Theatre posters – an illustrated history

Early theatre posters
During the Middle Ages, plays had been announced by processions of the performers themselves, sometimes accompanied by vexillators (people carrying banners to announce a play). Town-criers also announced performances, with actors beating drums or playing other instruments. For those who could read, brief hand-written details of performances were handed out and stuck to posts in towns, giving rise to the word 'poster', but the quickest way of attracting a crowd at that time was by word of mouth, and the sound of the drum and trumpet.

The first public theatre in England opened in London in 1576. Performances at the early theatres were announced by the distribution of handbills (small flyers circulated by hand), a drum procession through the streets, and by a flag hoisted at the theatre where the performance was taking place. Just before the start of a play, three trumpet calls were given at the theatre.

Playbill for Barnes and Finley's booth, Smithfield Fair, 1701, unknown designer, England. Museum no. TM HRB Q.2, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The earliest playbills – posters or programmes advertising plays – measured about 17.5 x 7.5 cms (7" x 3"). These were largely hand-written, though we know that some were printed by 1587, when a printer was granted a licence for 'the only ympryntinge of all manner of bills for players'. In Ben Jonson's play Bartholomew Fair (1614), two characters enter with playbills announcing a puppet play.

Theatre was banned in England in 1642 during a period of religious and political upheaval, but after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the practice of hoisting a flag at theatres to announce plays resumed, as did the distribution and posting of hand-written playbills, especially in the countryside. Small, printed playbills, giving brief details of the play, its title, date and starting time, were produced on hand-made rag paper, by the printing process called letterpress.

Left to right: Theatre Royal playbill for William Shakespeare's 'Cymbeline' at the Covent Garden Theatre, 5 May 1779, unknown, England. Museum no. S.1-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Playbill advertising 'The Maid's Tragedy' at The Theatre Royal Drury Lane, 1704, unknown, England. Museum no. S.118-1997. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1672, a French theatre company visited London with larger format posters, printed not only in black, but more expensive red ink. By the end of the century, London theatres produced similar posters or 'Great Bills', despite their extra cost, as well as the smaller ones. Gradually more information about the performances appeared on both sizes of poster, and the smaller ones were distributed in the streets and delivered to the homes of regular play-goers. Actors' names began to appear, and some even complained if their names didn't feature in large enough letters.

Poster for Pidcock's Menagerie, engraved by Thomas Bewick, 1795, England. Museum no. S.516-1996. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Theatre posters in the 19th century
In the 19th century, circuses and menageries (animal shows) led the way in pictorial advertising, because the acts and animals lent themselves to illustration. Pictures of exciting circus acts also attracted the attention of potential audience members who couldn't read. Town-criers were also still used to announce performances, with actors beating drums or playing other instruments.

Poster for Hughes' Circus, printed by J. W. Peel, about 1846, England. Museum no. S.3776-1995. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The invention of the first machine that could manufacture paper in continuous sheets meant that paper-making costs dropped dramatically, and circuses began to add woodcut, or wood-engraved images to their posters. Iron presses were introduced after 1800, followed by steam-powered presses but although these were much faster, they were expensive to install. As late as 1850, mechanised presses were considered a novelty, and those who had them noted proudly on their posters that they were printed with a steam press. These presses only printed the text, however, and images still had to be added separately.

Poster for 'The Siege of Troy or The Giant Horse of Sinon', printed by Thomas Romney, England, 1833. Museum no. S.2-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Poster for 'The Final Masquerade' at Vauxhall Gardens, 8 September, 1859, printed by W. S. Johnson, England. Museum no. S.3-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

With the invention of lithographic printing in 1851, theatre managers saw that they could create coloured illustrations to advertise their productions. They also realised that detailed cast-lists were superfluous information on posters, and some managers began producing separate programmes to give out when patrons reached the theatre. As theatres gradually moved from programmes that changed nightly to longer runs, the production of both programmes and posters became more viable.

