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Saturday, 3 March 2012


15 Senior Service Cigarette Cards 1939

"What enemy would invade Scotland, where there is nothing to be got?"
James Boswell

“Beautiful Scotland” always seemed like an oxymoron. Firstly there was the history, which comes across as a litany of bloody and disastrous defeats. There were the cities, or more accurately their parts, like the Gorbals, which for decades had the reputation as the poorest and the most violent in Europe, and that’s saying something if you’ve seen certain areas in London, Marseilles or Naples. The national cuisine sounded appalling and looked life threatening, and blame the English for spreading propaganda but the people were always portrayed as mean and quick to fight. If you wanted two words to describe Glasgow or Edinburgh then grimy and sinister would do. ‘Highland’ and ‘loch’ on the other hand conjured up a craggy, mist thralled landscape that sounded rather excellent if you were stuck in a damp, smog choked and dreary city. Beautiful Scotland might have existed but you had to get far away from people to find it.

One of the finest panels Hergé ever created is on page 43 of The Black island. Tintin (ridiculous in a kilt and Tam, but then he always liked to go native) is nosing a motorised dinghy between the jagged cliffs of the island while above him looms the ruins of the castle of Craig Dhui. Seabirds wheel about its crumbling turrets. It looks forbidding in broad daylight and it is understandable that the locals on the mainland believe the Black Island is haunted. Hergé hadn’t been to Scotland when he first drew the panel but he didn’t need to. As a boy he had read enough adventure stories to know the atmosphere of the desolate coasts of western Scotland. The Black Island was the first Tintin adventure set in Europe (if you exclude Land of the Soviets, which was always something of a ring-in). Previously the plucky young reporter had travelled to more exotic lands; the Congo, China, South America, Egypt and America, so you have to wonder if when deciding on a European location Hergé settled on the area in that held the most romantic connotations for him. Incidentally, it was first published as a book in France in 1938, the year before Senior Service published these cigarette cards. What Hergé imagined and what the photographers caught weren’t worlds apart.

One of the books Hergé obviously read as a boy was The 39 Steps by John Buchan. The stories follow a similar arc; the hero is falsely accused and on the run from the police also finds himself chased across Scotland by a gang of Eastern Europeans. Buchan published his book in 1915, during the first year of the war against Germany and it has a subtext Hergé may have missed but wouldn’t have found important anyway. The network of spies were plotting an invasion of Britain and for Buchan, thoroughly Scottish and a defender of the Union, the very idea was as plausible as it was terrifying. At threat weren’t so much British values (whatever they were) but his wild lands of heather and moor, the Scotland his characters return to throughout his novels, for release sometimes but also, you get the impression, because they were on a home ground worth fighting for. 

Similar thinking might have been behind the publication of these cigarette cards. Ever since Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement in September 1938, Britain had been preparing for inevitable war. That same year Senior Service had released the “Our Countryside” series; focusing on the steadily disappearing small villages and rural scenes of England and if neither set of cards was exactly a call to arms they were a reminder that heritage and certain traditions were worth preserving. Once the danger had come from progress, and however you defined that it was mostly a good thing. Now a real enemy was on the horizon and what could happen to the land didn’t bear thinking about.

There’s another possibility that invoked a similar national sense while having nothing to do with imminent threats. The 1930s was the first decade when the car became a part of the average household and most adults drove. In Britain this statistic was celebrated in the Shell guides, pamphlets that listed and gave potted descriptions of the small towns and villages in each county. The series was first edited by the poet John Betjeman and illustrated by some of the nation’s leading artists such as Paul Nash and John Piper. Shell wanted people to get out, drive and buy fuel. The editors and artists wanted them to get out and explore so the benefits of such a project were apparent to everyone involved, even if their motives remained mutually suspicious. In producing its series of rural landscapes Senior Service didn’t have to cash in on the success of the Shell guides to have a similar idea. What the company really wanted was for people to buy cigarettes and if collecting the cards in each packet was one way to encourage them and if a Sunday drive was the fashionable entertainment of the era then inserting miniature photographs of the countryside was an obvious and easy marketing strategy. 


It’s too bad then that Senior Service never saw fit to print the names of the photographers. Small as they are, some of the images are technically exquisite and if they are infused with commercial sentimentality that had been their point in the first place. They were supposed to move people to feel a national pride or a desire to go to these places, not contemplate the nature of photography. Theoretically the company could have commissioned photographers but it would have been cheaper and easier to turn to publishers like Valentine’s, Tuck & Sons, Judge’s or one of dozens of smaller firms that had extensive libraries and could provide exactly the scenes Senior Service required. Business was ruthless, few photographers had any legal power and publishers didn’t like to dispense with money or accreditation if they didn’t have to, so names were left out.

The photographers probably deserve recognition but frankly, identifying them could involve more time than the rewards are worth. One thing you can say is that though professionals may have taken the images here, they also belong to a school of amateur photography that went back to the 1880s and found its most widest exposure in dozens of magazines like Camera and Amateur Photography. These magazines had strict ideas regarding the definition of a good landscape photograph. Beauty was the defining factor and that was dictated by atmosphere and harmony so although the photographs were expected to interpret the landscape the image itself was so emphatic and complete it didn’t itself require interpretation. The magazines and their associated photographic clubs loved sunsets and the hour after a storm had cleared, when the sunlight was still weak and battling with the clouds. Studies like the one below, “On an Ardgour Croft”, were models of fine photography. The draught horses, the two ploughmen and the thatched cottage in the background told the whole story and with the even composition between the three elements it was all up an excellent scene. A lot of these magazines remained heavily influenced by Pictorialism into the 1940s and ‘50s, when smarter competitors were already growing tired of modernist shapes and rhythms. 

Which brings us to the important point. There was a time when this style of photography became dull. It was too neat, obvious and mawkish. Age has improved it, partly because it has become increasingly difficult to find natural landscapes with an expanse unscarred by highways or construction, because we can’t shake the idea that things were much simpler then but also because in a glut of modern practice driven by irony and the worship of banality, our eyes sometimes hurt for the want of something direct and undisguised. They are a reminder that good photography doesn’t have to do much to do its job. The idyllic scenes in some of these images might too nostalgic to be entirely honest but it is only a conceit to think that we could come up with a better truth.



  1. Great texture in the photos of Scotland you discovered. I've seen Hitchcock's 39 Steps but haven't read the book.

    1. Case it down Jonathan. You can read it in an afternoon and you won't be wasting your time.


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