Thursday, June 3, 2021

Bracing Air, Abundant Amusements: The Travel Posters of Charles Pears

We are very excited that Pontefract Museum has now reopened with a major new exhibition of artwork by Pontefract-born artist, Charles Pears (1873-1958). Bracing Air, Abundant Amusements: The Travel Posters of Charles Pears is the first retrospective of Pears’ work in his hometown. The exhibition focuses particularly on his prolific career as a commercial artist and will transport you back 100 years to the golden age of rail tourism, the British seaside holiday and poster design. 

National and leading art collections have kindly lent posters and original artworks to the show, including some that might even have been seen on platforms at Pontefract’s three rail stations in the 1930s. The exhibition also includes expert commentary from a leading authority on 20th century posters, as well as an exclusive new poster artwork for Pontefract. 

A marine master

The exhibition takes its title from the slogan of a poster promoting the 'Bracing Air' and 'Abundant Amusements' that holiday-makers and day-trippers could look forward to in Southend-on-Sea in 1927. Pears provided the artwork for the poster, showing yachts on the Essex waters. He was an enthusiastic sailor himself and had established a reputation as a leading marine artist, having served as an official Naval war artist during the First World War. 

Pears would go on to capture the Second World War on canvas too and later became the first president of the Royal Society of Marine Artists. He eventually retired to spend more time at sea and settled in Cornwall, where he painted his self-portrait, kindly lent to the exhibition from the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth. It is the first time it has been exhibited in Pears' hometown, where he had first honed his artistic talent whilst growing up.

Self portrait, 1944-46 by Charles Pears (1873-1958)

Poster perfect

Pears went to school in East Hardwick and attended Pontefract College. As a young man, he moved to London and began his career as a cartoonist and illustrator, becoming a regular contributor to Punch and illustrating famous titles by authors like Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens. 

Pears-illustrated books from the Wakefield Museums & Castles collection on display in the exhibition

Illustration in a 1907 edition of Alice in Wonderland, from the Wakefield Museums & Castles collection

In the 1920s and 1930s Pears perfected his trade as one of the travel industry’s go-to poster artists and enjoyed a successful commercial career. At this time, new public holidays and paid annual leave meant that people were enjoying more leisure time and heading off on holidays and day-trips. 

Most holiday-makers at the time travelled by train, taking advantage of summer timetables and special fares. In only the early days of radio and before television, the poster was the most effective means of mass communication and became the rail companies’ primary marketing tool. They turned to leading artists like Pears to produce the most appealing representations of resorts.

Bracing Air, Abundant Amusements includes many examples of Pears' most vibrant posters, alongside some of the original artworks. 

Twickenham, Walton and Windsor, Charles Pears, 1935

© TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

Spring on the River Thames, the original artwork for the poster, is on show in the exhibition.

Pick of the painters

It was Frank Pick, the Publicity Manager at London Underground, who initially recognised the potential of the travel poster. Pears was one of the first artists Pick worked with on an initiative to promote travel by public transport in leisure time as well as for commuting. As a marine specialist, Pears’ posters often promoted daytrips away from the hustle and bustle of the city along the picturesque banks of the River Thames. 

Between the wars, London Transport also ran special excursion services to Southend, the nearest beach resort to the capital. Pears produced no fewer than 14 different poster artworks for Southend, showing boats on the waves, water sports, local landmarks and all the attractions on offer. Visitors can see two examples in the exhibition, including the original oil painting for this sun-soaked scene.

Southend-on-Sea, Charles Pears, 1934

© TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

Inspired by Frank Pick’s successful poster campaigns in London, railway companies also began to invest in the best artists for their adverts. After Britain’s many individual rail lines were grouped into the ‘Big Four’ in 1923, the newly formed regional companies each established advertising departments. They were competing with each other to attract tourists to the resorts on their lines, and only the most persuasive artworks would do. As an expert sailor and marine artist, Charles Pears was in high demand to provide seascapes that would tempt holiday-makers to the coast. 

This relaxing representation of Filey must have been an appealing image for passengers at Pontefract, which was served by LNER at the time. For the price of a rail ticket, they could escape the daily grind and get away from it at all on the East Coast. 

Poster, LNER 'Filey for the Family' by Charles Pears, 1930

Science Museum Group

© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

A fun family day out

Certainly, at this time more people than ever before were flocking to the seaside with their buckets and spades. Families made sandcastles, wrote postcards and returned home with plenty of snapshots and souvenirs. As well as admiring Pears' posters, visitors to Pontefract Museum can also enjoy a trip down memory lane with retro holiday essentials and mid-century beach attire from the Wakefield Museums & Castles collection.

Elsewhere in the museum, you can admire even more of Charles Pears' skill and artistry. He enjoyed a prolific career and we weren't able to display all of his many designs in the exhibition but our slideshow includes posters for destinations all over the country and beyond. 

Inspired by Pears' example, graphic designer Georgina Westley has created a stunning new poster artwork for Pontefract. Adding a modern twist to Pears' style, she has produced a colourful celebration of his hometown today. Visit the exhibition to see the iconic view of the Buttercross and St Giles' Church in a new light!

There's also plenty for little ones to enjoy. Look out for the special family-friendly object labels and pick up your Take and Make activity bag, packed with seaside themed crafts inspired by the posters on display. 

Bracing Air, Abundant Amusements: The Travel Posters of Charles Pears is at Pontefract Museum, 24th May 2021 – 25th February 2022. 

The exhibition was made possible with a grant from the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund.

To enjoy more of Charles Pears' work, check out our Curation on ArtUK for an overview of his celebrated career. 

Read more about Georgina Westley's poster in this special guest blog post

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