Gerald Spenser Pryse

Earlier this year I had a phone call from Kiki Werth, a lady who was interested in the Gerald Spenser Pryse posters. I imagine she was a dealer in these, as Kiki said she had had 19 of the 24 posters pass through her hands. This led to some correspondence between us which may be of interest to our members. This is a letter I sent to Kiki in reply to one from her.

            Many thanks for your letter and enclosures, so often people are only too ready to pick your brains and that’s the end of the story. You are obviously like myself, somebody who files things away in case it comes in handy one day. I enjoyed our conversation on Imre Kiralfy and his doings at Earls Court and Shepherds Bush.

            So here’s a little more to go in your Gerald Spencer Pryse file. In addition to the posters a set of 12 perforated gummed labels were published. The labels (or Cinderella’s as they are sometimes called) are not numbered, neither do they have individual titles, only “British Empire Exhibition 1924”. The titles and ‘E’ numbers given are taken from the proofs of the posters in the Victoria & Albert Museum. The sheet has an inscription printed on the bottom selvage reading “These stamps are issued free of charge and further supplies may be obtained on application to the Publicity Department. British Empire Exhibition (1924) Incorporated. 16, Hobart Place London S. W. 1.” in two lines. The labels measure 44 x 39 mm. Line perforation 14¾.

            Although they were originally given free, they are now a very collectable item, as is almost everything to do with the two British Empire Exhibitions at Wembley in 1924 & 1925. This set of 12 would probably sell now for around £250-300. Not quite in the poster class yet, but they do nicely fit on an album page.


1       Burma, Temple dancers. E.25-1925.

2       Arctic Territories, The Polar Bear. E.27-1925.

3       India Frontier States, Balneli riflemen. E.26-1925.

4       British East Africa and Tanganyika Concession, Native bearers. E.23-1925.

5       Australia, Cattle station. E.37-1925

6       Canada, Log rolling. E.24-1925

7       Ceylon, Tamil coolies at work on a tea plantation. E.31-1925

8       South Africa, The Trekking waggon. E.32-1925.                     

9       India, The procession of elephants. E.35-1925.            

10     Australia, Team ploughing. E.30-1925.

11     British Fisheries, Hauling in. E.34-1925.

12     Nigeria, Timber hauliers. E.22-1925.










            Only one complete unbroken pane of 12 is known, but there may well be other complete panes about. Sets of single labels are slightly more common. A single label is known overprinted by the Abbey Sports Co., Ltd. in 1924, with “See the “Abbey” Range at Stand F 221.” which they would have used on correspondence and invoices to advise customers that they were on stand F 221 at the Wembley Exhibition in 1924.

            Two post cards published by R. Johnson & Sons of Newcastle show each end of the interior of the hall of Ford School in Northumberland, and displayed on the walls of the hall are full sized posters of these labels. Judging by the school furniture the posters must have been at least 2ft by 3ft and four different posters can be identified.


On this post card three posters can be identified, Australia Team Ploughing,

South Africa the Trekking Wagon and Arctic Territories the Polar Bear


            The only difference in the posters to the perforated gummed labels is the addition of ‘Open April to October’ under ‘British Empire Exhibition 1924’ and in smaller printing ‘Scenes of Empire’. The post cards are real photographic post cards which means that under a strong glass the printing along the bottom of the posters on the walls, can be clearly read. Something you cannot do with computer scans.

            Dear Bill,

            Here is the article from Apollo Magazine October 1925 about Wembley Exhibition Posters by Spencer Pryse. Of the 24 listed I have never seen 2, 3, 8, 14 & 24. I have had the others at one time or another, and have photos of some of them.

            Best Kiki.


The British Empire Lithographs


Martin Hardie


            At the beginning of the Great War, when official committees were encouraging the output of posters that were undignified in appeal and obnoxious in design and lettering, Mr. Spencer Pryse won the honour of being the first to realise the needs of the time in productions of real artistic merit. He was in Antwerp at the outbreak of war, and was an eye-witness of the tragedy which overtook Belgium. On actual scenes of the evacuation he founded his pathetic lithograph of Belgian refugees struggling to escape from the advancing terror; and for the Belgian Red Cross Fund in London, made his noble poster of “Belgian Refugees in England.” Before he was wounded, and while still on active service, he produced a series of nine lithographs, entitled, “The Autumn Campaign, 1914,” and a powerful recruiting poster, “The Only Road for an Englishman.” Earlier than all this, in 1913, he had made a memorable series of dignified posters for the Labour Party, and with the encouragement of Mr. Frank Pick, that wise and far-sighted advocate of the poster, had done brilliant work for “the poor man’s picture gallery” in the stations and booking-halls of the Underground Railways Company.


Newfoundland Trap fishing for cod

One of Spencer Pryse’s lithograps not published as an advertising label


            All of those who knew Spencer Pryse’s work up to this point heard with enthusiasm that he had been commissioned last year to prepare a series of twenty-four posters for the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. The posters were made; and owing to what misunderstanding, or change of policy, they were never used for their original purpose, need not now be considered. The fact remains that they were not used, and that as the outcome of late litigation in the King’s Bench Division the Exhibition paid damages and costs, handing over to the artist as his own property, so far as the proof edition was concerned, all such lithographs as had not been already destroyed.

            All of this is past history, but it is only fair and right to add that Counsel for the Exhibition Authorities admitted that the failure to use the posters had nothing whatever to do either with their merit or their mode; of execution, and indeed paid a high tribute to the artistic value of the posters in question, stating that “if this case had proceeded, nothing would have fallen from me in any way detrimental or otherwise than complimentary to these particular pictures. We are glad to pay our tribute to the merits of his work.” With so fair and generous withdrawal, those who admired Spencer Pryse’s work and were jealous for his reputation as an artist, could not but be content.

