Tobacco art on show

PICTURED: Museum volunteer Gill Shadwell has a particular interest. Her father-in-law was a tobacco'artist, designing the Black Cat symbol.
PICTURED: Museum volunteer Gill Shadwell has a particular interest. Her father-in-law was a tobacco'artist, designing the Black Cat symbol.

WHEN created, many were minor works of art in their own right. When superseded they were used as pig pens or fencing.

Today, the enamelled metal signs which in an age before political correctness and health-and-safety proclaimed the wonders of pipe tobacco, cigarettes and cigars are highly collectible, eagerly sought by discerning connoisseurs.

That’s why curator Julian Porter is delighted that the west wall of Bexhill Museum is now ablaze with enamelled colour.

He is equally delighted that a local collector should have volunteered to put many of the most cherished of a collection which he has been amassing since childhood on display for the enjoyment of the public.

Julian hopes this generous gesture will prompt similar offers.

The exhibition, succinctly named Tobacco, runs until the beginning of October. It encompasses all forms of the tobacco publicist’s art.

In addition to the wall display, there are display cases packed with carefully-labelled tobacco tins from an era when a myriad of manufacturers fought for supremacy in a highly-competitive market and Wills Gold Flake were 10 for three old pennies!

It was a golden age brought to an end with the dawn of television advertising.

Gareth (he prefers not to reveal his surname) began his collection at an early age. In fact, it could hardly have been earlier.

“My grandfather gave me my first tin at one month old. It contained five old pennies of my birth year.

“Then in the Seventies when my grandfather moved to Bexhill he smoked St Bruno. I was interested in the design of the tins. He bought various sizes and the designs changed.”

Gareth had been bitten by the collecting bug – bitten hard. “When I was about 10 I used to go around the shops and ask if they had any surplus or empty tins.

“I got quite a few like that.

“When I was 11 I went to Bexhill High School. I used to ask various classmates if their fathers had any empty tobacco tins. I used to offer them 5p or 10p to encourage them…”

Gareth’s thirst for knowledge about tobacco art was sharpened after headteacher Colin Evans led a school outing to the former pipe museum at Bramber. He discovered how only one colour at a time can be added during the enamelling process. Some of his exhibits are the product of as many as 11 firings.

A non-smoker, he became a member of the Cigarette Tobacco Club, an international body with its base in the UK.

Today, Gareth invests rather more than schoolboy pocket money in expanding his already vast collection. The oldest item in Gareth’s collection dates back to 1878. One of his examples of the still-remembered Players Navy Cut sailor is from the 1890s.

But who now remembers Star cigarettes?

But then who could forget a tobacco with the brand name Baby’s Bottom – a product claimed to be as smooth as the proverbial baby’s bottom.

Bexhill Museum does not endorse smoking nor any brand. But it until October it will be offering a fascinating insight into a compelling art-form.