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  • Selling Irish Bacon:The Empire Marketing Board and Artists of the Free State
  • Mike Cronin (bio)

The images on the front and back covers of this issue—Irish Free State Bacon by Seán Keating (1889-1977) and Irish Free State Butter by Margaret Clarke (1888-1961)—were commissioned by the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), a state body formed in 1926 to boost the sale of empire goods within the British marketplace. Although these cover images were created by major Irish artists of the Free State period, they have been buried in the National Archives, London, far from the public eye since the 1930s. This article, exploring the development of the EMB and its relationships with the Irish Free State, suggests the complexity of Anglo-Irish relations after independence and the interactions between politics and culture in a newly independent country, ideologically committed to a rural self-identity. These cover images, essentially advertisements for Irish agricultural production, are unique in the series of EMB poster campaigns in that they are were created not by London designers, but by native Irish artists. Although explicitly commercial in intention, the images reveal much of the shared heritage of two painters whose work emerges from a rural national ideology and subtly subverts the imperial brief of the EMB.

The EMB represented a Conservative government's response to intense pressure for reform of the tariff system in the second half of the 1920s—with proposals ranging for protectionism to free trade. Members of the empire, including the recently formed Irish Free State, were insistently demanding preferential access to the profitable [End Page 132] British market for their agricultural and industrial goods. Attempting to avert both a political crisis at home and further pressure from the Commonwealth, the Conservatives set up the EMB to promote empire goods and thereby stimulate trade and satisfy the demands of the colonies and dominions for greater access to the British market. Closed down in 1933 in the wake of the trade agreements signed by Britain and its empire nations in Ottawa in 1932, the EMB operated for barely seven years.

The goals of the EMB—both publicizing and promoting empire products and supporting scientific work that would increase production—met only limited success in regard to the Free State, largely through underfunding. The EMB failed to support the southern Irish state adequately, not only in scientific research, but also in publicity of its products for trade.1 In all, the organization spent 1,224,562 on publicity, with the bulk of that money expended on a series of posters designed to illustrate empire produce.2 All forms of publicity were designed to showcase either specific imperial goods or the virtues of an individual nation—with the related goals of boosting sales and developing a product-based imperial consciousness. Overall, southern Ireland's presence in the EMB's campaigns was especially meager.3 [End Page 133]

The most important and visible work of the EMB was its poster publicity campaign that commissioned and displayed approximately one hundred poster series on specially built wooden frames. Each series featured five different posters: three 60 inch by 40 inch pictorial ones and two smaller posters that carried press messages offering details of the country being promoted or messages advancing imperial trade. The five posters on each frame endorsed a linked theme—for example, fruit from the tropics or the value of import- export trade with Australia. By 1933 poster frames at 1,800 different sites graced 450 British towns. The EMB's poster subcommittee worked with most of London's major design houses and significant artists and designers such as MacDonald Gill (designer of the London underground map), E. McKnight Kauffer, Sir William Nicholson, and Austin Cooper. As Stephen Constantine has noted, EMB "became a major patron of commercial art," whose impact on the fields of interwar design and the developing advertising business should not be underestimated.4 But despite the scale of the EMB's publicity campaigns, the Free State featured only three times in the prestigious and highly visible one hundred poster frame sequences; Canada, in contrast, was the chosen country for twenty-five sequences.

From the beginning, the EMB demonstrated its...


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