“In essence, the leitmotif of his work is about power and the abuse of power as well as the resilience of ordinary working people to this abuse… It is an art of engagement – engagement for change.”

(John Green, from the Introduction to Ken Sprague – People’s Artist.)
Image by Ken Sprague

Image by Ken Sprague

People continue to ask about this powerful image that appears on this site. (It also continues to appear in its original or modified form elsewhere). The image is a drawing by Ken Sprague. I have written before, here and here about Ken Sprague who I had the privilege to know during the 1980’s. You can read more about Ken’s life, his work and legacy here.

Ken Sprague‘s remarkable image captures the recent zeitgeist of uprisings and revolts happening around the world, in which ordinary people are standing up and fighting against state and corporate power and political and financial plundering. Ken’s image, created decades ago, reflects his profound and lifelong commitment to human rights, justice, peace and socialism. Ken was a renowned artist, cartoonist, illustrator, poster designer, print maker, educator and filmmaker who believed profoundly that art should always serve social justice, peace, human rights and political struggle. The obituary for Ken was written by John Green and appeared in the Guardian newspaper. John wrote a book on Ken’s life titled Ken Sprague: People’s Artist.

Ken Sprague: Radical artist in pursuit of Socialism
By John Green ( from The Guardian 6th August 2004)

The aim of Ken Sprague, who has died of a stroke aged 77  was, he said, “to build a picture road to socialism, to the Golden City, or as Blake called it, Jerusalem”. A painter, sculptor, muralist, banner-maker and sometime television presenter, Ken was, for half a century a regular, but dissenting cartoonist for the Daily Worker and its successor the Morning Star, and for papers like Tribune and Peace News.

As a posterman his work included material for Martin Luther King, and the women of Greenham Common — and against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslavakia, and Edward Heath’s Industrial Relations Bill. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was designing scenery and backdrops for Unity Theatre and was involved in the Centre 42 trade union arts project.

All round talents
His linocuts for the radical collective Cinema Action’s Kill The Bill film (1971) began an involvement in moving images. I made a film about him in 1972 which led to Jeff Perks’s 1976 BBC Omnibus documentary The Posterman. This led to a series of Channel 4 films, devised with Jeff Perks and presented by Ken, called Everyone A Special Kind Of Artist (1986). There was also a BBC South West series, The Moving Line with Joan Bakewell. In later life, he taught and practised as a psychodrama specialist. Ken was born in Bournemouth, his father was a train driver and his mother worked in a cardboard box factory. His first work of art, in 1937, was a linocut made from linoleum, torn from the kitchen floor in response to the Spanish civil war.

Early life
He was educated at Alma Road Elementary School — until it was bombed — and Porchester Road Secondary Modern School. There the headmaster, noticing his talent, recommended that he apply to the local art college. He won a scholarship to Bournemouth Municipal  College and, from 13 and a half, studied graphics — in those days students of his background were hardly considered for fine arts courses. One morning in 1944 he volunteered, aged 17 for the Royal Marines — and that afternoon, in Southampton, he joined the Communist Party. After basic military training he was transferred to Vickers-Supermarine as a technical artist, work which took him to wartime Yugoslavia. Postwar, and after a summer stint in a circus, he completed his college diploma course in design and illustration. The CP, he told me, was his university, but after the Bournemouth Daily Echo had labelled him a college revolutionary, local job prospects dwindled. He briefly worked for a volunteer labour battalion in Yugoslavia, was employed  by the Boy Scouts and then, between 1950 to 1954 he worked in a Carlisle mining company design office — doubling as a cartoonist for the local Conservative, and Liberal newspapers. Then came a move to London as the Daily Worker’s publicity manager, which also had him working as a journalist and cartoonist. Devastated by the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, in 1959 Ken left to set up, with Ray Barnard, the publicity company, Mountain & Molehill. Yet he continued producing cartoons for the Worker, and its successor the Morning Star into the 21st century.

Mountain & Molehill
M&M — later The Working Arts — was responsible for some of the most innovative trade union campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s. Ken told union leaders they had to (TO) use publicity to win hearts and minds and to see it as an integral part of union work. And it was Sprague and Barnard who initiated the sensational 1961 visit to Britain of the first man in space Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. M&M also worked for the Indian High Commission — which led to a meeting with Jawaharlarl Nehru In the late 1960s Ken began editing the Transport and General Workers Union’s the Record, transforming it into a lively newspaper, — and illustrating it with his own cartoons. As a poster and print-maker he worked with a number of leading progressive organisations and individuals, including Pete Seeger.

New life in Devon
In 1971 he moved with his wife, Sheila, a talented potter, to Holwell, a farmhouse in Devon, and converted it into an artistic centre. Sheila died of cancer in 1973, but with his second wife, Marcia he set up the Holwell International Centre For Psychodrama and Sociodrama which continued until 1998. There Ken combined his artistic talents with pedagogic expertise, using them in this new field in which he became a leading practitioner.

It is his posters and prints that will remain his true epitaph. His innovative and prolific creativity, his recalcitrant questioning, determination and belief in others’ potential was an inspiring beacon for everyone who met him, young and old. His images remain etched in the mind, they unsettle, provoke, discomfort but also amuse. Ken was concerned about how politics impact on the ordinary person. In essence the leitmotif of his work is about power and the abuse of power as well as the resilience of ordinary people. He depicted the world as changeable. His work is imbued with unfashionable optimism, depicting a world where ethics and values still have relevance. It is the antithesis of post-modern fragmentation and its disdain of value systems. Every morning, he drew a political cartoon to assuage his anger and frustration at the state of the world. And only a few weeks before he died, he was excitedly telling me about plans for an artistic project in Cuba and a book he was determined to publish of anti-war drawings. He left the Communist Party, after the acrimonious split in 1988. He continued to call himself a communist, however, saying “The party left me, I didn’t leave the party”. He won several prestigious awards, including poster of the year award from the National Council of Industrial Design on two occasions.

He is survived by Marcia, from whom he recently separated, his five children and seven grandchildren.

John Green