detail of tiger , woodcut printing block, King Show Prints
As a dual mandate facility (arts and heritage) the EAGM's collections are comprised of two distinct components; a fine art collection, and a collection of NWMP/RCMP artefacts (plus local history artefacts). The dual mandate enables the EAGM to provide a diverse exhibit and public programming schedule to the public which is not served by any other organization in Southeast Saskatchewan.
The EAGM's fine arts collection consists of prints and paintings donated by the Saskatchewan Arts Board. These prints are from well-known Saskatchewan/Canadian printmakers and painters such as: David Thauberger, Ernest Lindner, Michael Lonechild, Doris Wall-Larsen, and Ronald Bloore. Enhancing this collection is a recent donation of Andrew King (former resident of Estevan and internationally established poster printer) printing blocks, prints and travel trunks. In the 1930's, Andrew King's business, Enterprise Show Print, was the only full-time show poster printing plant in Canada. He later moved to Estevan and renamed the business King Show Print, and continued to produce posters to sell nationally and internationally. The King collection directly applies to Estevan's history and heritage.
The EAGM's artefacts collection consists of objects that are related to the North West Mounted Police and the 1874 March West from Roche Percee to Estevan. This collection includes the historic Detachment Post. Artefacts housed in the NWMP Museum consist of: buttons from the NWMP tunics, nails found in the building and on-site, RCMP uniforms, rifles, arrowheads, riding gear, photographs and other paraphernalia related to law and order on the prairies in the 1870's and onward. The museum building NWMP Post (located on the grounds of the EAGM, and the oldest historic Detachment Post in Saskatchewan) is an actual artefact in itself and in 1987 it was declared a Municipal Heritage Building by the City of Estevan and the Saskatchewan Municipal Government, Heritage Department. Originally, this building was located where the Boundary Dam is now (a few miles south of Estevan).
As part of the EAGM's mandate as a gallery/museum, the collections are actively used for the advancement of life-long learning in arts, culture and heritage. Exhibiting artworks and artefacts demonstrates the EAGM's commitment to fostering knowledge about our local and regional history, art education, art history and the art practices of Saskatchewan artists, to enable visitors to gain an understanding and appreciation of Saskatchewan and Canadian art.
detail of cowboy , lithographic printing plate, King Show Prints
Andrew King's show posters captured the quintessential components of what would entice people from their everyday humdrum to a rich and entertaining world. The posters generally feature central characters who are always having a good time, combined with just enough text to give you the details and sell you on the event. They are nostalgic pieces that speak to a craft and a time of commercial printing and advertising that are long gone. The EAGM is fortunate to hold both King's wood blocks and some of the posters in its collection. These wood blocks represent an intricate part of King’s printing practice. Collaborations between Herb Ashley, the commercial artist who created the images, and King, who would carve them into relief block prints, could really be considered artistic pieces themselves. In this respect, these advertisements step outside the bounds of just being considered posters that sell us something. They become part of a process, collaboration and end-product that meshed both art and skill.
Andrew King would likely be hesitant to label himself an “artist”. King entered in the business of show poster printing in a very serendipitous manner. As owner and publisher of Rouleau Enterprise, a small newspaper situated in Rouleau, SK, King had a fortuitous meeting with a promotional agent from a theatre company whose advertising had been misplaced. In this meeting King was informed that there were no poster printing companies in Canada. Being an astute businessman, King seized the opportunity and began his own poster printing company that created woodblock prints in 1912.
Andrew King was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1885. An avid reader, he appreciated all aspects of books, from their ability to act as a form of escapism to the vast knowledge they held. What he admired most of all out of his family’s collection of reading materials were the lithographic prints found in the Bible and the typeset (font) used throughout all written copy.
As a young apprentice at the The Souris Plaindealer, King was able to learn the craft of newspaper printing. Very much like today, working in a smaller rural location afforded King the ability to learn all aspects of the business from setting type to operating the printing presses. He was encouraged to study typography in his mid- to late teens and eventually ventured back to Winnipeg to experience the larger urban context and to join the typographical union. King loved the atmosphere of small-town Prairies and enjoyed the simplicity of rural living. When The Elgin Banner came up for sale, 19-year-old King purchased the printing plant, and moved to Elgin, Manitoba. He would run The Elgin Banner from 1905 to 1909. His next adventure would take him to Rouleau, Saskatchewan where he purchased The Rouleau Enterprise in 1909.
