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11 Nov 2020

A student’s view: a poster from 1920

Written by Esme Allen, Social Science Undergraduate, Glasgow Caledonian University
A poster designed to raise funding for the Scottish National War Memorial during the First World War shows a Scottish soldier in traditional kilt dress standing over a stone cross, marking the grave site of a fallen comrade. A rifle is positioned over his left shoulder and he holds a Brodie helmet by his right-hand side. The cross is marked with a tammy hat – a traditional flat bonnet worn in Scotland.
Fundraising poster for the Scottish National War Memorial by Tom Curr (c1920)
I have picked these posters because they relate to the First World War, which I’m currently studying in my history module. I enjoy observing history through poster advertisements that circulate after global disasters and times of social stress, particularly to understand how they aim to strike an emotional chord with viewers.

There are actually two posters in the Trust’s collection at Kellie Castle that were designed to promote funding for a Scottish National War Memorial after the First World War.

In the first poster, a Scottish soldier in traditional kilt dress stands over a stone cross, marking the grave site of a fallen comrade. A rifle is positioned over his left shoulder and he holds a Brodie helmet by his right-hand side. The cross is marked with a tammy hat – a traditional flat bonnet worn in Scotland.

The second poster depicts a prospective image of the war memorial after construction. A tall circular building stands behind a long, low-lying building. The sky is painted with sweeping white and blue streaks, while a stream of light hits the length of the buildings.

A poster designed to raise funding for the Scottish National War Memorial during the First World War depicts a prospecting image of the war memorial after construction. A tall circular building - like a castle tower - stands behind a long, low-lying building. The sky is painted with sweeping white and blue streaks while a stream of light hits the length of the buildings.
Second fundraising poster for a Scottish National War Memorial, showing what the building will look like

In this article, I will focus on the first poster with the solider and cross, which is adapted from a painting by Tom Curr.

The painting

This poster was inspired by a painting by Thomas Baillie Curr (1887–1958). Curr was a Scottish commercial artist, who spent his later years working at McLagan & Cumming, a renowned printing firm in Edinburgh. If you look closely at the poster, you can see his name, and that of the firm, noted below the soldier. Curr’s painting was made into a poster to inform the public about the Scottish National War Memorial and to boost fundraising for the costly project.

A painting shows a Scottish soldier in traditional kilt dress standing over a stone cross, marking the grave site of a fallen comrade. A rifle is positioned over his left shoulder and he holds a Brodie helmet by his right-hand side. The cross is marked with a tammy hat – a traditional flat bonnet worn in Scotland.
Tom Curr, Highland Solider with Cross, c1914–18. © National Museum of Scotland

The painting was completed with gouache watercolour, which is commonly known as ‘designer’s paint’ because of its extensive use in the design world – most particularly for illustrations and advertisements. Gouache was used in Europe as early as the 14th century, and being relatively inexpensive to produce ensured its continued popularity.

If we compare Curr's painting to his poster version, the red tones in the original have been replaced with blue/grey tones. It’s mentioned briefly in a history of printing post on Wikipedia, that ‘cheaper prints could be produced by simplifying both the number of colours used, and the refinement of the detail in the image’. So, was the change to blue tones in the poster simply a method of saving money (it would have been less expensive to use only black, yellow and blue ink), or was there a deeper meaning to this colour change?

The poster

Use of muted blue and grey colours dull the overarching mood, creating a sombre and reflective piece. The poster of the soldier at the cross has elements of an asymmetrical design that ensures it’s easy to understand at first glance. On the right, the larger image of the soldier stands at the highest point. The smaller cross, on the bottom left, is accompanied by text directly above reading ‘In Memory of the Fallen Jocks’. These design elements create an equal balance in this poster and promote a cohesiveness of message that satisfies the viewer. To me, balance is so important in the design of a poster, advertisement or promotion. If you can take away a message without stopping to observe, it means the picture has successfully grabbed your attention.

Back to the choice of colour scheme in Curr’s poster, the melancholic blues in the background contrast with the use of warm highlights. This draws the viewer’s eyes towards the human figure. He is a symbol of ‘every man’, representing all Scottish sons, brothers and fathers who lost their lives to war and violence. Notice how he is raised on a hill with his head tilting downwards towards the cross. The bow of the man’s head suggests he is mourning or praying – similar to the actions of many others who grieve for their loved ones. Warm light brushes over the soldier’s face and torso, giving him a peaceful and welcoming persona. The smart uniform, symbolising self-respect and pride, reminds us where he came from – the front line.

Historical context

The year is 1918.

Celebratory bells chime as feet shuffle over damp pavements. Britain is rewarded with victory, but still Scottish people suffer.

