When I met David King in the 1990s, his years as someone who identified strongly as a graphic designer were behind him. His collection of photographs, graphics and artifacts from the Russian Revolution, and the books he authored based on his collection, defined who he was. The “designer” part of him belonged to the past. He would answer questions about those times, but it wasn’t a side of himself that he wanted to stress and he didn’t dwell on the details.
It came as a surprise, while working on my book about King, to learn that his designs for The Sunday Times Magazine received many awards from D&AD in the 1960s. According to a Creative Review article in 2012, as a designer, King was one of D&AD’s 10 “all-time top award winners”. In King’s archive there were many sheets of 35 mm slides of his best work made for publicity purposes. He was clearly proud of his designs, with a desire to see them recognised by his peers, and this urge returned in the late 1970s after he started to make protest posters.
On 27 October 1977, King wrote to the organisers of the 7th International Poster Biennale in Warsaw – to be held in 1978 – requesting three entry forms. Three posters were accepted for exhibition: “Apartheid in Practice”, which received an honourable mention, a “Release All South African Political Prisoners” poster, and “Never Again! Stop the Nazi National Front” produced for the Anti-Nazi League. The poster shows a photograph of Jews being rounded up by Nazi soldiers in the Warsaw ghetto and it struck a plangent chord with Polish viewers, receiving a prize of 5,000 zlotys (today this would be worth about £900) donated by the Council for Monuments of National Martyrology. In a letter, the organisers thanked King “for reminding the world about these terrible and unfortunately true historical facts”. They informed him that the prize could be collected at a bank in Warsaw and spent only in Poland due to currency restrictions. King wrote back that he hoped to visit Warsaw in early 1979, but correspondence in August 1981 reveals that the money was still uncollected.
Encouraged by the positive response to his posters, King asked the Biennale’s chairman, Eugeniusz Markowski, if he could recommend “any other poster exhibitions or design shows in the Socialist countries, as I should be most pleased to enter my work.” He was supplied with information about several competitions, including the Biennale of Graphic Design Brno, in Czechoslovakia, which he subsequently entered.
In January 1979, King sent posters to the 13th International Biennial of Graphic Art in Ljubljana, then in Yugoslavia. The competition focused on print-making and engraving in particular, and the organisers wrote to say his posters were probably not eligible: “although you have sent lithographies, the sujet [sic] is more that of a poster, therefore the Jury will probably not allow them to enter into competition. We would kindly advise you to forward works which in their genre are more close to original graphic expression.”
Never lacking in determination, King shot back a heartfelt reply on 24 January: “As an artist/designer working in a declining, late-capitalist society which is in need of social change, I see the importance of graphic art today as being one not merely of decorating the walls of capitalistic galleries and rich people’s houses with beautiful objects, but uniting strong visual presentation (i.e. the political poster) to clarify the issues, for the movements of social change (i.e. the fight against racism and fascism, apartheid etc.). This constitutes for me, working in the UK now, the only valid form of ‘original graphic expression’ referred to in your letter. I hope the Jury of the 13th International will take this into consideration.” Whether King’s rousing words reached the jury or not, his “prints” (the organisers’ word) were chosen for the exhibition.
King’s next competition was the 3rd Lahti Poster Biennale held from May to July 1979 in the Art Museum of the Finnish city of Lahti. His submissions, two poster series for the Anti-Apartheid Movement and for the Anti-Nazi League, won the Grand Prix and a prize of 10,000 Finnish Markka (today about £1,400). The international jury considered these posters “a strong and unconventional solution for these two political subjects”. The letter of notification went on to say that King’s work “has aroused great attention here and has been widely presented by the press as well as the television.” King had missed the opening ceremony on 2 May and the organisers expressed the hope that he would be able come to Lahti “because we would like to arrange the press and TV to meet you”. In a handwritten draft, which is all that survives of his reply, King said that he was “overwhelmed at the honour of being awarded the Grand Prix”, but that pressure of work meant it was unlikely he would be able to visit.
For the next few years, while posters continued to preoccupy him, King would enter competitions regularly. Three of his posters were exhibited in the 8th Poster Biennale in Warsaw in 1980: “End Nuclear Collaboration with South Africa”, “International Seminar on the Role of Transnational Corporations in South African” and “The Butcher of Jakarta”. That year his work was shown for the first time in the 9th Biennale of Graphic Design in the city of Brno – four book covers and two complete books, including his Alexander Rodchenko catalogue for the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford. In 1981, he participated again in the 4th Lahti Poster Biennale. In each case, like other successful exhibitors, he received a printed certificate of participation signed by the competition’s senior officials.
Later in 1981, two of King’s posters were selected for the 2nd Colorado International Invitational Poster Exhibition, organised at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado: “End Nuclear Collaboration with South Africa” and another poster in the “Never Again!” series for the Anti-Nazi League, this time showing children behind barbed wire. American exhibitors included Saul Bass, Milton Glaser, Henry Wolf, George Tscherny and Paul Rand, and from Britain came Alan Fletcher of Pentagram and David Hillman, briefly a colleague of King at The Sunday Times Magazine. In this visually refined company, King’s protest posters look raw, urgent and more than a little out of place in the exhibition catalogue. They come from a different personal and ideological motivation. His images are politically engaged and enraged, even disgusted. Fine graphic design, as an end in itself, would appear to be the least of their concerns, yet here were his posters rubbing shoulders with some of the most celebrated contemporary masters of international graphic design.
King participated in the Colorado exhibition again in 1983 – when he showed “Lubetkin & Tecton” and a performance event poster based on repeated photographs of faces – and for a third time in 1985. The 1982 Poster Biennale in Warsaw was delayed, postponed and eventually combined to make the 9th/10th Biennale in 1984; “Lubetkin & Tecton” was once again selected. In 1982, King entered the 10th Biennale of Graphic Design Brno, and at the 11th, two years later, he was awarded a bronze medal for six City Limits covers (nos. 20, 22, 23, 25, 40, 43). In 1986, after eight years of persistently entering international competitions, he participated in both the Brno and Warsaw Biennales for the final time. Designing posters was no longer a focus for him and he was much less concerned with graphic design. His collection, which included many Russian posters and publications, had become his primary interest, and in the next three decades he mainly designed his own books.
Thanks to Marta Sylvestrová