PICTURE SPECIAL: Postcards offer a Voyage of Discovery

IT was originally conceived as a piece of ephemera that would drop through someone’s letter box and be of mild, passing interest before being consigned to a drawer or the waste paper bin.

Today, a view of King Street in Shields in the slightly too-vivid colours of a Pearl and Dean advertisement of the same era, captures the location in a moment in time, before its economic fortunes were re-drawn by the march of the out-of-town retail centre.

HISTORY ... an impressive array of shipping off Brigham and Cowan's at Shields.

HISTORY ... an impressive array of shipping off Brigham and Cowan's at Shields.

Similarly, a view of the Tyne off Brigham and Cowan’s shipyard reflects an array of a shipping that belongs, now, to the history books.

In each case, they conceivably carried ‘wish you were here messages”. Looking at them today, however, you’re challenged to think: “Do we wish we still were?”

Which is just part of the appeal of the exhibition, The Postcard: A Voyage of Discovery, at South Shields Museum, where the local views mentioned above, and others, supplement hundreds more from the collection of Gail Nina-Anderson.

They are the choices of the Newcastle-based cultural historian from what she describes as “my own haphazard yet cherished hoard” and which explore the pleasures of collecting and, as she says, “just wondering why?”

The exhibition sets out to be light-hearted, if in some cases the subjects are far from that.

There are dead things, stuffed things, hints of the supernatural and similar curiosities from the gallery of the macabre.

One section devoted to waxworks show efforts ranging from almost fine art to the hilariously frightful.

There are saucy seaside postcards from the era before political correctness, while others reflect the change from sauce to –ahem – glamour.

And there are postcards that are in themselves political, and others that make social and cultural statements.

There are babies and cuddly animals in various engaging or bizarre settings.

More again simply chart the evolution of colour in postcard production, going back to the off-kilter, sometimes eerie, hand-colouring of the turn of last century.

What the exhibition engagingly illustrates, for the viewer, is that there is no end to the human imagination: a kangaroo on a bicycle, HRH The Prince of Wales sculpted in butter.

In that respect, it’s wise just to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the apparently endless creativity of the human mind.

Going back to the local views, some of them are lovely, like the North beach – now Little Haven – again in those slightly too vivid colours that paint the sand just a touch too golden.

There is also a splendid one of the lifeboat Tyne, adorned with flags, which goes back to its early days in its location at the Pier Head in Shields.

Holiday photographs which can be instantly snapped and forwarded from smart ‘phones may, to some extent, have replaced the postcard in the scheme of things.

Which only leaves you sad for following generations who we risk leaving nothing similar to engage with, dazzle, perplex, entertain and – yes – just occasionally ask: Why?!

l The Postcard: A Voyage of Discovery runs at South Shields Museum until January 24.

l The museum is closed between December 14 and January 4, except for Santa’s Grotto day on December 20.