Brothers, fathers and sons who bravely fought and defended their country now laid at rest in unmarked graves. Families never reunited; last words and wishes never spoken.

Among the pain, anger and helplessness, there was an outcry to preserve a Scottish way of life that had been lost. At this point in history, a second threat had invaded Scotland – Spanish flu.

The deadly influenza pandemic was responsible for the deaths of approximately 50 million people across the world. In terms of Scotland, the Registrar General for Scotland reported that in 1918 there were ‘78,372 deaths (39,144 male and 39,228 female)’.

This pandemic was so destructive because there seemed to be no prospect of finding a possible cure; it must have felt like the world was ending.

WW1 poster showing 3 nurses. Underneath it says: VAD, nursing members, cooks, kitchen-maids, clerks, house-maids, ward-maids, laundresses, motor-drivers, etc are urgently needed.
1918 Poster entitled: Spanish flu: The British Red Cross work in the face of a global pandemic. © British Red Cross

There was a high demand for nurses to aid with the influx of illnesses as well as casualties from the war, and the International Committee of the Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) released a recruitment poster. Instantly mirroring Curr’s image, we can see that people have been used in this poster, proudly standing in formation to represent their role and duty (just like the soldier). Warm highlights are echoed in the red colour of the universally recognised symbol of the Red Cross – indicating protection and neutrality.

In 2020, we can relate to the Spanish flu because of how the COVID-19 pandemic continues to construct economic, political and social challenges, which are breaking down our society. The Spanish flu and the First World War meant Scotland faced an exponentially higher mortality rate in 1918 than we’re seeing in 2020 from COVID-19, but this makes our current times no less heartbreaking.

The memorial

The scale of loss for Scotland before 1918 meant that there were already demands for fallen troops to be commemorated. Some key players in the initial vision of the memorial were the 8th Duke of Atholl – who is mentioned in the banner on the poster – and Captain S C Swinton. Accompanied by a committee, in 1918 plans were made to start fundraising for the building costs. According to the official Scottish National War Memorial website, the total cost for the entire project would reach £250,000. This would equate to over £14 million in today’s money. Fundraising was essential and, as well as street posters like Curr’s, other methods of raising awareness such as selling commemorative penny stamps were embraced by the memorial committee – in this case, every penny counted!

Research

During my research into Tom Curr’s painting, I was heartbroken by the image. I took time to inspect every detail from the paint texture, through to the expression on the soldier’s face.

Although there wasn’t much information on the poster itself, I spent time looking at other posters used throughout history – during the Spanish influenza and, more recently, for the COVID-19 pandemic. I started to appreciate similar design elements that were used to achieve the same emotional reaction from the public.

One poster, distributed by the NHS and UK government, emphasises the importance of maintaining social guidelines, wearing face coverings and protecting others.

An NHS poster with a person in a full face visor and face mask. The postr says: Coronavirus, stay home to help us save lives. Act like you've got it, anyone can spread it. Stay home; protect the NHS; save lives.
2020 NHS/UK government poster ‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’

Bold white text clearly identifies what the poster is promoting. The primary colours, red and yellow, are used to highlight important features at the base of the poster, in a banner that looks like police tape. The yellow and red banner is an effective design because people will immediately associate it with warning signs found in buildings and streets.

The familiar image of a human is used so viewers can connect with the poster on a personal level, just like the soldier in Curr’s poster. The same triangle formation can be seen in the three faces, and suggests alliance and strength – a message all these advertisements have in common. Seeing this made analysing the Scottish National War Memorial poster easier, because I could relate to this contemporary poster marking a significant time of national stress.

Why is history important?

As I write this, I’m a 19-year-old student living in Glasgow – one of the current ‘hotspots’ of COVID-19 cases. Both destructive and uniting, the COVID-19 pandemic is, and will always remain, a great tragedy in world history and – for me personally – a defining part of the formation of my early adulthood.

As 2020 Remembrance Day falls in the midst of a global pandemic, it’s important – more than ever – to be aware of the past.

History is important to me, because I would struggle to approach questions that arise within my interdisciplinary social science degree without it. Although I’m relatively new to studying history, I realise that the subject involves the examination and review of changing civilisations and societies throughout time. By deconstructing the past we can analyse current questions and debates.

As I have worked through this project, I now recognise the importance of observing the history of human experience, as it can enhance our cultural and social understanding of where we are today. Looking at Curr’s poster, the VAD promotional advert and the COVID-19 information banner, I have found one uniting concept – in times of disaster, posters can call and connect to viewers, asking them to respond on an emotional level and recognise the power of individuals to create unity.

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