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Games afoot

Abram Games was – literally – the poster boy for the war effort. But that’s only a tiny part of his prodigious output

29 March, 2019 — By Jane Clinton

Left: Abram Games’ Keep Your Feet Clean. Right: The first of Games’ 19 posters for London Transport, 1937. Images: Estate of Abram Games

A POSTER demands: “Keep your feet clean. You owe it to yourself, your comrades, your efficiency”.

With an elongated “c” made to resemble a foot, the image is striking. It’s simplicity and the clarity of the message made its designer, Abram Games, the go-to man for everything from wartime recruitment to public health posters.

A new book, Abram Games: His Wartime Work, by Naomi Games (Abram’s daughter), looks at this enormous body of work.

Born Abram Gamse in Whitechapel, east London, in 1914, he was the second son of Moshe Joseph Gamse who was a photographer from Dvinsk, Latvia. His mother, Sarah Rosenberg, was a seamstress from Semyatitz, Russo-Poland.

Aged just five, Abram knew he wanted to be an artist. Encouraged by his parents he would spend hours sketching his favourite subject: horses.

After schooling in Clapton and Hackney he became a paying student at St Martin’s School of Art but left after two terms. He also worked as an assistant in his father’s photographic studio.

Now called Abram Games – his father anglicised the name in 1926 – he was determined to improve. For the next 10 years, four nights a week, he attended life-drawing classes.

After, as the book explains, “an act of derring-do”, Games was sacked from his job as a studios boy and told by the boss that he would never make a designer as he was not humble enough. Games responded that he would only be humble before God.

In 1937 Frank Pick, chief executive of the London Passenger Transport Board, got in touch. Games’s freelance career was launched. His 1937 poster “A train every 90 seconds” was a taste of things to come with its strong geometric design.

Games at work in the War Office, 1941

In 1940 he was called up for army service. It was a chance opportunity to paint emblems on some army trucks that changed the course of his army days and arguably his career. He impressed with his work and was asked to draw a backdrop for a show. Games was then sent to be a draughtsman.

A committed socialist, in 1936, Games marched against Oswald Mosley.

In his art he reflected his political leaning by having most of his heads facing left.

His ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) poster of 1941 was one such example. Created to encourage women to join the ATS, the poster became known as the “blonde bombshell”.

A row erupted that the model with her red lipstick was too glamorous and would give the wrong message. For three weeks the poster was discussed in Parliament. Games was baffled how a country at war could waste so much precious time on the poster. In the end a replacement poster by another artist was commissioned.

Games designed 100 wartime posters and was appointed Official War Poster Artist – the only person in army history to be given the title.

After the war, Games would continue to design striking posters, many for public health, including an arresting image to “Night & Day Brush the Cobwebs Away” (1945) with a strange human equivalent brushing away cobwebs from its mouth.

He was a visiting lecturer in graphic design at London’s Royal College of Art from 1946-53. His clients included the United Nations, London Transport, British Airways, Shell, the Financial Times and Guinness. He designed stamps for Britain, Jersey and Israel, book jackets for Penguin books and emblems for the Festival of Britain and the Queen’s Award for Industry. He also created the first animated BBC on-screen ident.

A talented inventor, his Cona coffee makers are now design classics.

In 1948 Games, who was now married and with a son, moved with his family to Golders Green. Two more daughters, Sophie and Naomi, were born in 1948 and 1951 respectively. He died in August 1996.

For Abram Games, clarity was critical and he would insist of his work: “maximum meaning, minimum means.”

He once remarked: “I wind the spring and the public, in looking at the poster, will have that spring released in its mind.”

Abram Games: His Wartime Work. By Naomi Games, Amberley Books, £16.99.
There will be an exhibition at the National Army Museum in Chelsea of Abram Games’ work, from April 6 until November 24, www.nam.ac.uk
Naomi Games will be giving a talk at the National Army Museum on April 23, 6.30pm. www.nam.ac.uk
A plaque for Abram Games is to be unveiled at his former home in Golders Green on April 3.
Twentieth Century Graphic Designer: Abram Games, by Naomi Games, has been reprinted. For details visit bit.ly/2Oq6ebs

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