Abram Games

Blog post by Claire Jackson Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 4th September 2014

Centenary Stories from the Archives

As a new exhibition opens on the life of the iconic 20th Century designer Abram Games we celebrate a 50 year relationship with Ben Uri. The extraordinary vision of the Ben Uri Council helped not only Games but also to cement the place of commercial art and graphic design in art galleries and museums today.

Abram Games (originally Abraham Gamses, he would joke that he dropped the ‘ham’ as it was not kosher!), was born in London in 1914, his father was a Latvian born photographer. When Games was 22, he won a prize to design a poster to advertise evening classes at the London County Council and encouraged by this set himself up as a free lance poster designer.

Your Talk May Kill Your Comrades poster

Commissions from London Transport, Shell, the Post Office and other bodies followed. When war broke out in 1939, he wrote a paper on the value of posters in military education which led to him being appointed official poster designer to the War Office. A stream of iconic images and messages to the serving soldier either at home or abroad were created by him. They were not always looked on favourably by the authorities being too hard-hitting or even, as in the case of a recruiting poster for the ATS, too glamorous.

After the war, Games continued his free lance commercial work for London Transport, BOAC, the Financial Times and others, he also produced posters for Jewish charities such as this arresting ‘Give Clothing for Liberated Jewry’ poster for the World Jewish Relief organisation CBF.

Give Clothing for Liberated Jewry Abram Games 1945

In 1948 Games  won another competition to design stamps for the 1948 Olympics, and three years later he created the iconic Festival Star image for the Festival of Britain, by now he was also teaching at the Royal College of Art. The world was changing and the parameters of what was accepted as art were broadening.

The First One Man Show for a Graphic Designer in Britain – 80 Posters & Other Work (1952) – A Ben Uri First

On the suggestion of Charles Spencer, who had just joined the Ben Uri Council, Abram Games was invited in 1952, to exhibit his work. He leaped at this opportunity and exhibited eighty posters and preliminary sketches, a huge output boosted by his war time work. There was so much material that extra rooms had to be made available at the gallery in Portman Street. Games offered to pay the expenses in connection with the show.

80 Posters Games Exhibition. Ben Uri Archives

80 Posters Games Exhibition 1952. Ben Uri Archives

80 Posters Games Exhibition 1952. Ben Uri Archives.

Over 1000 people came to see the exhibition Art News and Review called the show ‘astonishing’ and an ‘outstanding event’: ‘prior to Games contribution “Poster-Artist” was an art school label for a non existent profession’.

This was not the end of Abram Games’ involvement in Ben Uri, he got involved in a wide range of their activities. In 1954 he was in charge of the organisation of the Studio Arts Ball, an annual event arranged by the younger members of Ben Uri. A popular aspect of these dances was the fancy dress competition and Games got into the spirit by dressing up as a portrait of Winston Churchill.

Ben Uri Studio Ball 1954 Fancy Dress. Ben Uri Archives.

Ben Uri Studio Ball 1954 Ben Uri Archives.

Although Games was known for his graphic design he also drew landscapes exhibiting pen and ink drawings at two Ben Uri exhibitions in 1956. By the late 1950’s it was becoming harder to make ensure a profit from social activities such as the dances and balls so a new annual event was instituted a ‘Picture Fair’ where artist’s donated their work and tickets were sold, every ticket holder was guaranteed one of the pictures.

BU exhib contemporary Jewish Artists 1956 cover
Ben Uri Contemporary Jewish Artists 1956. Ben Uri Archives

BU_exhib Picture Fair 1959 cover
Ben Uri Picture Fair 1959. Ben Uri Archives

Games regularly donated work to Ben Uri Picture Fairs for over 30 years including the year he died; he also helped judge annual “open exhibitions”.

Designing For the Ben Uri 1966-1977

Games did not just design posters but also created logos and symbols including the first insignia for BBC television. In 1966 Games used his trademark style to create a 50th anniversary graphic for Ben Uri. He also designed a Ben Uri logo which was used on publications and as a letter head from the late 1970s-1990s.

Ben Uri Pub 50th Games
Cover of Ben Uri 50th Anniversary Brochure (1966). Ben Uri Archives.

BU logo 1980
Ben Uri Logo (1980). Ben Uri Archives

Ben Uri Exhibitions 1979-2005

There were three more major Ben Uri exhibitions of Abram Games’ design work after the groundbreaking 1952 one. A joint exhibition of designers and illustrators entitled The Other Hand (1979), a show of Games’ designs for the Jewish Community (1991) and a loan exhibition from the Design Museum Abram Games, Graphic Designer: Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means (2005).

Ben Uri Exhibition Games 1991
Games Designs For Jewry 1991

The Other Hand Exhibition 1979. Ben Uri Archives.

games meaning minimum means 2005
Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means catalogue cover.

games abram design based on jeremiah
Design for Encyclopaedia Judaica No 5 (1969) Abram Games. Ben Uri Collection.

Not only did Games make a significant contribution to Ben Uri by regularly donating pictures to be sold at Picture Fairs he also gave two works to the permanent collection in 1982. Ben Uri may have helped Games by exhibiting his work in a groundbreaking 1952 show but he repaid them with a faith and commitment to the organisation which lasted the rest of his life.