Arthur Wragg – penmanship, poverty and war
Arthur Wragg was a rare artist and illustrator who’s work promoted comment and social change at a difficult time in Britain. There was a major depression and economic downturn in the UK in the 1930s. Arthur Wragg was an artist who responded to the poverty and deprivation that existed during that ