Past Events

DRN WIP Workshop: Exploration, Cartography, Bombardment: The Search for Petroleum in Royal Dutch Shell’s Interwar Advertising Posters

DRN Events – Tobah Aukland-Peck

  • 9 November 2021
  • 4:00 – 5:30 pm
  • Online

This is an event for DRN members only. You can find out more about the network here.

The DRN’s WIP Workshop series is an opportunity for members of the network to present papers on their research relating to British art histories. We are keen to encourage collaboration within our research community and hope that these WIP workshops will help researchers develop their work whilst simultaneously making all our members productively aware of new issues, ideas, directions and methodologies developing within the field of British art history.

Notable British artists in the interwar period, including Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, and Vanessa Bell, were commissioned by the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell to create advertisements for the company’s petroleum products. The posters from this campaign include a broad cross-section of rural scenes from the British Isles. Styles from Surrealism, to Cubism, to Vorticism were used to express the convergence of technological modernity and domestic travel. These country scenes encouraged motor travel by reinforcing a connection to a nostalgic landscape untroubled by industrialisation.

Underneath this visual lexicon, however, lay the process of oil extraction, a mode of commercial production that challenged the integrity of any landscape it touched. Methods of oil prospecting – which included colonial exploration, aerial cartography, and blasting – disregarded and disrupted the visible landscape in favour of unseen mineral deposits. The fields, picturesque ruins, and seascapes depicted in the posters were a veneer cast over the ugly reality of global oil production. The search for petroleum products accentuated the value of subterranean oil reserves over the distinctiveness of the rural landscape, an economic calculation that gave rise to exploitative oil drilling in both the domestic and colonial realm.

This paper interrogates British geological identity in the 1930s, reinscribing Shell’s advertised bucolic character in the broader framework of Britain’s imperial landscape. Ultimately, motorised exploration was predicated on Shell’s development of newly discovered ancient oil reserves, a structure of power removed from longstanding conceptions of national and imperial borders. While the Shell advertisements drew attention to Britain’s abiding preoccupation with its landscape painting tradition, this paper locates the hidden topographical landscape, represented through geological surveys, aerial photography, maps, and imagery of Britain’s fossil landscape, as the company’s commercial priority. I propose the Shell advertising series as evidence of a radical reorganisation of visual priorities in the twentieth-century hunt for fossil fuels, elevating the subterranean concerns of geologic fuel deposits over the picturesque form of the landscape. This paper comprises a chapter of my doctoral dissertation, Mineral Landscapes: The Mine and British Modernism, which interrogates the connection between extracted material, including coal, oil, tin, and granite, and mid-twentieth-century British art.

About the speaker

  • Headshot of Tobah Aukland-Peck

    Tobah Aukland-Peck is a PhD candidate in Art History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her dissertation, Mineral Landscapes: The Mine and British Modernism, examines the work of artists in mid-twentieth-century Britain who were drawn to the subject of mining, through which they explored pressing issues of labour, class, and environmental degradation through experiments with the formal qualities of modernism. She has presented work, including papers about extraction and the industrial provenance of artistic materials, at The Frick Symposium, the Paul Mellon Centre, the College Art Association annual conference, and The Courtauld. Her published work includes essays about landscapes of disaster and oil drilling. She is currently a Junior Fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art.