The only artist to ever earn the title “Official War Poster Artist”, Abram Games’ war posters have left a legacy that visual designers today are still trying to live up to. During the war, Games designed over 100 posters as a tool to recruit and educate soldiers and civilians, encouraging everyone to support the war effort. Until 24th November 2019, the National Army Museum, London, is celebrating his work in a special exhibition, The Art of Persuasion: War Time Posters by Abram Games. This retrospective of a major 20th-century artist displays 100 posters brought together for the very first time to explore how the art of persuasion helped mobilise a country at war.
“Maximum meaning, minimum means.”
– Abram Games’ motto
Abraham Gamse (1914-1996) was born in Whitechapel, East London, on 29th July 1914, the day after World War One was declared. His Jewish parents, Joseph Gamse, a Latvian photographer, and Sarah nee Rosenberg, a Polish seamstress, came to England as refugees in 1904. In 1926, Joseph Gamse officially anglicised their surname to Games and Abraham opted to change his first name to Abram. He joked that he had dropped the “ham” because it was not kosher.
As a child, Games attended Hackney Downs School, which he left when he was sixteen years old. Ironically, his school reports stated that his work was poor, careless and untidy and that his drawing skills were weak. In 1930, he enrolled at St Martin’s School of Art in London, however, was disillusioned by the teaching and left after two terms. Using the skills he had learnt during his brief time at college and the experience of helping his father develop photographs, Games worked for a short while as a “studio boy” for the commercial design firm Askew-Young, attended night classes in life drawing and entered a handful of poster design competitions. In 1935, Games came second in a competition to design a poster for the Health and Cleanliness Council and, the next year, won first prize in a poster competition for the London County Council.
From 1936 until 1939, Games worked as a freelance poster artist and had his work featured in an article in the journal Art and Industry. This led to several important commissions from companies, such as the General Post Office, London Transport and Shell. Unfortunately, the beginning of World War Two temporarily put an end to his design work.
In May 1939, the Military Training Act coerced all men aged 20 or 21 years old to serve in the armed forces for a least six months. The following year, Games was called up for Army service and served as a private in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment for four months before being transferred to the Hertfordshire Regiment. In 1941, Games, who had been noticed for his artwork, was approached by the Public Relations Department of the War Office who offered him a job as a poster designer with the task of creating recruitment posters for the Royal Armoured Corps.
Games greatly admired the Surrealism art movement and opted to use combinations of silhouettes and abstract or geometric shapes in his designs to capture the viewer’s attention. Due to the restrictions on ink during the war, Games was often limited to a maximum of four colours but he was still able to produce vibrant posters.
Whilst conscription had already been introduced, only volunteers could serve in specialist units. Games’ task was to produce a poster to encourage soldiers to take on these roles that would, inevitably, expose them to greater danger. The Royal Armoured Corps had been founded on 4th April 1939 and, due to being fairly new, was lacking in volunteers. Later, Games designed the cap badge for the newly-created corps. The symbol of a fist represents the strength and power of the unit.
Due to the success of Games’ poster, he was commissioned to design a recruitment poster for the Auxiliary Territorial Army, which was the women’s branch of the British Army. The poster was aimed at young women who were needed to serve in a range of jobs, including, telephonists, drivers, bakers, postal workers, ammunition inspectors and military police. The first poster designer, however, was nicknamed the “blonde bombshell” on account of the hairstyle and red lipstick. The feminist Conservative Party politician Thelma Cazalet-Keir (1899-1989) objected to the design, stating, “Our girls should be attracted into the army through patriotism and not glamour.”
Games’ next poster for the ATS featured a smiling face, looking upward in enthusiasm, which was generally accepted by the war office, although, one critic complained that the colour red made the girl appear “slightly Russianed”. A later poster for the ATS featuring a sepia sketch was criticised for looking too much like an “English Rose”.
Throughout Games’ career as Official War Poster Artist, during which he was promoted lieutenant (1942) and then captain (1945), he produced a number of recruitment posters. Although people had been conscripted to the RAF, the Army needed to persuade officers and men to transfer to the Airborne Forces, which, of course, was more dangerous, however, parachute and glider-borne troops were promised higher pay.
