A lot has been written about the poster designer Abram Games (1914-1996), including his own account of his working methods (Over My Shoulder, 1960) and an excellent biography by his daughter, Naomi (Abram Games, Graphic Designer: Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means, 2003). Justly regarded as one of Britain’s greatest graphic designers, his work is included in virtually every survey of the subject and one could be forgiven for wondering why another book is needed. Yet with only a few exceptions, little has appeared in print about the remarkable posters Games designed for the British Army during the Second World War. This new publication, written by Naomi Games and published by Amberley, rectifies this omission in a readable, well-researched, style, brimming with personal anecdote and lavishly illustrated throughout.
It tells the story of Games’ transition from peacetime designer to Official War Poster Artist (the only recipient of this title) and the key role he played in the transformation of instructional propaganda within the army and the Ministry of Information. The book also reveals the exacting personality of Games which could lead to clashes with military and political authorities, including the Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In fact, a huge strength of the book is its ability to bring to life the key figures involved and to place Games’ work in the wider context of contemporary events. This is achieved through extensive use of source material and previously unseen photographs and sketches, as well as the posters themselves.
Games was a young freelance poster artist when the war started in 1939, already noted for his modernist approach which had won commissions from London Transport, the General Post Office and Royal Dutch Shell. Conscripted in 1940, he rejected the ‘cushy’ (if undemanding) job of an army draughtsman in favour of serving in the infantry. But thanks in part to his own efforts at drawing attention to the army’s woefully poor information posters, he was soon being asked to design posters for the Public Relations Department of the War Office. Commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant (he would eventually rise to the rank of Captain) Games went on to design about 100 posters aimed at serving soldiers on topics ranging from dental hygiene to post-war retraining.
Games’ dynamic and unsentimental realisation of the varied commissions was in marked contrast to nearly all his pre-war contemporaries and much admired at the time. According to Naomi, he considered Your Talk May Kill Your Comrades (1942) to be one of his most successful posters. Seen primarily in army barracks by soldiers, the brutally effective message was in stark contrast to the gently comic ‘Careless Talk’ posters designed by ‘Fougasse’ (Cyril Bird) for public consumption.
Fougasse (Cyril Bird), 1940
Perhaps Games’ best-known wartime work was the ‘blonde bombshell’ recruiting poster produced in his spare time for the women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). One of three posters he designed for the ATS during the war, it was later recalled and pulped on the grounds that it presented an overly glamorous image of the service that might attract the 'wrong type'. A follow up poster was also criticised, this time by Churchill, on the grounds that it was ‘too soviet’.
Churchill, as the books shows, was always suspicious of Games, detecting (with some justification) a scarcely hidden socialist agenda on the part of the young artist. This was most famously demonstrated by Churchill’s appalled reaction to Your Britain. Fight for it Now (1942) which seemed to promise a new post-war order of public healthcare, rather than a return to the pre-war status quo. Not for the first time, Games found his design recalled and pulped.
The book also shows how Games used his talent to support wartime causes, especially those concerned with the fate of European Jews, as well as detailing some of his more unusual war-work such as designing the cap badge of the Royal Armoured Corps and preparing poster exhibitions with his friend and fellow graphic designer FHK Henrion.
Royal Armoured Corps cap badge, 1942
The overall result is an especially well-rounded account of a graphic artist at war. Those already familiar with Games poster output will find much that is new in this detailed study. But the book can equally be enjoyed for its insight into British wartime propaganda and those who created it.
Copies of Abram Games. His Wartime Work can be ordered from Amberley Books