Wednesday, 30 January 2019

The Demise of the Hand Coloured Post Card

I was sorting through a few family heirlooms recently and came across a collection of hand-coloured postcards that my father had collected when he was a boy. 

Some were unused, and some had been collected from various aunts or uncles who had sent them while travelling either locally around Britain, or 'sur le continent', for the more daring of English folk. Some briefly told a story of a trip, in the example of the S.S. Rajputana, a ship out of London and bound for the Indian subcontinent, which was sent by an aunt while the ship was docked in Marseilles. It must have been the height of adventure to be on such a voyage. Most cards congratulated the recipient on either passing exams, recovering from an injury, remembering an upcoming holiday or birthday and all of them mentioned the weather. This was England after all.

A classic illustration for the shipping line - postcards like this were available on the vessel itself as a service to their passengers but also as a promotion for the business.
Travelling first class on a vessel such as this would have put the passenger in the lap of luxury for that time. She was requisitioned by the navy in WWII and was fitted with eight six-inch guns - but very little additional armour. She was torpedoed and sunk off Iceland on 13 April 1941, after escorting a convoy across the North Atlantic.

Some were clearly sent as reminders (of holidays, trips, upcoming birthdays) and some had been re-purposed (by the publishers) to be sent as birthday greetings cards. 

A good deal of the collection featured English seaside type scenes but there were quite a few images of steam trains and ocean going liners, of the type that disappeared rapidly once Hitler's u-boats got a decent foothold in the Atlantic.

It got me thinking about the whole business of hand-coloured postcards and how, despite being wildly popular between 1900 and the 1940s, they died out almost entirely once colour film became commercially available after WWII into the fifties. 

In the day, postcards were either regular photo prints with fields printed on the reverse for an address and correspondence, hand-tinted black-and-white pictures, sepia images, hand-tinted pen and ink drawings, or prints made from full colour paintings ready for posting anywhere in the world.

Postcard depicting the legendary Flying Scotsman, the fastest steam locomotive in the world at that time - although it must be said the title was generic in that the route was serviced by a number of different steam locomotives. The breakthrough came when the engine could travel in excess of 100mph, a staggering feat in those days (1934). The original Flying Scotsman was exhibited in the USA (twice) but the organiser of the event went bankrupt and the Scotsman had to be repatriated to the UK after being bought by Lord McAlpine, a British businessman. The original Scotsman is now part of the National Railway museum.

Hand-colouring these cards was at the time, a huge cottage industry employing hundreds, if not thousands, of artists who did piece work in their own homes.There were several ways to add colour to a photographic image: oils, watercolours and even chemical tinting.

Another historical curiosity in the shape of a postcard - a memorial to one of the five battles of Ypres fought between 1914 and 1918 in Belgium, resulting collectively in more than a million casualties. Some war. This is probably the wreck of a British Mk IV tank and, although it was a much improved machine over the original MkI and II tanks with heavier armour, most of those involved in the Third Battle of Ypres sank into the mud, stalled, were knocked out, or were just  abandoned due to technical failures.
The reverse side of a postcard carries some interesting information: Tuck's Post Cards were 'by appointment' to the Royal Family. Maybe the Queen used to pop down to the corner shop to pick up a couple of cards, who knows?
Some cards were either used as a postcard, or, if you crossed that descriptive line out, as printed matter which carried a different postage charge.
Bear in mind this was a time where the Royal Mail delivered post to private houses not once, but twice a day. Ahhh, those were the days...
Another classic artist's nautical postcard - this time of the liner R.M.S. Mauretania, a Cunard built ocean liner constructed in 1906, at the time the largest ship in the world. It made 269 return trips between the UK and New York during its life, excluding the time it was seconded to the military during WWI.
I love the corniness of the birthday wishes card on the left-hand side and the politically incorrect nature of the scene on the right-hand side. Both are masterpieces of early studio photography, with expert shading applied to the edges of the left-hand portrait and a beautiful painted backdrop canvas hanging behind the two kids learning about the joys of smoking.
On close inspection, this card has two unique features: it has a type of heavy varnish overlay to give the postcard the appearance of being an oil painting - plus it's also a promotional advert for the 1925 British Empire Exhibition in Wembley. According to Wikipedia: 'Of the 58 territories which composed the British Empire at the time, 56 participated with displays and pavilions. The Exhibition's official aim was "to stimulate trade, strengthen bonds that bind mother Country to her Sister States and Daughters, to bring into closer contact the one with each other, to enable all who owe allegiance to the British flag to meet on common ground and learn to know each other". It cost £12 million and was the largest exhibition ever staged anywhere in the world.
It attracted 27 million visitors'.
I loved the caption for this one - 'The Rocks, Aberdovey' (Wales).
I'm not 100% sure of I'd spend half a day driving or on a sitting on a train to get to see a rocky cliff side like this. If anything, it's the over-the-top hand-colouring that's a bit more interesting!

A classic sepia-toned photo postcard of Dunster Castle and its Yarn market - c. 1925
Here's a fantastic example of hand-colouring.
The Chateau de Chillon in Lake Geneva.
Yes, it's the top, but you'll find that some hand-tinted images tend to have a completely different 'look' to them. This has a lot to do with the contrast of the original black-and-white prints - in this example it lent a gravity to the shadows that a colour (film) image could not emulate.
Going on my own years of experience hand-colouring BW prints, I suspect some colourists made the mistake of trying to apply a particular colour 'look' to a black-and-white print that bore little relationship to how the original scene looked before it was photographed. Chillon looks to have a slightly stormy sky with a burst of sunshine backlighting the clouds. Colouring them pink was a bit fanciful but I still like it.

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