Some of the most memorable graphic images of mid-20th century Britain were the work of the designer ABRAM GAMES (1914-1996). As an Official War Artist during World War II, he designed over a hundred posters and later created the symbols of the BBC and the Festival of Britain.
For many Britons in the 1950s the image of Britannia festooned with red, white and blue bunting was as – if not more – evocative of the Festival of Britain and its ‘can do’ spirit than any of the marvels of post-war British manufacturing that they had seen when visiting the festival on London’s South Bank.
Britannia and her bunting – like the poster of the “blonde bombshell”, an alluringly pretty ATS girl who had urged her compatriots to join up during World War II – was the work of Abram Games. In the austere visual culture of wartime and post-war Britain, his work was unmissable. Bold, vigorous and often gently humorous, Abram Games’ graphic art was the work of a gifted draughtsman with a flair for devising inventive combinations of text and image.
Born in Whitechapel in the East End of London on the day World War I began in 1914, Games was the son of Joseph Gamse, a Latvian photographer who later anglicised the family name to Games, and Sarah, a seamstress born on the border of Russia and Poland. Abram, or Abraham as he was originally called, was educated locally but when he left Hackney Downs School at the age of 16 in 1930, his headmaster scoffed at his hopes of becoming an artist and refused to support his application for a scholarship to St Martins School of Art. Games’ parents paid his fees, which they could ill afford. Unable to buy artists’ materials, Games resorted to drawing on the white card of hat boxes. Disillusioned by the teaching at St Martins and worried about the expense of studying there, Games left after two terms. He continued life classes in the evening while working for his father as a photographer’s assistant.
In 1932, Games was hired as a studio boy at Askew-Young, a commercial art studio. Never popular with his employers, he was fired in 1936 after being caught jumping over four chairs as a joke. In the same year, Games won ￡20 as first prize in a poster competition to encourage people to enrol for London County Council evening classes. Bolstered by his success, he embarked on a career as a freelance commercial artist and won poster commissions for London Transport, Shell and the Post Office.
While working for Shell, Games befriended its design director Jack Beddington who then championed him during World War II. When the war began, Games signed up as a private but, thanks to Beddington’s support, he was released from the ranks - first to become designated draughtsman and, from 1942, an Official War Artist. During the war, Games designed more than one hundred posters in which he not only refined his draughtsmanship but experimented with unusual juxtapositions of illustration and typography. He strove to ensure that his wartime posters – urging Britons to do everything from joining the army to growing their own vegetables – were as striking and seductive as the best commercial art.
Sometimes Games’ work was deemed too seductive, notably the glamorous ATS girl dubbed the “Blonde Bombshell” which was criticised by the House of Commons for being too glamorous. Games favoured stark, simple and, therefore, all the more arresting images produced by sticking to his philosophy of deriving “maximum meaning” from " minimum means”. One of his personal favourites was a 1942 ‘Your Talk May Kill Your Comrades’ poster produced for the Careless Talk campaign. A spiralling form radiates from a soldier’s mouth then becomes a blood-red bayonet spearing three corpses in a brutal metaphor for the danger of careless talk.
Having made his name as a leading poster artist during the war, Games sought to revive his freelance career in peacetime. In 1945 he married Marianne Salfeld, the daughter of German emigrés who, like his family, were orthodox jews. Strapped for cash, the couple lived with Marianne’s father in Surbiton, Surrey, while Games rebuilt his business. He soon secured several important projects notably the commemorative stamps for the 1948 Olympic Games (earning himself the nickname ‘Olympic Games’) and the 1948 competition to create the symbol of the Festival of Britain, which became one of the most popular images of post-war Britain.
In 1948 Games and Marianne moved to the house in north London, where they brought up their three children, and lived for the rest of their lives. There was a studio in the house, where Games worked on the Festival of Britain commission. He claimed that the famous red and white bunting was inspired by watching Marianne pegging the washing on to a line in the garden after the Festival Committee had asked for his original version of the logo to be made more festive.
He was given other prestigious projects such as designing the symbol of the Queen’s Award for Industry and an on-screen identity for the BBC which was among the first animated identities. Yet his passion was still for posters and Games continued to devise arresting advertisements for clients including the Financial Times, British European Airways, Guinness and the Royal Shakespeare Company. He won a string of awards for his work for the island of Jersey which had commissioned him requesting a poster of a “girl in a bikini”, but never got one. He also addressed humanitarian issues, notably in his work for the United Nations’ Freedom From Hunger campaign. Games always began the development of each poster with a tiny sketch and once observed: “I never work large because…. posters seen from a distance are small. If ideas do not work when they are an inch high, they are never going to work.”
Having long enjoyed tinkering with household appliances, Games taught himself how to mould and cast metal in order to invent new ones. When Games observed to a director of the Cona Coffee Company that, although Marianne’s Cona coffee maker made delicious coffee, it was too cumbersome to be used efficiently, he was challenged to improve it. Games experimented with scrap aluminium, as it was in plentiful supply from disused airplanes after the war, and devised an elegantly rounded Cona Coffee Machine which is still in production today. Other Games inventions included a circular vacuum cleaner and a portable hand-held duplicating machine.
Although Abram Games’ career coincided with the demise of his original trade as a graphic artist, as the promotional power of posters diminished in the face of television and colour supplements, he remained productive. When he died in 1996, the illustrator David Gentleman wrote that: “All Abram Games’ designs were recognisably his own. They had vigour, imagination, passion and individuality… And he was lucky – and clever – in contriving, over a long and creative working life, to keep on doing what he did best.”
1914 Born Abraham Gamse in Whitechapel, east London, the son of Joseph, a photographer from Dvinsk, Latvia, and Sarah, a seamstress from Russo-Poland.
1926 Joseph anglicises the family name by changing it to Games.
1930 After leaving Hackney Downs School, Games enrols as a paying student at St Martins School of Art for two terms, then transfers to evening classes and works as an assistant in his father’s studio.
1932 Employed as a studio boy at the Askewe-Young commercial art studio but continues to attend evening classes in life drawing.
1936 Wins ￡20 as the first prize in a London County Council evening class poster competition, but is dismissed from Askew-Young for his “independent views”.
1937 After an article on Games is published in Art and Industry magazine, he is given a number of commissions to design posters.
1939 When World War II begins, Games is called up to the army. After six months as a private, he is given the designated role of draughtsman.
1942 Promoted to Captain and given the title of Official War Artist.
1945 Marries Marianne Salfeld and prepares to resume his freelance career as a poster designer after the end of the war.
1947 Designs a stamp to mark the Olympic Games.
1948 Wins first prize in the Festival of Britain identity competition.
1953 Designs the first animated symbol for the BBC
1960 Publication of Games’ book Over My Shoulder
1963 Patents his invention of Boil in the Bag coffee
1965 Designs the symbol for the Queen’s Award to Industry
1970 Creates the Stockwell Swan tile mural for London Underground.
1983 The BBC broadcasts the television programme Images of War.
1996 Death of Abram Games
2003 Abram Games - Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means retrospective at the Design Museum, London
Abram Games, Catherine Moriarty, June Rose, Naomi Games, Lund Humphries/Princeton Architectural Press, 2003
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain