Retrograph Archive (1986-2006)

Where to begin? I had become in the late 70s a founder member of The Ephemera Society of Great Britain and was especially passionate about labels, little vintage paper works of chromolithographic art printed in Paris from 1886 to 1960 for perfume, soap, alcohol, wine, champagne, fez, cotton bolts and embossed gilded cigar labels for the inside lid of cigar boxes. Later I was to collect hotel, shipping and airline labels until I had amassed a huge magnificent collection.

Initially I was an antique collectables dealer of 3D objects, not only china and tin but also  paper, which included Juvenilia, prints and books. Labels were my passion especially the visual side of it. I was a games, puzzle, conjuring and Pre-cinema specialist overlapping into the exciting world under the umbrella of Performing Allied Arts.

I was a regular exhibitor at The Ephemera Society fairs in London where I met a diverse assortment of collectors, mainly in the older age bracket and all very knowledgeable, some well known in their field, others not. Rich or poor. It mattered not. All were passionate about their collections. For others it was work related such as picture researchers looking for visuals for the publishing industry which in those days,  I knew nothing about.

One day in 1984 I received a call from Jenny X asking me if I had visuals of pigs for a book on pigs. I had 3. A 1920s showcard  hanging framed at home of Alhambra hams with a French chef riding a pig. Another, a French 1880 trade card with a flying pig and an English 1930s metal sign from a butchers with a whimsical porky face hanging in my kitchen.

Could she come over with a photographer? Yes of course said I in my innocence. Jenny arrived with the man and his tripod and offered £50 a picture. Wow thought I, that’s easy money and I get to keep my images! I had forgotten that Martin Breese, my husband had been a Sunday Times professional photographer with his own studio in Notting Hill in the late 60s. I had no idea of licensing reproduction rights, whether for the UK, Europe or the world. What did I know apart from buying and selling between Paris and London? Material property but not knowledge of Intellectual Property which had not yet emerged in my exciting active life.

Some months passed. Jenny called to ask if I, Jilliana Ranicar-Breese, would like to go in a hardback £40 edition of ‘UK Picture Sources’ a book that she was compiling. The entry would be free of charge and published about 6/9 months later. I must have heard the magical word ‘free’ and so agreed. She sent the forms.

I recall it was a lazy Sunday morning after a tiring Saturday day wheeling and dealing at my busy Portobello Road stand at the world famous market. I was in bed having coffee with my hard working multi media publisher husband.

The forms asked the name of my archive. What archive? I had stock galore but no archive and I certainly was not open  to the public. Well everything was vintage or retro. Thus the title Retrograph came to mind. Graphics from the past. Looking back decades later, it should have been Retrographics but that morning I had no idea of the consequences and that through Happenstance, I had created, a nostalgia picture library that would endure 20 years and provide us with an income.

Next question was how many transparencies in the archive? Easy answer. None! Well I had vast stock, so why not put down 10,000? I didn’t care. I had amassed thousands of original labels and Ephemera mainly sourced in Paris where I had been living before I finally married in 1983. In the following decade I would continue to go back and forth especially to buy at the ‘Foire de vieux papiers’ at the Porte de Champerret.

Hours? Well 10.00 to 6.00 imagining in the UK most business closed on the dot of 5.00.

Description of archive? Easy,  I just listed all my subjects and there were a lot. Well perhaps 50, ranging from my favourite, the Art of The Label, cars, planes, ships, rail, animals, especially cats, hotels, food, commodities, music, cinema, Boer War and even Judaica. Those were the themes. Then there was the style of design like Art Nouveau or Art Deco or typography and layout, my favourite reference book being ‘Mise en page’ and inspirational Art Deco pochoirs published in 1924 by Benedictus. By the time I had finished typing, it looked impressive but to me it was not serious, just a free entry in a directory I would never see, so I thought. Off the forms went back to Jenny X and the entry was promptly forgotten.

Months later I was watching TV one evening when the phone rang. ‘Is that Retrograph Archive?’ A far away drawl demanded to know. ‘You’ve got the wrong number’ I said and put the phone down returning to watch my favourite soap ‘Dynasty’ with fabulous alluring ‘fancy schmancy’ padded shoulder gowns. Not giving up, my first customer Sally Fox phoned yet again saying she had found ‘Retrograph’ in ‘Picture UK Sources’ and what did I have with women working. Easy as I had an eidetic memory for visuals I knew I had in stock French chromo trade cards of a woman making Belgian lace, another of a woman seated in front of a Singer sewing machine  and a Balinese woman dancing. But these were for sale at £5 each, having bought them in Paris for a mere 50p each. I was not thinking in publishing mode. I had forgotten Jenny had offered me £50 an image. Sally was coming to London working on her annual women’s calendar to be published in America. When she arrived in time for The London Book Fair, she would come over,  and agreed to buy at my inflated price of £10 each. She left pleased with her bargain. For me it was just another easy sale. I had not yet woken up in the real world. I was still in my Micky Mouse world.

The next day, I got a phone call from a German newspaper based in London. What graphic images did I have on German vintage cars? This time I asked how the picture desk had found out about ‘Retrograph’. She replied the ‘UK Picture Sources.’ I asked her to photocopy the listing and send it by post as faxes had not yet arrived in the mid 80s. 

I was shocked to see my ‘important’ entry of one and a half A4 page columns! Unwittingly I had started a new business that would last 20 years until the digital age caused its demise - a sign of the times. Retrograph Archive, eventually ahead of it’s time, became the 4th UK Nostalgia Archive and a member of BAPLA. It began in 1987 beginning with French images in Terrance Conran’s ‘France’, a multitude of images in Alan Swan’s ‘The layout source book’, in addition to 40 images in Marie Pierre Lemoine’s ‘Cuisine grand’mere’ with a ‘tragic’ end but that’s a story for another vignette.


Google -
Amazon - ‘France’ by Terrance Conran 1987
Amazon - ‘The layout source book’ by Alan Swann
Amazon - Cuisine grand’mere by Marie Pierre Lemoine
BAPLA - British Association of Picture Libraries
LIBF -London Book Fair
The Ephemera Society of Great Britain
Edouard Benedictus 1924 Paris
Mise en Page undated Paris
Pochoir printmaking 

Written at The Courtyard Hotel in Kalkan, Turkey on 12.6.18

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