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Abram Games, the poster boy for Shakespeare

As a Shakespeare flickbook by the acclaimed designer Abram Games is published, Jane Clinton talks to his daughter about his legacy

03 May, 2018 — By Jane Clinton

Bard karma: Abram Games in his studio. Photo: Philip Sayer

HER flaxen hair is a picture of curled perfection and her lips are a daring bright crimson.

She was nicknamed the “blonde bombshell”, and the graphic designer Abram Games thought this image in his 1941 poster would encourage women to join the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service). But officials worried the glamour of the woman would attract people to the army for the “wrong reasons” and the poster was banned.

“The lipstick was just too red and she was seen as a bit too racy,” says Naomi Games, Abram’s daughter and his archivist since his death aged 82 in 1996.

But it would not be the first time his striking images would ruffle feathers. His 1942 poster, Your Britain Fight For It Now, showed the Finsbury Health Centre in Clerkenwell with a child suffering from rickets in the background. It incensed Churchill, who viewed it as overtly critical and ordered its immediate withdrawal.

Games’s perfectionism and his utter belief in his work meant he almost never changed a design once it was completed. Indeed, if a client asked for changes, it is said he would resign from the job and suggest to the client they hire someone else.

During the Second World War, Games was in the Royal Engineers and had been given the unique title of Official War Poster Artist. In the role from 1941 to 1946, he designed hundreds of striking, visually arresting posters. His mantra was “maximum meaning, minimum means” and he believed if an image didn’t work in miniature then it didn’t work at all. (He would subsequently view his stamp designs as “miniature posters”.) He tested out his designs on his family. If they hadn’t “got” the essence of the poster’s meaning within the first few seconds then it was scrapped.

He was born in Whitechapel to a photog­rapher father, Joseph Gamse, and a seamstress mother, Sarah. Both had fled the Russian pogroms at the turn of the century to settle in London’s East End. Their name would be anglicised to Games.

Abram went to Hackney Downs School and then attended Saint Martin’s School of Art but dropped out after two terms partly because of the expense.

He worked for his father and took evening classes in life drawing. Then, after a short stint at commercial design firm Askew-Younge between 1932-1936, he decided to go it alone as a freelance poster artist.

He would go on to become one of our foremost graphic designers and worked for, among others, the GPO, London Transport, British Rail, Guinness and the Financial Times. Games also redesigned the Cona vacuum coffee maker in which Naomi artfully makes us a drink.

Games’ ‘racy’ ATS poster

Although an inventor (he also designed a hand-held photocopier but it didn’t gain traction) his graphic design work, which spans 60 years and for which he was awarded an OBE in 1958, is what he is best known for.

As well as his posters he also designed the first moving ident for the BBC in 1953 (nicknamed the “cock-eyed wonder”). He went on to design the 1951 Festival of Britain emblem and was the consultant art director with Penguin Books in 1956, overseeing the introduction of colour for the first time in the publisher’s history.

Penguin boss Sir Allen Lane, however, thought the covers crude, branding them “breastsellers” before abandoning them altogether.

Against this industrious backdrop, Games was also a visiting lecturer in graphic design at the Royal College of Art between 1946 and 1953. It was his love of helping young people that led in part to the creation of his Shakespeare’s flickbook which has just been published.

In 1975 Games was approached by the Royal Shakespeare Company to design a poster for their centenary appeal. Games created the iconic image of the face of Shakespeare made up from the titles of all his plays as they appear in the First Folio of 1623. The flickbook follows on from that design. As the book is flicked, the 37 titles of Shakespeare’s plays appear in order. When the book has been completely “flicked” there emerges – spoiler alert – the face of the Bard.

Abram Games’ Your Britain Fight For It Now poster that incensed Churchill

“My father thought of the book as a resource for kids and make Shakespeare a bit more fun,” says Naomi, who lives in Kilburn.

Getting the book produced had been on Naomi’s “bucket list” of things to do regarding her father’s archive. The other is the rather more ambitious wish to set up a poster museum, although their Golders Green home has been ruled out as a venue. “Someone will do it and when they do they can have my father’s archive,” says Naomi.

The archive includes huge amounts of work in final form as well as meticulous preparatory sketches by Games but also work by others.

There is a huge sense of the legacy Games leaves behind and Naomi, herself a graphic designer and curator, is keenly aware of how precious it is.

“This is not just 60 years of graphic and poster design,” she says as the Cona coffee maker bubbles away.

“This work really is an extraordinary slice of social history.”

The Shakespeare Flickbook: Comedies, Histories and Tragedies of William Shakespeare. By Abram Games, Pallas Athene, £8.99.
• A Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign to produce additional objects as intended by Games including T-shirts, mugs, bags, posters and a deckchair linked to the flickbook design can be found at www.kickstarter.com/projects/2109961696/abram-games-the-shakespeare-project

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