The Socialist Unity Network


Ken Sprague - Radical Cartoonist

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.


John Green

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 Peace News.

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 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 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.

This obituary first appeared in the Guardian

Karl Dallas

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 ridiculed him.

His 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 Ernest Hemingway.

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.

In 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, Jerusalem".


This Obituary first appeared in the Independent


August 2004


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