Historic postcards are art in miniature
"Time of the Plum Blossoms," an Oilette postcard | Courtesy of Lake County Discovery Museum
Curt Teich Postcard Archives
Lake County Discovery Museum, in the Lakewood
Forest Preserve, Route 176, west of Fairfield Road, near Wauconda
10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; and 1-4:30 p.m. Sundays
$6; $2.50 for children ages 4-17; free for children 3 and younger. Coupon for $1 off admission on museum website
(847) 968-3400 or visit lcfpd.org
32,000 postcards from the Teich collections can be viewed on the Illinois Digital Archive website (www.idaillinois.org) by searching for Curt Teich Archives
Updated: May 15, 2012 8:03PM
In England, around the turn of the 20th century, if you thought about greeting cards, Christmas cards and, especially, postcards, you were probably thinking of Raphael Tuck & Sons.
The firm began in a small frame and print shop in Bishopsgate, achieved great success in the postcard boom of the 1890s and early 1900s, and eventually became “art publishers to Her Majesty” after receiving a royal appointment from Queen Victoria. It’s particularly well known for its large output of Oilette postcards — reproductions of original oil paintings commissioned by Tuck for the edification of the masses.
And now, a comprehensive collection of more than 35,500 Oilette cards has been donated to Lake County Discovery Museum’s Curt Teich Postcard Archives, now celebrating its 30th year, by mega-collector (and chairman emeritus of the Estee Lauder Companies) Leonard A. Lauder.
Valued at roughly $260,000, with funding included for the storing, cataloging, preserving and digitizing of the cards, the Oilettes are the second major donation by Lauder in the past few years, following a gift of 20,000 Japanese art postcards to the Boston Museum of Fine Art.
“The Oilettes were meant to be like small oil paintings that anyone could afford,” said Katherine Hamilton-Smith, who has for the last 30 years overseen the development of the Teich Archives, the largest public collection of postcards in the world. “The Tuck company hired painters to create little works of art like an English country scene or a scene of London, sometimes even advertisements for products like Cadbury’s Cocoa — with the purpose of heightening the average person’s access to images of beauty.”
Like any collector, Lauder has areas of personal interest that he pursues in his collecting and one of those — not terribly surprising in the chairman emeritus of the Whitney Museum of American Art — is aesthetics.
“I’m going out on a limb, speaking for him, but I believe Mr. Lauder is very interested in the whole question of aesthetic images,” Hamiton-Smith said. “I believe he’s interested in the fact that both high and low art exist in culture and that each type — fine art and art for the common person — has a valuable purpose.
“In this case, I think he was attracted to the idea that the Oilettes were intended to be a way for the average person to see, to own, to understand images of aesthetic beauty.”
Lauder’s collecting goals were not always so rare-fied, apparently. His first postcard, acquired at the age of 8, was an image of the Empire State Building, and he supplemented that with an assortment of art deco cards from hotels in Miami, along with the cards his mother, Estee Lauder, provided for him to write news home from summer camp. All, reportedly, are still in his personal collection.
Hamilton-Smith described Lauder’s Oilette collection as a major addition to the Teich Archives, which now contains roughly three million postcards and materials relating to their production — and aspires to provide a home for any cards produced from the late-19th century to the present.
“Any systematic collection like this, is significant,” she said. “Not necessarily in terms of rarity, though some individual pieces may be rare, but because someone has taken the time and energy to reconstruct a comprehensive collection. That is always special.”