British illustrator Zara Picken is something of a collector. On a mission to gather as much illustration ephemera from the mid-20th century as possible, she has built up quite the glorious archive, and now she's sharing it with the creative community to offer an online portal of inspiration.
The treasure trove of print, which Zara has titled Ephemerama!, is available for all to see on a dedicated Instagram account. With postal stamps and travel information leaflets, booklets and advertisements, these retro pieces come from anywhere between the 1950s through to the mid-1970s.
"Illustrations are ephemeral by nature", says Zara. "Produced for publication on leaflets, magazine covers, stamps, advertisements, beer mats, they are transient documents that are discarded, leaving illustration history incomplete. By collecting works from this time, I've realised that contemporary illustration owes a great debt to the 'commercial artists' of this era. Indeed, they were the first wave of modern illustrators, the pioneers of the practice as we know it today."
Based in Lincoln, Zara studied Illustration at UWE Bristol and has spent the last 13 years freelancing for clients internationally, creating work for editorial, publishing, advertising and more. Ephemerama! came about during the pandemic, as Zara found time to dive into her archive of print and begin to share it with others.
"The combination of style and idea is what makes illustration so compelling as a communicative art form and this was evident in abundance during the 1950s and '60s," she continues. "Playful, stylish and witty, illustration was rapidly evolving. Illustrators adapted to technological advancements with their accompanying new landscapes and audiences, much in the way they do now. Moving beyond poster art to embrace a range of media, the forward-thinking approach of these early illustrators encapsulated the optimism of the era and defined not only their time but illustration itself – the art of communication."
Of course, we all know that illustration is an ever-evolving medium. But Zara argues that historically, the creative practice has found itself "ill-defined" leaving it with a patchy history and a poor sense of identity. "Despite having existed since the time of cave paintings, illustration has only been established as a profession relatively recently," adds Zara. "Often seen as a grey area between the art establishment and design industry, these fields have frequently claimed illustrators as their own. As illustration becomes better understood and recognised, it is important to reevaluate its history, celebrating its traditions while acknowledging its interdisciplinary nature."
Some of the illustrators featured in Zara's collection were acclaimed during their careers but many have since been overlooked. These include women and émigré artists who forged successful careers in the face of adversity. "My research has revealed stories about illustrators that have yet to be told as part of the mainstream," she says, "such as Victoria Davidson, whose work and biography of against-the-odds success deserves to be shared with a wider audience."
All of the images in Ephemerama! are from Zara's personal collection. The source material is predominantly British and European, areas that have been less explored than the well-documented American history. "It does not represent a global perspective but draws parallels with the US, Australia and Israel," she says.
Zara goes on to say how creating an online archive for ephemeral items is significant, as they are largely ignored. "In being so ubiquitous, it is taken for granted, despite its social and aesthetic impact," she says. "The value of these artefacts lies in their ability to accurately reflect the age they were produced in better than any formal record. They exist as a visual witness to history, allowing a dialogue between the past and present. There are many parallels between then and now and I'm encouraged by feedback from illustrators today who are discovering the roots of their contemporary practice in this collection."