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Posters, Broadsides and Design

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This colour poster was produced using the second great technology of printing, lithography, which is the most common form of printing today (in a much more sophisticated form known as offset lithography). Building on this basic framework-words and images, lines and colours-we have arrived at the complex and fascinating visual medium that is the modern poster.

Consider the two posters that use one of Canada's most endearing (and enduring) symbols, the beaver (Castor canadensis). The simpler poster has an effective headline and a lovely (if small) woodcut illustration. It communicates perfectly well. But the rich, dense undergrowth of the Roots poster, by Heather Cooper, suggests so much more: a fantasy world of medieval tapestries and magic gardens. Looking at both beavers closely, we see that images, depending on how they are rendered and reproduced, are often more than what they appear.

Advertisement with black text on beige paper and an illustration of a beaver with the initials S.P.A. on its back


Figure 3
Advertisement with an illustration of a beaver on a decorative background of various green plants, especially ferns, and purple and red flowers. Roots logo in brown at bottom on black background.


Figure 4

Figure 3: Advertisement for volunteers for the Sportsmen's Patriotic Association and the care of returning soldiers, 1915?

Figure 4: Advertisement by Heather Cooper for Roots Canada Ltd.

Letterpress printers worked hard to overcome the limitations of their technology. The poster announcing a "Grande assemblée" for the Honourable Ernest Bertrand uses many different type styles at once, trying to catch our eye despite the lack of pictures. Because early images had to be individually cut into wood or metal, at great time and expense, they were used only for important subjects. When a Mohawk Methodist church was burned down in December 1875, illustrations of the scene both before and after the fire were produced within a week, resulting in this "Oka Outrage" poster. This is really a form of photojournalism, only without the help of fast cameras and photographic reproduction.

Broadside, black text in different sizes and fonts on brown paper. The top half of the page is in French, the lower half is in English.


Figure 5
Broadside, black text in different sizes and fonts on light-brown paper, with two images: a church between two buildings in one, and an empty lot where the church once stood in the other


Figure 6

Figure 5: Bilingual notice for town meeting in support of the Honourable Ernest Bertrand, Minister of Fisheries, 1945?

Figure 6: Meeting notice to be held in Montréal to discuss the tearing down of a Methodist Church in Oka which occurred on December 8, 1875

Sometimes the level of ornamentation on early posters could be quite elaborate, as the border and main lettering on this notice for Russell's Hotel shows us. Such decorative uses of type were lovingly preserved and studied for generations afterward. The designers at the Cooper & Beatty typesetting firm reproduced a selection of vintage wine labels, displayed photographically on this poster from the 1970s.

Advertisement, black text in different sizes and fonts on blue-grey paper. Title at top with decorative border around paper's edges.


Figure 7
Colour poster of a variety of wine labels on a black backgournd. Title in white on black background at bottom


Figure 8

Figure 7: Advertisement for Russell's Hotel, Palace Street, Québec

Figure 8: Advertisement displaying vintage wine labels, reproduced by the Cooper & Beatty typesetting firm

Once lithography was developed, artists could draw an image by hand in colour on a stone and use it to print detailed posters. The Grenville Brewery in Prescott, Ontario, thought that a grand view of its factory would help sell its ale. Nowadays, modern advertisers usually choose to show you their product or better yet, attractive people using it.

The next huge step in the art of the poster came with the arrival of technology to reproduce photographs. The Canadian Illustrated News was so excited by the upcoming visit of Prince Arthur (Queen Victoria's son) to Montréal in 1869 that it developed and used a new technology just to capture the event. The halftone, then known as the Leggotype (after its co-inventor William Leggo), was revolutionary: for the first time, photographs (an invention that at this time was about 40 years old) could be transferred directly to printing plates. This greatly expanded the ability of posters to communicate. In later years, further innovations would see colour photography reproduced as well.

Colour poster with illustration of a brewery next to a dock. Boats are on the river, workers and horse-drawn wagons are on the bank. Brewery name and names of proprietors are at top-left.


Figure 9
Print in black on white paper featuring a likeness of His Royal Highness Prince Arthur


Figure 10
Family portrait, left-to-right: Queen Elizabeth in a lavender dress and pearl necklace, King George VI in suit and tie, Princess Elizabeth in a light blue dress. In front, Princess Margaret Rose sits on her father's knee in a pale pink dress.


