The Art of Persuasion

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Abram Games in his studio, c1941

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.

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Private Abram Games (seated far right of middle row) with soldiers of The Royal Warwickshire Regiment, 1940

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.

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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.

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Simeon Visits Rainham Hall

A historic house with a difference

44410791_1941816782551260_493275576606392320_nThere is no stopping Simeon the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please); he has got his taste for adventure and is determined to explore. Simeon has now experienced his first National Trust property and is eager to tell everybody about it. Situated in Rainham, Essex, next to St Helen and St Giles Church, is a three storey brown and red-bricked Grade II listed building. Built in the 18th century, Rainham Hall has been open to the public for three years and Simeon thought it was about time he visited it for himself.

With 3-acres of public garden and the cosy Stables Cafe, located in the old stable and coach house, Rainham Hall is a pleasant, quiet place for individuals and families to visit. The house, which had fallen into disrepair shortly after the Second World War, has been refurbished and is safe for all to enter. Sadly, a lot of the house’s history and records have been lost, however, Simeon managed to discover many interesting things.

 

Rainham Hall was built in 1729 by the merchant Captain John Harle (1688-1742) who wished to settle down on land after years at sea. Originally hailing from South Shields, near Newcastle, Harle married a wealthy widow from Stepney, London, Mary Tibbington. Although retiring from the sea, Harle wanted to continue trading, meaning he needed to settle somewhere on the coast or by a river. Rainham, on the River Ingreborne, was the ideal place for the man.

Originally consisting of 11-acres of land, Harle purchased Rainham Wharf, where he dredged the river to clear a trade route to London. He built a house for himself and his wife next to the parish church but close enough to the river so that he could use his outbuildings for his trading company. The house was built in the Dutch domestic Queen Anne style, which was still popular at the time, despite the monarch’s death in 1714.

During the 18th-century, it was typical to use oak for wooden features in buildings, however, the staircase in the Hall is built out of the reddish-brown timber, mahogany. This may have been a cheaper option but the most likely reason for Harle’s choice was its connection with merchant ships. Mahogany was the wood used on the ships and it is thought that Harle may have taken the wood from those that had fallen into disuse.

It is thought that when Captain Harle lived in the house the colours of the walls were a mix of blueish grey, blue and dark olive green, however, the house has since had over 50 tenants and has been decorated several times. Today, the walls of the main staircase are painted a pale blue and feature a trompe-l’œil painting – a deceptive painting that appears three-dimensional. This painting dates to at least 1780, when Sarah Chambers, John Harle’s daughter-in-law, lived at the Hall. It features a Vitruvian scroll surrounded by a decorative floral pattern.

Most of the fireplaces are made from blue-grey marble and some, such as those of the upper floors, are decorated with Delft-blue tiles. This fits in well with the “blue room”, which was apparently once green. The rest of the rooms are now a mix of the different variety of paint schemes that the house has seen over the past couple of centuries.

In the entrance hall, an old dumbwaiter is hidden behind a false wall panel, which visitors can open and peer in. This would have helped staff transfer items from the cellar to the rooms above without having to struggle with the narrow staircases.

Rainham Hall remained in the Harle family until 1895, when it lay abandoned for a couple of decades. In 1917, the Hall was purchased by the property developer and art historian Colonel Herbert Hall Mulliner (1861-1924) who, although never lived there himself, made the building habitable. With knowledge of interior design, Mulliner modernised many of the rooms, moved the kitchen to the cellar and modified the stables so that they could accommodate motor cars. Today, the kitchen has been moved back to its original location, mostly due to the unsafe conditions of the cellar.

Outside the property, Colonel Mulliner installed wrought iron gates and railings, which, amazingly, were never requisitioned during the war years like most other railings in the area. In fact, it is the war years that gave Rainham Hall a significant purpose.

Unfortunately, due to the number of people who have lived in Rainham Hall, there is a lack of original furniture and the purpose of each room can only be speculated. Fortunately, there is a lot more evidence of the building’s use in the 20th century, as shown in Rainham Hall’s 2018 exhibition Remembering the Day Nursery at Rainham Hall. In 1942, the building was requisitioned by the Essex County Council to be set up as a nursery. This allowed mothers the time to go out to work while their husbands were away at war. From 1943 to 1954, the Hall became the daytime home of dozens of young children.

“There cannot be many buildings of such historical value that can boast of having hundreds of tiny feet trotting through their grand hall!”
– Nurse Dorothy, Havering Echo, 12 January 1971

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Simeon gets to know one of the Rainham Hall residents

The exhibition focuses on the memories of seven former nursery attendees, including quotes and photographs that they were able to provide. The house itself has been set out to resemble what it may have looked like to these children. Old toys are dotted about on window sills and examples of games and other playthings are located in display cabinets in various rooms.

Children of the war years would not have had much access to toys at home, therefore, coming to the nursery every day was a great treat for many. A questionnaire in one room offers visitors the chance to reminisce about the toys they remember from their own nursery. Some people may even recognise a few of the items on show.

Historic photographs show the children enjoying the gardens and going for long walks in the sunshine. The nursery could have up to 45 children at a time and it must have been difficult for the nurses to keep everyone satisfied and in check, however, the young faces all look happy and well cared for. In one of the rooms downstairs, possibly the matron’s office, a continuous film shows the children playing together in the house, dancing, acting and getting up to all sorts of mischief that only children are able to find themselves in.

