Portsmouth man brings father's long lost art to new audience
They were the posters which tempted thousands of people to sample the magic of the silver screen, but they had not been seen for almost 80 years. For much of that time they were stored in a garden shed. GOFF GLEADLE reveals how, with the help of the University of Portsmouth and a city artist, his father's work is now winning new audiences
My father Lawrence Gleadle was a lithographic artist in the 1930s for printers Stafford and Co in Nottingham, our home town. His job was the ‘big head man’.
He drew the heads of the stars or advertising characters and the background design for film and advertising posters. Other draftsmen did the lettering.
He would have drawn the design on paper, then, using a mirror, drew life-sized or even larger, directly on to a stone, or in later years, a metal plate, with special grease crayons.
Using oil and water the outline drawing would be printed in monochrome, then colours added in stages.
He kept samples of his work. Sometimes this would be a complete poster, sometimes the portraits only, with most of the lettering on other sections which he didn’t keep.
Father left the trade in the Second World War and became a long distance lorry driver, a reserved profession.
After the war he didn’t return to printing, eventually becoming a bus driver for Nottingham City Transport until he retired many years later.
I was born in 1942. We lived in a council house where there was no room to put up the posters. They were very large so were packed away and I had no idea of their existence.
I went away to university then settled here on the south coast from where I worked abroad for a number of years.
It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I was given the posters. By that time they had spent more than 30 years in plastic bags, some of the time in the garden shed. I too had nowhere to display them so they stayed shut away.
I tried once or twice over the years to find out more about them but without much success.
The posters are now almost 80 years old and I am only a few years younger, so I felt it was the last chance to bring them into the light of day.
Fortunately it was the right time. I have been able to identify and date them on the internet. There are more than 50 different ones.
David Sherren, the head of the University of Portsmouth’s library mapping room, was extremely helpful, scanning them on to high quality computer files, even though they are fragile and sometimes quite damaged.
I also teamed up with Kendal James, a Portsmouth artist and member of the Portsmouth Art Space group with a studio at the Hot Walls. She used her skills to re-master the files so we can print them as they would have been when they first came off the presses, putting in many hours of her own time. She also took parts of the background detail, which are works of art in themselves, and made them into prints and greeting cards.
There is also a family story behind the posters, which I am still discovering.
Father became an apprentice at Stafford’s in 1923 when he was 15. He must have gone there straight from school, where he must have shown talent, as he was taken on as an apprentice lithographic artist for a five-year term starting at 12 shillings (60p) a week. The same year he was sent to the Nottingham Municipal School of Art.
Stafford’s was one of the largest poster printers at this time, employing 800 people. The artists’ room was all male when my father started. My mother, who is three years younger, started there when she too was 15. Her job was taking copy into the artists’ room where they used to sing If You Were The Only Girl In The World whenever she came in. This became their song. Photographs I have and a portrait of her by father, suggest they were sweethearts when she was only 15 or 16. They married in 1931 when he was 23 and she 20. He was then a lithographic artist and she a lithographic feeder. They were married for 65 years and this was always their song.
Later in life father took up water colours. They are good but to me the posters represent his real talent and his legacy.
Kendal planned and staged an exhibition for me at the Art Space Gallery, Portsmouth in 2015 with some of the original posters, prints of them in all sizes, and father’s story.
The exhibition proved popular with 200 visitors and got much attention from the media. The One Show came to film and it was shown on national television earlier this year.
Similar posters from that era are rare. Most printing houses stopped employing their own artists after the war and artists were more usually attached to advertising agents, working for different printers as required. There was also a severe shortage of paper during the war and storerooms were scoured for old posters which were pulped and recycled. The few posters that do exist are ‘finished’, colour posters.
My collection, with both monochrome and colour versions, showing the artist’s work more clearly and also illustrating the printing process, are almost certainly unique.
Kendal and I will be holding a second exhibition at Portsmouth Art Space, from June 6-11, this time concentrating on these unique aspects of the collection. We will also exhibit them at the Spring Arts Centre, Havant, in September.
Staff artists were deliberately kept anonymous, so my hope is to have my father’s real talent recognised with, perhaps, prints of his work on display in people’s houses.