Postcards from the Bamforth Company
“A dirty joke is not, of course, a serious attack on morality but … a sort of mental rebellion.”
George Orwell; The Art of Donald McGill.
Horrid marriages, drunkenness, cross-dressing, vomiting: what we call the English sense of humour. The Bamforth Company is, (or was: as of only recent times it no longer exists) famous for its ‘saucy’ seaside postcards. From the 1940s onwards they invariably featured a guileless girl with huge breasts and a middle-aged man terrified of sex. Before the drawn cards came out however, around 1903 Yorkshire photographer James Bamforth began producing real photo postcards that were described as comic but they were stranger than that.
Bamforth was born in 1842 in Holmfirth, a small mill town in the Pennines, and started his artistic career producing lantern slides for public lectures. Most of these lectures were of a religious or temperance bent, what we imagine went hand in hand with a dour, severe outlook on life. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes him as a ‘staunch conservative’ (Conservatives are always described as ‘staunch’) and a supporter of tariff reform, which identified him as a man thoroughly opposed to foreign imports. To think that way in the 1880s meant you backed the Empire to the hilt and liberal ‘laissez-faire’ economics – what today we call the ‘free-market’ – would be the downfall of Britain. Naturally, Socialism, trade unions and suffragettes were also threats to economic stability.
He is most famous as a pioneer of cinema. One of the curious things about Britain’s early cinema is how Yorkshire became a centre for all the innovative work. London scarcely features in the story; the real pioneers were often out in small industrial towns and they were likely to be engineers rather than artists or photographers. Bamforth was a commercial painter and it was that skill he brought to lantern slides, creating elaborate sets that were built outdoors and where members of his family and friends acted in tableaux of biblical scenes. By 1898, only three years after the Lumiere brothers showed their first film, he was producing cinematic shorts. Bamforth is sometimes credited with being the first to use the editing technique of cutting away mid-scene to show a bystander’s expression. The humour is slapstick, more interesting historically than for their content, and some can be found on YouTube by searching for Bamforth.
The cinematic influence is all over these cards. The scenes are dynamic and a lot were photographed as though they were stills from films. Bamforth was also a pioneer of the song card. Parlour songs, which as the same suggests were meant to be sung together in a drawing room while someone hammered at the piano, became popular in the mid 1850s. The lyrics are usually trite and sentimental but they are a gold mine for social historians looking for attitudes to everything from drink to adultery and death. Bamforth’s idea was to print out each verse on a card with an accompanying photo. This was smart. Not only would people buy three cards instead of one, the photos encouraged them to collect sets and because they were postcards customers could mail them around the world.
Here we have a fairly moderate example of Bamforth humour set in a shop selling song sheets. Of course everything in the scene is constructed but given no one buys song sheets anymore, we get an idea of what the business was like when people would wait for the latest hit to make its appearance as a score with lyrics. In the early 1900s Francis, Day and Hunter was the largest music publisher in Britain. In a few years it would join up with the American publisher T. B. Harms and in the 1920s the U.S Justice Department’s anti-trust department would sue them because they controlled over 80% of the music publishing market and threatened to monopolize it.
Bamforth postcards are also a mine for social historians, though it can take a bit of searching to realize it. Today “passive resistance” is just one form of political action open to us and often Ghandi is erroneously credited with the idea. In 1900s Britain, a passive resister distinctly meant either a suffragette or a trade unionist who used the tactic of chaining themselves to fences. Anyone looking at this card then would have got that connection at once.
The Art of Donald McGill was an essay George Orwell wrote in 1941 where he took the seaside postcard artist’s work seriously as an insight into English character. (No self-respecting art critic would have gone near the stuff.) McGill, who counted the Bamforth Company as one of his publishers, started out producing drawn scenes with, to us, tame double entendres but by the Second World War his cards featured anatomically incredible women and blatant innuendos. Reading Orwell’s essay, especially when he provides a breakdown of the types of jokes, you could run a pencil through McGill and add Bamforth. “Marriage only benefits the woman”; check. “Sex appeal vanishes at about the age of twenty five”; check. “There is no such thing as a happy marriage”; check. “Drunkenness is something peculiar to middle aged men; check. Policemen are fools, lawyers sharks and women rule the home. We could add a couple more. Work is something working class men go out of their way to avoid, and wealthy men are either sinister or stupid. Orwell points out that McGill’s cards aren’t “intended as pornography but, a subtler thing, as a skit on pornography … Caricatures of the English man’s secret ideal, not portraits of it”. His essay incidentally appeared roughly midway between the last Bamforth photo cards and the high point of the Carry On films in the 1960s. Obviously, British society didn’t evolve; it just grew older.