The nursery’s first matron has been identified as Miss Rhoda Violet Carter (d. 1954). She was 40 years old when she took up the post, which was advertised in the Chelmsford ChronicleShe came all the way from Teesside to take up the post that paid £200 a year. The trained nursery assistants, of which there were two at a time, were given an annual salary of £135.

Matron Carter left her position in 1944 after getting married. It is not certain who took over her post but nursery attendants and local sources have been able to name a few other women involved with the running of the place. It is believed a Mrs Hart was the Matron in the late 1940s and a Mrs E. Walker in the 1950s. During the latter’s time, a Nurse Dorothy was present at the nursery. Photographs provided by the children who once attended the nursery have helped to identify another helper, Miss Esme Withers.

One room of the Hall contains photographs belonging to Roger and Janice Cunningham who both attended the nursery. This was something they discovered when they first began dating; they had been too young during the war to remember each other, however, they each have many memories of the nursery,

Roger and Janice married at the church of St Helen and St Giles, right next to Rainham Hall. A brief video shows the couple walking through the graveyard and exploring the newly opened Hall, reminiscing about their childhood. Photographs from between 1946 and 1950 show the blond-haired Janice and the boisterous Roger playing with the other children in the large garden.

The majority of the rooms in Rainham Hall have been decked out with items similar to those that may have been there during the nursery’s time. These are based on the memories of the seven nursery attendees who had been interviewed for this purpose. On the ground floor, the exhibition explains the purpose of the nursery and why it was set up. It also introduces the members of staff that are known to have worked there.

At the back of the house is the reconstructed kitchen. This, of course, was not where it would have been during the war, since Colonel Mulliner had moved it to the basement, however, it has been set out to resemble a typical kitchen from the war era. On the table are examples of magazines containing recipes, for example, Woolton Pie, and rationing instructions.

“Potatoes new, potatoes old
Potato in a salad cold
Potatoes baked or mashed or fried
Potatoes whole, potato pied
Enjoy them all, including chips,
Remembering spuds don’t come in ships.”
– The Song of Potato Pete

In one of the magazines is the children’s song The Song of Potato Pete, which was written to encourage people to eat what they could grow in their own gardens. This song is no longer known by children, or adults for that matter, but many well-known nursery rhymes were adapted to add references to life during the Second World War. Old Mother Hubbard, for example, is worried about food shortages and the woman in There was an Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe is busy looking after the masses of children who have been evacuated to the countryside.

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“I much prefer bananas.”

Items that were obtainable during the war fill the wooden shelves on one side of the kitchen. On the counter sits a bottle of malt extract that visitors are welcome to taste; Simeon had his first, and hopefully last, morsel of the stuff.

Upstairs, more examples of items that may have been available to the children of the nursery are on display. Visitors are also introduced to clothes rationing with a list of what each child was allowed to have. It was rare for them to have more than a couple of outfits and, of course, there were no disposable nappies. These had to be boil washed and used again.

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Simeon enjoyed hearing the stories.

An audio device allows visitors to listen to parts of the interviews with the old nursery attendees. This can be listened to by holding an old-fashioned telephone up to your ear. For those hard of hearing, some of the words have been printed next to the phones and additional quotes can be found dotted around the building.

Whilst the exhibition mostly focuses on the function of the building as a nursery, the dangers and horrors of war cannot be overlooked. Being on the edge of London, Rainham had its share of bomb attacks. Sadly, many people lost their lives during this time, including children. A wall containing an old map of the area, plotted with the places bombs landed, remembers the names and families of these children. In some instances, entire families were wiped out in one blast, which goes to show how lucky many people were to survive the war.

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Sweet dreams …

Although children enjoyed attending and felt safe at Rainham Hall, there was always the risk of an air raid. Nonetheless, life had to go on as normally as possible, which for children included education, games and naps. Tiny camp beds can be found in one of the rooms on the second floor. They do not look all that comfortable – Simeon can confirm they are not – however, they sufficed for the children at the time.

Just as they are today, children were educated through play and songs, learning the alphabet with pictures, chanting “A is for apple, B is for ball, C is for carrot …” Before televisions were around, the radio provided children with stories on programmes such as Listen with Mother; “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” An old record player gives visitors the opportunity to listen to a few of these episodes.

Simeon enjoyed discovering the Rainham Hall nursery and learning a little about childhood during the war years. Unfortunately, the National Trust, who owns the property, relies on old records, of which there are very few, and the memories of people associated with the place. As a result, the exhibition lacks a concise history of the Hall and the nursery, which is a great shame because it was such an integral part of the lives of women and children during the war.

The staff at Rainham Hall encourage anyone with memories or knowledge about Rainham Hall to contact them with details. Any small piece of information is useful to help build up the history of the building and its inhabitants and, perhaps, inspire future exhibitions.

If you wish to visit the exhibition Remembering the Day Nursery at Rainham Hall, which Simeon highly recommends, you do not have much time left. The exhibition will finish on 31st December 2018 to make way for their next display in the new year. Entry to the house costs £6, although National Trust members can visit for free. The garden and cafe are accessible on days that the house is open (Wednesday – Sunday).

Simeon wishes you all a good visit.

