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<b>The Donald McGill Museum   </b>







The Donald McGill Museum, Ryde, Isle of Wight. The Saucy Seaside Postcards of Donald McGill.





Here Digger visited The Donald McGill Museum at Ryde on The Isle of Wight and talked to James Bissell-Thomas, the founder of the museum, about the great man and about the museum.



Typical saucy McGill material



In 1894, British publishers were given permission by the Royal Mail to manufacture and distribute picture postcards which could be sent through the mail. Early postcards were pictures of famous landmarks, scenic views, photographs, lighthouses, animals or drawings of celebrities and so on. With steam locomotives providing fast and affordable travel the seaside became a popular tourist destination. The steam locomotives generated its own souvenir industry. The picture postcard was, and is, an essential staple of this industry.

In the early 1930's cartoon style saucy postcards became widespread and at the peak of their popularity the sale of saucy postcards reached a massive 16 million a year. They were often tacky in nature making use of innuendo and traditionally featured stereotypical characters such as priests, large ladies and put-upon husbands in the same vein as the Carry On films.

In the early 1950's, the newly elected Conservative government were concerned at the apparent deterioration of morals in Britain and decided on a crackdown on these postcards. The main target on their hit list was the renowned postcard artist Donald McGill. In the more liberal 1960's the saucy postcard was revived and became to be considered, by some, as an art form.

The demise of the saucy postcard occurred during the 1970's and 1980's, the quality of the artwork and humor started to deteriorate with changing attitudes towards the cards content.

Despite the decline in popularity of postcards that are overtly saucy, postcards continue to be a significant economic and cultural aspect of British seaside tourism. Sold by newsagents and street vendors as well as by specialist souvenir shops. Modern seaside postcards often feature multiple depiction's of the resort in unusually favourable weather conditions. These continuously draw tourist to the seaside. The use of saturated colour and a general departure from realism have made the postcards of the later twentieth century become collected and desired by undiscriminating taste.

Original postcards are now highly sought after and rare examples can command very high prices at auction.

Donald created over 12,000 postcards from 1904 till his death in 1962.

You will find that Donald's Cards will depict anything and everyone, his watchful eye never missed a humorous situation as he witnessed the years as they rolled through the 20th century. His artwork covers: Two World Wars; Suffragettes; Lovers; Matrimony; Motoring; Evolution etc. etc.

At the museum, the ceiling has adhered to it over 2,500 of Donald's designs in chronological order, and amongst this mass of two dimensional items, you will find several cards which we have made three dimensional.

The museum also focuses on the trials and tribulations that Donald experienced in the 1950's, as he was prosecuted under the 1857 Obscenity Act for producing some cards deemed unsuitable for the public to see.

It was Donald's use of the Double Entendre or Double Meaning that the courts disapproved of, despite being a tradition of the music halls and comics of the day. It is also interesting to note that a lot of the disapproved cards Donald had made, he had made earlier versions of in the 1920's and 1930's without any complaint.

The museum has 1000's of cards on display and also interactive displays are in evidence. A large collection of original artwork will also be on display including very early work from 1907-1914.

The beautiful thing about the Double Entendre is that it is designed to pass over the head of those who cannot see the alternative meaning, consequently Donald's cards appear to depict perfectly innocent situations, and also the text that accompanies them is equally innocent and often is a known phrase, however there are hidden meanings to be found if you already know what is being alluded to.





Digger: Please give us your background James and how you got involved with McGill.

James: I moved my Globe-making business ( to the Isle of Wight from London. Having enjoyed saucy postcards in my youth, I purchased a scrapped ship's funnel, 9ft diameter and 23 ft high. It was my intention to re-erect this in Ryde on the esplanade and to cut a 4 foot door into it and, after doing this, there would still be 23 feet of linear wall space for a Saucy Seaside Postcard Museum. 

In my research for this venture, I came across McGill time and time again. He is the one, crowned in his own lifetime the 'King of The Seaside Postcard." It soon dawned on me that it should perhaps be a Museum solely on him. Being protected by copyright, I then approached the company who owned the McGill Copyright. When I spoke to them, they informed me that they had gone into liquidation. On talking to the administrators, I soon found out that the previous company also owned 3 pallets of memorabilia as their intention was to open a museum themselves.  Within a year, I had purchased the copyright and the 3 pallets consisting or rare original artworks, printing plates, documents and over 120,000 ex-stock postcards in mint condition. All of this would use far more space than the funnel, so I decided to use the front end of my Globe Works, which was destined to become a Globe Museum.