It was a chance encounter in Rouleau in 1912 that would change King’s life, his business, and his legacy:
An advance agent of the theatrical company arrived in town to book the public hall and post advertising matter announcing its appearance.
His coming, along with his immediate troubles, created the beginning of a unique business with a continent-wide scope and reputation. That business became more than a lusty partner to the little weekly newspaper I was then publishing.
...The agent’s posters were three days late in arriving. During that time, he was in and out of my office several times a day, trying to cool off his impatience and no doubt appreciating the little bit of show talk I could carry on.
He wondered why there was not a poster printing plant somewhere in that part of Canada from which a prompt and convenient service could be obtained.
Jestingly, I said: “What about starting one here?”
He thought for a moment and said, “why not.”
I suddenly had a lot of ideas in opposition to my own suggestion, the main one being that Rouleau was but a small town sitting out on the wide-open prairie. He retaliated with reasons sound enough to nullify my objections and finished up by pointing out that so long as a poster plant was located at a place which had a good train service, that was the main consideration. Anyway, most showmen never visited the plant which produced their posters.
Andrew King, Pen, Paper and Printing Ink (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1970), 77.
In 1912, King opened Enterprise Show Print, a show poster printing plant that was a companion business to The Rouleau Enterprise. Clients were attracted to King's plant, the only one of its kind in Canada that could do large format printing on multiple sheets. He had the largest wood block letters in Canada, some standing seven feet. Theses block prints, composed of multiple sheets of paper, needed at least two sheets just for the lettering alone. This large-scale form of advertisement would cover barns, abandoned buildings, or buildings with large windowless sides viewable from the street. The purpose of this was to advertise and be seen from the furthest distance possible. As King’s notoriety grew for both his range in scale and style of posters he could produce the more his business flourished.
Two years after launching his new enterprise Andrew King began using wood blocks to create his posters. Before that he would have used the lithographic process, whereupon images are adhered to a stone surface. Switching over to wood became King’s claim to fame as he was the only commercial printer in Canada to use the wood block printing process. Ironically, King’s legacy was cemented when he switched from lithography, a process invented not even a century before his birth, to a form of printing that had been around for thousands of years.
Although King was the predominant carver and craftsman of the wood block carving process, he did not do many of the original drawings. As he was not trained as an artist, he would often commission other commercial artists for the drawings. However, it takes considerable talent to make eye-catching posters without actually using line or detail. The economy of line, particularly when creating posters for the larger scale to be read from afar, is a craft in and of itself and something that King’s posters are synonymous with. King found the perfect fit with Herb Ashley, a part-time commercial artist. Ashley would create large drawings or watercolours and submit these to King. Upon receiving the artwork, King would trace the various components of the image into groupings of objects that would be the same colour.
Posters by King Show Prints
King, while he lived in Rouleau, experienced the height of his career in show printing, coinciding, of course, with the height of traveling circuses/carnivals, theatrical companies and marching bands. In the 1940’s Rouleau was losing business to centres such as Regina and according to King, the newspaper was no longer turning a profit. He would take over The Estevan Mercury on February 01, 1944.
The move to Estevan and the establishment of a show poster print plant afforded King the opportunity to change the name. Now a family affair, King took the opportunity to switch the business title to King Show Print. With the return of his son Stirling from military service, the sons formed the partnership of King and Sons and Stirling took over the management of The Estevan Mercury and William took over the commercial printing side of the partnership.
On January 01, 1958 both businesses were purchased by The Liverpool Daily Post and Echo Ltd., and became The Estevan Mercury Limited. Although after negotiations the newspaper and commercial aspects of the business were still run by the family, the golden age of show poster printing ended with the sale of the business. The production of the large billboard posters and plates could no longer compete with their faster-paced contemporaries of television and radio.
Perhaps the greatest honour, as a writer, printmaker and general book enthusiast was the installation of selected works, chisels and wood blocks in Massey College at the University Toronto in a space named “King’s Corner”. At the age of 96 in 1981, King would pass away, leaving behind a rich legacy of visual importance.
-Excerpt from Amber Andersen, Andrew King: Welcome to the Circus (Estevan: Estevan Art Gallery & Museum, 2012)
Available from the EAGM for $20.00