Collecting Posters: The History & Appeal of Art, Advertising & Travel Posters

Collecting posters offers an interesting and affordable way to acquire the beautiful, bold and unique. While vintage travel posters, advertising and art posters have long held broad appeal, there has also been a steady market for collectors looking to build niche art collections on a budget. The poster format dates back hundreds of years, but it was one of the 19th century’s most recognisable artists who helped it reach new levels of acclaim. Here’s a brief history of the poster – and what collectors are looking for when buying posters at auction.

Lithographic poster of Moulin Rouge: La Goulue is a poster by French artist Henri de Toulouse-LautrecInnovation… and a Cabaret

While the very earliest posters coincide with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440, it was lithography – invented in 1796 by Alois Senefelder – that was the early forerunner of the modern art poster. Utilised by printers, the process held potential in its early stages, but it was still slow and cumbersome.

As demand grew for posters that were more visually appealing, printers turned to artists – and one of the first to embrace the poster as an artform was Jules Cheret. The French artist founded his own lithography workshop in 1866 and created some 1,200 posters over 40 years. His development of the “3 stone lithographic process” around 1880 enabled artists to move beyond simple wood or metal engravings and embrace vibrant colours by drawing individual colours onto separate stones and overlaying them in the printing process. He also incorporated hand-drawn lettering which helped garner new interest in typography.

While Cheret is known as “the father of the modern poster”, it was his compatriot artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who helped elevate the poster to new artistic heights.

Toulouse-Lautrec was the reason the poster took off as an art form,” explains Sally Hardy, Head of Art at Theodore Bruce. “He created these now quite iconic scenes of the Moulin Rouge and Montmartre, and he used a stone lithographic process that produced beautiful images of very high quality. His posters also became very popular with bar and cabaret owners, allowing them to find a much wider audience.

Artists continued to embrace the poster – and inspire poster designers – through and beyond the 20th century. Alphonse Mucha (now the subject of a major exhibition at AGNSW) created striking Art Nouveau posters inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts Movement that in turn influenced artists such as Aubrey Beardsley in Britian and American designers, William Hadley and Edward Penfield. Other artists across Europe, including Russian Constructivists El Lissitsky and Rodchenko, responded to Art Nouveau curves with hard-edge and geometric designs in jarring colours.

Joseph Booker (1908-1971), The Blue Mountains - We're Expecting You, Original Colour Silkscreen Travel Poster, c.1940Beyond Art to Advertising

From the 1920’s, the poster became the promotion of choice for advertisers, with Art Deco and Bauhaus style illustrations used to promote everything from Campari and cigarettes to cruise liners.

In the 1930’s, when many around the globe were experiencing dire financial stress, posters illustrating the “golden age of travel” brought a promise of escape and adventure. In Australia, institutions including the Australian National Travel Association (ANTA), Qantas and the Victorian Railways, promoted Australia to locals looking for relaxation or discovery, and to international travellers, as a far-flung yet sophisticated travel destination.

In the 1950’s, posters featured colourful and detailed drawings, while the International Typographic Style eschewed illustrations in favour of bold and expressive lettering. From the 1960’s, musicians began to embrace the poster, with public walls and telegraph poles peppered with posters for concerts, and psychedelic-inspired illustrations by designers including Milton Glaser. Similarly, Australian artist, Martin Sharp gained a large following in London and locally with his distinctive hyper-coloured posters for Bob Dylan, Cream and Jim Hendrix, as well as Belvoir St and the Nimrod Theatre group.

The development of offset printing and photo montage gradually overtook the lithograph and led to mass-produced posters through the latter part of the 20th century. It is now the earlier and limited-edition lithographic posters however, that are most coveted.

Pictured: Joseph Booker (1908-1971), The Blue Mountains – We’re Expecting You, Original Colour Silkscreen Travel Poster, C.1940

CYRK, Original Polish Circus Poster, Art By Hubert Hilscher, C. 1970, Paper Backed with an illustration of a lion on a red background, and above the word CYRK Seeking out the Rare & Collectable

Generally, collectors of vintage posters are looking for the rare and the beautiful, including original lithographic posters by well-known artists or designers.

Many of the original lithographic posters can be traced back to particular artists and known names are likely to attract more interest,” says Sally. “Collectors also look for posters with a strong visual appeal and that are in good condition, ideally linen-backed lithographs. Posters were not designed to last as per traditional artforms such as painting, so there are limited examples of early posters which can enhance the appeal,” she adds.

When collecting posters, some have a preference for niche genres, such as CYRK Polish circus posters. In the 1960’s the Polish State Entertainment Agency (ZPR) decided to promote the circus (CYRK) by commissioning posters from leading artists & designers.

The richly decorated posters were hugely popular but disappeared during the 1980’s when commercial posters took over public spaces. Now however, they are part of many museum and gallery collections.

Another popular genre is the art exhibition poster, created in small batches to promote a particular art show. “Lithographic art exhibition posters feature images of the artist’s work,” says Sally. “So, they are a great way to have a major artist on your wall without paying a fortune.”

Pictured: CYRK, Original Polish Circus Poster, Art By Hubert Hilscher, C. 1970, Paper Backed

Le Corbusier (1887-1965), Tapisseries Recentes De, Du 25 Mars Au 10 Avril, 1960, La Demeure, Colour Lithograph, Pub. Mourlot, Paris, Original Exhibition PosterCollecting Posters at Auction

Theodore Bruce offers regular auctions of vintage advertising, film and travel posters, and original art exhibition posters in our Fine Art auctions, dedicated Art Poster auctions or as part of general Collectables auctions.

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Pictured: Le Corbusier (1887-1965), Tapisseries Recentes De, Du 25 Mars Au 10 Avril, 1960, La Demeure, Colour Lithograph, Pub. Mourlot, Paris, Original Exhibition Poster