Digger: And also please tell us something about the great Donald McGill's life and work.

James: Donald was born in 1875, and in 1904 started making illustrations for the then thriving postcard industry - it was the email of the day. With up to 7 postal services, you could send a card and receive a reply the same day! He soon became full-time employed in this industry, and due to his art training was rightly regarded as one of the best in his field, in addition to this, he worked in this industry all his life so his personal output was prolific - well over 12,000 cards!

Digger: Can you please tell us more about The Donald McGill Museum, how it  started and developed into what it is today?

James: Upgrading the location from funnel to Grade II listed building took me longer than I would have liked. I was over 12 month overdue. However, I hope this can be seen in the effort made. We have over 2,500 postcards adhered to  the ceiling in chronological order, interactive displays, video footage, an in depth look into the trials and tribulations Donald suffered when prosecuted in 1954 at an age of 79 years. We also have postcards grouped in their various categories: Two World Wars, Drunks, Vicars etc. etc.. 





Many postcards ended up being banned





Digger: Please tell us more about what we can see and what is on offer at the museum. 

James: Interestingly enough, within the museum we have placed 5 fake items. This is to keep McGill collectors on their toes. It might seem odd that we have undertaken  such a thing, but the V&A has a fakes gallery, and we will always inform visitors of the fakes if they cannot find them. There is also a reason why we selected the item to be affiliated with McGill so that the documentation provided with the fake will allude more about McGill and his life.

Digger: What are the holy grails of McGill collecting for your clients and also for you? 

James: The Adult Nursery Tales. This is a very rare unpublished book from 1910, and immerses you straight into the murky side of Edwardian life. The 17 superb illustrations depict all manner of subjects: Theft, Disability, Disease, Infidelity etc. This rare item when it came up for sale in 1990 at Christies. The surviving McGill descendants and McGill collectors did not know of its existence. The under-bidder at the Christies sale values the 17 large illustrations as being worth £1,000- 3,000 each giving them a value of £20,000 - £50,0000.

Digger: You have amassed a great and impressive collection at the museum. How have you managed to do this? 

James: The 3 pallets helped but in addition to this we have made significant purchases including a recent self portrait which the museum recently purchased for £1500. This self- portrait first started life in an autograph book, but while others simply left their signature, Donald, as usual, gave so much more.

Digger: These days things are far from the relatively innocent times of McGill. What are your thoughts on that? 

James: Yes the permissive society is well and truly here. Donald was prosecuted in 1954 under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act. The essence of this act was if imagery or text or the combination of both would pervert the mind of a minor and bring them to adulthood sooner than should be. However, Donald rightfully used the Double Entendre and used innocent images and equally innocent text. It was only if your mind was mature/corrupt or perverse that you could see  a possible second meaning. Consequently, he should not have been brought to trial and actually went to trial with every intention of defending his cards. But he was knobbled by his own defence lawyer who clearly agreed with the prosecution, and persuaded Donald to accept a guilty plea - he was 79 years of age and in my view had what today is known as a senior moment.




As well as his saucy postcards, McGill was a social commentator and political satirist -
these postcards would have had him added to a Nazi blacklist




Digger: Why do you think nostalgia is generally so popular with so many people these days?

James: Life in the present will always be hard for most of the population. When one looks back, one focuses on the more positive things,  and it will always appeal due to there being a token of past times.

Digger: And what are your personal favourites from the collection?

James: In the Donald McGill (Saucy Seaside) Postcard Museum, out of all of the 1000ıs of postcards, numerous original artworks, bizarre artefacts sourced to entertain and amuse, the item I would choose as my favourite would, without question, be the large black and white photograph of Donald which covers the entire wall at the end of the Museum. Prior to my selecting it for the museum, it had hitherto been unpublished, which is in itself surprising because the ones that I have seen from the  same session were (in my opinion) far inferior with regard to capturing Donaldıs essence. The Picture Library states it was taken in 1954. I can only presume that the reason that Picture Post were photographing Donald at this particular time was because Donald had made the news due to being prosecuted under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act in Lincoln Quarter Session at this time.