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A Serious Museum with a Smile on its Face

On the edge of Pinner Memorial Park, Harrow is a museum devoted to the painter, illustrator and cartoonist William Heath Robinson (1872-1944). With over 1000 artworks, the Heath Robinson Museum explores the life and artistic progress of the celebrated “Gadget King”. Regardless of age or prior knowledge, the museum is a place for everyone to enjoy, as the website states:

“The Heath Robinson Museum is for students of illustration, lovers of landscape paintings, advertising enthusiasts and academics, dads building contraptions in sheds, believers in fairies, children with time to dream, couples stuck in tiny flats, people who put holes in cheese, artificial teeth testers and anyone who’s ever held something together with a bit of string.”

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William Heath Robinson

The term “a bit Heath Robinson” may be familiar to some but its origin has almost fallen into obscurity. Entering the English language in 1912, the term is used to describe any sort of ad hoc contraption or complicated gadget that has been assembled from everyday objects. As the museum reveals through a visual timeline of Heath Robinson’s life, the artist was most famous for his humorous drawings that often involved mindboggling, bizarre ideas.

William Heath Robinson was born on 13th May 1872 in Finsbury Park, North London. Being the third son of Thomas Robinson (1838–1902), a wood-engraver and illustrator who drew for The Penny Illustrated Paper, William was encouraged to develop his artistic skills.  William “didn’t want to be anything else than an artist,” and enrolled in the Royal Academy Schools where he excelled as a landscape painter. Unfortunately, landscapes were unlikely to earn Heath Robinson enough money to live comfortably, therefore, he began his career working alongside his illustrator brothers, Charles (1870–1937) and Tom (1869–1954).

 

Heath Robinson’s first published illustrations featured in The Sunday Magazine in 1896 and, soon, he was receiving commissions for book illustrations. One of the first books to include his drawings was a reprint of Don Quixote (1615) by Miguel de Cervantes, which was followed by The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe in 1900. Two years later, Heath Robinson wrote and illustrated his own story, The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902), which provided him with enough money to finally marry his fiancée Josephine Latey.

The Adventures of Uncle Lubin was the first instance of humour Heath Robinson expressed in his work. Aimed at children, Uncle Lubin was a comically dressed man in baggy leggings and an oversized floppy hat. The gentle, serious uncle is left to look after his nephew Peter, however, whilst he is napping, an evil “bag-bird” swoops down and kidnaps the child. Desperate to save his nephew, Uncle Lubin sets out on a series of adventures, involving remarkable inventions and contraptions, for instance, an air-ship and an underwater boat. Despite the highs and lows of the story, Uncle Lubin and Peter are eventually reunited in an enchanting conclusion.

Having succeeded with child humour, Heath Robinson continued to draw comical illustrations, this time for adults. In 1906, The Sketch ran a series of his cartoons titled The Gentle Art of Catching Things in which he began to reveal his imagination and crackpot inventions. The Sketch, having profited from Heath Robinson’s contributions, commissioned another series of cartoons in 1908, Great British Industries – Duly Protected.

 

By 1908, Heath Robinson could afford to buy a house in Pinner, the same town in which the museum is located. This coincided with the development of colour printing, which allowed multiple copies of coloured illustrations to be produced in books. The same year, Heath Robinson was commissioned to draw 40 large coloured pictures for Shakespeare‘s Twelfth Night. Although he was progressing with his humorous illustrations, this project proved he could also compose serious outcomes.

In 1912, Heath Robinson produced coloured illustrations for his own story Bill the Minder. Turned into a television series for Channel 5 in 1986, the book tells of the adventures of fifteen-year-old Bill and his cousins Boadicea and Chad. In a Heath Robinson-like manner, the characters solve their unique problems with the use of exotic, handmade machines, for example, fitting balloons and pedals to a broken aeroplane to make it fly again.

The following year, Heath Robinson produced a series of coloured illustrations for Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Although he had to return to a more serious style of drawing, Heath Robinson was able to use his imagination to develop the magical characters that fill Andersen’s stories.

 

Once again, Heath Robinson was asked to illustrate a Shakespeare play, this time A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This included a number of coloured illustrations as well as the traditional black and white. Given the nature of the play, Heath Robinson was able to use his experience of fantasy drawing and combine it with his love of comedy.

By now, the First World War was afoot and book illustrations were not the main priority of book publishers. In 1915, for instance, Heath Robinson was commissioned to illustrate Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies, however, the publishers only wanted eight coloured pictures. This was a massive drop from the 40 illustrations produced for Twelfth Night seven years earlier. Soon, book illustrating jobs had temporarily dried up altogether.

 

The war period, however, gave Heath Robinson plenty of opportunities to produce humorous, satirical illustrations. Collected together and published in books such as Some Frightful War Pictures and Hunlikely! (1916), Heath Robinson used satire and absurdity to counter the German propaganda that was leaving Britain afraid and disheartened.

Aiming to lighten the mood, Heath Robinson depicted the enemy in farcical situations and British troops using imaginative contraptions to win the war. An example shown at the museum depicted the Huns (Germans) using laughing gas instead of mustard gas in an attempt to defeat the British.

 

Heath Robinson continued to make people laugh after the end of World War One with a weekly cartoon in The Bystander Magazine. From here on, Heath Robinson was regarded as the “Gadget King”, designing new, increasingly eccentric contraptions, usually combining everyday objects. These over-the-top machines were preposterous ideas but the characters in the illustrations were taking the situation so seriously that people began to question whether they were silly schemes or not.

