Stuffed animals in fancy dress, corpses, prime ministers, bathing belles, wax dummies, trading estates and silly rhymes ... all and more have decorated postcards over the decades.
As a microcosm of human life, The Postcard: A Voyage of Discovery would no doubt confirm an invading Martian’s worst fears – that as a species we don’t submit too readily to generalisation.
In our love of the postcard, however, it seems we have been united in everything but taste.
“I offer no excuses or explanations for these cards,” says Gail-Nina Anderson, who owns all of them, “except to remind the viewer that each one embodies a concept, an image, a format or a sentiment that its creator thought someone would be happy to send or receive.
“HRH the Prince of Wales (plus horse) lovingly sculpted in butter may well represent the perfect subject to be stamped and sent through the post, though I am equally drawn to Norwich’s civic snap recorded in murky monochrome or greetings from Newcastle embodied in a burst of violets and glitter.”
All these do, indeed, feature in an absorbing and amusing exhibition at Newcastle’s Lit & Phil.
They also represent a tiny proportion of the huge postcard collection amassed by Gail, a Newcastle-based cultural historian who is drawn not just to fine art but to everyday artefacts that are easily overlooked.
She says her postcard collecting began when she was quite young. There was a practical purpose.
“In those days I couldn’t afford expensive art books so when I went to a gallery I’d buy a postcard of any picture I wanted to look at again. It was central to my becoming an art historian. But I am one of those people who likes to keep images and postcards can be kept very easily in a shoebox.”
Drawn originally to art reproductions, Gail fell in love with the postcard format and started to look for more unusual or even bizarre examples.
“Once people know you’re looking for them, they send you more.”
Gail’s postcards – a vast collection she has never counted – have been useful teaching aids over the years, exemplifying how images can be used to convey different messages.
This is the first time they have been shown in an exhibition. They are displayed under category headings which hint at their diversity – Waxworks, Collage, Cute Kids, Political Postcards, Vintage Humour, Glamour, Small Objects and even The Elephant in Art, Life and Legend.
“Christian greetings from Filey Holiday Crusade” is the legend on one of the postcards in the first framed set. Next to it is another, captioned “Blind & Crippled Girls at Work”.
There’s a photo of a goat looking out of a hut beneath a quotation from the Book of Job, “You will look about and take your rest in safety,” and a picture of small animals in human clothes: “In the spring a young guinea pig’s fancy turns to thoughts of love”.
Gail, who also contributes to the Fortean Times, the magazine of strange phenomena, says: “The postcard offers an ideal snapshot of weirdness, a corner-of-the-eye take on things that exist on the edge of what is sensible, rational and sometimes tasteful.”
Some of the oddest postcards result from collages so we have a bizarre crop of babies in a field being watered by a character in a floppy hat and leggings. There’s also a picture of a kangaroo on a bike.
“If it looks unlikely,” advises Gail, “it probably is.”
Clearly there was once a market in postcards of the Team Valley Trading Estate, Gateshead, for there’s an example here. Other postcards show the Cleveland Shopping Centre, Middlesbrough, and Derwent Tower in Dunston, Gateshead.
Says Gail: “The boring postcard is an artform in its own right, always begging the question: Why?
“Favourites include roads, stations, featureless landscapes, airports and municipal buildings of no architectural interest.
“A puddle in the foreground is a bonus point.”
The postcard of Dunston Tower is actually included in the category headed Things That Have Gone.
“Ephemeral in its own right, the postcard becomes a celebration of ephemerality,” says Gail.
“There are no more bathing machines or bath chairs, Marsden Rock doesn’t look like that any more and who even remembers the giant pencils of Eldon Square, once thought worthy of postcard celebration?”
Better remembered as the Dunston Rocket, Dunston Tower residential block is no more – fired (metaphorically speaking) into oblivion.
Some postcards are intensely moving, such as those sent home to sweethearts by First World War soldiers. Only recently Gail found, in a batch bought at Tynemouth market, a series of three postcards detailing life at the front. Poignantly, and mysteriously, the last of the three ends mid-sentence.
Even very old postcards can strike a chord. One of Gail’s postcards features a cheery chap in uniform beneath the heading “The Filbert of the K-NUTS”.
This is a reference to a popular song, I’m Gilbert the Filbert, which featured in a London stage revue called The Passing Show in 1914. It was sung by Basil Hallam.
Gail says the song was hugely popular with British Tommies and this postcard, since it shows Basil in uniform rather than his customary elegant evening dress, was probably a recruitment device.
Basil subsequently joined up himself and was killed in 1916 in an accident involving an observation balloon. He was just 28.
An exhibition visitor from Whitley Bay contacted Gail to say she believed Basil was her mother’s uncle.
But could the postcard soon be categorised under Things That Have Gone? Gail laments that the ease of digital communication and the cost of postage – postcards no longer qualify for a cheaper rate – means you don’t see as many postcards now as you once did.
Given the incalculable amount of human happiness generated merely by the few hundred postcards in the exhibition, that seems a shame.
:: The Postcard: A Voyage of Discovery is at the Lit & Phil, Westgate Road, Newcastle, until July 27. Admission is free. Tel. 0191 232 0192.