In 1901, New Zealand took a bold step by establishing the first government tourist office in the world, the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts. An inspirational decision, yes, but turning tourism aspirations into action, and ultimately prosperity, would be no mean feat.
Consider the following scenario.
· There is no “New Zealand” brand and no clear national identity of New Zealanders.
· There is no TV or colour photography and the word ‘web’ is nothing more than a spider’s home.
· There are long-running calamities to consider, namely, world wars and the Depression.
· It takes six weeks to get here by boat, a risky proposition for even the most patient and adventurous.
· You need to compete with the world’s top attractions that are tried and true.
· There is no industry history to draw on, or fall back on.
What unfolded in New Zealand through the early decades of the 20th century was a collection of poster art, along with other forms of publicity, that portrayed the ‘splendid naturalism’ of New Zealand in an alluring and evocative way. While other countries touted resorts, hotels and sophistication, artists here celebrated the raw beauty of what New Zealand had to offer: ‘Scenic Wonderland’, ‘Thousands of feet above worry level’, ‘The Sportsman’s Paradise’, ‘Maoriland’ and ‘A World in Itself’ – to name just a few of the campaigns that arresting imagery brought to life. Or as Hamish Keith has put it, “it is in the art of the poster that artists use their imagination and invention to unashamedly celebrate and reveal the uniqueness of the New Zealand scene”.
Looking back, the power of the poster is not surprising. It was a time globally when the ‘art of the street’ was becoming increasingly widespread, and with rising potential to impress given a shift in style from dense typography to eye-catching graphic work. Transportation, including international travel, was also on the rise, leading to reciprocal arrangements to display posters in railways stations and tourist offices abroad. Not content with the real thing, New Zealanders would also become enthusiastic lickers of ‘poster stamps’ – miniature posters in effect (also known as ‘cinderellas’) – that had no postal denomination but conveniently spread the tourism buzz globally.
Despite the Department’s establishment in 1901, it took a few years for the poster craze to catch on. The word ‘poster’ was first mentioned in the Department’s Annual Reports in 1915. This was also the same year the Railways Department, having not discussed publicity in its reports previously, established a stand-alone Outdoor Advertising Branch to make better use of prime advertising space at stations and throughout an increasingly hoarding-laden landscape. A few years later in 1920, the “Railways Studios” would be established and quickly become a leading force in New Zealand commercial art.
Out of such developments came a range of other fascinating marketing stories, such as President Roosevelt gifting 10 elk to enhance ‘The Sportsman’s Paradise’ in 1905, alongside the Tourist Department’s own possum importation to broaden the hunting menu. Ironically, by 1953 the Tourism Publicity Division, then providing design services across government, was designing posters encouraging the possum’s destruction.
Most would agree today that – notwithstanding an increasingly online world – the poster still possesses immense selling power. But consider the creative challenge back in the day, with no commercial art tradition and before technology such as automated large-scale printing. A tap of a key now meant, for the pioneers, the creation of a font, an original painting (perhaps thethird iteration), a hand-cut stencil or a drawing with greasy ink on a lithographic stone.
Ground-breaking artists – like Leonard Mitchell and Marcus King – simply, it seems, had an eye for it: an eye for the effective use of colour and composition to create timeless representations of the best of New Zealand, many stripped back to a small number of colours and lines. If you think it looks easy, give it a try. In this denuded technique, it is easy to see the conception of pop art (coming decades later) and many facets of modern advertising.
Yet, despite the challenges such artists overcame and their achievements, there remains a commonly held view that they were the drop-outs from those pursuing a fine arts career. In reality, there is good evidence to suggest this was not the case, as advertising agencies quickly realised (as early as 1911) that the best artists equated with innovation and competitive advantage. It is also clear that the art of early tourism radically broke away from long-standing painted styles imported during colonisation – very courageously so, given the conservative arts scene. In doing so, it blazed the trail for various arts movements to follow, and for various artistic production techniques.
- Peter Alsop is author of Selling the Dream: The Art of Early Tourism, a 408-page, large-format, high-end production with close to 1000 images and 11 specially commissioned essays, published by award-winning New Zealand publisher Craig Potton Publishing. Dubbed a “beautiful and painstaking” catalogue by Dick Frizzell, it is the first dedicated and extensive celebration of tourism posters and other publicity that helped promote New Zealand – both locally and to the world – until the 1960s, before television and colour photography changed the publicity landscape forever. The book is available from sellingthedream.co.nz with a 10 percent web discount.