A collector's home  - Margaret Dawn Pepper

Date of photography: 3rd November 2016

In the days when he was Maurice David Pepper, the artist, Margaret Dawn Pepper, lived and raised a family in this very house;  hers is a personal past that is truly remarkable.   Although Margaret is now free to devote her life to her own art, she also maintains a substantial collection of exquisite cigarette cards and fine etchings of historic London.  Whilst it might be tempting to pooh-pooh, or even sneer at, the collection of such modest and workaday artefacts, one cannot but admire some of Margaret’s most beautiful sets, with cigarette cards devoted to English landscape, British flora, domestic animals, agricultural tools, fine military uniforms, exotic birds and fine pottery.   Here is truly the world in miniature and one can well understand why Margaret became such a keen collector and why accumulating this ephemeral art became such a popular hobby.   Given its size and its heterogeneity, perhaps it is unsurprisingly that London should contain so many idiosyncratic but highly dedicated individuals who are driven to collect a most extraordinary range of  supposedly ordinary things.

The full story:

Being invited into Margaret Dawn Pepper’s home almost feels like walking into a gallery.   Every wall is covered with paintings and with etchings depicting London’s history,  but there are also rows and rows of beautifully-framed collections of cigarette cards.   Over the years, Margaret has amassed 140 such sets.  

Margaret’s house in north London has been her home for very many years.   This is where Maurice David Pepper and his late wife, set up home and where they raised their family.   Maurice’s early career was in business, though he later qualified as a quantity surveyor and worked on numerous projects in the City of London.   Then, rather late in life, and only after the premature death of his wife, Maurice David transitioned to Margaret Dawn, an elderly woman artist now well-known and fully accepted into the local community.   Margaret adds:

“I am now seen and greeted just like any other old lady going about her business in the neighbourhood.”   Indeed, for Margaret, a longstanding conundrum has now been resolved and, in her own words, “I now live the life I always wanted to live.”

Discussing her fine collection of cigarette cards, Margarets says:  “As I never smoked, you might wonder why I’ve been keenly collecting cigarette cards.   Well, the answer is simple:  as a child, I used to pick them up when they were discarded, along with the empty cigarette packets.   I thought they were beautiful and, because they came in sets, it became a bit of a challenge to find and complete a set.   I still think they’re beautiful but I only started collecting them seriously about 20 years ago, and one reason I collect is that since I started to paint, I have become aware how incredibly hard it is to produce fine art, and these cards totally represent a pinnacle of miniature art.  Now I can appreciate my collection as an exquisite record, an illustration of the world and the life I have lived through myself.”

It is certainly true that these cards often were very beautiful and the cigarette manufacturers undoubtedly commissioned some of the best artists and illustrators of the day to create them.   Great skill - perhaps, as Margaret suggests, most particularly the classic skill of the miniaturist - is required to produce artwork which, when significantly reduced in size, maintains the quality of detail.   In the 1890’s, cigarettes were still sold in flimsy paper bags and the stiffer cards were used to strengthen the packaging and so protect the contents.   Perhaps unsurprisingly, manufacturers then came up with the idea of printing on these cards, thus advertising their brand, encouraging customer loyalty and securing repeat purchases.   Since most customers were men, the first card designs featured soldiers, sportsman and, of course, beguiling women but, over time, competition between manufacturers generated much greater diversity.

I spoke recently with Ian Laker, the Managing Director of The London Cigarette Card Co Ltd;  he told me that,  “Some of these early cards have become highly sought after - one even sold in the USA, not a long time ago, for over three million dollars.”  The LCCC was founded in 1927 and, over the decades, has become the best known and most important dealer in, and stockist of, cigarette cards, meeting the needs of collectors from all over the world.   Despite the name, the company is no longer based in London, having removed to Somerset, though these days, of course, location is far less important with most of their business being conducted online.   Every year, they produce an astonishingly comprehensive Collectors’ Catalogue, in addition to a monthly newsletter.

Mr Laker, to whom I am greatly indebted for most of what follows, informed me that the 1920’s and 1930’s are generally regarded as the golden age of cigarette cards.   Most people smoked and the competition between manufacturers was fierce;  rival firms were constantly looking for something different that would make their brand stand out from the rest.   Players and Wills went in for adhesive-backed cards and offered their customers special albums to stick them in.   So many were produced that there are still plenty around today, and the commonest fetch only a few pounds.

Another idea for card design was to build up the cards into a sectional reproduction of a work of art, a map or a historic event, like the 1937 Coronation Procession.   Some manufacturers developed cards with push-out sections which could be made into models, whilst others came out with sequences of silk embroidered flowers, cards in miniature frames, bronze plaques, metal charms to hang on a bracelet, and even miniature gramophone records that could actually be played!

During World War I, many series of patriotic cards were issued, including:  Recruitment Posters, Infantry Training, Modern Weapons, Military Motors, Allied Army Leaders, Britain's Part in the War, and so on.   In the run-up to World War II, out came the patriotic cards again, demonstrating the nation's apparent military strength and preparedness for action, such as:  Britain’s Defences, the RAF at Work, and Life in the Royal Navy, to name but a few.   Aircraft of the RAF cards showed the UK’s latest fighters, the Spitfire and the Hurricane ("the performance of this machine is an official secret,” we were warned).   It is rumoured that German agents in London were buying up the Player's 1939 series, British Naval Craft, in order to send them back for briefing U-Boat crews. The British authorities sponsored a series on Air Raid Precautions, "cigarette cards of national importance”;  these were endorsed by the Home Secretary, Samuel Hoare, and contained useful hints on how to put on a gas-mask or extinguish an incendiary bomb.   How effective or otherwise these proved in the Blitz, we shall never know, but they no doubt helped to raise public awareness

Paper shortages halted card production in 1940 and cigarette cards would never again be issued on the same scale as they had been before the War, and recent anti-smoking legislation has ended any hope of new card series being issued with tobacco products.

Ian Laker concludes by telling me:  “The thing is, card collecting is a living hobby.   Whatever your age or interests, you're going to be pleasantly surprised by what cards can offer.   Card collecting has come a long way since its pre-war image and people from all walks of life are now keen collectors.”

I cannot but admire some of Margaret’s most beautiful sets, with cards devoted to English landscape, British flora, domestic animals, agricultural tools, fine military uniforms, exotic birds and fine pottery - it is truly the world in miniature and I can well understand why Margaret became such a keen collector and why collecting these cards has become so popular a hobby.

Text edited: 23rd February 2017  

Page modified: 22nd April 2019