Sri Lanka, a pearl-shaped tropical island in the Indian Ocean, second only to Hawaii in bio-diversity, was formerly known as the Dominion of Ceylon.
It was the pioneers of the tea industry here in the 1860s, Scotsman James Taylor first among them, who inadvertently spearheaded Ceylon’s trend for delightful poster art.
"Until the 1860’s the main crop produced on the island of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, was coffee. But in 1869, the coffee-rust fungus, Hemileia vastatrix, killed the majority of the coffee plants and estate owners had to diversify into other crops in order to avoid total ruin. The owners of Loolecondera Estate had been interested in tea since the late 1850’s and in 1866, James Taylor, a recently arrived Scot, was selected to be in charge of the first sowing of tea seeds in 1867, on 19 acres of land. Taylor had acquired some basic knowledge of tea cultivation in North India and made some initial experiments in manufacture, using his bungalow verandah as the factory and rolling the leaf by hand on tables. Firing of the oxidized leaf was carried out on clay stoves over charcoal fires with the leaf on wire trays. His first teas were sold locally and were declared delicious. By 1872, Taylor had a fully equipped factory, and, in 1873, his first quality teas were sold for a very good price at the London auction. Through his dedication and determination, Taylor was largely responsible for the early success of the tea crop in Ceylon. Between 1873 and 1880, production rose from just 23 pounds to 81.3 tons, and by 1890, to 22,899.8 tons. The first vessel recorded as carrying Ceylon tea to England was the steam-ship ‘Duke Argyll’ in 1877".
The Ceylon Tea Museum.
Taylor’s European tea cultivating successors, Thomas Lipton and John Hagenbeck among them, began to evoke idyllic and colonial images of the mystical land of Ceylon to promote their tea.
"Since posters were a powerfully effective and economical medium of advertising, by 1890 almost every tea importer in Europe and North America was using eye-catching posters and calendars to promote their brands. Maravilla, Dalu Kola, Ceylindo, Wills, and the ubiquitous Lipton, with its slogan Direct from the Tea Gardens to the Teapot, were some of the well-known brands in Great Britain while Bohringer, Sumangala, Saman, and Chinbara were popular in Europe.”
Vintage Posters of Ceylon.
Cargo companies bearing the tea back to Europe and America and cruise-liners ferrying intrepid Edwardian tourists eastwards followed in their wake, creating beautiful posters asserting Ceylon as an irresistible port of call.
The vivid marketing campaigns that accompanied the rapid expansion of tea cultivation across the Indian subcontinent served as a sort of global branding campaign for Ceylon; raising its profile internationally, accruing the island, perfectly-placed, just a few miles north of one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, with an exotic appeal that incurred an early 20th Century boom in tourism, a boom that is being echoed now, one hundred years on.
The shipping companies role in the flourishing travel poster art movement were soon surpassed by the first commercial airline industries; by the British Overseas Air Corporation, by Qantas and also by the fledgling national carrier, Air Ceylon.
The Ceylonese Government Tourist Board capitalized on this boom in tourism, commissioning the most talented artists on the island to produce iconic images of Ceylon they could promulgate internationally. Ceylon, created by CKL Samarasinha (1919 -2003) of Galle in 1938, is without doubt the finest example of these early Tourist Board posters generated entre-deux guerre.
In 1942, with the spectre of a Japanese invasion casting a dark shadow over the island, the War Cabinet’s Civil Defence Commissioner Sir Oliver Goonetilleke ingeniously applied Ceylon’s by then flourishing indigenous poster art movement for Allied PsyOps purposes. Goonetilleke did so by sponsoring what we believe to be the first all-island poster competition; an initiative we resurrected with the launch of the No Bill Piece Prize in 2014.
C.K.L Samarasinha scooped up first prize for propaganda pieces stating ‘Beware, Snakes in the Grass’ and ‘Keep a Seal on Your Lips’ and the like. Samarasinha, along with Gamwasi Senarath Fernando (1904 - 1990) went on to repeatedly win the many subsequent poster competitions held on the island. Poster competitions became a popular way of cheaply generating high quality illustrations for advertising purposes with the Ceylon Coconut Board, the Shell Company, the Ceylon Society of Arts, the National Savings Movement, the Police, the Ceylon Transport Board, the Ceylon Cancer Society and even the Rubber Research Institute all sponsoring successful competitions during the next few decades.
By 1948 the Government’s Tourist Bureau had fully resumed their peacetime advertising efforts. On September 24th of that year the Ceylon Daily News led with prints of three beautifully illustrated posters, each of which is exhibited in Stick No Bills’ gallery today. The newspaper reported "In the government Tourist Bureau’s recent competition which attracted some 250 exhibits from Ceylon’s leading poster artists, the first and second prizes were both annexed by C. K. L Samarasinha with his Kandyan dancer and beach designs. The third prize went to G. S. Fernando’s temple motif.
By the late 1950s, Ceylon’s newfound world fame and the associated commercialization of the poster art movement had helped elevate the country to a status akin to that of early 21st Century Hawaii in terms of being established as a world-class Destination par-excellence for the Western film industry. As the Ceylonese film industry started to thrive the island’s homegrown advertising poster movement evolved from tea, to embrace travel and then film as well.
Between the 1950s and the late 1970s, a remarkable variety of stunning movie posters were created pertaining to ambitious Ceylonese, German, British, French and American films made on location in Ceylon with the classic World War 2 film The Bridge on the River Quai most legendary of all of them.
Ethnic strife took hold in the latter part of the 20th Century, escalating into a full-blown civil war in the 1980s. Tragically, the conflict turned out to be one of Asia’s longest and most vicious modern wars leading to the deaths of over 100,000 people and pulling the country’s hitherto flourishing film, tea and tourism sectors asunder with it.
The tea trade staggered on but tourism, film production and poster art creation promoting Sri Lanka in one way or another all but ceased. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Tarzan the Ape Man were excellent exceptions to this trend, both being filmed in the hill-country here in the 1980s in defiance of the overall deterioration in the security situation.
In May 1972 the government of Ceylon changed its name to the Free, Sovereign and Independent Republic of Sri Lanka. From that moment in global geographical history onwards the rich, pre-digital era colour posters of Ceylon, whether pertaining to tea, travel, the war or cinema all became emblematic of a verdant lost world of unrivalled mystique. In ceasing to exist, Ceylon, and the posters depicting it, became all the more enchanting.