The earliest colour lithograph posters of the 1860s were small, but they gradually increased in size. Towards the end of the century the influence of great French poster artists, such as Jules Chèret and Henri de Toulouse Lautrec helped transform poster design into art form, as well as an indispensable form of advertising. Commercial poster hoardings were introduced and people marvelled at the large, coloured pictures on the streets.

Poster for Oswald Allan's pantomime 'A Frog He Would a-Wooing Go' at the Marylebone Theatre, 24 December, 1875, printed by Williams & Strahan, England. Museum no. S.598-1996. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Theatre posters in the 20th and 21st centuries
Poster advertising was so important at the turn of the century that printers introduced stock posters, with images that suited the most popular plays or pantomimes. A manager would buy these ready made and add the text, without the expense of producing his own posters. By 1900 huge, coloured theatre advertisements appeared on the streets, comprising many sheets, posted like a jigsaw to make one huge picture. One poster for an Adelphi Theatre melodrama was made up of 56 separate sheets, printed in 28 colours.

Left to right: Poster for 'Eightpence a Mile' at the Alhambra Theatre, May 1913, designed by Georges Kugelmann Benda, England. Museum no. S.772-1982. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Poster for 'Babes in the Wood', printed by David Allen & Sons Ltd., 1902, England. Museum no. S.1122-1995. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The early 20th century brought technological advances in poster production, such as silk-screen printing and mechanised lithography. As the century progressed, however, the flamboyance of posters decreased. The two World Wars affected poster production in Britain, and by the middle of the century typographical posters were the most common. It wasn't until the 1960s that imaginative poster art really began to flourish again, fostered by the Pop Art movement, which used screen printing extensively to produce colourful posters.

Left to right: Variety poster for the Shepherds Bush Empire, 22 October, 1951, printed by Tribe Brothers Ltd, UK. Museum no. S.118-2002. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Poster for Natalia Ginzburg’s ’The Advertisement’ at the National Theatre, September 1968, unknown designer, England. Museum no. S.1561-1995. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Poster for Ronald Millar’s ‘They Don't Grow On Trees’, Prince of Wales Theatre, 1968, designed by Russell/James Associates, UK. Museum no. S.3342-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Left to right: Poster advertising the fourth year of ‘Hair’ at Shaftesbury Theatre, 1968, designer unknown, UK. Museum no. S.4106-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Poster advertising ‘The Four Musketeers!’, Drury Lane Theatre, 1967, printed by Electric Modern Printing Co. Ltd, UK. Museum no. S.2427-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Poster advertising ‘The Happy Apple’ at Apollo Theatre, 1970, designed by Russell/James Associates, UK. Museum no. S.450-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the 1970s poster artists experimented with photography and photomontage, but the poster was in competition with other forms of advertising, including flyers, leaflets, press, radio and television. Increasingly too, West End theatre posters were produced by marketing agencies who incorporated poster design with a wider merchandising campaign, usually revolving around one iconic image, such as cats' eyes for the musical Cats, or the mask for The Phantom of the Opera.

Poster for Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'The Phantom of the Opera', designed and printed by Dewynters Ltd.,1987, England. Museum no. S.2750-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Today, posters may no longer be the major form of theatre advertising but they are still an essential part of any marketing strategy for a production. Designers are increasingly aware of the importance of finding the right imagery to entice people to the theatre – a challenge which is harder now than it was over 400 years ago, when the earliest posters hit the posts.

Left to right: Poster for Kenneth Lonergan's 'This Is Our Youth' by at the Garrick Theatre, April 2002, designed and printed by Dewynters Ltd, England. Museum no. S.43-2003. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Poster for Alan Ayckbourn's 'Relatively Speaking' at the Wyndham's Theatre, May – August 2013, designer unknown, UK. Museum no. S.110-2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Find out more about the history of posters.
Find out more about printing techniques.

Background image: Babes in the Wood, poster, printed by David Allen & Sons Ltd., 1902, England. Museum no. S.1122-1995. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London