Abram Games: Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means (Touring Exhibition)

I went to this exhibition when it first launched at the Design Museum in 2003… really interesting, and a real chance to get up close and personal with Abram Games’ iconic works (including the famous banned “blond bombshell”). I have also met Naomi Games a couple of times, who, a note to those of you who think that all Second World War posters are out of copyright… has renewed the copyright on all his works. See more on the official website: http://www.abramgames.com/

Til 16th May: The Museum of Lancashire.

6 June-6 September: Bedford Galley.

For More Information on the Artist: (from PhD thesis)

Of Jewish descent, Abram Games was born in London, the son of an artist photographer. A modernist graphic and industrial designer, he was mainly self-taught, attending St Martin’s School of Art for only six months, although he took evening classes whilst working for Askew-Younge, a commercial London studio between 1932 and 1936, before being fired ‘for his rebellious and undisciplined attitude’. In 1934 he came second in the Health Council Competition, and in 1935 he won a poster competition for London City Council. He then worked as a freelance poster artist from 1936 to 1940, designing posters for many commercial companies, including Shell, London Transport and the GPO.When working on a new design for a poster, Games would produce up to thirty small sketches for images, from which two or three would be combined towards the final idea. Games deliberately designed on a small scale, as he believed that posters needed to work from a distance, and if they “don’t work an inch high they will never work”. Sketches were shown to his family and friends, and those designs that drew a blank expression were rejected, with the most successful sketch scaled up to a painted ‘rough’. Only one idea was ever presented to a client, and if rejected, Games suggested that they employed another designer. If the design was accepted, the design would be enlarged, either by a photographer, or Games himself would project the image onto an easel. The finished design would be transferred to an art board, and hung on the studio wall for a week before receiving the stamp of approval, the full stop after his signature. Games insisted both on philosophical involvement with the subject matter, and on ‘being responsible for each poster in its entirety: the concept, the slogan, the copy, the design and the layout’.

Although Games worked in his father’s photographic studio for two years before he worked for Askew-Younge, and was keenly interested in the mechanics of image reproduction, and the work of Man Ray and other pioneers of photo-montage, Games’ chosen tool was the airbrush (at least until the 1950s when it became difficult for the airbrush to compete with crisper photographic designs). Games collected vast quantities of photographic sources, but used them only as source material, with the airbrush ensuring that gestures and expressions fitted the purpose of the poster. Games also regularly visited the Royal College of Surgeons in London to ‘perfect his knowledge of human anatomy and his ability to draw the human body’.

In 1940 Games jointed the Infantry, but was recalled to the War Office in June 1941 to design a recruiting poster for the Royal Armoured Corps (RAC). Games had previously sent a memorandum ‘concerning the use of enlisted designers for Army instructional posters’. Having designed posters for the RAC and ATS, Games again proposed his idea, and was given the chance to put it into practice, with the knowledge that he would return to his unit if the idea failed. The experiment was so successful that in 1942 Games was offered the newly created poster of Official War Office Poster Designer. Art and Industry noted that Games’ peace-time work was ‘well-known’, and that he was ‘more usefully employed’ in public relations than in an infantry unit. In a later article, Games described that his experience in the Infantry had given him ‘an understanding of what the ranker thinks, does and, perhaps more important, does not do’, as the army mentality was different from that of the ‘outside world’.

On appointment, Games was given the rank of Lieutenant, and later Captain. Frank Newbould was appointed as his civilian assistant , also in 1942. Games designed over one-hundred posters before he left the War Office in 1946, including several that were adapted by the MOI for civilian use, and several that attracted controversy, including the ATS ‘glamour girl’ of 1941; the ABCA ‘Finsbury Health Centre’ Your Britain poster of 1942; and the Talk in Here poster of 1944, the first two of which were withdrawn. Games’ work was widely exhibited amount the allies during the war years, and his wartime work was discussed in many publications, including three times in Art and Industry, where he analysed his own work. In 1948 he wrote in Art and Industry: “I feel strongly that the high purpose of the wartime posters was mainly responsible for their excellence.”