            Five of the lithographic stones were unfortunately destroyed, after a few proofs only were primed. Nineteen scones remain as the property of the artist, and from each of these about 250 proofs have been printed. Specimens of these were shown in a recent exhibition of Mr. Spencer Pryse’s work held at the Alpine Club under the management of the Twenty-one Gallery: and sets have been acquired by the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the University of Wales, the Clarkc University, U.S.A., the Chicago Public Library, the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and other public institutions. A large proportion of the edition is being reserved at a price which does not exceed the original cost of priming in the hope that one or more public benefactors, interested in Empire propaganda, may acquire them for presentation to schools and other public institutions.

            Lord Lasccllcs has generously given a lead by purchasing a number of sets for this laudable purpose. As we shall hope to show, the posters should have permanent value for the forwarding of Empire ideals not only in schools, but in regimental and village institutes, ex-service men’s clubs, and elsewhere, quite apart from the decorative merit which they possess.

            First of all, it may be said that the series of nineteen lithographs practically covers the field of the Empire, though it is an unhappy fact that the five lost, including a New Zealand picture of a Maori canoe and one devoted to the Pacific Islands, were among the most interacting from an aesthetic point of view. The Indian Empire and the Dominions of Canada, Australia, and Africa, enjoy two subjects apiece. The remaining prints, considering their small number, cannot give more than selected images and incidents, bin they are wonderfully comprehensive in their survey, and form significant symbols of the spirit and space and environment in the separate parts and parcels of the Empire.

The list is as follows :—

1.         Nigeria. Timber hauliers.

2.         New Zealand. The Maori canoe.

3.         British East Africa and Tanganyika Concession. Native bearers.

4.         Canada. Log rolling.

5.         Coaling Stations of the Empire. A lighter in tow.

6.         Burma. Temple dancers.

7.         Indian Frontier States. Balneli rifleman.

8.         Pacific Islands. Dancers on the beach.

9.         Arctic Territories. The Polar bear.

10.       Gold Coast. A chief in state.

11.       India. The paddy fields.

12.       Ireland. Girls gathering seaweed to make into kelp.

13.       Australia. Team ploughing.

14.       Ceylon. Tamil coolies at work on a tea plantation.

15.       South Africa. The trekking wagon.

16.       Sudan. The camel caravan.

17.       British Fisheries. Hauling in.

18.       India. The procession of elephants.

19.       Newfoundland. Trap fishing for cod.

20.       Australia. Cattlc station.

21.       West Indies. Fruit gatherers.

22.       New Zealand. Pastoral scene.

23.       Hong Kong. Street scene.

24.       Malay Confederacy. Woman carrying durian.


            In the selection of subjects and in their preparation the representative authorities of the Colonies and Dominions were consulted throughout, and gave valuable advice and assistance. Natives were sent to the artist’s studio; costumes were freely placed at his disposal; and more than one colonial governor visited him to check the exactness of his work while it was still in progress. The lithographs, therefore, are not merely important as marking a very high stage in Spencer Pryse’s achievement as an artist, but form a valuable and authoritative representation of the power and resources of the Empire.

            Spencer Pryse has the sense of style, and the constant sympathy not only with his subject, but with his material technique, that make for excellence. He works always with the bold design and the vigour of draughtsmanship that arc nowhere more necessary than in lithographs designed as posters or for wall-decoration. With all the right qualities of drawing to give them force, these nineteen lithographs arrest attention and enforce their message that tells of the daily life and activities of our kith and kin in far-off lands, of outdoor work in field and fold, of men “who drive the road and bridge the ford,” of the blaze of sun and colour and native pageantry, of rich resources developed and enlarged. With dignity of design and colour, with large gravity and simplicity of treatment, and, above all, with popular and pictorial appeal, the lithographs are documents of life and work in remote parts of the Empire, and illustrate impressively the present greatness and vast possibilities of our Dominions and Colonies.

            It is, of course, impossible here to enter into detailed descriptions of all the different subjects. The illustrations that accompany this text serve, even on a reduced scale (for one must remember that the prints arc three feet high and over four feet wide), to show the harmonious flow of line and colour in the originals, and to indicate their radiant proclamation of the Empire’s grandeur.

            About the Ceylon picture, it may be pointed out that the harvesting in the tea plantations is done by Tamil coolies, who travel from Madras, just as in my own young days Irish harvesters came to cut the corn in Berwickshire, and as folk from the East End still make an autumn holiday of picking hops in Kent.

            Of the Gold Coast subject it may he remarked that all self-respecting chieftains have their umbrellas made in Manchester. The trap fishing of Newfoundland, with small nets on floats, is peculiar to Newfoundland, and is the staple industry all round its coasts, the fish being largely exported to Spain and Italy. But this is not the place to continue with a long list of facts and history, and of the habits, industries, and activities of the warp and web of Empire that these lithographs so ably and carefully represent.

            And just as posters in every belligerent country during the Great War became munitions in the fight, summoning men to arms, spreading propaganda, appealing for money and aid of every kind; so in times of peace lithographs like these might well serve to extend knowledge of the Empire, and to encourage Empire settlement and the use of Empire products. If the recent report of th Imperial Economic Committee become effective, the Government may well think of the poster-work of Spencer Pryse when considering the Committee’s plea for “direct and simple appeal” to the British public, and their recommendation for intensive advertisement of Empire products. There could be no more direct and simple appeal, and no better encouragement to think and buy imperially than that given by a series of poster such as these.



© Exhibition Study Group 2012