In 1935, Heath Robinson returned to book illustration, however, this time it was in collaboration with the writer K. R. G. Browne (1895-1940). Based around Heath Robinson’s many gadgets, the pair published four “how to” books, beginning with How To Live In A Flat. This was shortly followed by How to Be A Perfect Husband, How to Make a Garden Grow and How To Be a Motorist, which are now, unfortunately, slightly outdated.

Unlike the other three books in the series, How To Live In A Flat is still relatable today as it applies to any building with limited space. At the time it was published, the thought of living in a flat was a new idea that many, particularly Heath Robinson, were struggling to come to terms with. The illustrator was averse to modern architecture and design, which shows in his satirical drawings that mock the tiny rooms in a flat. Browne and Heath Robinson thought up all the potential difficulties the limited room would throw up, inventing space-economising inventions to produce a little more comfort.

 

Heath Robinson thinks of every aspect of flat-living, planning beds that fold down from wardrobes, communal rubbish shoots, central heating and multi-purpose furniture. In some ways, he was ahead of his time, developing ideas that, whilst absurd at the time, would eventually become a common commodity. Take, for example, the coffee machine. Heath Robinson would be amazed at the technology available today, especially because coffee can be made by merely touching a button, rather than using candles and a range of obscure objects.

 

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Architecture Model (2016)

In the centre of the exhibition space at the Heath Robinson Museum sits a model of the flat described by Browne and Heath Robinson in How To Live in A Flat. Produced as part of a Btec Architecture, Interior and Product Design course at Harrow College, Estera Badelita constructed many scenes from the illustration and combined them together to make one model. On the roof, roof-top hikers are walking around in a continuous circle, a couple of people are diving off a balcony into a swimming pool on the balcony below, and another person is sitting on an outdoor chair attached to the wall of the building.

 

If it had not been for Browne’s death in 1940, the artist and writer partnership may have produced more books in the series. Nonetheless, Heath Robinson worked with the journalist Cecil Hunt (1902-54) during the Second World War on a new series of “how to” books aimed at boosting the morale of the public. Titles included How To Make The Best Of Things, How To Build A New World and How To Run A Communal Home, the latter produced just in case people needed to take in lodgers due to shortages of houses after the Blitz.

As well as developing his reputation as the “Gadget King”, Heath Robinson spent the period between 1915 and his death in 1944 producing advertisement illustrations for a number of clients. Companies that benefitted from Heath Robinson’s combination of serious and comical drawings include Chairman Tobacco, Johnny Walker Whisky and Connolly Brothers Ltd.

“… humour may be merely refreshing and light-hearted jollity, without which the world would be a sadder place to live in.”
– Heath Robinson

Heath Robinson was saddened by the start of another World War in 1939, however, similarly to the previous war, he attempted to lighten the mood with his illustrations. Rather than satirise the enemy, Heath Robinson focused on the Home Front in his weekly drawings for The Sketch. The museum displays a couple of examples from this period; one shows a group of large men using their weight to activate a machine that dislodges the position of an enemy gun post and another demonstrates an idea to hold up the enemy’s progress.

 

For children (or adults, why not?), the museum provides a couple of jigsaw puzzles of Heath Robinson’s wartime illustrations, including the above drawings. Alternatively, sheets of paper are provided to copy or draw new inventions. Other activities, such as spot the difference and worksheets related to the exhibition are available to keep younger visitors entertained.

 

Peter Pan and Other Lost Children

The Heath Robinson Museum consists of two exhibition rooms. One contains the permanent display of Heath Robinson illustrations and timeline, whereas, the other houses temporary exhibitions throughout the year. Since 25th August, an exhibition to commemorate the centenary of women’s suffrage showcases the work of two exceptional Edwardian female illustrators.

As the exhibition title Peter Pan and Other Lost Children suggests, the illustrations come from books such as Peter Pan and others involving children. The two artists, Alice Bolingbroke Woodward (1862-1951) and Edith Farmiloe (1870-1921), despite being women, were successful in the book illustration industry. This exhibition celebrates the lives of two people who made a name and career for themselves despite the inequalities in Edwardian society.

Alice Bolingbroke Woodward was born in West London in 1862, a daughter of the British Museum geologist, Dr Henry Woodward. Like the rest of her sisters, Alice wanted to be an artist and her father encouraged this by asking them to draw scientific drawings for his lectures. After studying at various schools, including the Westminster School of Art, she took her first steps to become a commercial artist with a commission to illustrate an article in the Daily Chronicle (1895).

Alice’s big break occurred in 1907 when she received a contract from the publisher George Bell & Sons to illustrate The Peter Pan Picture Book based on the original play by J. M. Barrie. Alice was the first person to ever illustrate the famous story of Peter Pan; many of these drawings are currently framed on the walls of the Heath Robinson museum. The initial print run of 5750 copies quickly sold out and 10,000 more were printed. Soon, Alice’s illustrations were familiar to children all over Britain.

A few years later (1914), the publishers contacted Alice with a request for eight coloured full-page illustrations, cover design, title-page and endpapers for a new edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. After a brief dispute about the commission fee, Alice readily accepted. Keeping to the physical characteristics imagined by the original illustrator of the story, John Tenniel (1820-1914), Alice used her well-loved method of pen ink and watercolour to produce a handful of beautiful drawings.

