King of technicolour tourism: A new exhibition celebrates John Hinde's postcards

From Butlin's to Battersea, Hinde's postcards transformed the experiences of ordinary British tourists into a glorious affair.

Kate Burt
Saturday 09 July 2011 00:00 BST

In the corner of the study at Marcus Davies' Devon home is a old-fashioned shop cabinet, the sort with lots of little glass-fronted compartments. Inside each are boxes containing meticulously categorised old postcards – around 5,800 in total – which Davies has been obsessively collecting for the best part of the last decade; rummaging in charity shops, traipsing to specialist fairs and bargaining with dealers called Alan and Len in supermarket car parks.

To the uninitiated – or un-obsessed – the gaudily coloured photographic cards, mainly from the 1960s and 1970s, might seem rather uncollectable. Their decidedly humdrum subjects include shoppers at Market Hill in Suffolk; children in the paddling pool at St Nicholas Park, Warwick, and holiday-in

But to fans such as Davies, it is partly this ordinariness, along with distinctive bright colours and the depiction of everyday life in a lost era, that makes the postcards so special and which, retrospectively, has heaped them with social, historical and artistic kudos. The fanbase is poised to swell later this month at the Vintage festival in London, where an exhibition based around the postcards – curated by Davies and a fellow collector, Michelle Abadie – introduces a new retro-hungry young audience to them.

The cards are the work of the John Hinde Studio, a company set up in 1956 by its namesake, a failed circus entrepreneur and the great-grandson of the founder of Clarks shoes, in a bedroom at the house he shared with his trapeze-artist wife in rural Ireland. It went on to become one of the world's most successful postcard publishing companies in the world – but it is only recently that its output has been seen as much more than cheesy, throwaway holiday souvenirs.

The photographer Martin Parr, a long-time fan of the Hinde Studio, has described the postcards as "some of the strongest images of Britain in the 1960s and 1970s". He explains: "Hinde was showing off a palette much more colourful and saturated than ever before. He was fastidious about the colour, the saturation, the technique, and that paid off. He's the reason I moved from black and white to colour in the early Eighties." As such, Parr's Boring Postcards book was full of Hinde images; in the early 1990s he encouraged the Irish Museum of Modern Art to show a retrospective of Hinde's work, while in 2002 he curated an exhibition of Hinde Studio images originally commissioned by Butlin's. These "will be Hinde's greatest legacy, I'm convinced," says Parr.

John Hinde, who died in 1998, began his photographic career in the 1930s with a mix of documentary work – which would include chronicling the Blitz – advertising, and colour reproduction work; in 1943, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society. But Hinde was also an irrepressible entrepreneur, dabbling with various other money-making pursuits, including a stint in the States to try to make movies and a job managing several circuses in Ireland. The latter lasted 12 years and while he travelled around the Emerald Isle, he began taking pictures of its beautiful landscapes; a combination that set the course for his later success.

During the circus years, Hinde not only fell for his wife-to-be, but also for the lifestyle and so went about setting up his own – the John Hinde Show. It failed spectacularly due, so the story goes, to him launching it during one of Ireland's wettest years ever. Bankrupt, he desperately needed to make money. Inspired by the photographs he'd been taking – and the recently opened Shannon Airport, which was, by the late 1950s, shipping in plane-loads of nostalgic Irish-Americans – he set up the postcard company.

He soon expanded his Irish repertoire beyond landscapes: one of the bestsellers was a cutesy image of two freckled children with a donkey, loading peat into baskets (which, apparently, the Irish government took exception to for its stereotypical message). He also covered Britain – his image of a pristine policeman directing traffic in central London, is instantly recognisable – and then, went further afield, to the Canaries, Africa, Gibraltar, Malaysia... The company would go on to shift 50 million cards a year.

So what was so different about the Hinde cards? In a word, as Martin Parr has said, colour. Hinde was an innovator in a world where serious photography was black and white, and where colour photography was poor – because neither Ireland nor Britain had the technological capabilities to reproduce the vibrant hues Hinde dreamed of. So he sent his transparencies to Italy, where technology was more advanced. Not only could the images be produced in far lusher shades than was possible over here, they also got additional help with extensive retouching, which would turn insipid sweaters, mousey heads of hair, faded sun-loungers and dull skies into dazzling points of interest. (And, more importantly, according to those who knew him, into hard cash.)

