And furthermore ...

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Tuesday, 20 July 2010


10 hand painted real photo cigarette cards from Cavenders

“Sing tive, tive, tive, now in full cry,
With yeeble, yabble, gibble, gabble, hey!
The hounds do knock it lustily
With open mouth and lusty cry.”
Anon; C1600: Verse on the back of Cavenders Camera Studies No.4, ‘Unwelcome Followers’.

 It must have made perfect sense at the time; find some 50 photographs of the British countryside, print them 45x70mm, small enough to fit in a cigarette pack but hand paint them too to bring out the vibrant colours of spring, the yellow summer harvest, the reds and browns of autumn and the stark blues and greys of winter. What would that have involved? Dozens, possibly hundreds of workers stippling photographs with fine point paintbrushes. A cursory look at these images indicates the workers’ efforts could be pretty crude but could they be blamed, bent over for hours at a stretch, patiently applying specific colours to tiny areas? Their mistakes did guarantee – and it says something about Cavenders (est. 1775) that the company never promoted this – that each card would be unique. That erratic bleeding of the watercolours couldn’t be replicated.

The hand colouring of these images owed something to Pictorialism, a curious movement that tried to find a compromise between painting and photography. It managed to alienate a lot of photographers and artists while remaining incredibly popular with camera clubs and photographic societies. Probably Pictorialism’s greatest achievement was to divide the photographic community so thoroughly that some people deliberately sought the sharp focus and cold abstraction of modernism. Without Pictorialism to kick against, they might have been content to stick with formal landscapes and portraits. 

These cigarette cards were produced in 1926, when Pictorialism was in its death throes but also at that moment just before natural colour photography became accessible. Autochromes were produced on glass plates and the various other processes, like photochrome, were still too expensive for mass production, at least for something as disposable as a cigarette card. If Cavenders wanted to outdo rivals like Senior Service who had their own series of real photographs, it needed an angle, hence colour. But there was something more going on.

 The company could also lend respectability to the collection by scouring the vast library of British poems dedicated to the countryside. They found Shakespeare, Marlowe, Wordsworth and Keats of course; “How silent comes the water round that bend/Not the minutest whisper does it send.” Maybe not their finest words but then the company wasn’t after quality, just its illusion. The most modern poet included was Rupert Brooke who had been killed in 1915 (probably taken out by a mosquito, not an enemy soldier), though he could hardly be called a modernist unless by accident. 

Post-war Britain was a wreck. High unemployment, thousands had returned from the war too disabled to work, the empire was in decline, manufacturing had shrunk, wages were being forced down and there were the dissenters to worry about; the Irish, women, Bolsheviks, immigrants. 1926 was also the year of the General Strike. A man, the type who smoked Cavenders, had cause to wonder who really won the war. This series can be seen as an attempt by the company to remind its customers that whatever they’d fought for had been worth it. True, there’d never been any real suggestion that the Central Powers would invade Britain but by beating them back the nation had preserved its soul, its hallowed rural traditions, the peace of the English countryside and the centuries of literary heritage. A man could light up, look upon a coloured photograph of sheep grazing outside a thatched cottage, turn to the back, inhale again, read a verse by Thomas Hood and consider that yes, there was something about England guaranteed to bring a lump to the throat.

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