Edith Farmiloe is, perhaps, the lesser known of the two women, at least with the younger generations, although, she had a distinct style of illustration. Born in Chatham, Kent in 1870, Edith did not receive the art education and support that Alice Bolingbroke Woodward received as a child. It was not until 1891, when she married Reverend Thomas Farmiloe, that she began experimenting with story writing and illustration. She admitted that she could not draw from nature, however, her characters took on a unique, simple but appealing appearance.

Between 1895 and 1909, Edith wrote stories about poor children, which were printed in magazines alongside her illustrations. Eventually, the publisher Grant Richards asked her to illustrate a large picture book for children, the result being All the World Over, which demonstrates children’s fashion and activities in a range of different countries.

A follow-up book to All the World Over was requested in 1898 that focused on children seen on the streets in Soho, London. On this occasion, the story, or verses, were written by Edith’s sister Winifred, and together they produced the book Rag, Tag, and Bobtail.

Edith was also interested in the increasing Italian immigrant community in London, which inspired her children’s story Piccallili, published in 1900. The illustrations complement the story about life in Italy and its comparison with the streets of London.

Edith wrote a few more books for children on similar themes up until her death in 1921. The Heath Robinson Museum gift shop has postcards for sale featuring Edith Farmiloe’s illustrations but, unfortunately, lacks any memorabilia of Alice Bolingbroke Woodward’s drawings.

The Heath Robinson Museum has curated an outstanding little exhibition that introduces visitors to illustrators who have been largely forgotten about. It is refreshing to learn about female artists, especially those working in a male-oriented world. The Heath Robinson exhibition is also exceptional and visitors come away feeling as though they knew the “Gadget King”.

The Heath Robinson Museum is open from 11am until 4pm on Thursday to Sunday and charges £6 (£5 for over 65s, £4 for children) to view both exhibitions. Peter Pan and Other Lost Children will close on 18th November 2018 to make way for an exhibition about Heath Robinson’s home life.

Out of Austria

Marking the 80th anniversary of the Anschluss (annexation of Austria) on 12th March 1938
14th March – 29th April 2018

On Saturday 12th March 1938, German troops marched into Austria unopposed; Hitler was now in control. Although many Austrians welcomed the Wehrmacht with cheering, Nazi salutes and waving flags, this invasion made the country a dangerous place for thousands of people, particularly Jews. Between 1933 when Hitler began to gain power and 1945 when the era of National Socialism came to an end, approximately 130,000 Jews escaped from Austria, 30,000 of whom found refuge in Great Britain. Within this grand total, a number of artists crossed The Channel to safety and, in remembrance of the 80th anniversary of the Anschluss Österreichs, the Ben Uri Gallery produced an exhibition of over 40 works by a score of these refugees.

outside-e1471442834671The Ben Uri Gallery, established in 1915 by the Russian émigré artist Lazar Berson, is dedicated to celebrating the work and lives of migrant minorities. Originally an art venue for Jewish immigrant craftsmen, the gallery’s mission is to be known as “The Art Museum for Everyone” with no ethnic, religious or other barriers.

The gallery was named after Bezalel Ben Uri or Bezalel son of Uri from the tribe of Judah who was an immigrant craftsman in the Bible. He was the master artisan in charge of creating the tabernacle for the spirit of the Lord to dwell as well as building the Ark of the Covenant, a gold-covered wooden chest in which to place the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.
– Exodus 31:1-6

As a registered charity and the only specialist art museum in Europe that focuses on the issues of identity and migration through the visual arts, the Ben Uri Gallery takes every opportunity to not only showcase the artworks of migrant minorities but to tell the world their story. Although only a small building, the curators of the exhibition Out of Austria utilised the space to display a variety of different types of art, such as paintings, graphics, sculptures and ceramics. Very few of the Austrian artists are still alive, therefore, the exhibit also served as a museum of the annexation of Austria.

Anschluss was essentially an inevitable event for the idea of grouping all the German-speaking countries together had been a subject of discussion since the ending of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. The Austrian people were split between wanting to merge with Germany and staying loyal to the Habsburg Monarchy despite its collapse in 1918. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, the government in Austria was targetted with propaganda advocating for an Anschluss to the German Reich, including the constant repetition of the phrase Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer (“One People, One Empire, One Leader”).

Gradually, the Austrian government withdrew, allowing Hitler to make his move to create a union between his birth country Austria and Germany, an “all-German Reich“. This had been his aim since 1925 when he wrote in his autobiography Mein Kampf, “German-Austria must be restored to the great German Motherland … People of the same blood should be in the same Reich.”

Some Austrian-born Jews began seeking refuge as early as 1933, five years before the Anschluss, as a result of Hitler’s anti-Semitic legislation. Others fled after the event in an attempt to find a place of safety, passing through various European countries, finally settling in Britain. With no homeland, livelihood or familiar culture, it was a challenge for all refugees to reestablish their lives and careers, including painters, sculptors and so forth. This exhibition not only showed the works of these artists but examined their struggles and experiences as they began to rebuild their lives.

Out of Austria was divided into sections, grouping artworks by theme rather than by artist. Some of the works express the reality of the internment many Jews faced on reaching British shores. Between 1940 and 1941, many refugees were held as “enemy aliens” in camps such as Huyton in Liverpool and the Hutchinson and Onchan camps on the Isle of Man. Despite the circumstances, the artists displayed in this gallery refused to let it stop them from doing what they do best – creating art. With limited resources, artists used whatever they could get their hands on.

