When Ken Sprague first met Martin Luther King, the US civil rights leader started telling him exactly how he wanted a poster for his campaign to look.
But Ken interrupted him and said, “Look, you come to me as a poster designer – that’s my job. If I want to know about civil rights in the US I’d go to you!” Martin Luther King took the point without offence and they both got on swimmingly thereafter.
This little episode sums up the labour movement artist Ken Sprague, who died recently, aged 77, after a stroke.
In 1955 he started out as publicity manager for the Daily Worker, and later the Morning Star.
He drew cartoons for numerous left wing publications. Many of his images have become well known symbols, even if those who imitate and copy them are not aware of their originator. Ken never insisted on copyright payment.
Over the years he produced art and publicity materials for most of our leading trade unions. He became editor of the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight and of the TGWU union’s journal, the Record, under Jack Jones.
Ken was also a consummate storyteller. He enjoyed his reputation as a rebel.
In the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, during an editorial meeting of the Daily Worker, one of his Stalinist colleagues accused him of “Trotskyist tendencies” – a serious accusation in those days.
But a less rigid comrade replied, “Don’t be silly, Ken’s alright. He’s only loitering with intent.” In another aside he told me he always found Trotsky a much better read than Lenin or Stalin.
Ken believed in the working class movement in its totality and, while he would argue determinedly with anyone, he was never sectarian or patronising.
Ken Sprague was a print-maker, poster-man, painter, cartoonist, sculptor, muralist, banner-maker, television presenter, ideas man and teacher.
He began work as a baker’s boy, but later earned his living as a boxer, a miner, working in a circus and, in later life, become a leading psychodrama specialist.
But he will be best remembered for his art.
An Omnibus film devoted to him and his work, entitled The Posterman, was one of the BBC’s most successful arts programmes.
Not only do Sprague’s works offer an invaluable perspective on our times. His innovative and prolific creativity, and his determination and belief in others’ potential, is an inspiring beacon.
His strong sense of solidarity, and vision of the artist as a responsible and privileged member of the community, harks back to heroes like Thomas Bewick and socialist intellectuals like John Ruskin and William Morris.
Ken was concerned about the impact of politics on the ordinary person. In essence the leitmotif of his work is power and the abuse of power, as well as the resilience of ordinary people to that abuse.
He depicted the world as changeable, and also imbued his work with unfashionable optimism.
His was a world where ethics and values still had relevance. His images remain etched in your mind, they unsettle and provoke, but they also amuse.
John Green is the author of a book about Ken Sprague and his work, Ken Sprague: People’s Artist, published by Hawthorn Press