Retrograph – An Art Blast From The Past

© Retrograph - c1925 Swiss Chocolate Box top, printers sample.
© Retrograph – c1925 Swiss Chocolate Box top, printers sample.

Retrograph is a photo agency which curates design work from the past. It is a treasury of over a hundred years of publicity images. Director David Bull, says, “The Retrograph collection is a visual feast of classic graphic design images spanning 100 years of retrospective publicity work, from the mid eighteen hundreds to the mid twentieth century.”

Retrograph was first established some 25 years ago by Jilliana and Martin Breese and is a picture library that extensively specializes in publicity designs that have been created by commercial artists throughout the past one hundred and fifty years. It is a unique collection of designs that promote products, services, events and occasions and these images have been recorded photographically from the original prints, still retaining the qualities of the variety of printed methods that were used in their reproduction. The collection features some of the greatest and finest and most colorful examples of these artists’ work and the images also reflect all of the art movements that became popular throughout the 20th century.

© 14RGL010/Retrograph
© 14RGL010/Retrograph

The collection was unavailable for a time, but now has been recently digitized.  The visual feast of images includes brands such as Fry’s Cocoa, the Cunard Line, and Dubonnet.  And Bovril, of course. American readers might like to know that Bovril is a classic beef drink – or possibly not!

These extraordinary images evoke different, perhaps more innocent times. Certainly the illustrations will provide a ripple of excitement and amusement as well as admiration for the talents of the creators. The collection evokes an age when the skills and craftsmanship of image making was at its best, when artists of exceptional talent and imagination applied their craft to the promotion of business via the explosion of the color printing medium and advertising. The skills can be seen in the drawing and the exquisite use of color and are a reflection of outstanding dedication to this supreme design/art of the twentieth century and the evolution of the graphic designers and their importance in today’s marketing globally.

Retrograph have been working on the library images, digitizing the collection over the past two years or more and so far there are around 3000 available that are shown in 72 categories on their new website ( This is just a start to this important collection as there are still many thousands of images in the pipeline ready for digitization that they are working on for upload soon, and many more that will be available in due course.

The new website is well organized, with a drop-down menu of browse-able image categories, for example, Art Nouveau, Cityscapes, or Electrical Appliances.  There is also a search facility, which brings up various images.  When you look at an individual image a simple 4 part price structure comes up, so it is easy to obtain the image needed. Retrograph is based in the UK but their work is available worldwide.

David Bull says, “We continue to digitize our back catalog of over 4,000 more images and still source new material at every opportunity. Obviously there are many images that are not yet displayed on our web site so any particular requirements should be emailed to us on Our researchers will locate any relevant material in our library and supply a PDF selection sheet for consideration.”

© 62RGL002/Retrograph
© 62RGL002/Retrograph

This is a unique collection which shows off the best commercial art of past decades, and shows how much today’s illustrators should take note of the style of the past.

Retrograph also produce poster prints for home use from their sister site .

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