I have been staring at this poster by Gerald Spencer Pryse for a while trying to think what it reminded me of. Obviously Pryse took heavily from Christian art, but the words from Blake’s famous poem also fit well I think.
In his work The Treachery of Images Rene Magritte questioned whether his painting was an actual pipe, or an image of one. When looking for posters to use in the exhibition this Labour example turned up.
Here the pipe is not a pipe it is Harold Wilson. Produced in 1966, such was Wilson’s reputation as the pipe-smoking politician that there was no need to include the then prime-minister name or image. Furthermore, the pipe did not simply stand for Wilson, but also for what Wilson stood for. The pipe was a symbol of trustworthiness, and if the cigar – which Wilson preferred to smoke – was a symbol of wealth and privilege, the pipe was an indication of working class, trade union intellectualism.
Wilson wasn’t the first PM to be symbolised by the pipe. Stanley Baldwin’s name appeared on Presbyterian mixture tobacco and such was Baldwin’s relationship with the evil weed David Low satirised it in his 1923 the “Pipe of prosperity”. Here Baldwin’s pipe is choked by his own protection mix tobacco.
And Low wasn’t the only cartoonist to satirize Baldwin’s pipe smoking ways. Ern Shaw, Hull cartoonist and sometime Labour party poster artist, depicted Baldwin alongside a sleazy Lloyd-George. For Shaw, Stanley’s pipe was a symbol of an outdated, and out of touch politician. Shaw and Low’s interpretation of Baldwin’s pipe smoking was, however, only one view. While some used Baldwin’s seemingly old fashioned smoking habits against him – his rival Ramsay MacDonald smoked the more modern cigarette – Conservative posters played up to the pipe as an icon of solidity and respectability; just as Labour did in 1966. In Smoke Baldwin’s Security Mixture, the Conservative took Baldwin’s endorsement of the Presbyterian mix and used for their own ends, as political imagery mimicked the commercial. In a further 1929 poster Baldwin was captain of the British ship, sucking on his pipe as he set a course for prosperity.
In 1955, a photograph of Clement Attlee – not usually the type to appear in posters – was displayed on the hoardings across Britain. Attlee leans back in his chair, holding his pipe. The poster projected the idea of a genial, trustworthy statesman.
By looking at a single object we can track the temporal shifts in the meaning of symbols. We can come to some understanding about how posters reflect or inject meaning into the most mundane of objects. And one thing is clear, Magritte was correct in stating that it wasn’t a pipe; it was clearly a lot more significant than that.