Walking into Michael Diamond’s West Hampstead apartment is like crossing the threshold into a parallel universe: one filled with shocking thrillers, horror shows and side-splitting comedies – for every wall is densely plastered with colourful theatrical posters. Train crashes are promised by one; dancing girls feature in another, alongside enticing advertisements for popular melodramas of the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
“These posters are not necessarily representative of what you would see on stage – they were designed to draw in an audience,” says Diamond, a former BBC World Service presenter and the UK’s leading collector of theatrical posters. He has gathered together some 300 examples, all from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. “These plays were the light entertainment of the day and they reveal a great deal about the central concerns of the working population,” he explains.
His favourites run from the highly artistic posters created by Dudley Hardy, such as The JP at the Strand Theatre, to the witty, deftly composed work of John Hassall (famous for his “Skegness Is So Bracing” railway advert). “He has a very good sense of humour,” says Diamond, whose Hassall collection includes a 1907 poster for a Drury Lane production of Babes in the Wood that can be found at specialist King’s Road dealership AntikBar, one of Diamond’s sources, for £550.
The invention of colour lithography in 1851 made these vibrant, mass-produced posters possible, but it was not until later in the century that the medium was exploited to the full, chiefly by French artists such as Jules Chéret and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The latter created his first poster in 1891 for a Moulin Rouge performance by the popular music-hall dancer La Goulue, an original example of which was recently offered by specialist-poster auction house Rennert’s with an estimate of $300,000-$350,000.
Meanwhile, Chéret’s famous poster advertising the ground-breaking American dancer Loïe Fuller at the Folies Bergère in 1893 is available on 1stdibs for $12,000. This is one of hundreds of theatrical posters being offered by Eric Trompier, a wine and restaurant consultant based in California. “I started my collection over 30 years ago in Paris,” he says. “An auctioneer friend held a poster sale and told me that some beautiful ones didn’t sell, including a signed Chéret original of music-hall dancers. I instantly loved them and bought them all. Artists like Jules Chéret could capture the spirit and magic of a show.”
Another prominent figure was the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, who, in 1894, created a poster for Sarah Bernhardt. Although the printer was anxious about Mucha’s unconventional design, Bernhardt loved it and gave the art nouveau trailblazer a six-year contract. His two-sheet poster for Bernhardt’s 1898 production of Medée sold for $23,750 in 2017 at New York’s Swann Auction Galleries, which runs four vintage-poster sales a year – the next is on August 7.
But while theatrical posters from 1890 to 1910 have traditionally been regarded as the high point of the genre, there has been a shift in collector interest, says Kirill Kalinin, founder of AntikBar and president of the International Vintage Posters Dealers’ Association. “Modernist examples are particularly popular,” he says, pointing out a 1925 Czech poster (£1,250) by Alexandr Vladimir Hrska for the play Clovek v Kleci (Man in a Cage), or a 1923 Russian art deco image (£1,250) for AM Fokin’s Theatre of Miniatures.
For Nicholas Lowry, the president and principal auctioneer at Swann, the most coveted examples today are “1920s and 1930s art deco French music hall”, with his highest price to date fetched by a 1920s advert for a Paris show by the Black Birds, an all-black performance troupe from Harlem. The only known example to come to auction, the poster – by Paul Colin – sold in 2003 for $172,500. More recently, a rather gruesome 1930 poster by Colin for La Main de Singe (based on the WW Jacobs horror story The Monkey’s Paw) at the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Pigalle was sold by Lowry for $4,420.
Jason Pellecchia, director of vintage-poster specialist Chisholm Larsson Gallery in New York, has noticed a hunger for posters of first-run musicals. “There is a lot of interest in large-format Broadway posters, with top-of-the-range examples fetching $1,000-$3,000,” he says, citing one ($2,400) for rock musical Hair from 1968. He also has a 1981 poster ($2,400) for a triple bill entitled Parade at the Metropolitan Opera, which owes its fun, colourful design to David Hockney.
“We tend to sell such posters to people looking for a pleasing image to adorn their wall rather than to collectors,” says another specialist New York dealer, Mickey Ross, who has a beautiful Marc Chagall poster ($2,800) designed for the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte in 1967, alongside a witty 1934 design ($1,100) by French artist Georges Dola for Le Comte de Luxembourg, a Franz Lehár operetta. The appeal of such pieces needs little explanation, says Ross: “After all, the whole point is that they are explicitly designed to catch the eye.”