A short history of the poster

A rich and accessible art form, our collection of pictoral posters charts global concerns, popular tastes and artistic and technological developments across two centuries.

The process of posting up hand-drawn public notices can be traced back to antiquity. One of the earliest known examples of printed advertising in Britain dates from 1477 – a small dark block of text advertising a handbook for priests in Salisbury, south-west England. The advert was printed by William Caxton, who introduced the printing press to Britain and was the first person in the country to make a living printing and selling books, having opened a shop near Westminster Abbey in 1476. By the 19th century, text-heavy posters printed from woodblocks were commonplace, but the rise of the colourful pictorial poster didn't come about until the middle of the century, following significant advances in printing techniques.

Left to right: The Siege of Troy or The Giant Horse of Sinon, poster, woodcut and letterpress, printed by Thomas Romney, England, 1833. Museum no. S.2-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Jack Sheppard, poster, woodcut and letterpress, printed by S. G. Fairbrother and Son, 1839, England. Museum no. S.2583-1986. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The pioneering French poster artist Jules Chéret (1836 – 1932) is credited with producing the first colour lithograph posters in 1866, having finessed the black and white process invented by Alois Senefelder in 1798. In lithographic printing, the design is drawn in waxy crayon onto a smooth surface, typically limestone blocks (later metal plates) which are then doused with water and covered with an oil-based ink. The waxy drawn areas repel the water and soak up the ink, before being transferred to the paper. Most posters are still printed lithographically with a mechanised offset process, where the image is transferred from a metal plate onto a rubber roller before being printed.

Left to right: Bal du Moulin Rouge, Place Blanche, colour lithograph poster, Jules Chéret, 1889, France. Museum no. E.107-1921. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Quinquina Dubonnet, Apéritif Dans tous les Cafés, colour lithograph poster, Jules Chéret, 1895, France. Museum no. E.2406-1938. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Perfecting large-scale colour printing had eluded artists for decades until Chéret made the breakthrough with a three-stone process and relatively transparent inks. He broke the design down into individual colours, which were drawn onto separate stones, and then overlaid in the printing process. Chéret also incorporated hand-drawn lettering which led to innovative and original typography and a more unified design overall. His posters had a lightness and sense of movement which captivated the public imagination and led to comparisons with decorative painters of the previous century, such as Tiepolo, master of the European Rococo style.

Troupe de Mlle Églantine, colour lithograph poster, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1896, France. Museum no. E.1374-1931. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Other artists shook off these historical comparisons and experimented with more contemporary ways to depict the modern world. Toulouse-Lautrec remains the best-known name from this French heyday of the 'art' poster, although his style – part-caricature, part-realism – was widely criticised at the time.

Bières De La Meuse, colour lithograph poster, Alphonse Mucha, 1897, France. Museum no. E.78-1956. © ADAGP, Paris, and DACS, London 1997

Over the decades that followed, designers from around the world followed suit in experimenting with poster design. The Art Nouveau style, popularised by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, took the poster world by storm and inspired other national variants. The US also had its own Art Nouveau poster artists such as William H. Bradley and Edward Penfield, both very much inspired by the clean and sinuous lines of the British artist Aubrey Beardsley.

Victor Bicycles, colour lithograph poster, William H. Bradley, 1896, US. Museum no. E.414-1921. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Harper's June, chromo lithograph poster, Edward Penfield, 1887, US. Museum no. E.1386-2004. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Gradually, the excessive ornamentation of Art Nouveau was abandoned in favour of more angular Art Deco designs, a style which marvelled at technological innovations such as cruise ships and high-speed trains, as in the work of A.M. Cassandre, Edward McKnight Kauffer and Vera Willoughby, for example.

Left to right: Nord Express, colour lithograph poster, Cassandre, 1927, France. Museum no. E.223-1935. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; General Joy, colour lithograph poster, Vera Willoughby, 1928, UK. Museum no. E.940-1928. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Russian Constructivists revolutionised the poster using photo-montage and bold geometric forms in the 1920s, following the onslaught of poster propaganda that had been generated during the First World War. Their arresting style spread through the Communist world, influencing the poster output of Revolutionary Spain in the 1930s as well as Chinese and Cuban graphic design for several decades.