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Portrait of a Man: Wilhelm Hollitscher, Dachinger, 1940

One of the artists caught up in Churchill’s decree to “collar the lot” of Jewish refugees was Hugo Dachinger (1908-95), occasionally known as “Puck” who immigrated to Britain via Denmark in 1938. For the first two years, Dachinger was able to live in relative safety, however, after Churchill’s decision in June 1940 to detain “enemy aliens”, Dachinger was interred in Huyton Camp for five months, followed by a final two months in Mooragh Camp on the Isle of Man. Despite his incarceration, Dachinger continued to paint, eventually holding an exhibition of the works produced during these months entitled Art Behind Barbed Wire.

Dachinger was an Austrian Jew born in Gmunden, Upper Austria who had spent three years of study at the Leipzig School of Arts and Crafts before moving to Vienna to work as a graphic designer. He also patented a system of moveable type and co-founded the successful but short-lived Transposter Advertising Ltd firm.

Whilst in the British camps, Dachinger completed a bountiful portfolio of work, which included landscapes, scenes of the everyday life within the confines of the eight-metre high barbed wire, posters and coloured portraits. The example of Dachinger’s work owned by the Ben Uri gallery was painted during the third month of his internment. Titled Portrait of a Man, it is thought that the elderly sitter was one of the intellectuals, either a writer or an artist named Wilhelm Holitscher, who Dachinger socialised within the camp.

Limited to resources that he could find in the camp, Dachinger used newspaper sheets as his canvas, preferring The Times over others on account of the better quality paper. Unable to purchase paints, Dachinger and other artists had to use whatever equipment they had brought with them or invent their own pigments by melting and combining various ingredients. For example, he made ersatz paint by grounding brick dust or food with the olive oil from sardine tins. On other occasions, Dachinger mixed toothpaste and watercolours, which can be seen in the hair of Portrait of a Man. To produce black charcoal, wood, such as twigs from trees, were burnt to ashes.

 

One of the themes that was explored in the exhibition Out of Austria was the prevailing mother and child trope that has appeared in artworks throughout history. It is usually associated with Catholicism and the representation of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child, an unusual choice for Jewish artists to depict, however, perhaps these artists who had fled their homeland were drawn to this subject on account of their separation from their families. Amongst the artworks exhibited in this section were sketches, photographs, ceramics and sculptures.

One of the sculptures, lent from a private collection, was fashioned from bronze by the Austrian-born Georg Ehrlich (1887-1966). A year before the Anschluss, Ehrlich and his wife fled from the Austrian capital to the British capital where he remained for the rest of his life, excluding a brief internment in one of the camps. Although he had trained as a graphic designer at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna, Ehrlich had established himself as a sculptor by 1923.

Ehrlich mainly restricted his sculptures to animals and children, however, also produced several war memorials including one for the Garden of Rest at Coventry. It is likely that Ehrlich’s sculptures provided the money he and his wife needed in order to live comfortably in their adopted country. Standing Boy, displayed as part of the exhibition, sold for £200 in 1941, the most expensive of any of the works bought at that time.

Another sculptor who found safety on the British Isles was Wilhelm “Willi” Soukop (1907-95), the son of a Moravian shoemaker, who fled from Vienna as early as 1934. Although he was deported and interred in Canada in 1940, he returned to London nine months later establishing himself as a teacher at various art schools. His post-war sculpture Mother and Child (1947), lent to the gallery for this exhibition, was purchased by the University of Chichester in 1952 where it usually sits above the altar in the University Chapel.

 

Continuing with the theme of mother and child, Bettina (1903-85), the wife of the aforementioned Georg Ehrlich, launched a new career as a children’s author and illustrator as a result of fleeing to London in 1938. By 1940, Bettina had penned and illustrated her first book Poo-Tsee, the Water Tortoise, which was followed by a further 20 books during her lifetime. As well as writing her own stories, Bettina worked as an illustrator for other authors including the American writer Virginia Haviland (1911-88).

A copy of Haviland’s Favorite Fairy Tales Told in England had been lent to the Ben Uri Gallery specifically for the Out of Austria exhibition, which was displayed in a glass case, opened to a page containing two elegant pen and ink illustrations. Included nearby was an initial study for an illustration that was never got used for the story Molly Whuppie in which the small girl, Molly, steals a giant’s purse from under his pillow whilst he sleeps.

Although these books and illustrations were produced after the end of World War Two and have no direct connection to the events of the Anschluss, they go to show the success Bettina achieved as a result of fleeing her home country. Had she remained in Austria, chances are she would have ended up in a Nazi concentration camp and possibly never seen again. By abandoning everything she was familiar with, she and her husband not only survived but created a positive future.

 

The exhibition Out of Austria ended with a selection of post-war artworks produced by Austrian-Jewish refugees. Some of these had returned to Austria or other countries in Europe, whereas, others decided to make Britain their permanent home. Regardless of where they ended up, they continued painting, sculpting and so forth, adopting new methods that evolved as a result of the war. Abstract art emerged as artists began to come to terms with the horrors of war, needing a suitable method of expressing their emotions. Political anxieties were also at the forefront of people’s minds but experiences of Nazi Germany made many wary of speaking or visualising their opinions in clear, obvious manners.

