Sunday 14 September 2014

Abram Games - graphic design genius at London's Jewish Museum

London's Jewish Museum in Camden is currently staging an exhibition on the life and work of graphic designer Abram Games. Born in 1914 in Whitechapel to Russian Jewish immigrants, Joseph and Sarah Gamse (not Games), he was to become one of the most influential graphic designers of the 20th century.

Zoo/ tiger for London Transport, 1975. Lithograph.
Joseph Gamse worked as a photographic processor in his studio below the family flat in Hackney's Lower Clapton Road. The young Abram (at that time called Abraham) used his father's artists materials to entertain  himself. Only an average school student he failed the 11 plus examination in 1925 before Sarah persuaded his father to pay for him to attend Hackney Downs boys school which had a reputation for helping working class boys achieve in medicine, business, laws and other professions. It also produced artists Leon Kossof, playwright Harold Pinter and actor Stephen Berkoff. Our hero appears to have not done too well at Hackney Downs - one report describing his drawing as "weak", his writing as 'poor" and his general demeanour as "lazy and indifferent". The formidable Sarah visited the school to put the head teacher right on this!

In 1926 Abraham changed his named by deed poll from "Gamse" to the more English sounding "Games" and adopted Abram rather than Abraham as his forename. He had a desire to attend art school but failed to secure a scholarship and so, somewhat reluctantly, his parents paid for him to attend St. Martin's School of Art. He left St. Martin's after two terms, doubting his ability and disillusioned with his fellow students and teachers. 

Evening classes, 1935. Lithograph.
Abram worked for his father by day and by night designed cards for tradesmen and posters for his own portfolio. In 1932 he took a job at Askew Yonge,  a commercial art studio to supplement the family income. He also began to enter poster design competitions, taking second place (and three guineas) in the Health and Cleanliness Council poster competition and winning the London County Council (LCC) Evening Classes competition - and a very welcome twenty pounds. His winning design attracted some criticism from the press for being "too Germanic" and even "monstrous". There is something menacing about the figure with receding forehead and the L of LCC being used as a finger against his cheek, indicating thought, but I rather like it. It is certainly of its time, shows strong European influences and was probably way ahead of anything a staid local authority would commission in 1932 - but he won.

Rebellious and disruptive at work he had several disagreements with his employers including about who owned the copyright on work completed in his own time he was dismissed from Askew Yonge in 1936. He spent the next several months touting his portfolio around several agencies before securing work with London Transport following an article on his work in Art and Industry magazine. His relationship with London Transport was to go on until 1975 and included perhaps his most well known work - the poster for London Zoo featured at this top of this post. His first poster for the company was A Train Every 90 Seconds, published in 1937 in simple black, red and white and very much in the then contemporary modernist style, making use of the underground symbol with a dark swirl indicating the train coming in to the station. 

Poster for London Transport, 1937. Lithograph
In June 1940, Abram was conscripted into the army, training for three months before being placed in the Hertfordshire Regiment. Spotted drawing caricatures of officers during a Christmas show, he was given work as a draughtsman, producing maps and plans. Living in barracks in 1941 and concerned about the lack of health and hygiene information he produced a series of instructional posters encouraging servicemen (and women) to be more health conscious. This led to his producing a poster to support recruitment to the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). The poster showed an extremely glamorous young woman - blonde with bright red lipstick and pencilled in eyebrows, face half in shadow looking into the distance above the simple message "Join the ATS". This image became the subject of controversy. Referred to as "the blonde bombshell", it was deemed too daring and in October 1941 Parliament demanded it not be reprinted, ironic given that the purpose of the campaign was to dispel the dowdy image of the ATS and attract more women to the service. Amusingly, the Conservative MP, Thelma Cazalet Keir was one of the strongest objectors saying "Women should be attracted into the army by patriotism, not glamour! This poster is better suited to advertise beauty products". 

