She is one of 20th century’s most scandalous blondes. Her vermillion red lips and smouldering gaze seen on a 1941 Second World War poster provoked fierce controversy over whether it was the right way to recruit women into the Army’s dowdy Auxiliary Territorial Service. The press dubbed the poster “the Blonde Bombshell”, the Conservative MP Thelma Cazalet condemned it for misrepresenting Army life, and the Government eventually gave in and replaced the image with something less risqué. The poster did no harm at all to the reputation of the ATS and focused public attention on her creator, Abram Games, who was emerging as one of the greatest British graphic designers of the 20th century.
Almost 78 years on, he is responsible for some of the most iconic designs ever created. Last Wednesday, I met with my friend Doreen Golding, Pearly Queen of Old Kent Road and Bow Bells, not in East London, but North, to Golders Green in search of memories of the man. It’s a freezing, blustery morning and, by coincidence, Doreen and I establish that both our boilers are up the spout and not a drop of hot water is to be had in either of our homes. She was shivering, even under the weight of her button-smothered Pearlies outfit, so we decided to go first to a nice warm café for coffee and egg on toast.
Myself and Doreen Golding, who is immensely proud of her Jewish ancestors.
Once fortified, we head to The Vale and immediately spot a crowd and a camera crew on the pavement outside the modest, semi-detached home where Games lived from 1948 until his death in 1996, aged 82. The reason for our pilgrimage to this humble semi is because Games is to be honoured with the unveiling of a blue plaque upon the wall of his former family home. His daughter Naomi was the driving force behind the blue plaque – no mean feat as English Heritage only issue 12 a year and you have to be dead for 20 years to ensure your memory endures, before you can be eligible to be considered. But it’s immediately obvious that Naomi, who bustles up to us like a whirling dervish in a brightly coloured waistcoat, is the kind of woman who can make things happen.
‘My Queen is here,’ she says, greeting Doreen effusively. ‘Come, come.’ Once ushered to the front of the driveway, we all crane our necks upwards to where a sumptuous red velvet curtain covers the pebbledash facade.
The crowd is filled with elderly Jewish men and women, and you can’t help but wonder what roles they played during WW2 and the post-war years. ‘I was an artist too, a contemporary of Games,’ remarked the woman standing next to me, stoically braving the cold. I long to ask her more, but then start the speeches. It’s fascinating listening to Sir Christopher Frayling, Professor of Cultural History at the Royal College of Art, discuss the enormous impact Games had on society during the 20th century. The Whitechapel son of poor immigrant parents was responsible for some of the Second World War’s most iconic wartime posters, along with a wealth of post-war design. During his 60-year career he worked with many brands like Guinness, London Transport and Penguin, but during the war, Games was the only ‘Official War Poster Artist’.
‘He was the most influential graphic designer of his generation and the most important of his century,’ explains Frayling. ‘His maxims were curiosity, courage and concentration. He used to say, “I wind the spring, and the public, in looking at the poster, will have that spring released in its mind.”
‘He designed over 300 posters and was also an inventor; he designed the Cona Coffee Maker, now a design classic. But it’s the Blonde Bombshell for whom he is perhaps best known. She was banned in 1941. She was far too glamorous and wore far too much make-up, but she remains one of the most successful recruiting posters the Army has ever had.’
But it’s when Games’ daughter Naomi is introduced by her brother Daniel that history becomes personal. ‘This blue plaque honouring our father is all down to Naomi,’ Daniel explains. ‘There is a saying about Jewish mothers. What’s the difference between a Jewish mother and a Rottweiler. ‘The Rottweiler eventually lets go!’
It must have taken extraordinary tenacity to have organised the huge body of work her father left behind into an archive, to have spoken around the world about his life, and to have lobbied for the blue plaque honouring him.
‘This home was like a microcosm of what the world was,’ Naomi explains. ‘While my father was working away in his freezing studio, my mother would support him and it was her devotion to the family which enabled him to be able to create. She was always cooking and would invite everyone in for food and sanctuary. The door was always open and a steady flow of people would come in, from the coal man to the scissor grinder to the grocer. From time to time we were permitted into his freezing cold studio to watch him work.
‘Because my father lived where he worked, he was influenced by the domestic life. The famous Festival of Britain poster with its fluttering flags? He would look outside into the garden where my mother hung our washing on the line.
‘From humble origins, my father always tried to be the best he could be and live and work with great integrity. It’s long been on my bucket list to see a blue plaque on the wall of our home and today I am overflowing with pride.’
With that, the family link arms and pull the chord to unveil the blue plaque honouring their father. It matches perfectly the blue front door, which Games insisted never be painted over, because ‘one day a blue plaque will be here’.
How right he was.
A major exhibition exploring the life and legacy of Abram Games, focusing on his time as ‘Official War Poster Artist’ during the Second World War, is on display at the National Army Museum, now until November 2019. Click here for more details