In 1944, Games poster for the Royal Army Medical Corps Parachute units was displayed to encourage more people to join. Men were needed for Operation Market Garden, which was due to take place in September 1944. Of the 3082 men of the Parachute Regiment, only 462 avoided death or capture during the Battle of Arnhem.
Games’ poster for the Commando Medical Service asked medics to volunteer through their commanding officers after which they had to endure a rigorous selection process.
Usually, Games’ posters were printed using the lithography process, however, when he was commissioned to create awareness posters about bombs and weapons, he knew he needed to make the designs as realistic as possible; therefore, he resorted to photography. Titled “Danger Don’t Touch”, Games produced a couple of chromolithograph posters featuring photos of various bombs.
Games stated, “These ammunition posters could only have been produced after much study of statistics and hours in ordnance depots. Collaboration with technicians was essential.” The weapons needed to be as clear as possible especially as the posters were aimed at children to keep them safe. The lines at the bottom of the page say, “You may find one of these on the ground or half buried. Leave it alone and TELL THE POLICE AT ONCE. Do not touch it even with a stick and do not throw stones at it.”
As part of the weapon safety campaign, Games used shock tactics to reinforce the message that ammunition must be treated with care. One poster titled “This Child Found a Blind” was taken down by members of the public because the image of the girl in a coffin reminded them too much of their own children. This fictional child had found a “blind”, i.e. a bomb that had failed to go off, which inevitably went off when she picked it up.
Games’ weapon posters were not all aimed at civilians; some were targetted at members of the armed forces. Mass conscription at the beginning of the war meant that there were hundreds of new recruits but not enough time to educate them. These posters acted as infographics with instructions about how to store and use weapons. Ammunition needed to be stored carefully in a well-ventilated area. If the storage room was too hot, wooden items would expand and split, labels would peel off and liquids would leak. Likewise, a damp area would cause just as much damage: metals would rust or corrode, some items would rot and labels would become damaged. Both these conditions could also cause “blinds”.
Clumsy handling of weapons could also cause damage or, even worse, accidents. Throughout the war, Games only produced one poster that featured the enemy. With the heading “His rifle will fire, will mine?”, it encouraged soldiers to check their weapons were in full working order before entering combat. A faulty rifle, for example, would be useless in battle; not only would soldiers be unable to fire at the enemy, but they would not be able to protect themselves from enemy fire.
Throughout the war, soldiers and civilians alike were warned not to talk about army secrets or plans in case information got into the wrong hands. Letters to and from Army Head Quarters were to be sent via the Army Post Office and not with the General Post Office. The Army would deliver mail unmarked, whereas the public post office would stamp it with a postmark. If the letter got into the wrong hands, a rough location of the headquarters could be interpreted.
Most of Games’ war posters were serious, however, when the Ministry of Information launched their campaign about the dangers of revealing information about the war effort in public, Games added a tiny bit of humour into his work. The poster “Keep a Guard On What You Say” features a visual pun of a man whose mouth is guarded by a sentinel.
It was not only in public that people had to be careful; soldiers recuperating in hospitals were warned not to speak about their missions to the other patients and nurses. In Games’ design, the hospital bed forms the shape of a German soldier, implying that spies could be anywhere, even where you least expect it.
A more serious poster was designed to resemble an official notice. Printed during the run-up to the Allied Liberation of Europe, Games’ poster warned troops that talking about the mission would not only put themselves at risk but their comrades as well. Amazingly, considering the scale of the operation, no information was leaked and the Germans were taken completely by surprise on D-Day.
Bombs and armed combat were not the only killers during the Second World War, lack of hygiene played a huge part too. As a result, Games was commissioned to produce medically approved posters to be hung in Army barracks and communal washing areas. Soldiers were warned about the dangers of failing to clean various parts of the bodies, such as their feet, to keep dirt and disease at bay. Dental health was also encouraged in order to prevent tooth decay and infection. Advice about diet was also provided. The medical journal The Lancet praised Games’ designs, saying, “There is every reason to hope that education in hygiene so ably presented will have its reward in a rising standard of health and personal pride among the men.”
