Visual Arts

Irish graphic design in the 1950s under the patronage of Aer Lingus

Promoting an airline is difficult enough; promoting a whole island adds an extra twist. Aer Lingus confronted this undertaking in the 1950s, leaving us with a legacy of fine graphic design coupled with images of Ireland, and approaches to depicting Ireland, which still persist.

Oh no, not the bloody 1950s again. Seven Ages returned to our screens with a portrait of the decade we’ve all been taught to hate. We know the drill at by this stage–unemployment, emigration, depression, repression, John Charles McQuaid–followed by the accession of Lemass and the beginnings of the Great Turnaround. Perhaps it is the familiarity of this material which breeds contempt.1

The programme referred to in this article by Hugh Linehan is one of the many recent RTÉ broadcasts which have focused on the cultural development of the Irish State. The series adheres to a familiar format: archival footage interspersed with commentary and ‘authoritative’ analysis of the aims and aspirations of the fledgling nation, much examination of ‘key’ events. Undoubtedly aspects of Irish life in the 1950s were bleak–and these have been well documented. But at least one area of cultural expression did exist, namely within the emerging graphic-design profession. It frequently testified to a feeling of optimism and pride in the capabilities of the new Republic, an attitude that is frequently left unacknowledged by this type of programme.

It may be the inherent ubiquity of commercially printed material which has largely excluded it from cultural and historical analysis, particularly in Ireland. However, examples of printed ephemera are frequently important cultural signifiers which "produce images of reality which are bound up with the interests of the social institutions within which the pictures are produced, circulated and read. They are ideological."2

The first programme in the Seven Ages series did, however, attempt to give some credence to the cultural significance of graphic design in the immediate years after the founding of the Free State in 1922. Along with other mass-produced objects, including postboxes and coinage, the introduction of recognisably ‘Irish’ stamps was highlighted as providing a concrete example of the idealism of the emergent State. Here, however, I want to discuss Irish advertising during the period when supposedly "nothing happened."3 I hope to demonstrate that in the context of the fledgling graphic-design culture in Ireland in the 1950s, this phrase is untrue. The focus here is specifically the work produced for Aer Lingus, consisting of a body of images which opens avenues of associated histories–tourism, politics, economics and the visual arts. These areas converge, largely speaking, in a single idea: how to present visual representations of Ireland and Irish culture to an external world. Because the various tourist agencies were restricted by small advertising budgets through much of the 1950s, Aer Lingus occupied a pivotal role in constructing images of Irish identity.4

Politics and expertise

While Minister for Industry and Commerce in the 1930s, Seán Lemass, later Taoiseach, realised the pragmatic importance of a national airline as a means of controlling external communications. This led to the establishment of Aer Lingus in 1936. He had come to regard the aeroplane as a metaphor for Irish independence and, as such, that it was "the real instrument of liberation for this country and, from that aspect perhaps the single most important development of this century"5. It is therefore impossible to divorce the images presented in Aer Lingus advertising from the political climate from which they emerged and not to acknowledge the interest that politicians like Lemass had in their formulation.

Lemass’ emphasis on economic expansion in the late 1950s provided an added impetus for the development of the Irish tourist industry. However, the strategies of who to attract and how to attract them had been analysed some years earlier and the patterns of targeting consumer interest had already been debated and established. Irish tourism underwent a buoyant period immediately after World War II but this boom–largely based on travellers from Britain–was short-lived. Attention was therefore turned to other potential markets, in particular the U.S.

The Christenberry Report was published in 1951, the culmination of a number of American-led reports on Ireland’s tourist industry. The document was forceful in listing the attractions that would appeal to the American tourist, attaching particular importance to the appeal of the landscape, activities like fishing, shooting and golf, and the friendliness of the Irish people. Specific emphasis was also put on the attractive possibilities of Mayo, Galway, Sligo and Donegal to the American consumer.6 Although the report also analysed and made recommendations with regard to accommodation and transport issues, its most immediate effect would appear to be the formal establishment–and in some cases, reaffirmation–of visual patterns and codes which would be used in the construction of images of Irish identity, the consequence of which has been a legacy of constantly recycled ‘tourist imagery’.

In economic terms, there was an increase in tourist numbers from 1957, particularly from the U.S., although credit cannot be given exclusively to the impact of Aer Lingus’ advertising campaigns. The reinstatement of Aer Lingus’ transatlantic route and the introduction of jet aircraft in 1958 significantly opened up travel possibilities, literally heralding the ‘jet-age’ and the ‘jet-set’, terms which emphasise the glamour and élitism associated with air travel during the decade.