Figure 11

Figure 9: Advertisement for the Grenville Brewerey in Prescott, Ontario

Figure 10: Leggotype print of His Royal Highness Prince Arthur, Canadian Illustrated News, Vol. I, Oct. 30, 1869, p. 1

Figure 11: Colour portrait of the Royal Family featuring King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, and the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, ca. 1935

Posters employ more than mechanical technologies, however. The different styles at play in rendering typography and images are also a form of social technology. Compare the feeling and intent we can read from the "objective" photograph on Joseph R. "Joey" Smallwood's campaign poster, with our impression from Theo Dimson's greatly simplified (and some might say glorified) illustration for a theatre production. The powerful, expressionist directness of Mayo's movie poster for Coal Face seems far removed from the subtle and musical style Ken Dallison uses for the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Athletes leap accompanied by a symphony of dynamic but harmonious colour, while dancers crouch in a dense, obscure thicket. Abstract shapes have long provided a stand-in for sound, from the repeated curves of the number "9" to evoke Beethoven's great symphony, to the visual invention of Neville Smith's treatise on sound (later revived as a promotion for an Ottawa gift shop, named Folio). From an expressive caricature of a Quebec playwright looming over the playhouse, to more concrete, objective forms drawn from science, the design of posters creates new visual tools, altering our very understanding of the meaning of form along the way.

Poster with a black-and-white photographic portrait of Smallwood in glasses, suit and bow tie on a red background. The words VOTE LIBERAL in white on red background at top, JOSEPH R. SMALLWOOD in white on black background at bottom


Figure 12
Poster with an illustration of Joseph R. Smallwood with a lavender face, wearing black glasses and a purple bow tie. A gold circle is behind his head on a black background. Title and text at bottom


Figure 13
Poster depicting a coal miner holding a jackhammer, in black, white and grey. Title at bottom


Figure 14
Colour poster featuring sketches of symphony musicians and their instruments on a beige background with white musical notes. Title at the top


Figure 15
Colour poster of three dancing women emerging from a background of coloured brush strokes. Title and text at bottom


Figure 16
Poster of a large white number 9 on a red background. Text in white and black


Figure 17
Colour poster with an illustration of a grinning face with exaggerated eyes, red lips and teeth resembling piano keys. Title along the edge and bottom


Figure 18
Colour poster depicting a green head with black Afro rising up behind rows of blue theatre seats. Title at top in red, text at bottom in green


Figure 19
Colour poster with an illustration of two basketball players in red on a background of swooping bands of various colours. One player is jumping up to shoot, the other is blocking. Title at bottom in white


Figure 20
Poster of a blue globe on a green background with text in orange, black and white


Figure 21

Figure 12: Campaign poster of Joseph R. Smallwood, the Newfoundland Liberal Party

Figure 13: Advertisement for the play Joey  -- or "God Created Man But I Created Newfoundland," Toronto Workshop Productions, Rising Tide Theatre, Toronto, January 12, 1982

Figure 14: Advertisement for the film Coal Face: Canada Carries On, produced by the National Film Board

Figure 15: Advertisement for the National Arts Centre Orchestra, Mario Bernardi conductor

Figure 16: Advertisment for subscriptions to the 92 - 93 Dance Series, National Arts Centre

Figure 17: Advertisement for Beethoven's 9th Symphony, performed by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, December 14, 1980

Figure 18: Advertisement for the Folio gift shop, designed by Neville Smith, Ottawa

Figure 19: Advertisement for singer Robert Charlebois, designed by Vittorio Fiorucci, 1969

Figure 20: Advertisement for basketball, Ministère de l'Éducation, Governement du Québec

Figure 21: Advertisement for an exhibition of students' projects from international schools of industrial design, April 28 to October 27, 1967

Developments in printing technology have had an enormous impact on the form-and power-of the poster. A vast array of visual techniques, developed throughout the long history of the poster, has emerged in response to our seemingly infinite need to communicate. And this has helped produce a separate technology: the set of visual effects and possibilities that are the tools of contemporary design itself.

Professor Brian Donnelly
Sheridan Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning
York University
Sheridan Institute Joint Program in Design

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