardly be considered works of art. It is not until the middle of the present century is reached that we find important examples of pictorial poster deliberately planned by an artist. The modern artistic poster movement, as we shall see in the next chapter, had its origin in Paris some fifty years ago.