Robert Fawcett

We will be highlighting some of the illustrator files that were digitized from the Walt Reed Illustration Archive as part of a CLIR Grant initiative. Many people from the Libraries assisted with adding metadata to the digitized files. One person in particular, Ian Lanius, Curatorial Assistant in Special Collections, was willing to share some of his observations regarding whiskey advertisements illustrated by Robert Fawcett.

Robert Fawcett was a trained Fine Artist that gained fame and success in the field of Commercial Illustration.  He produced work that was highly detailed and naturalistic, which earned him the esteem of his peers.  He was known as “an illustrator’s illustrator.”

While working with the Walt Reed Illustration Archive, I noticed two illustrations that Fawcett produced for ad campaigns for Seagram’s V.O. and Hiram Walker Imperialwhiskeys. Both campaigns feature depictions of upper-class masculinity.  The Seagram’s V.O. ad shows a dock worker speaking to the captain of a yacht, men can be seen boarding the craft and we assume that one of them is the boat’s owner.  The taller captain looks down at the dock worker and says, “He always entertains important people. And always serves them Seagram’s V.O.”

The Hiram Walker Imperial ad depicts a scene that gives the impression of an English countryside estate.  White men in red hunting jackets and riding boots socialize as they are served Hiram Walker Imperial by a black butler.  The ad copy proclaims “Throughout the country… 9 out of 10 buy Imperial again!”

An enduring theme in the lore of white, American, upper-class masculinity is the drinking of a fine, aged, single malt scotch, either neat or on the rocks.  Again and again in mid-century illustrations we see distinguished men clutching tumblers half full with pale brown spirits, and we imagine that these men only drink the best.  But, Seagram’s V.O. and Hiram Walker Imperial?  These are not fine whiskies. Both are affordable, blended whiskies best suited to mixing with Coca-Cola.  It is very unlikely that a whiskey produced in Peoria, Illinois that consists of 70% neutral grain spirits (from the fine print of the Imperial ad) ever made it past the servant’s quarters of a country estate.

The 1940’s and 50’s were a time of intense hope and aspiration for the white American male.  This aspiration for social mobility was heavily leveraged by mid-century advertisers.  A middle class worker couldn’t expect to own a yacht or a country estate, but a basement wet-bar wasn’t out of the question.  And who knows, with enough hard work, maybe he could get that yacht someday.  And by the second or third glass, relaxing in his easy chair, it’s not hard to feel like he’s drinking the good stuff.  And then, the advertiser’s job is complete.

–Ian Lanius

About the author

Andrea Degener is the Visual Materials Processing Archivist in the department of Special Collections at Washington University Libraries.