Saucy seaside postcards might look a bit tame these days when compared to today’s pop culture references (Miley Cyrus’ twerking and sledgehammer licking antics, anyone?) but, back in the 1950s, the tongue-in-cheek images produced by artist Donald McGill were seen as risque and even borderline offensive. Most of the British public – readily stereotyped as sexually repressed and a bit dull – couldn’t get enough of his work and they lapped up the puns, however the heavy-handed censors of the 1950s weren’t far behind.
My visit to the Isle of Wight last month allowed me to step into the fascinating world of the Donald McGill Museum in Ryde, owned by James Bissell-Thomas, who had clearly dedicated a lot of time and energy into making this attraction as educational and entertaining as possible. It opened in 2010 and has been going strong ever since (the Daily Telegraph has a great piece on the opening, including an interview with James, if you’re interested in learning about the museum’s origins).
The artist’s creative output, which had been splashed on the walls, ceilings and inside the life-size reproduction of a police van, is nothing if not diverse; early pieces, with sensitive painterly qualities and featuring slender ladies or patriotic troops off to the battlefields of WWI, sit close to later cartoons, where the women have become red-cheeked and buxom and the men are like rabbits caught in headlights. In between those two extremes, I found some brilliant surrealist postcards, a style I’d never seen him cover before. Clearly he was a man of many talents.
McGill was surely the master of the double-entendre and the king of wordplay, however his love of hidden meanings in the text and images he created meant that he was left vulnerable when Britain’s Conservative government decided to crack down on offensive published material. They used the rather antiquated 1857 Obscene Publications Act as a basis for their witch-hunt, leading to the establishing of Watch Committees in seaside towns, as well as a devastating 1954 trial for McGill and his publishers, after which many outlets refused to sell his work. Just six years later, the same Act would be used to bring a case against Penguin for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
This early postcard, poking fun at the actions of the Suffragettes, showed how in touch McGill was with the issues of the day. Evidently, nothing was ever taboo for him, but topics were addressed with humour wherever possible. From 1904 to 1962, he gave us a vision of Britain that may not have been perfect or squeaky clean, but it was heartfelt.
He meant no harm; he just wanted to entertain. It’s worth remembering that a few days’ holiday by the seaside was about as exotic as life got for most Brits back in the 30s, 40s and 50s, and Donald McGill’s work carries some of the escapism and fun that holidaymakers wanted, as well as a good dose of down-to-earth realism that they could relate to. Marital issues, paternity disputes and embarrassing moments? It all happened to them. Making those situations into comedy moments was a stroke of genius, not something that deserved to be snuffed out by censors.
Having explored the museum and delved into its contents, I can safely say there is much more to the saucy postcard than meets the eye, and not just in terms of the double-entendres used. Donald McGill was a bit of a radical and he ruffled the feathers of the Conservative government, but their heavy-handed response and the use of Watch Committees to police the output of postcard artists was a huge blow to McGill and those around him. What’s more, it was destroying a part of the joy felt by holidaymakers during their hard-earned rest at the seaside, something of a ritual to many Brits.
Whether you’re interested in art, censorship or wordplay, there are many reasons to visit this museum, and I urge you to make the trip. McGill’s postcards will certainly bring a smile to your face.
Disclaimer: I visited the Isle of Wight courtesy of Red Funnel ferries. As ever, all views are my own.