- Interview by
- Harry Williams
- Robert Maisey
Still today, Abram Games’s posters provide some of the most iconic images of Britain’s war effort during World War II. As a poster artist at the War Office’s Public Relations Department, his work sought not only to mobilise the population in the anti-Nazi cause, but also to give them a sense of the kind of Britain they could build afterward.
This democratic spirit was also apparent in the form of his work, in particular through his activity at the Army Bureau of Current Affairs. This educational body for soldiers — which Winston Churchill considered a “socialist organisation” — was built on the conviction that the troops should be kept informed about the war they were fighting.
Since Abram’s death in 1996, his daughter Naomi Games has organised exhibitions of his work and of his contemporaries, lectures in the United Kingdom and abroad, and runs his vast archive. She has co-produced a film on Games and has written six books on various aspects of his work, including Abram Games: His Wartime Work (Amberley) and Twentieth Century Graphic Designer: Abram Games (Pallas Athene). She spoke to Jacobin about her father’s life, his time as Official War Poster Artist, and the socialist ideas that inspired his work.
How did your family come to be in East London?
My grandfather came by boat from Russian Poland. He thought that he was going to New York, like a lot of Jewish émigrés did, but instead, he landed in Liverpool. He asked, “is this New York?” and as he was told it was, he got off the boat there. In 1904, he met my grandmother. Like a lot of Jewish émigrés escaping the pogroms in Russian Poland, they ended up in East London.
My grandfather Joseph was a photographer in the Russian Imperial Army. He wanted to be a typographer, but he couldn’t speak a word of English — just Yiddish and Russian — so instead he set up a photographer’s studio. The family settled in Lower Clapton Road, where they lived above the shop.
My father, Abram Games, was the middle child of three and he was born in Whitechapel — “in the sound of Bow Bells,” as they say — making him a cockney. He was very proud of that.
How do you think your father would have defined his socialism at the time, in the interwar period?
Well, he went on marches against [British Union of Fascists founder] Oswald Mosley, and he was at the Battle of Cable Street in 1936. He learned to box and fence in the “Jewish Lads’ Brigade.” He had to stand up for himself, because it was tough, with Mosley parading in the East End.
He was a socialist but wouldn’t describe himself as a Marxist and refused to be a member of anything. Although he voted Labour, I don’t think he was particularly ardent — he never joined the party. He was a very independent man. He was asked to become a member of the graphic designers’ professional association, but he refused to join — so they made him an honorary member.
In the East End there is a strong history of Jewish trade unionism, famously among the bakers and tailors. Would he have been averse to things like that?
When he was a young man, there wasn’t a trade union for his skills. When he was very young, he got a job working in a commercial art studio and he insisted that Mr Askew, his boss, offered a pound a week instead of ten shillings [i.e., a 100 percent increase] and he got everybody out on strike, so he was an agitator. If he knew something was wrong, he fought tooth and nail to make it right. He was very good at helping people who couldn’t speak up for themselves.
How much do you think his youth in a refugee community influenced his outlook with regards to socialism and anti-fascism?
Very much so. He was very poor — the family didn’t have much money. They were working-class, poor Jewish émigrés. He went to a state school, he was unspoiled, and he didn’t spoil us. He had a very good sense of values.
The Spanish Civil War was important to him. He didn’t volunteer but he did what he could in his way. But when the Second World War started, he really wanted to fight. He didn’t want to be a war artist, he wanted to be a soldier.
Before he was seconded to the War Office as Official War Poster Artist, he insisted on volunteering for active service. How do you think his experience as a rank-and-file solider impacted him?
He was very aware of soldiers’ class, and the difference in classes — that there were the toffs at the top and the soldiers were just fodder.
When he went to get his orders in 1940, they said “we want you to go and draw maps, because we know that you’re a designer.” And he said, “I don’t want to draw maps, I want to go into the infantry.” They kept trying to offer him other jobs — medical corps, all that stuff. He said “No, I’m Jewish and I’m a Londoner and I want to fight this war, please send me off to the infantry” and he insisted that they sent him off. They called him back a year later and said “you’re needed to design a poster. We have a list of all of the soldiers’ professions and you’re the poster artist.” The Royal Armoured Corps was the first poster that he did.
When he was in the barracks, he observed that the soldiers were young and that they didn’t know how to look after themselves and he wrote a memorandum. He said that what was needed was an art gallery on the walls so that soldiers would have something to look at, and that all these black-and-white charts that were up saying “look after your weapons” were very dull and no one was taking any notice of them. What was needed were posters that would instruct, inform, entertain, and become a visual puzzle for the men.
Abram designed the weekly maps for the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA). Can you tell us more about what that was?
The ABCA was an educational organisation for the soldiers. These poor guys were going into war not knowing what the hell they were fighting for. The ABCA wanted to educate and entertain them as well. They had newsletters and lectures and all sorts of things. It’s very hard to know what Abram did and didn’t do for the organisation as it’s not very well documented. He designed the first template for the map. The map was like a wall chart. It was a double-sided bimonthly, showing the troop movements and what had happened, so it was very instructive for the soldiers. They couldn’t just go into war without knowing what was going on, yet back then there was no news or television.
The idea that soldiers even should know what was going on was a very new idea.
Exactly. So, it was a very interesting organisation. He designed the grid of the map, and he had a female friend named Gwen McKerrow, who he had worked with in his commercial art studio. He got her the job working on these maps, because she was a designer. Once he had designed the first few maps, she then filled in all the details and did all the artwork.
Then he was asked to design a set of posters for the ABCA entitled “Your Britain, fight for it now.” By this time, he was given — against his wishes — an assistant. Abram worked in the War Office in Whitehall in the attic. The War Office were very worried about him, because he was working all through the night without stopping. He was obsessive, and he wanted to do a really good job and believed that he had to do a lot for the war effort. So, they said he was working too hard and needed an assistant and he said, “I don’t want a bloody assistant.” He didn’t like working with anybody.
