Friday 20 November 2020

The Art of Persuasion: The Genius of Abram Games

"Roof Over Britain" cover designed by Abram Games (author's photo)

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am an avid collector of the various HMSO booklets published during the Second World War that covered every subject imaginable from the Arctic War to Queen Wilhelmina’s Navy and from The Australian Army at War to United States Eighth Air Force and just about every subject in between. Regular readers will also know that I have some very kind friends that look out for me and surprise me from time to time with items that they have discovered on their travels.

This happened recently when good friend and designer of my website, Sam Dorrington presented me with another of the series, in the form of a copy of “Roof over Britain”, the official story of Britain’s Anti-Aircraft defences from 1939-1942.

This cover features the distinctive artwork of the graphic designer and prolific poster artist Abram Games. Sam is himself a talented graphic designer, so perhaps it was the design of the cover that subconsciously drew him to the booklet, the cover of which (shown above) features a determined looking, steel helmet-clad figure looking towards the skies, which are illuminated with searchlight beams and pockmarked with shell bursts.

Abram Games with his "Blonde Bombshell" poster (NAM London)

Abram Games and his wartime poster work was the subject of a major exhibition at the National Army Museum in Chelsea last year, in which many original posters from the museum's own collection were on display alongside many items on loan from the Games family.

Abram Games was born on 29 July 1914 in Whitechapel and was the son of Joseph Gamse, a Latvian photographer and Sarah (nee Rosenberg), a seamstress born in Poland. Abram’s father, who had come to Britain in 1904, anglicised the family name to Games when Abram was 12 years old. Abram himself left school when he was 16 to attend Saint Martin’s School of Art in Charing Cross Road but left after two terms, due to a combination of being disillusioned with the standard of teaching there and also the expense of studying there. He took a job as a “studio boy” for a commercial design company in London between 1932 and 1936 and whilst there, attended night school classes in life drawing and during this time, won a poster competition staged by the London County Council. From 1936, he became a freelance poster designer and after he featured in an article for the influential trade journal Art & Industry in 1937, he won several commissions for high profile clients such as London Transport, the Post Office and Royal Dutch Shell, which cemented his reputation.

Abram Games designed poster for Shell (author's collection)

In 1940 with Britain at war, he was conscripted into the British Army and served as an infantry Private for one year but in 1941, he was approached by the War Office to act as a graphic designer for a recruitment poster they wanted for the Royal Armoured Corps. The success of this commission led to his appointment as an official War Artist and the production of over one hundred posters.

Royal Armoured Corps recruiting poster (NAM London)

Commissioned as a Captain, he was permitted a great deal of artistic freedom, which sometimes led to clashes with officialdom. His striking poster for the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) depicted a stylised image of an attractive young woman in uniform. This was quite deliberate on Games’ part as he wished to challenge the ATS reputation for being a somewhat drab assignment and it led to the image on the poster being known as “The Blonde Bombshell”. This drew criticism from Conservative MP and feminist Thelma Cazalet-Keir, who objected to the lipstick and felt that “Our girls should be attracted into the Army through patriotism and not glamour” but although many others, including senior figures in the Army felt the poster was fine, it was nevertheless withdrawn and the majority of the posters destroyed, much to Games’ dismay. A replacement poster designed by Games which featured a less “sexy” image also drew criticism from no less a figure than Winston Churchill who felt the new poster to be “too Soviet” in its design!

The "Blonde Bombshell" ATS poster which proved controversial (NAM London)

The replacement ATS poster deemed "Too Soviet" by Winston Churchill (NAM London)

Another of Games’ posters which attracted the ire of the Prime Minister was one of a series entitled “Your Britain – Fight for it Now” and featured the newly designed Finsbury Health Centre superseding a bombed out building in the shadows, which also contained a child apparently suffering from rickets. Churchill ordered the poster to be taken out of circulation and pulped as he considered it a libel on the conditions in British cities.

The "Your Britain" poster which attracted the disapproval of Winston Churchill (IWM)

Despite these clashes with authority, Abram Games’ wartime work is striking in the directness of the imagery and the message that it conveys; Games emerged from the Second World War with his reputation enhanced and returned to commissions from his pre-war clients as well as many other new customers, such as Guinness, the Financial Times, BEA and BOAC (the predecessor airlines to British Airways), as well as El Al, the state airline of the fledgling State of Israel. He also branched out in to the world of stamp design and designed postage stamps for the Royal Mail, Ireland, Israel, Jersey and Portugal.

Fading "Festival of Britain" Logo at Blackheath (author's photograph)

Festival of Britain poster for 1951 (NAM London)

A new departure was to design paperback covers for Penguin Books and in 1951 he won the competition to gain the prestigious commission to design the logo and poster artwork for the Festival of Britain, which can still be seen on various sites across the country to this day. His work for London Transport continued beyond the world of publicity posters and commuters on the Victoria Line using Stockwell Station can see his work every day in the shape of the swan motif that adorns the Victoria Line platforms – which came from the name of a famous local landmark pub.

London Transport poster (NAM London)

Games had been one of the first Britons to see first-hand evidence of the atrocities committed at the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, when photographs arrived at his office in the War Office. As a Jew, he was especially deeply affected by what he saw and produced a poster entitled “Give Clothing for Liberated Jewry” and subsequently would often work in support of Jewish and Israeli organisations.

Give Clothing for Liberated Jewry (NAM London)

Games also ventured into the world of industrial design and indeed his design for the Cona vacuum coffee maker from 1959 is now considered a design classic, still in production today with very little changes.

When given a commission from a client, Games would fill a layout pad with as many as two to three dozen ideas for a potential poster. Sometimes, two of the images would eventually be combined to produce a third image and these would be circled on the pad. Once he had selected a final design, he would circle the thumbnail on the pad and present the idea (or ideas) to the client. He only ever showed them thumbnail sketches as he felt that posters were designed to be seen from a distance and thus avoided unnecessary detail. “I never work large because posters seen from a distance are small. If ideas don’t work an inch high, then they will never work.”

Once he had finished the final artwork for a poster, he would sign it “A. Games” in one corner. It would then hang on his studio wall for a week, inviting criticism from family, friends and colleagues and once he was satisfied, he would then add a full stop after his name.

English Heritage Blue Plaque outside Abram Games' former home in Golders Green (author's photo)

Abram Games' "Swan" motif for Stockwell Tube Station (author's photo)

Abram Games had married in 1945 to Marianne Salfeld, the daughter of German-Jewish emigres and in 1948, moved to Golders Green in North London, where they lived and worked for the remainder of their lives, raising two daughters and a son. Marianne passed away in 1988 and Abram in 1996, although through his work, his name will live on for many more years to come.

Published Sources:

Abram Games website 

National Army Museum - The Art of Persuasion

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