The final most significant factor in the development of the company’s advertising work was the designers themselves and the expertise they brought to the Irish graphic-design profession. Sun Advertising managed the airline’s account for much of the decade and from 1951 onwards began to systematically recruit designers from the publicity department of KLM, the Dutch national airline. The designers were lured, to a great extent, by the possibility of purchasing homes in the Dublin area at a time when Holland was experiencing a severe housing shortage, but there was the additional appeal of the Irish landscape, a romantic attachment which is reflected in many of the posters they designed.7

This recruitment drive reflected the relative lack of expertise that Irish designers possessed with regard to handling large, specialised corporate accounts, as opposed to highlighting the era’s lack of indigenous talent. As the decade unfolded, Dutch influence was not just confined to Aer Lingus publicity material, as several of these designers also worked on the accounts of other key, tourism-related companies such as Bord Fáilte, John Hinde and CIÉ. Therefore the result of the decision that Sun had taken in 1951 was that for the rest of the decade many of the main protagonists in the construction of images representing a ‘distinctive’ Irish national identity were Dutch nationals whose views on presenting these ideas happened to coincide with what the decision-makers themselves had envisaged.

Romance and idealism

The images that emerge in Aer Lingus posters of this time are many and varied. However, there were two the commodities that the company was most interested in selling: Ireland’s technological achievements–principally for the home market–and Ireland as a destination–principally for export.

The selling of technical accomplishment is demonstrated by a lithographic print depicting a Fokker Friendship standing outside the terminal of Dublin airport. The composition locates the viewer in a position of looking from an oblique angle at, and up towards, the aircraft and airport. These angles both situate the viewer at a distance from the subject matter and suggest that s/he should treat that subject matter–technology as embodied in the image of the plane–with a certain veneration.

There are many variations on this theme within the context of Aer Lingus advertising. Sometimes, with the arrival of new types of aircraft (e.g. the Viscount in 1954) the technique of visually cross-sectioning the aircraft is used. This approach gives the viewer the impression that they are being allowed to probe the hidden depths of the subject matter. The emphasis is on selling technological information: the viewer/consumer is presented with a detailed diagram of the latest aeronautical developments as they impact on the would-be passenger. Part of the strategy is to allay fears and anxieties the future passenger may have in relation to air travel by demonstrating the technological sophistication of the aircraft. However, taken in an Irish context, the number of posters using this type of imagery would seem to indicate both a fascination with and a genuine pride in the concept of a national airline and the technology associated with its development. The product being sold in such posters is not a destination, is perhaps not even air travel, but the affirmation of a country’s technological advancement.

The inclusion of the image of the airport terminal is an extension of these ideas. The building of a radically modern structure of this kind was momentous in the context of political ideas of national expression; it "reflects the desire on the part of the new state to create and project a modern and progressive image."8 The terminal was completed in 1940 and like other similar European structures appropriates the metaphor of the ocean liner–white, streamlined, complete with balconies and decks–as a symbol for the romantic ideal of luxury travel. In the example of the Dublin airport terminal the building is curved, the convex face swelling outwards towards the runway, while the concave face indicates a metaphorical ‘embracing’ of the travellers on their arrival at Collinstown. The building was clearly seen as an important national achievement, judging by the frequency with which it appeared in advertising of the national airline.

The romanticising and glamourising of air travel is a common theme in the history of many–if not all–airlines. This Dublin airport poster was created for the home market, to be utilised by other companies which presumably wished to link their product to the profile of the airline for this very reason. The image is composed in such a way that it allows printers to screenprint messages in the spaces above and below the central image. This example also demonstrates just how much at the mercy of the printer these companies were, considering the dubious degree of legibility the image presents. It also highlights Aer Lingus’ lack of a coherent corporate identity programme, a standard that was not fully established until 1974.

By comparison, another poster contains two of the features highlighted as being an important draw to the potential tourist from America–the landscape and the activity of fishing–although the logo used would indicate that it was aimed at the European market.9 The means by which the country/commodity is identified is considerably more subtle than many other tourist images of the period; without the qualifying type and the inclusion of a small round tower and three diminutive cottages, it would be difficult to accurately identify the destination. This is not so much another representation of an idealised, mythic west-of-Ireland landscape as it appears in much Irish tourist advertising, as an idealised landscape which could exist anywhere. The additional commodity being marketed is peace and tranquillity, as expressed through the metaphor of the lone angler.

