In the heart of the New Forest, the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu is an impressive shrine to the history of motoring in Britain. There are more than 250 cars and motorcycles, from the World Land Speed record breaker Bluebird, to the magical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. But it’s also home to an important part of British motoring history that doesn’t ride on four wheels – the Shell Heritage Art Collection.

Comprising of around 20,000 pieces – including 8,000 posters, press advertisements, paintings and illustrations, as well as postcards, books and a unique series of Valentine’s Day cards – the collection charts the evolution of the Shell brand, from the early 20th century right through to the 1980s.

Melinda McCheyne, Promotions Manager for the collection, says: “It is one of the most important collections of commercial art in Britain; and we do think of it as art rather than advertising.”

An artist’s platform

Swansea-born Sir Cedric Morris, who went on to exhibit in the Tate, was just one of many artists whose work was used as part of Shell’s first body of commercial art: a lively series of postcards that chronicles Britain’s social and scientific history.

Spanning from early 1900 to the late 70s, these cards champion aviation and motoring achievements, celebrate technological innovations, and make fanciful predictions about the future of space travel, often with a humorous twist.

This would prove to be only the beginning of Shell’s influence on the art scene. “In 1932 Jack Beddington became the advertising manager for Shell and supported several artists’ careers,” says Melinda.

To produce a new genre of advertising posters, Jack Beddington commissioned a roster of talented artists – including the likes of Paul Nash and Vanessa Bell – who would go on to be remembered as some of the leading names in British art. 

“The ‘30s was a strong time for the brand,” explains Melinda. “Poster advertising was extremely important at that time and some of the era’s most prominent artists were working on these for Shell.”

In many ways these artists helped open up a new chapter of brand advertising that went beyond the more conservative approach that preceded it. Shell had cemented itself as an innovator in the field of marketing.

Shell continued its innovative approach between the 1930s and 1980s when it edged into the world of content marketing, compiling a compendium of British travel guides, which were once edited by John Betjeman before he became Poet Laureate. Robert Byron, author of much-revered travelogue The Road to Oxiana, was among the contributing creatives of the time.

A Valentine’s tradition

In 1938 Shell established a tradition that continued until 1975 and began anonymously sending its female customers bespoke Valentine’s Day cards. The cards were attractive designs created by artists of the day and carried clever puns and rhymes on motoring and petrol themes.

The collection was extended in 1964 when Shell bought 200 cards from London’s famed The Valentine Shop in the Strand. These new additions trace the tradition of Valentine’s Day from the early 19th century, and include beautiful Victorian cards with intricate filigree lace work and flowers as well as satirical cartoons and cruel verse expressing heartbreak and lost love.

Shell’s collection at Beaulieu has become iconic, separate from any other form of historic commercial advertising. Like the cars it shares its home with, it’s an important part of history that shows how driving has become part of our daily lives and how advertising has become an art form.

For a preview of some of the pieces on display and to find out how you can view the collection at Beaulieu please visit The National Motor Museum’s official website.

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