John Hassall: The pioneer of street art | Books | Entertainment

John Hassall was the ‘poster king’ (Image: University of Essex)

Many of his creations remain engraved in the public consciousness to this day. Its iconic 1908 image of a Jolly Fisherman dancing along the sands at Skegness in a cheerful good mood helped put the seaside town of Lincolnshire on the map. Its slogan, “Skegness is SO Bracing,” has encouraged tens of thousands of visitors to hop on the Great Northern Railway service for a special three-shillings fare from King’s Cross in London. In the days leading up to television, when the poster was king, advertisers found their way to his door because of how he could incorporate a story into his work.

Despite the enduring fame of his images, his name has faded into obscurity. However, a brilliant new biography of Hassall by art historian Lucinda Gosling now aims to address this.

She explains: “When John Hassall started designing advertising posters at the end of the 19th century, he was absolutely at the forefront of a movement that was producing truly modern and revolutionary work.

“He created a quintessentially British poster style using firm outlines, bold flat color bands, minimal lettering and, perhaps most importantly, humor.

“Hassall was a natural prankster and a born storyteller, mischievously spinning a thread whenever there was an opportunity.

You can see all of this manifested in several of his posters. Rather than the fussy, overly detailed, text-rich posters of the upper Victorian period, Hassall instead sought to encapsulate the spirit of something in the most economical way possible. “

For Nestlé’s Milk, Hassall painted a sweet-faced girl picnicking on a hill while her family in the distance picked up a basket in an open-top car. On a crisp white blanket in front of the child is a box of Nestlé Swiss milk.


Some aspects of his work are anachronistic today, including this anti-suffragist illustration (Image: Getty)

In another piece of jewelry promoting shoe polish, Hassall recreated the story of the woman who lived in a shoe. Smiling children gaze out of the windows as their mothers shine the shoe house.

The caption reads: “You heard about the woman who lived in a shoe. Who had so many children that she didn’t know what to do. So she made them broth and gave them a kick. foot. Then shined his shoe with Day and Martin’s Blacking. “

While certainly not “awake” by today’s standards, it did bring some fun.

Gosling continues: “Hassall also understood some basic practicalities. The posters had to be seen from afar – especially in the foggy towns of Edwardian Britain, they were to immediately attract the attention of the man or woman in the room. street, but above all, they had to sell a product.

“He was an excellent draftsman and surprisingly quick worker, producing hundreds of poster designs for a range of clients, as well as magazine and book illustrations, postcard designs, nursery pictures and friezes. , fine art commissions and more.

“He wasn’t the only poster artist working at the time. There were his friends Dudley Hardy, Tom Browne, Cecil Aldin and Will True, but Hassall’s prolific production and countless successes catapulted him to the top of the game. tree and have earned him the nickname, “The Poster King.”


The Skegness Jolly Fisherman encouraged tens of thousands of visitors (Image: Unicorn Publishing)

Despite the humor inherent in his job, Hassall’s life contained more than its fair share of tragedy. Born in 1868, in Walmer, near Deal, Kent, he was only seven years old when his father, Royal Navy Officer Christopher Hassall, died at the age of 38 in an accident at sea who had left him in a wheelchair.

His mother Louisa remarried and Hassall and his brother Owen were sent to boarding school, first in Devon, then in Germany. Having twice failed to enter the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, John emigrated to Canada in 1889 to try his hand at farming.

After winning awards with drawings of landscapes he created for relaxation, one of his scenes from Canadian life was published in the British newspaper Daily Graphic.

This encouraged him to attend art school in Antwerp and later study in Paris with the famous painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau before returning to Britain.

Gosling explains: “At one point during his studies, Hassall met his classmate Isabella (Belle) Dingwall, from Helensburgh, Dunbartonshire, and fell in love.”

The couple moved to Notting Hill, west London, and developed a thriving studio, but tragedy struck again when Belle, then 34, died giving birth to the couple’s third child .

Hassall wrote in his diary: “Beautiful fallen ill, baby girl born around 2 am; died around 5 am Dr Blackes, 11 rue Wimpole”.

Three years later, Hassall remarried Constance Maud Brooke Webb and had a second family. Their son Christopher was an actor and poet and their granddaughter, Imogen Hassall, though dying barely 38, would become a renowned movie star in the sixties and seventies.

The depth and breadth of the artist’s output was astonishing, Gosling says.

“While many people will immediately recognize Hassall’s poster ‘Skegness is SO Bracing’, arguably his most famous creation, most will know little about the artist behind it, how versatile he was or just how versatile he was. it’s important in the poster’s story, ”she explains.

Tall, mustached and well dressed, he put on a dashing figure and his speeches were enjoyed at the Sketch Club, where members ate and ate while drawing. He was also popular at the Savage Club, where actors, composers, musicians and artists rubbed shoulders with royalty.

He seems to have objected to women getting the vote. In 1912 he designed two posters for the National League for the Opposition to Women’s Suffrage.


Hassall is believed to be against the vote for women (Image: Unicorn Publishing)

One of them showed a man returning home to find two children in rags crying, apparently because they missed their mother. It was called A Suffragette’s Home. It is not known whether this commission reflected his own views, Gosling says.

“There are aspects of his work that are, inevitably, anachronistic. Some of the characters he uses would no longer be acceptable in the advertising world – servants for example, old crones, or bums and down- and-outs, ”she adds.

“He was a product of his time – a child of the Imperial Age – and much of his work echoes the tastes, interests and aspirations of that time.”

Yet Gosling also found an article Hassall wrote for an Irish newspaper in which he said: “By 2008 electricity will have solved the problem of domestic work, the tides will provide us with electricity. Instead of having to work, clean and scrub, women will simply press an electric button.

“The result will be that the women will give all their time to cultivating the physique through games and athletics. A magnificent women’s race will be the result. That women are six feet tall, I am inclined to think. , will not be. at all exceptional for a hundred years. “


A popular poster for shining shoes (Image: Unicorn Publishing)

Bevis Hillier, Times columnist and art expert, said of him: “Hassall is, by anybody’s standards, a great artist. But he was a genius. Never really existed, that just happens. increase the attractiveness of his work. “

Hassall died at the age of 79 in 1948 but his work has survived him. Its iconic image of Skegness has been picked up and reimagined as a hallmark of city advertising to the present day, while the images, for Colman’s Mustard for example, remain instantly recognizable.

Even though the name of their creator has faded over time, Lucinda Gosling’s book is a timely and deserving tribute to her genius.

John Hassall: The Life and Art of the King of Lucinda Gosling’s posters (Unicorn Publishing Group, £ 30) is out now. For free UK delivery call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310 or order via UK.

An exhibition on the life and work of Hassall will be held at the Heath Robinson Museum, Pinner, from May 22 to August 29.

Visit for more details.

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