The Ben Uri Gallery selected works that were not predominantly war focused, instead emphasising the determination of the Austrian immigrants to persevere with their artistic careers. From fleeing their homes, facing several months in British camps, scavenging for resources, the determination of these artists to carry on when they could so easily have given up is an inspiration to all craftsmen today.

Despite the exhibition being in honour of the memory of the annexation of Austria, it was interesting to view a range of themes and styles rather than visual representations of war. Out of Austria was a personal insight into individual artists – unique human beings – instead of a formal, grave account of the Anschluss, although accurate facts and figures were also given.

It was refreshing to note a large number of female artists amongst the 20 or so featured in the exhibition. Women have generally been written out of the history of art and are only just beginning to receive the recognition they deserve. Anschluss affected both men and women, everyone was equal in this respect.

Out of Austria finished on 29th April, however, the Ben Uri Gallery hosts a number of exhibitions throughout the year that celebrates the lives of various individuals and groups of refugees. Regardless of who the future exhibitions focus on, visitors can expect a well thought out display that truly expresses the personalities and lives of the artists despite events they have been through.

The next exhibition to take place at the Ben Uri Gallery will be Adi Nes: Bible Stories beginning on 22nd May until 10th June 2018.

Churchill War Rooms

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Winston Churchill making a radio address from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. © IWM (H 20446)

Everyone has heard stories about the Second World War, Britain’s involvement and the famous speeches of wartime-Prime Minister Winston Churchill. With the conflict still fresh in the older generation’s minds, the media is forever portraying the battles, the bombed-out cities and living conditions of the public on our wide-screened TVs. It is a topic that is unlikely to ever be left alone.

Although documentaries and films tend to focus on the violence and dangers of war, a lot of it was fought in secret, unbeknownst to the general British public. In more recent years, these classified undertakings have gradually been revealed, bringing to light many unsung heroes.

Winston Churchill (1874-1965), the prime minister during the war, is obviously not overlooked in British history, however, at the time, it was not clear exactly what he was doing. Nevertheless, the hidden location beneath the streets of London, where Britain’s leaders made decisions to lead the country to victory, has been revealed to the public in London’s Westminster. The Cabinet War Rooms were situated underground in the basements of the New Public Offices and since 1984 have been widely available to tourists. The Imperial War Museum has restored many of the rooms to their original appearances to give an authentic insight into the daily life of the War Cabinet. Adding a Churchill Museum in 2005, the site was renamed Churchill War Rooms and celebrates the life of one of Britain’s greatest heroes.

“This is the room from which I will direct the war.” – Winston Churchill, May 1940

After descending the stairs underground, paying a fee of £19, and receiving an audioguide, visitors find themselves in the masses of corridors hidden beneath the Treasury Building (the former New Public Offices) opposite St James’s Park. At some times narrow and claustrophobia-inducing, these corridors connect a series of rooms where vital meetings and work took place during the Second World War. Even the main corridor, now mostly empty, would have been full of typists crammed together at small desks, toiling away at the never-ending piles of written correspondence.

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Cabinet Room at Churchill War Rooms. Source: Imperial War Museum

The audio tour begins with a glance into the Cabinet Room where the Prime Minister would chair meetings with his advisers and Chief of Staff (heads of the army, navy and airforce). The room is displayed exactly as it would have looked like before a meeting commenced, with paper and pencil in front of every seat, and ashtrays ready to receive the ashes from Churchill’s legendary cigar.

Churchill’s position at the table is clearly marked by a posher, more comfortable chair, whereas everyone else had to make do with the uniform basic versions. For the interest of visitors, a diagram is provided detailing the seating plan, explaining the importance of each meeting attendee.

The audioguide directs each visitor around the war rooms, explaining the uses of rooms and adding in interesting bits of information. Although some information boards are positioned around the corridors and rooms, the audioguide is much more beneficial, providing details about and describing the atmosphere during the war years.

There are still secrets to be revealed about the war rooms, mostly because a lot of the rooms were stripped bare at the end of the war with many items being thrown away. Fortunately, the most important rooms were left as they were, and in some cases, photographs have assisted museum workers to reconstruct the various chambers.

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Transatlantic Telephone Room

Some of the secrets the Imperial War Museum has unearthed were not even known to the majority of people who worked there. One of these was the Transatlantic Telephone located off the centre of the main corridor. Originally a storeroom, a lavatory-style lock was added to a door in 1943, giving rise to the rumour that Churchill had been given his own private toilet (there were no flushing toilets available to anyone underground). However, this cupboard-sized room had actually been adapted to accommodate a secure radio-telephone link between the Prime Minister of Britain and the President of the United States of America.

Although not allowed to enter these small rooms, doors are left open so that visitors can peer in at the 1940s decor and furnishings (although rather sparse) and imagine what working underground must have felt like. Also on show are the private rooms such as bedrooms, kitchen and dining areas, built with the intention of being used during bombing raids.

Included in the tour is Churchill’s bedroom, although it is reported he only stayed the night there three times. However, he did make good use of the room, retiring there for a nap during the afternoon. Often, Churchill would dictate his speeches to his Private Secretary whilst lying on his bed, which would then be given to a typist to type out ready for use later in the day. In fact, Churchill made four radio speeches directly from his bedroom using microphones installed for this very purpose. The wall behind the bed is covered with a large map of Europe, implying that the Prime Minister would plot out potential landing sites for invasion.

