Is there more to postcard art than saucy seaside scenes?

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1. Are postcards art?

We are all familiar with postcards sent from holiday destinations to family and friends. But the postcard wasn’t always just a medium to pass on messages with a photograph of a local scene on the front.

In fact, there has been a long history of art on the front of the postcard which has evolved from advertising to wartime propaganda to saucy seaside scenes. It is this last era, with its pictures of earthy couples having fun on holiday, that sticks in our minds as the heyday of the postcard. However postcard art is currently enjoying a revival.

So what is it about creating art for postcards that means it has endured for so long?

2. From prototype to postal service

The earliest known picture postcard was hand-painted by satirist Theodore Hook in 1840.

His artwork caricatures post office workers as scribes sitting around an enormous inkwell. It is thought to suggest that the postal workers were generating work by writing the letters themselves. This began the tradition of using humour in postcard art.

People began to send postcards from their holidays about 30 years later when official postcards were printed. The art featured on these was typically of landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben.

Advertising

Advertisers were quick to adopt postcards. Relatively cheap to produce and with multiple deliveries each day, they were ideally suited to attracting the attention of consumers with a piece of striking art that made a simple point.

A variety of images were used, from miniaturised versions of posters, to celebrity endorsement, to a portrayal of the product in a different way. The phonograph, for example, was advertised with an illustration that showed a couple enjoying music at home. These were the precursors of today's junk mail, and were also distributed at shows and events.

3. World War One lifeline

Postcards played a significant role during World War One.

Many were impressively illustrated. Some were hand-embroidered on rolls of silk by civilians in France and Belgium, and in the UK by Belgian refugees. They were fragile and quite expensive – not cheap souvenirs. These postcards were often unwritten with no marks on the back as the messages were sent in an accompanying letter.

Postcards were sent to and from the front lines in vast quantities and a special cheaper rate was introduced. Their small size gave them a subtle advantage over letters - soldiers only had space to write a short message home without having to bring up the horrific conditions they faced.

Officially distributed postcards formed part of the propaganda campaign, keeping up soldiers’ morale and demonising the enemy. The art showed war heroes and leaders, satirical and critical images of the enemy and pictures of occupied villages. Later in the war, postcards depicted ruined buildings and landscapes including trenches. They championed ideals of military service such as brotherhood, heroism and self-sacrifice.

After the war the special rate was discontinued and the postcard’s popularity fell away until tourism created a fresh demand. Artist Donald McGill, who had started painting propaganda postcards in World War One, was to become the most prolific saucy seaside postcard artist of the next 30 years.

4. Saucy seaside

Donald McGill was the king of the seaside postcard. He created over 12,000 different postcard designs.

With train services improving and becoming more affordable throughout the 1920s and 30s, many people began holidaying at the seaside. Postcards were an easily found, cheap and fast means of maintaining contact with relatives, in the days before telephones were widely used.

Was this a low point for the medium of the postcard for art with thousands of very similar examples of tacky humour? Perhaps, though the artistic style is striking and recognisable, with bold colours.

Criticism

Writing about McGill’s postcards, George Orwell said the “crude” art had an “overpowering vulgarity” and the colours were "hideous". Although he did feel some affection for them: “I for one should be sorry to see them vanish.”

McGill’s work came under increasing scrutiny – he was eventually charged and found guilty under the Obscene Publications Acts in 1954 due to the scantily clad women and sexual jokes his postcards featured. Copies were destroyed and some publishers went out of business.

Revival

Despite the controversy his art had caused, and the criticism it drew for its crude style and gaudy colours, Donald McGill's work is now classed as a social commentary of the 20th Century. Far from being under-rated, his early originals now reach high prices.

5. The art of postcards

Throughout the 20th Century, the postcard has been used as a tool of expression by a number of serious art movements.

Andrew Graham-Dixon discusses postcard art at Postcardwall's year of the postcard exhibition.

6. Contemporary postcard art

Today we are sending fewer postcard but artists still enjoy the size and novelty of the medium. We are seeing a resurgence in postcard art as cafes and galleries host exhibitions and sales. The postcard is also still used in advertising to promote upcoming events or gallery openings.

Post Secret

Post Secret is a community mail art project started in America in 2005. It encourages people to anonymously submit handmade postcards on which they have written or sketched anything they wish to get off their chest.

Royal College of Art secret sale

The Royal College of Art has hosted a yearly exhibition and sale of newly created postcard art for over two decades. A mix of postcards by famous as well as unknown artists are put on sale at the same time, with buyers given no information about the identity of the artists until after they have paid. Well known artists such as Tracy Emin, Damien Hirst, Grayson Perry and David Hockney have all taken part.

The restrictions posed by shape and small size can make them appealing to work with. They take artists out of their comfort zones and force them to think about things differently – and draw ideas from the history of postcard art to tell stories using only a small space. Often the artists engage with the historical function of a postcard too by evoking classic themes such as holidays, childhood nostalgia and humour. They use methods such as collaging, cutting, sewing, painting, printing and folding – there have even been glass and metal postcards.

Postcards are still a medium with merit enjoyed by artists and the public.

7. The value of postcard art

Postcard collecting is called deltiology. After stamps, postcards are the UK's second most popular collectibles. Can you guess which of these sold for most?

First known picture postcard

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First known picture postcard

Hand-painted by satirist Theodore Hook in 1840. Sold for £31,750 in 2002.

Damien Hirst

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Damien Hirst

Originally sold for £40 as part of a secret sale, this was later auctioned for £15,000.

Donald McGill

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Donald McGill

Original Donald McGill postcards now sell for thousands of pounds in London galleries.