Men were encouraged to keep their quarters well ventilated and their bedding free from lice and flies in order to prevent conditions such as scabies. They were also urged to kill flies and, for those in hotter areas, mosquitos that may be carrying diseases such as malaria.
Whilst the men were out fighting, those back home were encouraged to do what they could to help the soldiers. A campaign called “Plasma for Britain” called for blood donations. Inevitably, countless people died during the war, but a transfusion of blood was a lifeline for many of the injured.
“Please Knit Now” posters encouraged women in the forces and at home to knit socks for soldiers, particularly those fighting in the “jungle” or the Far East. This poster was printed in 1945, which was the same year Games married Marianne Salfeld. Showing his love for his soon-to-be wife, Games secretly added the words “To Marianne” on one of the loops of wool in the poster.
Other posters urged people to think about waste and unnecessary items that could be avoided for the duration of the war. Using petrol to go for a joy ride, for example, was using up petrol that could have been used to power one of the army’s vehicles. Buying produce and items from abroad meant that additional ships were needed, which, again, took resources away from the troops. Rationing had been introduced in order to limit the number of products shipped from abroad and homeowners were inspired to grow their own vegetables in their back gardens.
In 1944, the National Savings Committee (NCS) organised a “Salute the Soldier” week during which people were urged to save and donate money to help finance the war effort. Games helped by designing posters, pamphlets and banners to advertise various local fundraising events. These events included fetes, talks, exhibitions, pageants and concerts. Each town involved had a target to reach. Oldbury, a market town in Sandwell, West Midlands aimed to raise £500,000. Smaller communities were given lower targets, for instance, £50,000.
Being Jewish and a passionate Zionist, Games was particularly interested in supporting the Jewish Relief Unit, which worked in conjunction with the British Red Cross, the Salvation Army and Quakers to deliver food, clothing and comfort to the victims of Nazi cruelty. His posters encouraged donations from the people of Britain plus created awareness of the scheme to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. Due to his personal affiliation, Games designed these posters free of charge.
In 1941, the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA) had been set up by the War Office to boost morale and educate British service personnel. The ABCA considered current affairs to be an essential part of Army training and provided a number of activities, including lectures and films, to equip soldiers with this knowledge. They also produced a number of pamphlets and informative posters, which Abram Games designed. A series of prints titled “Your Britain. Fight For It Now” aimed to remind soldiers what they were fighting for. Combining images of derelict, bombed-out houses with future, modern constructions, the posters suggested that if the soldiers persevered, they could achieve a better quality of life back home.
Unfortunately, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was anti-ABCA claiming the posters were a “disgraceful libel on the conditions prevailing in Great Britain before the war… It is a very wrong thing that the War Office should be responsible for such exaggerated and distorted propaganda. The soldiers know their homes are not like that.”
Nonetheless, the ABCA’s ideas were generally adopted and many officers took up the challenge to educate their troops. This led to the Army Education Scheme (AES) that optimistically claimed education would open up a world of opportunities for the soldiers.
“Officers must provide creative ideas from which a positive faith can be generated. To get the best out of men it is not enough to tell them that they must be ready to die in the last ditch. They must be given a new vision of the future and a new hope.”
– Military theorist Captain Basil Liddell-Hart, 1940
The ABCA and AES also aimed to boost the morale of the soldiers. As some troops began to return home, many found themselves facing unemployment and the inability to reintegrate themselves into civilisation. Games’ posters advertised various resources for these soldiers, for instance, the Civil Resettlement Units. These units were particularly aimed at soldiers who had been held as prisoners of war. The rehabilitation process involved helping the men find work, providing training and advice, and giving general assistance to aid their readjustment to their freedom.
