Ken Sprague - Radical
Kenneth Reginald Sprague, artist and graphic designer:
born Bournemouth, Hampshire 1 January 1927; married first 1951 Sheila
Kaye (died 1973; one son, two daughters, and one son deceased and one
daughter deceased), second Marcia Karp (one son, one daughter; marriage
dissolved); died Barnstaple, Devon 25 July 2004.
Ken Sprague, who has died of a stroke 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
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.
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
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
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 Seeger.
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 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 - the antithesis 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
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.
This obituary first appeared in the
Ken Sprague was a prolific political artist - some
would say Britain's most truly committed political artist. He had a rich
and varied career, as fairground boxer, circus roustabout, cartoonist,
poster designer, trades-union journal editor, television presenter, and
towards the end of his life, psychotherapist.
He was born in Bournemouth on New Year's Day 1927, the
son of an engine driver. His childhood home was in Winton, a
working-class area far in its culture from the conventional view of
Bournemouth as a retirement home for Britain's highest concentration of
Tory voters. Fellow pupils would come to school with holes in their
shoes, and one boy wore pyjama bottoms with the fly sewn up, because he
had no trousers. Sprague still recalled with anger over 60 years later
how the teacher made the boy stand on a chair in front of the class and
decision to become a Communist was founded in the distress of his
parents at the Fascist bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War,
when he was only 10. He made a linocut about the raid and printed it on
his mother's mangle. The design was used on collecting sheets for Spain.
After studying art at Bournemouth Municipal College,
he left at 16 and joined the Royal Marines and the Communist Party on
the same day. He played rugby for the Marines against the Commandos -
"They smashed us" - but was transferred to a secret research
establishment where he became a technical artist working on ejector
seats for Spitfires, despite being unable "to do simple maths to save my
life". He was also sent to Yugoslavia to bring back an ejector seat from
a German plane the partisans had shot down. It was while he was with the
partisans that he adopted the big moustache that was to become his
trademark for the rest of his life.
In the Fifties and Sixties he was living in London,
and did several set designs for the left-wing Unity Theatre, including
productions of Shaw's The Applecart, Chekhov's The Cherry
Orchard and Arthur Miller's The Crucible, the last employing
a non-realistic design separating the stage with cheesecloth screens. He
worked in the publicity department of the Daily Worker, now the
Morning Star, but also did reporting jobs, once interviewing
Perhaps his greatest coup was when he persuaded the
businessman and philanthropist Charles Clore, who was organising a
Soviet exhibition at Earl's Court, to invite the astronaut Yuri Gagarin
to come to meet members of the foundry workers' union in 1961; Sprague
had discovered that Gagarin had been a foundry worker before he went
into space. The authorities tried hard to stop the astronaut from
meeting the union members in Manchester, so Sprague and an associate sat
down in front of the Lord Mayor's Rolls-Royce and Gagarin got out and
addressed the workers. He even sang them a song.
the first few months of 1976 he became editor of the anti-fascist
magazine Searchlight, developing the statement of intent which
included the pledge "to campaign against racism wherever and whenever
its poison is detected". But he was sacked peremptorily when he
published a criticism of Israeli oppression of Palestinians.
In 1979 he was invited to join the panel of judges for
an International Poster Competition held in Baghdad, as a result of
which he was invited back by the Iraqi authorities to cover the
Iran-Iraq war as a war artist. He accompanied an Iraqi regiment during
an attack on the oil town of Abadan when it lost 582 men in a single
day. He met Saddam Hussein and sketched him.
On his return he was criticised by many fellow
Communists, whose Iraqi comrades had been slaughtered by Saddam (working
from a list provided by the CIA when they helped him into power). But
Sprague maintained he was documenting the brutality and senseless of a
war that killed a million young men on either side.
In 1971, Sprague and his wife, Sheila, moved to a
13th-century farmhouse near Barnstaple, in north Devon, which he
transformed into an arts centre. After Sheila's death, he met and
married Marcia Karp, an American psychotherapist, and the couple set up
and worked together in the Holwell International Centre for Psychodrama
and Sociodrama, a project which collapsed when they discovered they
should have been charging VAT to their clients and they were hit by a
Customs and Excise bill for £40,000. They moved to a smaller house in
Lynton, where they continued the work, but later divorced.
At the time of his death Sprague was no longer a
member of the Communist Party, but he never lost the ideals which had
inspired his work all his life. He once described his aim as "to build a
picture road to socialism, to the Golden City or, as Blake called it,
This Obituary first appeared in the