Eventually they gave Frank Newbold the job. Frank was a lot older than Abram, a different generation, and Abram said “look, you just do what you want to do and I’ll do what I want to do and we won’t interfere with each other’s work.”
They were asked to design posters for the “Your Britain, fight for it now” series. Frank Newbold designed five posters in his own way — pastoral scenes of Britain, as if nothing would change after the war. They were basically like railway posters. Pretty, but with little meaning. Abram wanted to take a much more realistic point of view. He designed three posters for the series, basing his posters on architecture. It was 1930s architecture, so there was Gropius, Maxwell Fry, and Berthold Lubetkin. He was in good socialist company.
The “Your Britain, fight for it now” poster, depicting the Finsbury Health Centre, caused a lot of bother with Churchill.
Churchill hated the ABCA. He thought it was a socialist organisation and asked why the soldiers needed to learn anything about the war. He thought that was how the Labour Party managed to get him out in the end [with the soldiers’ vote in the 1945 general election].
In all three posters, Abram picked an example of good socialist architecture. The Finsbury Health Centre, designed by Lubetkin was a fantastic example of how a modern building should work. It was an amazing building, as is Kensal House in Ladbroke Grove. It has a nursery and it’s a really good example of social housing. And Impington College, designed by Maxwell Fry and Gropius, is still a school.
Nothing is too good for ordinary people. That’s what Berthold Lubetkin said.
What Abram was doing was taking an example of very good socialist architecture so that the soldiers would know that they were fighting for new homes, for good schools, and health.
These were really hard-hitting posters. The Finsbury Health Centre poster was banned.
To what extent were Abram and Churchill fighting two different wars?
Abram wanted conditions to get better and for the classes to disappear. This poster (Finsbury) was shown in an exhibition in Harrods and a government official came along and saw this poster on the wall and took it to [the wartime Minister of Labour] Ernest Bevin, his superior, and then he took it to Churchill. Churchill said it was “distorted propaganda, disgraceful, libel … there’s no such thing as rickets in England” referencing the child in the poster who clearly has rickets. Abram said he’d done the research and he knew there were rickets in London. It was called “The English Disease.”
Churchill tried for a long time to get rid of the ABCA. He was scared of it. In the end he succeeded. But too late — it did its job!
Abram Games was deeply involved with Jewish relief work during and after the war. He was an ardent supporter of Jewish emigration to Palestine. How did this fit in with his conceptions of socialism and internationalism?
As the son of immigrants who had to leave their homes because of persecution, Abram was very aware of how people are treated. He also saw the first footage of Bergen-Belsen. He was shown it by his friend, a filmmaker who was working in the War Office. When Abram saw the footage of the victims of the Holocaust, he never got over it. You can’t imagine what it was like — nobody had ever seen anything like that. On film!
He married my mother, who was a Jewish German refugee, in 1945. I remember growing up and noticing my parents’ friends had numbers tattooed on their arms. He was adamant that he would try and help. My father was very emotional and when he saw this injustice, he wanted to go to Belsen to go and help, but the army wouldn’t let him go.
He worked evenings and weekends for the Jewish Relief Unit. He designed three posters for them that were very haunting. Not ones you’d want up on the wall, but they did the job. They were shocking. That’s what he wanted to do — to shock.
He then discovered he had relatives from Russia who had managed to escape to Israel. He himself went to Israel in the 1950s, when they were just starting to build new homes. We’re still close to the relatives that he found, through the Red Cross.
That’s a very different situation to the situation that we have now. I don’t think you can equate what goes on now with what went on then. I don’t know if he was that interested in what the British Mandate was doing in Palestine — he was very concerned with people surviving the Holocaust and he believed they should have a place to go. He believed in Zionism. But as time went by he became more disillusioned with it. I don’t think we should say more, but I don’t think he would be happy today.
After the war, you have to appreciate how different the situation was.
How observant was your father?
He was very aware of being traditionally Jewish. He was very aware of the history of the Jews. He spoke Hebrew and he attended synagogue with his parents. One-fifth of his output was for the Jewish community, which he rarely got paid for. Because he loved his parents deeply, he was very respectful of their Jewishness and he brought his children up as Jews.
My grandparents spoke Yiddish and as a child I remember Yiddish. My father spoke Yiddish and then learned Hebrew. They anglicised their name in 1926. My grandfather changed it from Gamse to Games because it was easier to pronounce. A lot of people did that that.
Did your father’s socialist outlook influence his decision to do so much work for London Transport after the war?
No, that was purely out of necessity. The thing is that, after the war, Abram realised that his posters had been a force for good. He wanted that to continue. He wanted his posters to educate and the posters that were really important to him were for cancer research, children’s issues, safety issues. He had instigated poster propaganda internally in the army. These posters were about hygiene and careless talk and growing your own food. He thought that after the war, he’d carry on like that, but of course things change.
After the war, he became freelance. He wanted to design posters with ethical and social commentary, but he had a family to support. When London Transport offered him poster commissions, he was happy to work for them. He never joined the advertising world. He thought that was a waste of time.
There were times when he was offered work which he turned it down, because it wasn’t ethical. He was once asked by the Church of England to design a symbol and he said, “I’m not going to, you’ve got a perfectly good one already.”
The modern left often struggles achieving the directness of purpose that your father achieved.
He treated everybody equally. His designs were not for the lowest common denominator, either. He assumed people would have intelligence enough to understand his work, and if they didn’t, they would ask somebody. He didn’t talk down to people. He was very adamant that his war work treated everybody with the respect they deserved.