London Sketch Club

John Hassall, The Poster King

Born in Walmer, Kent in 1868; died in (Walton on the Naze?) in 1948

"First of all ideas, either in design, colouring or catch phrase – ideas first because without them the rest of the qualifications are not much use." John Hassall

John Hassall was one of our most famous poster artists and yet there is an irony; not that he died a poor man, but that his name is none too familiar with the present generation.

His speed of working was impressive, his output gargantuan and his influence considerable. Newspapers dubbed him “The Poster King” and Skegness Council still use the Jolly Fisherman Poster – seventy years in continous use – Norris McWerter please note.

Success came easily. His first drawings submitted to an editor were published and his first painting in oil was hung at the Royal Academy, nevertheless Hassall was a practical man and realised he could not afford to spend months on a painting. Influenced by his great friend Dudley Hardy, Hassall turned his attention to poster design.

He recalled that in his first year as a poster artist he produced four hundred posters (eight a week). Whether that was an over exuberant estimate or not, Hassall was incredibly prolific. In 1918 he produced over one hundred and twenty free works. An entry in the ledger reads, “this was a thick year for charity drawings.”

Hassall completely understood poster work and its demands, yet his method of working was quite spontaneous, never using a model, other than to ask someone to hold their arm up for a minute. His style was simplistic but stopped well short of the start stylisation of the Beggarstaffs.

At first sight it seems quite an odd statement, but Hassall considered the artist who influenced him most was Mucha, Whether or not they met I do not know, but Mucha was working in Paris when Hassall was a student there. Both employed the technique of outlining masses of colour, reminiscent of children’s painting books but generally speaking Mucha’s use of line resembles that of a stained glass window whereas Hassall uses far broader areas of dominant, primary and secondary colours enclosed within a bold black outline.

Many contemporary artists found the time to offer their services to one of the many private art schools dotted through London and Hassall was no exception. His criticism towards students, however, could be forthright and I am grateful to Alan Martin Harvey for the anecdote concerning his father, a pupil at one of Hassall’s evening classes. The master leant over my father shoulder and after inspecting the rough sketch that he was engaged on, asked: ‘Now which of those lines do you mean?”

No text relating to John Hassall, however brief, would be complete without reference to his studio. It was this room more than anything that typified his eccentricity.

Hassall threw away very little. All letters were kept in wooden boxes. The children’s toys were found in his studio after his death and friends added to his collection which must have been every bit as fascinating as Kurt Schwitter’s Merzbau. Captain Tussaud donated one of Napoleon’s death masks. Nellie Melba gave a sprig of heather and Captain Scott a lump of raw copper. Owen brought native gods, spears, shields and much more from his travels. There were red Indian clothes, a bunch of leaves from Heidelberg and an Elizabethan four poster bed. Several old copper kettles were tenderly patched with brown paper where they leaked- Hassall theorised that the kettles developed a personality and to throw them away would hurt their feelings. A comprehensive list would occupy so many column centimetres I will terminate here.

Extracts from a Monograph of John Hassall published by John Sandford


Poster: Skegness is SO Bracing, Illustrated Guide from Secretary Advancement Association, Skegness, or any L.N.E.R. office. Original artwork by John Hassall (1886-1948) for The London & North Eastern Railway, English (Skegness), 1909


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