Paul Rennie: ‘An Investigation into the Design, Production and Display Contexts of Industrial Safety Posters Produced by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents During WW2’

Rennie, P., ‘An investigation into the design, production and display contexts of industrial safety posters produced by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents during WW2
PhD thesis, completed January 2004. London College of Printing.

This thesis examines a group of posters produced by the Industrial Service of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) during WW2 (1939-45). The posters were commissioned to reduce factory accidents and raise awareness amongst workers of the potentially fatal dangers of workshop and factory. The posters were designed by a varied but distinct group of designers including Tom Eckersley, who was later closely associated with the London College of Printing. The thesis is supported by reference to the RoSPA archive at the University of Liverpool and other sources.

The circumstances of WW2 are presented as demanding a more urgent response in the production of propaganda than had previously been required of poster communications. The requirements of increased speed and economy in production could only be met by an engagement, on behalf of printers and commissioning agencies, with the processes of mechanical reproduction. This is described, in Part One, by reference to the administrative structure of RoSPA and the personalities that informed its Industrial Safety campaign. Chief amongst these characters are Ernest Bevin, Ashley Havinden, Francis Meynell and Tom Eckersley. The technologies of mechanical reproduction are described in relation to the production of the RoSPA campaign by reference to RoSPA’s printers, Loxley Brothers of Sheffield.

Part Two of the thesis examines the RoSPA campaign within a wider cultural context. The style and content of the RoSPA posters is used as evidence of communication and political engagement with audiences previously ignored by Government communications or propaganda.

The posters are proposed as evidence contributing to a programme of socially progressive reform that George Orwell recognised as both identifiably English and politically revolutionary and as a necessary, but in itself insufficient, condition for victory in “total war” (a war involving military combatants and civilian populations). The posters therefore make manifest a change in relations between capital and labour in Britain. This is presented as part of a transformation that accounts, in part, for the election of Attlee’s reforming Government in 1946 and for the subsequent policies of welfare reform and reconstruction.

The posters are presented as part of an evolving visual language that is effectively propagandistic and socialist. This visual language is presented as both radical and as drawing on diverse strands of existing imagery, such as the visual language of Surrealism and of Left politics, to address its new audiences of women and industrial workers. An unexpected alignment between Modernist design and Nonconfomist values is revealed to be at the heart of RoSPA’s project and is identified as significant in the configuration of English Modernism. This evolution is then suggested to have contributed to a change in the nature and significance of graphic authorship in Britain.

The RoSPA posters correspond to the hopes, expressed by Walter Benjamin in The Author as Producer (1934), for a socially progressive, politically engaged and mass-produced form of communication as a consequence of the emancipatory potential of Modernism. The Modernist credentials of the RoSPA campaign disabuse two powerful orthodoxies – that Modernism was resisted and rejected in England and that war propaganda marked a retreat to the banal and literal in terms of visual communications.

A catalogue of RoSPA posters is appended to the thesis. (Not a catalogue raisonné.)



Printing Methods

A number of different poster printing methods were available by the Second World War, outlined here (it would take someone more expert than me, check out Paul Rennie for more information on printing):

Based upon the principles of lithography, a separate stone or plate was made for each colour. The final colour image resulted from the build-up of successive, individual colour printings. It was associated with the production of posters from the 1850s to the 1930s.

One-off designs generally produced within competitions by, for instance, employees or children.

Intaglio Printing
Generic term for printing processes where an image is etched or engraved into the surface of a plate. The plate is then covered with ink, wiped clean, leaving ink only in the incised lines, with the impression then made direction onto paper. Photogravure is one of the key processes produced by this means.

Printing method based on the principle that oil and water do not mix. Using a greasy medium, an image is drawn on a flat surface of fine-grained porous limestone or zinc plate. The stone or plate is then dampened and inked. The water repels ink from most the surface so that the ink adheres only to the drawn lines. Dampened paper is applied to the stone or plate and rubbed with a special press to make the final print. This was a development that enabled the cheap and cost-effective mass printing of colour image and is the most common method for posters.

A popular commercial method of printing where the image to be printed is transferred (offset) first from the cylindrical metal plate on to a rubber-coloured cylinder and then from this cylinder on to the paper surface. Capable of printing on a variety of paper surfaces, on both sides of the paper, in four colours (can be simultaneous), in a variety of sizes. Small machines are available as in-house printing presses to commercial organisations to a maximum size of A3 (297 x 420mm).

Detailed intaglio prints made by a commercial photographic process. Varying depths of recessed dots are engraved into a copper-plated steel cylinder, filled with ink, surplus ink removed from the surface, and then transferred directly to the printed surface. A high-quality process particularly used for the production of long-run magazines and packaging.

A process whereby a photograph is taken of an original painting. Essentially the same process as lithography, or offset-lithography.

Also known as serigraphy, a method favoured by fine art printmakers, . Developed into the modern printing technique of screen printing in which a printed image is made by passing ink through a screen attached to a stencil onto paper. ‘A print-making technique based on stencilling. Ink or paint is brushed through a fine screen made of silk, and masks are used to produce the design. These can be made of paper, or from varnish applied to the silk itself.

Read an article on new communications technologies and the impact this has had upon the message.

Information taken from: ‘Chromolithography’, in Livingston, A., and Livingston, I., The Thames and Hudson Encyclopaedia of Graphic Design and Designers, 1992, p.44 ,and Lucie-Smith, E. Dictionary of Art Terms, 1984, p.49, Gleeson, J., Miller’s Collecting Prints & Posters, 1997, p.154; Lucie-Smith, E., op.cit., 1984, p.104; and ‘Intaglio’, in Livingston, A., and Livingston, I., op.cit., 1992, p.104, Gleeson, J., op.cit., 1997, p.92 and p.154; Lucie-Smith, E., op.cit., 1984, p.112; and ‘Lithography’, in Livingston, A., and Livingston, I., op.cit., 1992, p.123, ‘Offset litho/offset photolithography’, in Livingston, A., and Livingston, I., op.cit., 1992, p.147, Gleeson, J., op.cit., 1997, p.154; The Curtis Collection, ‘Photogravure printing process’,, accessed June 10 2002; and ‘Photogravure’, in Livingston, A., and Livingston, I., op.cit., 1992, p.154, Center for Applied Microtechnology, ‘Photolithography’,, accessed June 10 2002; and Sportsartetc, ‘Sports Art, Etc. FAQ’,, accessed June 10 2002, Gleeson, J., op.cit., 1997, p.154; Lucie-Smith, E., op.cit., 1984, p.170; and ‘Screen printing’, in Livingston, A., and Livingston, I., op.cit., 1992, p.178.