How I became the RetroMontage creator

Another case of Happenstance. I had been an Ephemera dealer specialising in vintage consumer advertising and packaging in the 1980s. Precious little works of graphic art, Social History and Visual Culture through advertising. Some labels were of gold embossed antique paper used for perfume, soap, cologne, fabric, cigar boxes and bottles of alcohol. I had bought thousands of mint labels mainly sourced in Paris but also in Brussels and other European countries. 

I also collected Victorian scraps or die cuts as they are called in America. Mainly sourced in London and Paris, these imported German scraps were fashionable to create beautiful screens, tables and trays in Victorian parlours. Ladies stuck them into scrap books, some just stuck haphazardly while others were a work of art with flowers, birds, cats, ladies, fruit et al. The range of themes including Easter, Christmas and the seasons were endless.

In my personal collection I had thousands of labels, scraps and some illustrative postcards of Father Christmas along with angels and cherubs. But through Happenstance, Retrograph Archive had been founded and I thought I should wander around the NEC in Birmingham, the major exhibition halls in the UK for fancy goods and social stationery, promoting Retrograph Archive.

I needed to cobble something together quickly, so I laid out a few Christmassy postcards and some holly scraps on top plus florals and a couple of angels. Under, I had typed Retrograph’s details and my husband Martin, photographed the montage. I rushed up to Flash to get some colour copies and that was that so I thought.

I wandered around the NEC trying to chat companies up and promote but found the sales teams were there to sell, not to buy. Finally I met the owner of an Advent calendar publishing company. He looked long and hard at my little ‘chef d’oevre’ before asking me if I could create a Christmas card with Father Christmas, toys and boys. ‘Of course’ I said like a true professional.

He said he would contact me after the show as he too was there to sell. But he was the owner of an important global Advent calendar company and thinking of the coming years. Mr X wanted to make a presentation to WH Smith’s and visualised my montage as being perfect. Looking back decades later, it was certainly not professional but I alone had the material to create what he had in mind and most importantly, get paid. We never met again but as faxes had just arrived, he commissioned me formally by letter and made only two minor adjustments before requesting the 5” x 4” transparency. Bingo! I found I enjoyed creating montages. 

I must have left another leaflet with a company in Yorkshire because I received a phone call from the marketing manager asking me if I could design a large boxed jigsaw with the theme of ladies and fans Victoriana style. Sue X offered £200 just for the dummy. I would have done it for nothing!

Sue X was pleased with the result. I had added perfume labels, perfume cards, flowers, fans, butterflies, birds, ladies with hats making the montage look very detailed and perfect for a difficult jigsaw. She rang to say it was just what the company wanted for their mail order catalogue. I would get full credit and by the way, would £900 be alright?  I calmly replied, ‘Why not round it up to £1,000?’ Agreed. My first real professional job. No stopping Jilliana now.

Word must have got out because I was contacted by the shop ‘Past Times’ that stocked the beautiful sophisticated American Victoriana calendar by John Grossman and Cynthia Hart. John had been my client in the late 70s and early 80’s for cigar and perfume labels. His first wife Roberta had been the creator and pioneer of the sticker market through Happenstance.  ‘Past Times’ were considering creating their own calendar without using the jewellery styled with the die cuts in the Workman New York calendar.

I was commissioned to create January, February and March montages. In other words New Year, Valentine and Easter but only a verbal contract agreed with the marketing department. I created 3 RetroMontages and she loved them.  I even did an extra one for Mother’s Day with perfume, children and flowers. My dummies passed the board meeting but the Managing Director somehow had not seen them. Suddenly I received an apologetic call saying that the the boss of the company had decided to keep importing in the Workman calendars. She was devastated and so was I. But the company had to pay for my dummies.

What to do with my 5” x 4” transparencies? As Martin was a small independent publisher exhibiting at the LIBF and Retrograph Archive, now a commercial photo library, had become a member of BAPLA, I decided to print the Mother’s Day visual on an A4 sheet in full colour as coloured lasers had just arrived in the mid 80s and display them on the BAPLA stand at the London Book Fair.

Luck was on my side as the sheet was picked up by the wife of the owner of ArsEdition in Munich. Germany had no Ephemera and especially chromolithography embossed scraps as they had all been destroyed during both wars. I was therefore immediately commissioned to create a calendar for them in 1998 which they entitled ‘trauma’. I was given a free hand. However February for the Germans was carnival rather than Valentine’s and she loved my New Year piggies that brought good luck and were the symbol of money.

ArsEdition sold the American rights to New York publisher Stuart, Tabori and Chang. They also brought out photo albums too. I was delighted but it was New York publisher who commissioned the following year’s calendar. Meanwhile I could not stop creating ‘stock’ RetroMontages using cat scraps or vintage alcohol labels from France.

The Bridgeman Art Library, without my permission, published a prestigious catalogue of their Fine Art photo library using my RetroTravel image on the travel section page. What could I do? I had to take it as a compliment!

Eventually it was a flash in the pan that lasted 4 thrilling years. Pre-digital, I was ahead of my time in Europe. My RetroMontages became very sophisticated, styled by Jilliana and then photographed by Martin Breese who was a talented professional photographer, before being disassembled for ever. 

The original Christmas montage I did with Santas, boys and toys eventually sold as a corporate Christmas card. Fortunately I had not sold the copyright. Yes, I learned about intellectual property during the 20 years I curated, owned and managed Retrograph Archive.

Today I googled John Grossman who died in 2016 but his gift to the Nation of his magnificent Ephemera collection lives on. I see the New York designer Cynthia Hart is still producing her sophisticated Victoriana calendars in 2018 with the same ‘look’ as when I first bought one in the late 1980s before she and John went their separate ways. Past Times is no more but has been rebranded,  Retrograph Archive is no more but the photo library still exists, placed in the Mary Evans photo library. Another story for another vignette.

Written in the Zinbad Hotel, Kalkan, Turkey on 20.6.18.



Retrograph Archive
Obituary John Grossman
The Gifted Line John Grossman
Cynthia Hart’s Victoriana calendar 2018
Bridgeman Fine Art Library
Mary Evans photo library
Victorian scraps
Past Times shops
Mrs Grossman’s stickers
The Ephemera Society of GB
The Ephemera Society of America (John and Caroline Grossman Collection)