One subject McGill never broached but was a staple of Bamforth cards was childhood. When it comes to poverty and death especially, we’re not just looking at a lost world but an utterly foreign one as well. The syrupy mawkishness seems macabre today and if it’s easy to say that the infant mortality rate was high enough to create a kind of inurement to death, it’s worth remembering that in the 1850s the rate in some industrial towns was in the vicinity of one in three children dying before their first birthday but by the turn of the century that had improved dramatically. These cards aren’t a social comment on England. Rather, they reflect a particularly stern religious view. It wasn’t for children to question God’s will but accept whatever he dished out with gratitude.
This card seems almost ghoulish. The lines are from The Better Land by Felicia Hemans. She was a friend of Wordsworth and Walter Scott and apparently a popular poet in her day. The Better Land was one of her best known though these lines are enough to suggest it is also best forgotten. Imagine telling a five year old on her sick bed not to worry because she’ll soon be in a better place. And yes, young as she is, the girl in this photo knows enough to recognize a maniac when she sees one.
This one on the other hand may have originated as a lantern slide for one of Bamforth’s lectures. There are records of this poem appearing on a series of lantern slides. Get the last line. Mother is dead and “make father love us more than gin and beer”. How sad. This, in a nutshell, is what the temperance movement started off being about. Mothers were dying in childbirth and fathers did turn to drink and neglect their children. It didn’t take advanced mathematics to see the connection between the number of children on the streets and in workhouses and the social erosion brought on by alcohol, but the logic was askew. Drink wasn’t the real devil. In a world of rigid social stratification, where basic hygiene let alone healthcare was denied to the poor, of course mothers died and fathers found the pressure too much to bear. The real problem with the temperance movement wasn’t that it was a collection of prudes and wowsers but their understanding and solutions to social problems were so simplistic they could only perpetuate the situation. Amazingly, there are still people who believe that if we only gave up drinking and listened to Jesus we wouldn’t need government funded health care.
But enough of suffering children. Bamforth’s postcards really come into their own when they turn to the subject of marriage. Orwell pointed out that at the heart of McGill’s images was the absolute faith in marriage as the most important and exciting thing that could happen to a person, which was why he (McGill, but also Bamforth) could make such fun of it. But sometimes the original joke gets lost. This is one about the horrors of marriage, but I see two men. One of them is wearing women’s clothes and he’s about to shove an umbrella up the other’s bum. This isn’t just funny; it’s really weird.
And this one. Again the basic message is fairly explicit. He’s been hard at work cleaning the house and she has just come home. Note the role reversals. This might have carried a hidden warning about the danger the suffragettes posed. Give women the vote and before you know it they won’t just be running the household but the nation’s economy. Perhaps that was something to worry about back then, but the real question is; why is he holding a doll?
Here we have a typical policeman. Instead of keeping the streets safe, he’s off in the park meeting his sweetheart. She’s a nanny. No doubt they have carefully planned this assignation. They probably keep to it every afternoon at 3:30. But look at the next card …
Isn’t this just a little grotesque? While the two natural forces of social responsibility, the policeman and the nanny, are off looking at the gardenias, the tramp has turned up; to do what exactly?
Here’s another piece of strangeness. The man is clearly German; he wears that internationally recognized sign of the German, the monocle. This postcard is copyrighted 1907, too early for it to be war propaganda but it does show how much Germany was considered a threat even then. In 1903 Erskine Childers had published The Riddle of the Sands, a thriller based on the premise that war with Germany was imminent. Presumably Childers wasn’t the only one to think this at the time, hence it was acceptable to make fun of the Germans. Politically, Childers, an Irish republican, represented all that Bamforth abhorred. They differed on Germany as well. Childers thought the country was a threat; Bamforth thought it was a joke.
The Bamforth Company took hundreds of photos and released millions of postcards on the world, which means they are commonplace, easy to find and still quite cheap, but look beyond the content, to the production of the images. Technically they are often brilliant; expertly staged, composed, lit, photographed and printed. The sets are often elaborate and though we see the same backgrounds appearing frequently, that doesn’t detract from them. Even this scene, which belongs more to religious kitsch than art photography, is still an artful production. Too many photo-historians looking at this era fuss over the old and tired question of Pictorialism V Modernism, as though that was all that was happening. Bamforth’s photo postcards are much more interesting than that.
|CARRY ON ENGLAND|