Another significant Games war-time poster was Serve as a soldier vote as a citizen, produced in 1944, encouraging soldiers to register for the vote, doing their democratic as well wartime duty. The design shows the future of the country in the hands of servicemen and women holding the voting pencil which forms the tower of Big Ben at the Houses of Parliament. The red, white and blue clouds, references to the national flag emphasise the patriotic duty of voting.

ATS, 1941. Lithograph.
Serve as a soldier,vote as a citizen, 1944. Lithograph.
After the war, Games returned to civilian life, working as a freelance designer and lecturing in graphic design at the Royal College of Art. In 1945, he met and married Marianne Salfeld, grand daughter of the former Chief Rabbi of Hesse. Together with her family, Marianne had left Germany in 1937. Their first child, Daniel was born in 1946 and shortly before the birth of their second child, Sophie in 1948, the family moved to a house in Golders Green. This was to be Abram's home and workplace for the rest of his life

Games' postwar years were very busy. He was involved in a number of Jewish charities and organisations and produced several works aimed at raising awareness of the plight of Jewish refugees in Europe. One of the most haunting is reproduced below - Give clothing for liberated Jewry, for the British Jewish Relief Committee. The large sunken eye of the figure looks directly at the viewer whilst the red and black background may be intended as a reference to the furnaces of the death camps.

Despite the events of the War, anti-semitsim was still prevalent and the then British government at first refused to make provision for Jewish refugees, saying they were the responsibility of their "own" governments in Europe. Those governments were often the same people who had often at best stood back and ignored the events of the war and at worst actively participated in the Holocaust. Games was outspoken in his opposition to anti-semitism, demonstrated by his actions when seeing a nazi flag flying from a building in Swiss Cottage in 1948.  Leaping from the bus he was on at the time he climbed to the first floor of the building and tore the flag down. 

His interest in Jewish issues included support for the young state of Israel re-established in 1948. The Israel Philatelic Department held a competition to design a stamp to commemorate Independence Day in 1950. Games won the competition, visited the country instead of accepting prize money and was invited to design a stamp for the Maccabiah Games during his stay. He was no newcomer to stamp design having been responsible for one of the stamps  produced to celebrate the 1948 London Olympic Games. He went on to design another six Israeli stamps and back home continued his work with Jewish organisations large and small.

Give clothing for liberated Jewry, 1945. Lithograph.
Perhaps his finest moment came when his proposal for the emblem for the 1951 Festival of Britain was accepted and was used not only on posters and printed materials but also on items as diverse as chocolate, soap, toilet paper and mousetraps, not to mention being sown into floor beds and drawn into chalk hills. He said that his design was influenced by his wife hanging out the family washing - note the red, white and blue bunting hanging on the line beneath the main symbol! The Festival was intended to showcase the nation's achievements and drive for economic recovery following the Second World War and his design was seen by the millions of visitors. It lives on now in exhibitions such as that at the Jewish Museum and in the many books produced on his life and work. 

Perhaps due to having spent his early years seeing the poverty of Whitechapel, he was a lifelong socialist, demonstrated by his work to promote health care and education. He was also deeply influenced by his Judaism witnessed by his work for Jewish charities and organisations. Artistically, he was impressed by the designs of the Bauhaus in Germany, the de Stijl movement in the Netherlands  and work originating in the Soviet Union from the likes of Kandinsky and El Lissitzky. Like many creative people of his generation he was not limited to one medium. As well as posters, publicity and stamps he also designed a number of book covers for Penguin paperbacks and tried his hand at inventions related to the printing process and to improving coffee makers (!). Examples of these, family photographs, school reports, letters and many other posters can be seen in the current exhibition which runs until 4th January 2015. I was especially moved by his final letter to his grandson written shortly before his death in 1996 in which his love for both art and family is clear and touching. Oh, and if you use Stockwell Station you may well have seen or even stood beside one of his designs - the Swan - a blue and white ceramic work on the platform of the Victoria Line - which will be the subject of a future Picture Post. 

Festival of Britain, 1948. Lithograph.


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