Left to right: House on a Volcano, photolithograph poster, Raphael Ter, 1928, Russia. Museum no. E.615-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Spanish Civil War colour lithograph poster, José Bardasano, 1937, Spain. Museum no. E.361-2003. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Hanoi Martes 13, screenprint poster, Alfredo Rostgaard, 1967, Cuba. Museum no. E.1975-2004. © Victoria and Albert Museum
The People's Army is the Root of Victory, colour offset lithograph poster, unknown, about 1970, China. Museum no. E.1759-2004. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Many of the lessons learned about the power of the poster during the two World Wars went on to inform the burgeoning advertising industry and, in Britain, the birth of the welfare state. The 1950s saw a boom in illustrative posters as well as a renewed focus on textual posters. The rise of the International Typographic Style, developed in Switzerland, introduced sans-serif fonts characterised by simple geometry and uncluttered clarity.

Left to right: Temple und Tee-haus in Japan, screenprint poster, Armin Hofmann, about 1955, Switzerland. Museum no. E.4-2006. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Henry Moore and Oskar Schlemmer exhibition, screenprint poster, Armin Hofmann, about 1955, Switzerland. Museum no. E.6-2006. © Victoria and Albert Museum

In the 1960s, the motifs and mannerisms of Art Nouveau were recycled to create psychedelic graphics. Groups such as Michael English and Nigel Waymouth's 'Hapshash and the Coloured Coat' experimented with the rich intensity of silkscreen colour, while in America, the San Francisco 'Big Five' psychedelic poster designers (Rick Griffin, Alton Kelley, Victor Moscoso, Stanley Mouse, and Wes Wilson) largely continued with lithography. This visual dynamism was also advanced in Poland in the 1960s and 70s, with a strong school of poster artists designing for cinema and the arts, pulling together distinctive Surrealist elements and a vibrant colour palette.

CIA v UFO, colour screenprint poster, Michael English and Nigel Waymouth, 1967, UK. Museum no. E.1713-1991. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Otis Rush, colour offset lithograph poster, Wes Wilson, 1967, US. Museum no. E.507-2004. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Cyrk, colour lithograph poster, Hubert Hilscher, 1970, Poland. Museum no. E.1084-1976. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the 1980s, artists and activist collectives such as Gran Fury and Keith Haring in the US harnessed the power of the poster as a tool of mass communication and community building to promote awareness during the global AIDS crisis. These posters provide a lens on the varying degrees of tolerance and support at the peak of the crisis, embodying a sense of urgency, and capturing the zeitgeist of 1980s and 90s graphic design.

Act Up, colour screenprint poster, Keith Haring, 1989, US. Museum no. E.82-1996. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Running parallel to this was a trend in commercial advertising towards increasingly controversial imagery. Clothing brand United Colors of Benetton appropriated documentary photographs of AIDS patients on their death-beds and the blood-soaked clothing of Bosnian war victims in order to sell their products. Designed to whip up a media frenzy, these campaigns also played with poster advertising as a platform for confronting political issues and exposing social prejudices.

Man dying of AIDS, colour offset lithograph poster, concept by Oliviero Toscani, photograph by Therese Frare, for United Colors of Benetton, 1992, Italy. Museum no. E.2207-1997. © Oliviero Toscani/United Colors of Benetton

In the digital age, the rise of the internet meme – an image or piece of text that is copied and spread rapidly by internet users – can be seen as the digital descendent of the poster. While the poster no longer dominates today's media environment, it continues to have a powerful impact, perhaps most critically in the realm of politics and activism. Darren Cullen's 2018 poster Great War brings the story full circle by parodying a famous First World War army recruitment poster from 1915, Daddy, What did YOU do in the Great War?. Marking the centenary of the end of the War, Cullen's design critiques the senselessness of warfare and the continued use of emotional blackmail in army recruitment poster campaigns.

Left to right: Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?, colour lithograph poster, Savile Lumley, 1915, England. Museum no. CIRC.466-1969. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Great War, pigment inkjet print, Darren Cullen, made with Veterans for Peace, 2018, UK. Museum no. E.13-2019.

Find out more with our book, The Poster: A Visual History.

Header image:

Victor Bicycles, colour lithograph poster, William H. Bradley, 1896, US. Museum no. E.414-1921. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London