Focus on Special Collections

Welcome to the June ‘Focus on Special Collections’ blog. This month we will be looking at the John Hassall Collection, dedicated to the work of a prolific artist and designer, who was responsible for one of the best-known poster designs of the early 20th Century.

photograph of John Hassall in his studio
John Hassall in his studio, circa 1900


John Hassall, (1868-1949) was born in Kent and educated in Devon and Heidelberg. In 1888 he emigrated to Canada with his brother, Owen, to work in farming. He returned to Europe in 1890 and studied art in Antwerp and Paris. Although he did paint portraits on commission, he is best known as an illustrator and commercial artist, producing illustrations for books, magazine covers, cartoons and advertisements for a huge variety of products, from advertisements in magazines and newspapers to posters. Hassall also taught art and design, firstly at the New Art School and School of Poster Design in London, then through the John Hassall Correspondence Art School, where students worked from instruction booklets and submitted their works to Hassall by post for comments and criticism.

Hassall was a prolific artist and produced a huge body of work over the course of his career. His work as an illustrator included books of fairy tales, as well as cover illustrations for adventure stories for older children and for comic novels for adults. His advertising clients included many brands that have become household names, such as Kodak, OXO and Coleman’s Mustard. His posters advertised not only products, but also events, such as pantomimes and exhibitions. The poster for which he has become best known was designed for the Great Northern Railway in 1908 to advertise both British seaside resorts as holiday destinations, and the railways as a means of reaching them. The poster shows a fisherman, skipping along a beach, with the slogan “Skegness is SO bracing!” The design, known as the Jolly Fisherman, proved instantly popular and the fisherman was eventually adopted as the mascot of the town and a statue of the figure stands in a local park. The influence of the Jolly Fisherman has continued with the image being adapted by cartoonists and caricaturists to this day.

poster showing a fisherman skipping along a beach with the caption "Skegness is so bracing"
Hassall’s design for the GNR advertisement, used here to promote his Correspondence Art School

The collection

The collection contains:

  • diaries
  • sketchbooks
  • ledgers
  • printed books
  • correspondence (personal and professional)
  • course booklets for the John Hassall Correspondence Art School
  • photographs
  • original artworks and sketches
  • posters and advertisements
illustration showing a girl climbing a magic beanstalk.
Illustration by Hassall for Ruff & Reddy: the fairy guide, written by May Byron and G. E. Farrow

THe exhibition

Items from the Hassall Collection, including sketches, advertisements and ephemera, are currently on display at the Heath Robinson Museum as part of an exhibition entitled John Hassall: illustrator and poster artist. The exhibition runs from 22nd May to 29th August 2021. For details, see the Heath Robinson Museum website

Watercolour painting showing a snowy landscape with houses and a carriage.
Detail of a watercolour painted in Manitoba, Canada

For more information about our collections, visit the Special Collections webpage. If you have an enquiry about a specific collection, or you would like to ask us about a research visit, please email


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