The American born McKnight Kauffer was the most celebrated poster artist working in Britain in the inter-war years. Although renowned for his stylized modernist posters he was also capable of showing a light touch when portraying rural scenes in his printed work. This poster, one of a pair of woodland landscapes, was produced for his major client, London Transport—the company logo, the ‘roundel’, can just be made out at the lower right of the image. These two posters were displayed in close proximity to one another outside entrances to Underground stations. A third ‘poster’, bearing a text message that gave information on how to reach a specific country destination by Green Line bus (part of the London Transport network), was placed between the two.
The actual scene is based on the beech woods set in the Chiltern Hills behind Kauffer’s weekend country house. At this time skilled craftsmen, known as bodgers, worked in these woods turning chair legs and spindles to supply the chair-making industry in nearby High Wycombe, home to such famous furniture manufacturers as Ercol, G-Plan and Parker Knoll. The main residence for McKnight Kauffer and his partner, the textile designer Marion Dorn (they married in 1950), was a modernist studio apartment in London’s Chelsea district, but in the late 1930s they sought a country retreat, which they found in the Buckinghamshire village of Northend. Kauffer regularly walked in the woods and fields behind the house recording scenes, with a Rollieflex camera, for his album and as reference material for future design projects.
A year after he produced this poster World War II broke out and, as an American citizen, Kauffer was soon forced to return to his native country. Amongst the friends he made in New York was the poet Marianne Moore. He often regaled Moore with stories of his beloved house in England and the wooded countryside. Moore paid him the compliment of repeating one of his stories to form part of her 1950 poem Icosasphere.
I was asked to choose one McKnight Kauffer piece from the extensive collection in the Cooper-Hewitt archive. One of the reasons I chose to write about this poster is because I live nearby and regularly walk my dog through these same beech woods. The other reason is that I think it is a magnificent poster in which he captures the quality of light and exact colours of fallen leaves and trees against a faded blue skyline.
Dr Graham Twemlow, whose Doctorate thesis focused on an investigation into the posters of E. McKnight Kauffer, is an academic and design historian.