There was a political side to the ABCA, which encouraged soldiers to register to vote in the general election held at the end of the war. Once again, Churchill was displeased about this because their left-wing bias painted the Conservatives as responsible for the economic depression of the 1930s and the cause of the mass unemployment at the end of the First World War. Afraid of returning to a lack of jobs and homelessness, the Labour vote in the 1945 General Election was higher among service personnel than civilians.
“Churchill may have been a great wartime leader, but he never visited a slum.”
– Abram Games
After the war, Abram Games resumed his freelance work, designing for clients including London Transport, the Financial Times, Guinness, British Airways and El Al Israel Airlines Ltd. He also continued to design for the Army, for example, the Household Cavalry, which combined the Life Guards (who wear red) and the Blues and Royals (who wear blue).
Two years after he had been demobilised, Games entered the competition to design the emblem for the Festival of Britain, which he won. The Festival of Britain was a national exhibition to celebrate the centenary of the Great Exhibition held in 1851, which was organised by Prince Albert (1891-61). It was also considered to be a post-war “tonic for the nation”. Games’ design comprises a star in the colours of the Union Flag, the head of Britannia and a string of bunting.
“I am not an artist, I am a graphic thinker.”
– Abram Games
Games continued to practice his “graphic thinking” for the rest of his life. He designed the stamp for the 1948 Olympic Games, becoming the first designer to have his name on a British stamp. Between 1946 and 1953 he took up the role of visiting lecturer in Graphic Design at the Royal College of Art, then in 1956, he was appointed Art Director of coloured covers for Penguin Books. His successful design for the Festival of Britain led to several more commissions, including the designs for the BBC Television’s first animated ident.
In 1957, Games was awarded an OBE for his services to graphic design and two years later was appointed Royal Designer for Industry. He travelled to the USA to speak at the Ninth International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado plus wrote a book titled Over My Shoulder.
Although still under the design umbrella, Games turned his hand to other enterprises, for example, designing machinery. In 1959, he designed a coffee maker and patented an imagic photocopier. Later, he invented “Boil in the Bag” coffee, which he patented in 1963.
For the Muswell Hill Synagogue in North London, Games designed a memorial window for the victims of the Holocaust. Then, in 1970, he designed the “Stockwell Swan” tiled memorial for London Transport’s Victoria Line.
Throughout his career, Games was involved in a number of organisations. In 1962, he presented a paper about poster advertising to the Royal Society of Arts, winning him the RSA Silver Medal. In 1965, he was made a member of the Stamp Advisory Committee and in 1968, he was appointed the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation Consultant on Graphic Design at Bezalel School of Art in Israel.
As well as the awards already mentioned, Games won the Design and Art Direction President’s Award in 1991. His last achievement occurred in 1992 when he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Art. Four years later on 27th August 1996, Abram Games passed away. He was buried in the Bushey Jewish Cemetery in Hertfordshire.
The Art of Persuasion certainly earns the caption “special exhibition”. With around 100 posters, it is a larger than expected display of work by an artist – sorry, graphic thinker – whose contributions during the Second World War deserve to be honoured for time immemorial. The National Army Museum has made the exhibition suitable for all the family. For children, there is an activity page in the back of the free exhibition guide, which challenges visitors to think about the poster designs and what life during the war may have been like. Activities range from discussing what your favourite poster is to standing on one leg for 30 seconds or attempting to say “Maximum meaning, minimum means” ten times without getting tongue-tied.
For people of all ages, an interactive screen allows visitors to design their own poster using elements from some of the original designs by Abram Games. These can be emailed to personal addresses so that everyone can keep their artwork.
Not only does the exhibition introduce the graphic designer Abram Games, but it also creates awareness of the intricacies of war. Most history lessons focus on the physical fighting, the politics and the outcomes of the war, however, little is said about the effects on the individuals living through it, the concerns about hygiene and the amount of encouragement needed to persuade people to support the war effort. As the title states, art can indeed be persuasive.
The Art of Persuasion: Wartime Posters by Abram Games costs £6 per person, although there are various concessions. Tickets can be purchased on site or booked in advance online. The rest of the National Army Museum can be visited for free.