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The Arnott's "Arrowroot" Biscuit Poster: Photograph, Painting, or Both?

Is it a photograph? A painting? Or a seamless blend of both? You be the judge. This masterful fusion of art and science, created over 120 years ago, exemplifies a time when printing and painting were intertwined.


The Print Museum of Printing extends heartfelt gratitude to Maurice Brown and his wife, Kerry, for their generous donation of an original, and possibly unique example of early print advertising. This piece hails from a time long before television, the internet, or social media, illustrating the nascent use of print as a marketing tool.


This era, spanning from the 1880s to the First World War (1914), marked the rise of the middle class. People had disposable income for the first time, leading to a boom in spending on luxury items like perfumes, soaps, ocean voyages, and, intriguingly, biscuits. Companies began to capitalize on this newfound purchasing power, creating advertisements that were as persuasive as they were artistic.


A quintessential example is Pears Soap's campaign in the 1880s, which featured Sir John Millais's iconic painting "Bubbles." This campaign brilliantly convinced people to adopt more rigorous hygiene practices, showcasing the burgeoning power of advertising.


Early marketers quickly realized the allure of using cherubic children in their ads. The "Bubbles" campaign spawned numerous similar images, pushing the limits of contemporary printing techniques. At that time, there were no standardized methods for colour separation, paper quality, or inks. Printers faced the challenge of reproducing delicate skin tones without creating unsightly shadows, a feat often achieved with the help of skilled hand-retouchers. These artists applied subtle brushwork to enhance photographs, a craft akin to an acrobat's performance effortless to behold, yet incredibly challenging.

 Maurice Brown proudly displays the Arnott's biscuit poster, a gift from a friend of the Arnott family, now showcased at the Penrith Museum of Printing. This captivating Arnott's "Milk Arrowroot" poster, circa 1908, was likely printed in Sydney by an unknown printer,

"M. S. Hill, 6 Bridge St, Sydney." The poster features Geoffrey, an early member of the Arnott family who eventually became chairman. According to our donor, Geoffrey's beautiful blonde hair—or possibly a wig—was a topic of playful ribbing among his friends.

The image itself conceals intriguing secrets. Is it a photograph or a painting? Or a blend of both? Close inspection reveals deft brushstrokes, particularly around the red tie and blue braces, and white highlights added by commercial artists to enhance colours the cameras of that era couldn't capture.


Detailing the skilled brushwork of an unknown commercial artist, this poster seamlessly merges photo and painting. The red pinstripes on Geoffrey's trousers are entirely fabricated, his hair shows varying degrees of sharpness, and even the folds in his clothing were hand-painted. Notably, the hand holding the soap was added by hand.


This technique was common at the time, with almost all photographs requiring hand retouching to enhance the image. This skill ensured that added brushstrokes blended seamlessly with the underlying photo, a practice also seen in postcards of the era where elements like moons, clouds, or car headlights were often added by hand.


The Arnott's poster stands as a testament to this meticulous craft, showcasing how hand-retouching defined an era where print was a sophisticated blend of art and science. The added brushstrokes, indistinguishable from the photograph, highlight the artisans' ability to create beautiful, enduring works.


Take another close look at the poster. How many telltale signs of hand-retouching can you find? This tribute celebrates the artisans of yesteryear, who masterfully combined print and hand-retouching to produce works we continue to admire over a century later.

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