By Sam Lord
The Poster Workshop, a screen printing collective run entirely by volunteers, was founded in 1968. It operated out of the damp and dingy basement of 61 Camden Rd, London N1. As today, there was an enthusiastic radical left, driven by the determination of the young to force change on what they saw as a moribund establishment. While today, Theresa May presides over the headless chicken that is Brexit, the 1960s saw the back end of Harold Wilson’s Labour government mired in economic woes, while the bloody war in Vietnam and the iniquities of the housing market fueled the fire of revolutionary zeal.
Today, the left has social media to spread the word, but in the 1960’s it was basic, hands on. Printing did the work, both by means of alternative presses, such as Black Dwarf and OZ, and by that age-old tool: the poster. The Poster Workshop was the first of the radical screen-printing workshops in London, and its posters offer a mirror to the political preoccupations of the times. It was influenced by the Atelier Populaire, the print department of L’Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris, which was taken over by students in the revolutionary events of May 1968 that almost toppled the government of Charles de Gaulle. The desire for change was international in 1968 and encompassed many young people across the world.
The origins of the Poster Workshop were in my kitchen at 57 Moorhouse Rd, Notting Hill, a now-wealthy area that was then a slum. I had just left Bath Academy of Art and was working as an occasional film technician doing short term temporary work. The earliest products of the Workshop were some prints made in my kitchen with Dick Pountain. Then I met Peter Dukes who came to help with the printing and established the premises at 61 Camden Road. Peter was the organisational genius at the Poster Workshop who kept us well supplied with materials. He also managed to preserve over 200 posters for posterity. Jean Loup Msika, a French Tunisian who had been involved with the Atelier Populaire and was expelled from France, also helped to establish the Poster Workshop. Soon we were joined by Jo Robinson and Sarah Wilson. Frederick Egbert Scrivener, Scriv for short, was a seventy-year-old pensioner who joined up and eventually manned the workshop almost full time while producing many posters in support of the campaign against steep rent rises in GLC housing.
Screen printing is cheap to set up and use and is easy to master at a basic level. The technology was deliberately kept simple so that anyone could print their own poster. The equipment was light and easy to transport so workshops could be set up almost anywhere,and they were! We set up at the LSE during the student occupation before the much-hyped demonstration against the Vietnam war on Oct 27th 1968; and in Belfast and Derry in support of People’s Democracy as the barricades went up following attacks on Catholic areas by Loyalists and Protestant paramilitary B-Special police.
All kinds of people came to the Poster Workshop: GLC tenants associations fighting against steep rent increases, striking workers, anti-apartheid groups, CND, International Socialist groups, Young Communists, South African anti-apartheid and liberation organizations such as the ANC (African National Congress) and PAC (Pan African Congress), other liberation movements, supporters of civil rights, Black Power groups, The Californian Farm Workers Union, The London Fire Brigade Union, Irish groups, radical film and theatre companies, anarchist, situationists, radical journals and many different student organizations.
When anyone wished to print a poster of questionable political validity, an informal ad hoc meeting was held by whomever happened to be there at the time and a democratic decision was made. Most decisions were made this way, though occasionally larger informal meetings were held. The Poster Workshop happily ran itself.
In 1968 we were full of hope that the world could be changed, the greed inherent in the capitalist system could be swept away, and a fairer more equal society would result. Alas, inequality has increased and life has become increasingly insecure. The manic pace of life intensifies, spurred on by the computer. While in 1968 university education was free, today it is a crippling financial hardship. Housing is increasingly difficult to come by, and more young people are suffering stultifying depression. There is a good case for getting the message back on the street where it can be seen by everyone.
The bold and simple designs produced at the Poster Workshop have withstood the test of time, though sadly many of them are still all too relevant today.
Sam Lord lives with his wife on a smallholding in Scotland with a few sheep, some hens and assorted vegetables. An exhibition at Tate Britain, London 1968, includes 36 posters printed at the Poster Workshop, and runs from May 7th to October 31st 2018. A website devoted to Poster Workshop has been set up by Sarah Wilson and Jo Robinson, and a book, The Poster Workshop 1968-71, has been published by 4 Corners Books.