The Royal College of Art in London was an important centre by the early 1960s, producing a number of artists who shared enthusiasm for mass culture. The sources for their work ranged from American food packaging and advertising to games machines and media icons such as Marilyn Monroe.

The younger artists set about breaking down hierarchies between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art in technique as well as subject matter. They invented a new vocabulary for painting, informed by a productive flow of ideas between different departments at the Royal College. Their immediate public appeal is demonstrated by a BBC TV documentary called Pop Goes the Easel, first screened in 1962.

This painting refers to the imported Philip Morris brand, showing Smith’s preoccupation with all things American. It exploits the three-dimensional form of cigarette packets, challenging the conventional flatness of painting. Its vast scale has the impact of billboard advertising or widescreen movies. 

Richard Smith, ‘Gift Wrap’ 1963
Richard Smith
Gift Wrap 1963
© Richard Smith Foundation

Tilson used craft techniques to create wooden constructions such as Vox Box, inspired by the playful and bold imagery of children’s puzzles and toy packaging. This work shows an open mouth filled with comic-like exclamation marks. 

This painting expresses Boshier’s concern with the manipulation of the viewer by advertising media. A man is represented as nothing more than a depersonalised piece in a semi-abstract jigsaw, literally fused with toothpaste, a typical mass consumer product. According to the artist, ‘it represents me (us), the spectator, participant, player, or cog-in-the-wheel - the amorphous’.

Joe Tilson, ‘Vox Box’ 1963
Joe Tilson
Vox Box 1963
© Joe Tilson
Derek Boshier, ‘The Identi-Kit Man’ 1962
Derek Boshier
The Identi-Kit Man 1962
© Derek Boshier
Peter Phillips, ‘The Entertainment Machine’ 1961
Peter Phillips
The Entertainment Machine 1961
© Peter Phillips

The Entertainment Machine is a depiction of a fruit machine that, at first glance, recalls contemporary abstract painting. Peter Phillips said, ‘My awareness of machines, advertising and mass communication is probably not in the same sense as an older generation. I’ve been conditioned by them and grew up with it all and use it without a second thought’.