Contemporary Art

A History of Film Posters with the British Film Institute

By Martin Dean

F ilm posters are instantly appealing. Designed to grab attention and make alluring promises of adventure and excitement, they are captivating, visually powerful and immediately accessible. Whether promising adventures into the desert with Lawrence of Arabia, or into space with Star Wars, they connect with us on the personal level as much as on the historic and cultural, linking us with periods in history which have resonated through cultural memory to this day.

Ahead of the upcoming Original Film Posters Online sale, Sotheby’s hosted a presentation by Nathalie Morris, Senior Curator of Special Collections at the British Film Institute (BFI) National Archive. The BFI, of course, does not sell any of the posters that are part of its collections, but Nathalie offered insight into the cultural significance of film posters, along with the incredible restoration work the BFI undertake to preserve their collection.

The BFI National Archive holds in its collections hundreds of thousands of films and television titles, along with unpublished scripts and of course, historic film and TV posters. Among these are such gems as the original poster and script of The Third Man (1949), and continuity Polaroids from films such as A Room With A View and Howard’s End, featuring the work of award-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan. As time has passed, the value of the posters in the BFI’s collection has soared. It would be impossible to put together a collection like this today as the cost of acquiring these same pieces would be astronomical. However, the collection continues to grow for the future as the archive’s curators are acquiring new release posters for British films on a regular basis. The archive can be accessed for education and research, and its presentation provided an excellent introduction to the world of film posters.

Cinématographe Lumière ( 1896) poster, French. Estimate £40,000–60,000.

Several of the lots in Sotheby's Original Film Posters Online sale are truly pieces of cultural history. They include a poster for Cinématographe Lumière, the first ever screening of a film in public, which took place in 1895 in the Salon Indien of the Grand Cafe, on Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. On a screen resembling a bed sheet, a selection of short films, each no more than a minute long, was shown to an audience of around 30 people. Journalist Vincent Perrot who was present observed that on seeing footage of a train moving towards the audience, ‘one lady shrieked in terror’. This event began one of the most significant artistic and cultural phenomena of the 20th century.

Top Hat ( 1935), Swedish. Estimate £18,000–24,000.

Film posters radiate the energy and style of their respective eras, from the ballroom swagger and finesse of the 1930s classic Top Hat, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, to the awe and mystery of space exploration in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which conveys its futuristic theme though one of the earliest uses of holographic display.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) special holographic display, US. Estimate £1,600–2,800.

As much as they encapsulate a film, with all its promised excitement, film posters equally encapsulate a moment in cultural history.

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