The most important room of the entire Cabinet War Rooms was the Map Room. Here, officers from the army, navy, airforce and Ministry of Home Security would sit awaiting phonecalls to tell them of the latest news in Europe. This information would then be passed on to “plotters” who would attach pins, ribbons and so forth to wall-sized maps, displaying the latest situation and location of enemies and allies. From these maps, potential courses of military action could be assessed and planned –  a vital contribution to the eventual victory.

To try to prevent confusion, the Map Room contained phones of varying colours, each connecting to different correspondents. White phones were connected to the armed services, black to the outside world, and green to intelligence services. Rather than ringing, which would have caused an incessant racket, the phones would light up to indicate an incoming call.

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The private rooms contain items that had to be sourced elsewhere by researchers because nothing remained of the original furniture and so forth. The Map Rooms, however, were left exactly as they were when the lights were turned off after six years of war. Other items have been fortunate to survive and are also on display around the corridors and rooms to create an authentic appearance. This includes a door complete with key rack where many of the original keys to the rooms still hang, as well as a gun rack mounted on the wall of the corridor (thankfully, the guns are nailed down).

“The greatest Englishman of our time – I think the greatest citizen of the world of our time.” – Clement Attlee, Churchill’s wartime deputy, speaking in the House of Lords the day after Sir Winston’s death

The Cabinet War Rooms were already in use during the year before Churchill became Prime Minister. Neville Chamberlain held the first war cabinet meeting on 21st October 1939, however, it is Churchill who the war rooms have now been named after. In some ways, it is thanks to Churchill that the war rooms were built. In a meeting in July 1936, Churchill asked the present Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, “Has anything been done to provide one or two alternative centre of command, with adequate deep-laid telephone connections and wireless, from which the necessary orders can be given by some coherent thinking mechanism?”

Despite so many people being involved, Churchill was certainly the leading man in the underground rooms and deserves the recognition he has received. In celebration of his life, a third of the tour of the Cabinet War Rooms takes place in a museum dedicated to the Prime Minister. The Churchill Museum tells the story of Winston Churchill’s extraordinary life from birth until his death at the age of 90.

The museum is split into five sections that can be viewed in any order, although the audioguide suggests sticking to a clockwise path around the exhibits. The most pertinent of the five sections is set between 1940-45, which outlines Churchill’s time as War Leader. The other sections cover his childhood (1874-1900), his entry into politics (1900-29), his political exile (1929-39), and his life after the war (1945-65).

Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born on 30th November 1874 in Blenheim Palace. His aristocratic parents, Randolph Churchill and Jennie Jerome, sent him to boarding school at the age of eight and had very little to do with his early years. Rather than immediately following his father’s footsteps into politics, Winston opted for a military career, eventually becoming a Boer War journalist for the Morning Post. However, Churchill could not avoid the pull of politics for long, and as of 1900, started a new career as the Conservative candidate for Oldham.

To begin with, Churchill was not the popular man he was destined to become and clashed with many other politicians. With so much antagonism against him, Churchill returned to military service in 1915 until 1924 when he rejoined the Conservative Party. Unfortunately, he fell out of favour with the subsequent Prime Ministers, eventually becoming exiled from politics in 1929. However, with the beginning of the war in 1939, Churchill was given the responsibility of the role of First Lord of the Admiralty and eventually began to earn respect. As a result, at the age of 65, Churchill was chosen as the new Prime Minister after Chamberlain’s resignation.

From 10th May 1940, Churchill supported Britain through the war, working extensively in the Cabinet War Rooms. Evidence of his hard work can be seen in the museum through visual, audio and interactive displays.

02_churchillIn the centre of the museum stands a 15-metre-long, digital, interactive table that provides a timeline of Churchill’s life. By using a touchstrip at the edge of the table, visitors can select and explore dates and events during Churchill’s life, viewing over 2000 documents, images and videos. This lifeline is continuously updated as more is discovered about the prodigious War Hero.

Unlike the War Rooms, preserved in their original appearances, The Churchill Museum is a contemporary feature. With so much to watch, read, hear and touch, the large room becomes crowded and overstimulating as everyone tries to explore the life of the famous figure. But with so much to learn, it is inevitable that the room becomes cramped and filled to capacity. Fortunately, the Imperial War Museum provides an in-depth guidebook which can be purchased at the entrance, or later in the gift shop. However, seeing personal items belonging to Britain’s most famous Prime Minister is much better in person, than within the limited pages of a book.

Following the audioguide and taking time to look at everything in the museum may take a couple of hours. A café is located two-thirds of the way through the tour, providing refreshments and a selection of lunches to replenish people’s energy for the final section, which includes the Map Rooms.

The Churchill War Rooms is a vital place to visit to get a true sense of the wartime efforts of the British government. If you are willing to pay the price (£19 adults, £9.50 children), it is certainly worth a visit. School history lessons barely cover the Second World War in comparison to the information provided in this secret bunker. You are guaranteed to learn something new.

The Churchill War Rooms is only a 20-minute bus ride from IWM London or HMS Belfast. It is also close to a wide range of famous tourist attractions including Tate Britain, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye and Buckingham Palace. St James’s Park is also on the doorstep.