By 1965, Hinde had employed a crack team of highly skilled, mainly German photographers. Edmund Nagele was 21 when he joined the company. For him and the other photographers, May to September was spent "living like gypsies", driving around Britain and Ireland in Hinde's LandRover/caravan combo, which still bore the 'John Hinde Show' signage from the circus days. "It could be a bit embarrassing," recalls Nagele.

As for the work, each photographer was tasked with taking an average of 80 postcard subjects per year. "Which meant 95 4x5 transparencies in total," says Nagele, "so it was expensive. Planning was so much more important then – we had to get it right first or second time. We'd work out precisely when the light would be right, and make sure the exposure was correct. It was like a film production: you'd pray the sun came out – or there'd be no film. And in Ireland, you can imagine... I'd ring John and say in my slow English, 'Mr Hinde, it's been raining for four days now...'. But we were instructed always to wait and get the best shot. Sometimes it would take weeks, so we'd kill time in the penny arcade."

Once conditions were right: "We'd find a man with a sailing boat and offer him a pound to move it and let us shoot it. Or knock on a door and ask if we could buy their hydrangeas to put in our picture. No one ever took our money. We always cast people, too – no one ever minded."

The film cassettes would spend the winter at Hinde's bungalow in Bullock Harbour, Dublin. They were processed by hand to make transparencies and then black and white prints upon which instructions to the Italians would be noted: "Bluer sky and sea, make that sail red...". (Typically, the sky wouldn't just be enhanced, but replaced with a far cheerier Mediterranean version.)

Nagele was one of the photographers on the now-famous Butlin's job. "It was hard," he says. "You couldn't do it nowadays – but in the 1960s and 1970s people had a different mentality. We'd get a Redcoat to help us. They'd announce: 'We have a photographer today. Please stand still for four seconds when he asks'. It was never, 'Would you mind...?'. The first time you do it, with a room of 200 people, you're scared shitless."

No wonder: it took a whole day just to rig up the (one-use only) flash reflectors. Ninety or so would be tucked behind pots of plastic flowers in the bar or ballroom. And then, with everything in place, and "pretty girls in the foreground", there was just one chance to get the shot. "It was a nailbiting moment," Nagele says. He remembers only one disaster, which resulted in an emergency trip to London to replace all the flashbulbs in order to reshoot.

At the time, Nagele had no idea his photographs would come to be so culturally, artistically and technically revered. "It was just a job. Being a postcard photographer – like a passport or wedding photographer – it isn't something you'd brag about. It was only when Martin Parr pointed a finger at it that I looked again and thought, 'Oh yes, they are quite good'."

Now a new homage is underway. The John Hinde fan world is small enough that it didn't take long for Marcus Davies to cross paths with Michelle Abadie, a fellow collector who had co-edited a book of Hinde cards, Wish You Were Here. Their first venture together was The John Hinde Collection, a vast online catalogue – scans of their joint card collections. But they were keen to do more – and when Davies struggled to get hold of a particular image in print form for his wife's birthday ('Looking at the Road to Keem Strand, County Mayo'), the idea came to them.

Apart from the Butlin's set, there were few prints in circulation. What if they could track down the original transparencies and create large-scale prints of some of the best-loved images to sell to other fans? The twist is that they aim to exhibit the photographers' original work – ie, minus retouching – alongside the vivid cards (once each has undergone a gruelling 16-odd hours of Photoshop).

"What we've learnt," says Davies, "is that the photographers were very talented. I thought they were good – technically and compositionally – but having seen the originals, I'm even more impressed." Says Abadie: "And, though there is a lot of colour work, I thought there was much more manipulation than there actually was."

When the pair got in touch with Vintage's curator, the designer Wayne Hemingway, he loved the idea. "I get more from looking at what [Hinde] did, than I do from looking at a Warhol," says Hemingway. "It's more relevant to me: when I look at his photos it feels like my upbringing – it's my mum, my nan; it feels like where I'm from. He depicted an era so vividly. Very few people have the eye to portray everyday life and make it so uplifting. His images feel celebratory – Hinde spotted the joy in everyday life and just captured it."

Buy selected prints of John Hinde postcards from Marcus Davies and Michelle Abadie's website, Vintage Festival runs 29-31 July on the Southbank. See A new edition of the Butlin's postcards book, 'Our True Intent is All for Your Delight' is published this month by Chris Boot

Click here for more examples and background on Abadie's collection

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