This image employs a visual shorthand in which all the elements are pared down to a system of basic visual symbols, almost pictograms. The style demonstrates an awareness of American animation styles of the post-World War II period. UPA–most famous for its Mr Magoo cartoons–developed an illustrative style of simple, graphic shapes, bright, flat colours, collage and strong outlines, a style in turn inspired by European modernist and contemporary American painting.10 It is a style that emphasises the two-dimensional reality of the picture plane; backgrounds are composed of fields of colour and objects are used to punctuate the flattened space, as visual devices to merely indicate where roads, floors and–in this case–land might begin. In the context of tourist imagery, people are reduced to highly stylised caricatures; this approach, while adding a certain comedic dimension, also lets the viewer/consumer relate to other cultures, making them seem more familiar and less ‘foreign’. The resulting images have an immediate visual impact, while in pragmatic terms the simplified shapes are highly suitable for the medium of screenprint, which in Ireland in the 1950s was still a popular method of commercially reproducing graphic imagery.


The 1950s was a crucial decade for the development of graphic design in Ireland. The patronage of semi-state bodies afforded designers opportunities to work on large corporate accounts. In so doing, these bodies undoubtedly contributed to the development of the graphic-design profession within the country. A testimony to this progress was the establishment in 1958 of the Institute of Creative Advertising, which, apart from organising exhibitions, lectures and competitions, published its own journal, Campaign, which provided a platform for discussing and critiquing Irish and international graphic design.11

Aer Lingus occupied a unique position among the semi-state sector as it was the one company with a truly international profile. It therefore provided opportunities for graphic designers to have their work seen by an audience outside of Ireland. Apart from constructing images of Ireland and ‘Irishness’ for the growing tourist market these designers also show an awareness of the emergent graphic-design profession, in the broader sense of knowing what was happening in other countries. They also attempted to visualise a feeling of political optimism that was apparent during the decade. Such optimism may have run contrary to economic reality, but it demonstrated an aspiration that the Republic be seen as a progressive and modern country.

1Hugh Linehan, The Great Turnaround, Irish Times, March 25, 2000.
2Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen, Reading Images–the Grammar of Visual Design, London: Routledge, 1996, p. 45
3John McGahern quoted in Linehan, op.cit.
4Bord Fáilte Éireann was established in 1955 as an amalgamation of An Bord Fáilte and Fogra Fáilte which were both set up in 1952 as a consequence of the Christenberry Report.
5John Horgan, Seán Lemass–the Enigmatic Patriot, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1997, p. 89.
6James Deegan and Donal A. Dineen, Tourism Policy and Performance–The Irish Experience, London: International Thomson Business Press, pp. 17-19.
7Unpublished interview between the author and Willem van Velsen, who arrived to work in Sun in 1956, and unpublished letter to the author from Guus Melai, the first designer to be recruited from KLM. Other designers that followed included Jan de Fouw, Bert van Embden, Piet Sluis and Gerrit van Geldren.
8Seán Rothery, Ireland and the New Architecture–1900-1940, Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1991, p. 215.
9If the poster was specifically aimed at American tourists the logo would have only stated ‘Irish Air Lines’, which was the name used to promote the company in the U.S. during this period.
10Similar work was also produced by the British company Hales and Batchelor who were responsible for animating many early British TV ads.
11Invited lecturers included the British designer Abram Games in March 1959. Games also designed posters utilised by Aer Lingus.

Images (in order of presentation):
Guus Melai: Fly to Ireland–Aer Lingus, lithographic poster by Ormond Printworks, Dublin, 1954, courtesy Aer Lingus
James Garner: The Aer Lingus Viscount, lithographic poster, 1954, courtesy Aer Lingus.
Possibly Willy van Velsen: Time Flies, lithographic poster by Ormond Printworks, Dublin, circa 1959/60, plus other overprinting variations; courtesy Aer Lingus.
Possibly Piet Sluis: Fly Aer Lingus to Paris, screenprinted poster, circa 1956, courtesy Aer Lingus
Abram Games: Ireland — Fly Aer Lingus, screenprinted poster by Browne and Nolan, Dublin, circa 1956, courtesy Aer Lingus.
Abram Games: Jersey — Fly Aer Lingus, screenprinted poster by Fosh and Cross, London, circa 1956, courtesy Aer Lingus
Possibly Piet Sluis: Ireland–Fisherman’s Paradise, screenprinted poster by Ormond Printworks, Dublin, circa 1959/60, courtesy Aer Lingus

Linda King lectures in the History and Theory of Design at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology

Article reproduced from CIRCA 92, Summer 2000, pp. 15-19.


 © 2009