[Marxism] Ken Sprague: Radical artist in the service of socialism

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Fri Aug 6 12:11:53 MDT 2004

("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," said
John Green below in this article from THE GUARDIAN.)

Ken Sprague: Radical artist in the service of socialism
The Guardian - United Kingdom; Aug 06, 2004


Ken Sprague, who has died of cancer aged 77, once said that
his aim was "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, he was, for half a century, a regular, if
dissenting, cartoonist for the Daily Worker, its successor,
the Morning Star, and for papers like Tribune and Peace

As a posterman, his work included material for Martin
Luther King Jr and the Greenham Common women - and against
the Soviet invasion of Czechoslavakia and Edward Heath's
industrial relations bill. In the late 1950s and early
1960s, he designed scenery for the Unity Theatre, and was
involved in the Centre 42 trade union arts project.

Ken's linocuts for the radical collective Cinema Action's
Kill The Bill film (1971) began an involvement in
filmmaking. 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 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, the son of a train driver
and a mother who worked in a cardboard box factory. His own
first work of art, in 1937, was a linocut made from
linoleum torn from the kitchen floor in response to the
Spanish civil war.

He was educated at Alma Road elementary school and
Porchester Road secondary modern school, where the
perceptive headmaster recommended he apply to art college.
Ken duly won a scholarship to Bournemouth Municipal College
and, from the age of 13, studied graphics - in those days,
students of his background were hardly considered for fine
arts courses.

In 1944, aged 17, he volunteered for the Royal Marines, and
the same day joined the Communist party. After basic
military training, he was transferred to
Vickers-Supermarine as a technical artist, work that took
him to wartime Yugoslavia.

After the war, and a summer stint in a circus, Ken
completed his design and illustration course. The Communist
party, 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, from 1950 to 1954,
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 1956 Soviet invasion of
Hungary, in 1959 Ken left to set up, with Ray Barnard, the
publicity company Mountain & Molehill. Yet he continued
producing cartoons for the Worker, and later the Morning
Star, into the 21st century.

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 use publicity to
win hearts and minds, and to see it as an integral part of
union work. And it was Ken 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, illustrated with his own cartoons. As a
poster and printmaker, he worked with a number of leading
progressive organ-isations and individuals, including Pete

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, Ken 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 a beacon for everyone who met him.
His images unsettle, provoke, discomfort but also amuse.

Ken was concerned about how politics impacted on the
ordinary person. In essence, the leitmotif of his work was
about power and the abuse of power, as well as the resi-
lience 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 - the anti-thesis of postmodern 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. 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, insisting that "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,
and his five children.

John Green

Ken Sprague, artist, born January 1 1927; died July 25 2004

Art and revolution . . . Sprague (top right) with two of
his political cartoons and (main picture) an acrylic,
entitled Friendly Bobbies, which he sold in aid of striking
miners in 1984

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