Games married Marianne Selfeld in 1945, with whom he had one son and two daughters, and in 1946 he resumed his freelance practice, going ‘on to produce hundreds of posters for private and public organisations in Britain and Israel’. With a personal philosophy of ‘maximum meaning, minimum means’, his posters, adverts, symbols and stamps had a ‘distinctive conceptual and symbolic quality’. In 1951 Games was chosen to design the Festival of Britain logo. Other noted symbols he designed include the 1955 BBC Television and 1965 Queen’s Award for Industry logos. Games was a visiting lecturer in graphic design at the Royal College of Art, London between 1946 and 1953, and was appointed Royal Designer for Industry (RDI) in 1959.

In 1958 Games was awarded the OBE for services to graphic design. His work is highly collectable, particularly as most undistributed posters and originals were pulped by government order in 1946. Few works on Second World War propaganda are complete without at least one of Games’ designs, and on his death in 1991, obituaries followed in major newspapers. In 2003 an exhibition of his work was held at the Design Museum in London.

Featured Image: Jewish Museum

7 Responses

  1. Comment added by David Curtis on 25th February to the old version of this blog: I should be grateful if you would email me a photo of a recruitment poster which enticed me to sign on for the Reconnaissance Corps in July 1944, at Horn Lane, Acton, Middlesex army recruitment office, when I was 17.

    It was a very colourful painting of an armoured car, with a radio-operator wearing headphones, holding a microphone while standing in the turret, and behind him there was the ghost of a cavalry soldier, mounted on a galloping horse. The words were: “Join the Reconnaissance Corps!”

    Until I saw the poster, I had never heard of the Reconnaissance Corps, but that appealed to my sense of adventure – and also my disinclination to join the poor bloody infantry – and as a result I became a member of 17.8.44 Intake, General Service Corps, at Bovington. Two months later, I progressed to the 58th Training Regiment, RAC, and wore the badge of the Reconnaissance Corps, training as a wireless-operator and driver.

    I am now 83, and writing my autobiography for the sake of my descendants, guided by all the photographs I have carefully kept in albums. One of them is of all members of the intake, about sixty seventeen year olds, with me among them.

    As I have seen war time posters in a recently published book I have been reading lately. I have enquired unsuccessfully to all the military museum. The National Archive has led me to Abram Games, and I am hoping that you will be able to help me to include a photo of that poster, which played a crucial part in my life-story. Eventually, what I am writing on my computer will be transferred onto a CD, including any electronic photos I have received.

  2. This is a fascinating story, and a great example of the inspiration provided by posters. Unfortunately, I have never come across this poster, although I can imagine it from having seen many others of his work. Your best bet may be to contact his estate: http://www.abramgames.com/.

  3. I have followed every piece of advice so far, without success. The author of “The British Reconnaissance Corps in the Second World War” encouragingly commented that he had seen the poster in the British Museum and the Bovington Tank Museum, but I was informed that nobody in either place could find it. A relative of Abram Games kindly wrote to me, but even she could not find it. It was such a striking poster that it is amazing that it cannot be found, so I haven’t given up hope that one day it will turn up. It turned my head towards the Army, for I was a sergeant in the Air Training Corps and had been keen to be trained as a pilot, navigator, bomb-aimer or air-gunner, despite the fact that air-gunners lasted about a fortnight before being killled. But when I reached the minimum age for recruitment as air-crew, seventeen and a quarter, the RAF announced that no further such recruitment was planned. So seeing the poster became a turning-point in my life, and it would be given a place of honour in the compact disc that will eventually contain my autobiography, and be handed down to my descendants. Biographers and social historians have told me that accounts of the lives of ordinary people like me can be significant.

  4. “This is fascinating, and I would love it if you fancied writing a blog post. The blog transferred to http://ww2poster.co.uk a few months ago, and I keep forgetting that I left this one live because lots of people had linked to it! I know the poster you mean, but I don’t appear to have it, which means it is probably in this book: http://www.abramgames.com/bb.htm, written by Abram Games’ daughter. I suspect she’d be interested to hear from you too!! They still own the copyright on the images, have renewed it…” Bex Lewis 02/08/10

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