The year before, it would appear that the waning do-gooders and possibly the church orchestrated a witch-hunt against the comic postcard industry, as they clearly did not approve of some of the cards. Their complaints to the police, or their local press, which was enough to instigate the police to act. The result was thousands of cards being seized in resorts around the country from Penzance to Grimsby ­ in Ryde alone 5 shops were raided and of the 5,132 seized, 2,870 were destroyed under an order of destruction while the same cards continued to be sold in other towns on the Isle of Wight!  





McGill's postcards were in the great British tradition of pantomime and Carry On movies





It is, therefore, no surprise that Donald looks so solemn. The world is now on his shoulders, and, knowing him, this was the last thing he expected. He is now 79 years old, he lost his wife 2 years earlier  to cancer, and he is now living rent free in one of his boss's flat (his boss Joseph Asher had invested his postcard wealth into buying rundown large houses and converting them into flats.) Donald is living on the first floor of 36 Christchurch Rd Streatham (AKA St. Reatham). The house was reported at the time as being structurally unsound and overcrowded, with coal being heaped outside tenant's doors in the hall and corridors. He is photographed at his desk in the bay window, and other photos reveal a large Persian carpet and Victorian furniture, which was possibly actually purchased by Donald when Victoria reigned!

The result of the Lincoln Trial was disastrous for Donald. Despite going to trial with notes to defend a not guilty plea, the prosecution, because in the morning sessions two other postcard companies got off lightly, for this reason they changed the Jury (possibly because the jury had injured their sides laughing too much at the supposed "obscene" cards when shown as evidence). The sight of the new jury, and the prosecution lawyers knobbling Donaldıs defence lawyer meant that a guilty plea was agreed upon. This, it is estimated, cost the company the equivalent in todayıs money of  £100,000 from lost revenue of the 21 banned cards (4 immediately and 17 after existing stocks were exhausted) and the loss of their later revenue and also the shopkeepers who would no longer buy in future through fear of prosecution.

For me to wish to use the image in the museum was a task in its own right. Our funds were limited and we have had no funding or benefactor to assist us in our aim to make a shrine for this manıs lifeıs work. As a large image costs more to secure the rights on, I decided to make a collage, so the rights would be cheaper to attain. By surrounding Donald with some of his original artworks (including one of the four banned above the door on the right) and to ensure that they would not detract by being there, I ensured that the frames were repainted and the mounts were reprinted with the photographic data that they were covering. The result is a semi-transparent illusion which, in my opinion, does not diminish the gravity of the original photo.   

I am sorry that you cannot see the whole image. Unlike institutional museums and galleries throughout the land who have unlimited space - I do not.  However if you do come to visit you will be able to see it in all its glory.

Digger: Who are your 'typical' customers, where are your customers coming from  and what customer feedback/comments do you get? 

James: We get all sorts, but mostly the older generation who remember the cards. We often hear loud laughter emanating from the museum and  most  are pleased with their visit, we did however have one customer who tired to get his 40 year son into the museum  as a child, he complained when he left having spent over 30 minutes in the museum, he later wrote asking for his money back, the address was from a 2 Million pound house in the suburbs of Kew, London. His reasons for a refund were so comical ( he thought the whole museum was just the reception area!) that I asked if I could come and photograph him and place the correspondence on our website - but sadly he declined.

Digger: What are the best and most enjoyable aspects of running The Donald McGill Museum?

James: I think it is the pleasure in spreading the word about Donald, there is so much more to him than just Saucy Postcards! He is now getting the recognition he deserves. It is quite amazing that today you can buy utter rubbish by the likes of Hirst for hundreds of thousands of pounds (Hirst has a factory producing so called "artworks" which even he not contributed towards the items construction)  but an original McGill artwork is sill only worth about £1000.    

Digger: What are your plans for The Donald McGill Museum in the future? 

James: We would like to expand but  we are always juggling - any wealth patrons out there about to pay too much tax and would like to sponsor us??!!!!!

Digger: Well, having had a tour around the museum James I have to tell you I'm impressed, with the humour and creativity of Donald McGill and also with what you've achieved here. The Donald McGill Museum surely is a great and fitting tribute to the man but equally a wonderful place to visit for those who enjoy a good old-fashioned laugh.



Our museum pays homage to Donald McGill, who spent his life creating comic artworks for the then thriving postcard industry

We are located at 15 Union Street, Ryde Isle of Wight PO33 2DU.


web: Donald McGill Museum


t:  01983 568 555







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