November 17 - December 8, 2017.
Andrew King, Enterprise Show Print, Conklin Shows: World's Finest Shows, ca. 1912 - 1944, woodblock print on paper.
Come One, Come All
Andrew King has been hailed as “a major figure in Western Canadian and North American printing history”.1 Indeed he is famously remembered for his striking three-colour circus show prints, which ran from the early 1910s up until he retired early in 1958, with the sale of The Estevan Mercury and King Show Print, to a company in Liverpool, England. His career in the printing business was lifelong and diverse.
The son of Scottish immigrants, Robert King and Janet Agnes Blair, Andrew was the only of the King’s five children to have been born in Canada. In his memoir, Pen, Paper & Printing Ink, King recalls his fascination with the written word starting early. His mother had worked for a time with an Edinburgh publishing house, and her stories so captured his imagination that as a young boy he would endeavour to reproduce moveable typeface by carving letters into the ends of bits of wood.2
King himself may not have regarded his endeavours as artistic pursuits. He collaborated with G. H. W. (Herb) Ashley on various prints3 and was being commissioned to created specific prints advertising for a myriad of events, fairs, sales, and midways. It was a very lucrative business for him.
Enterprise Show Print, installation detail, carnival poster, ca. 1912 - 1944.
King’s notorious entrance into the colourful world of show printing came about as a matter of happenstance. He became aware of an opportunity that seemed a logical extension of his weekly newspaper publishing business. The story famously goes that on one fateful day, King happened to strike up a conversation with the promotional agent for a touring theatrical company “whose advertising posters had gone astray”.4 The agent’s misfortune and subsequent dismay at the inability to procure replacement advertisements for his delayed shipment had planted a seed in King’s mind.
There was an obvious lack of printing services available on the prairies to accommodate the sudden demand to replace or produce promotional materials. King wondered, why not offer such a service in Rouleau?5 Rouleau was conveniently situated along a major rail line, which would easily facilitate his poster orders being shipped far and wide across Canada.
However, King did not immediately have the necessary skill set. He painstakingly set about teaching himself how to carve effective and eye-catching designs and text out of woodblocks. There was no limit to the size of the advert King could make, from larger than life tigers springing across a completely covered barn side along a railroad track, to printing 21cm x 13.5cm notebooks for judging competitions.
Andrew King , installation detail of two wood printing blocks for a fair, blue and yellow, ca. 1912 - 1958.
King’s printing business was a major success. His sons Bill and Stirling went on to assist in this business, becoming proficient woodcarvers like their father.6 His daughter, Jessie McBain, recalled the stability her father’s show print business brought her family during the turbulent times of the 1930s, of summers spent being loaded up into the family car and trekking out to collect payments for services rendered.7
King truly capitalised upon the heyday of the travelling circuses, carnivals, theatrical and musical performances, of the 1920s and 1930s. His surprising use of wood as the printing block over more durable and photographic quality of the prevailing trend of lithography is just another quirk that makes his prints so unique. In the waning years of King Show Print, King would use some zinc and copper plates to produce more photographic realism in his posters. These lithographic plates were contracted out to the Regina Engraving Company Limited.
Enterprise Show Print & King Show Print, installation view, various prints on paper and wood printing blocks, ca. 1912 - 1958.
His skill at woodcarving was phenomenal, his work was typically in three colours: yellow, red, and blue, with the occasional variation thrown in of black, orange, or green. He coordinated these productions, often pieced together by various blocks of wood and numerous sheets of paper to yield a fashionably engaging poster. To carve the yellow, red, and blue blocks to produce seamless joins between the various colours and sheets of paper, to continuously line up each block to perfectly align with the previous print, is quite astounding when taking in the sheer scope of posters he produced (in terms of size and variety).
This exhibition draws upon the vast collection of Andrew King materials currently in the Estevan Art Gallery & Museum’s (EAGM) permanent collection, from hand carved moveable type face, graphic and text wood printing blocks, zinc and copper plated lithographic blocks, and a wide swath of show print posters and fair advertisements, including a scrapbook of examples of works King could produce for his clientele.
Andrew King: The Travelling Circus, is a preview of what the EAGM intends to develop into a travelling exhibition. Items currently displayed will be reproduced and accompanied by a catalogue providing viewers with an experience similar to the actual exhibition hosted at the EAGM.
1. Lochhead, Douglas, 9 November, 1970. Preface in Pen, Paper & Printing Ink
2. King, Andrew. Pen, Paper & Printing Ink, 1970, pg. 17
3. The full depth of the partnership or collaboration between King and Ashley is not known. King acknowledges his working relationship with Ashley in his memoire, and there are some ‘mock-ups’ (hand written notes on a painted show print design for a midway) in the EAGM’s collections, which may be examples of their communication, however, there are no names in these notes.
4. Roberton, Linda. (Fall 1987). “It’s Showtime – and Andrew King has probably printed the poster”. Liaison: Saskatchewan’s Heritage Review, pg. 11.
5. Roberton, Linda, pg. 11.
6. Andersen, Amber. 2012. Andrew King: Welcome To The Circus, pg. 36. Estevan Art Gallery & Museum, Estevan, Saskatchewan.
7. McBain, Jessie. “Andrew King Files.” E-mail received by the Estevan Art Gallery & Museum, 5 September, 2003