Socialist Worker

David King—the graphic designer who printed his mark on the left

Yuri Prasad rates a new compilation of David King’s work which shows how he influenced the revolutionary left—and the commercial world beyond it

Issue No. 2724

An Anti Nazi League poster from the 1970s, designed by David King

An Anti Nazi League poster from the 1970s, designed by David King


David King, the designer, photographer and researcher, gave the British radical left its graphical language.

His style mixed bold sans serif headlines, with blocks of red placed at angles, and super tight picture cropping. It became a defining feature of many publications and posters in the era that followed the revolutionary year of 1968.

In the mainstream too, King’s style felt new and fresh, especially when he was working for the Sunday Times magazine during its ten-year heyday from the mid-1960s.

His juxtapositions of oppressed and oppressors, and causes and consequences, combined well with others with a similar inclination, including photographer Don McCullen and writer Francis Wyndam.

It apparently played less well with the magazine’s marketing department who wanted something easier on the eyes.

Perhaps that’s why King’s work really came into its own in the service of the revolutionary left.

He designed the red arrow logo of the Anti Nazi League that speared the far right and the carnival posters of Rock Against Racism.

He produced brilliantly dynamic graphics for the anti-apartheid movement.

Part of his skill was to understand what the left needed by virtue of being part of its extended family. Anti-racism and revolution were hardwired into him.

An interview with David King: Why Trotsky’s picture lay hidden for 70 years
An interview with David King
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He also knew that his posters would be printed on low tech, older machines. So he devised work that stretched our printers to the limit, but not beyond them. He often used coarse printing screens so that images were rendered in large dots. And he combined black and red inks to colourise images and give them depth.

In his design work, King freely acknowledged his debt to the Russian Constructivist School that emerged from the 1917 revolution. It was fascination with the revolution—and of its hero, Trotsky—that drove him on.

King and Wyndam produced the first pictorial biography of Trotsky in 1972. It charted him from a child thorough the years of repression in pre-revolutionary Russia, to his life as head of the Red Army, and finally into exile.

Many of the images had never been seen before, and curated this way, were a challenge to then the still-dominant Stalinism on the left.

He collected thousands of photographs and paintings from Russia in the 1920s and 30s and compiled them into indispensable books of documentary.

His book The Commissar Vanishes is a forensic demolition of Stalin’s attempt to air-brush out leading Bolsheviks from the revolution’s pictorial history.

King places original and doctored images side by side and recounts in terrible detail the comrade’s fate.

Later books explored the art of the revolution and led to major exhibitions at Tate Modern.

At the opening of one that I was at, he told the audience that he needed to be careful of what he said because “the boss is watching”.

He then pointed to a 1923 portrait of Trotsky by Sergei Pichugin that for generations had laid hidden from Stalin deep in the walls of the artist’s house.

This new book is a vital addition to the King collection, assembling for the first time work from across his fields. It is a link, through the artist and archivist, to a history that continues to inspire today.

David King: Designer, Activist, Visual Historian by Rick Poynor. Published by Yale University Press, £30. Available from bookmarksbookshop.co.uk

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