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.)



Paul Rennie: Social Vision

Read full article: Paul Rennie: Social Vision: RoSPA’s WWII Safety Posters Challenge Orthodox Views on British Modernism (PDF)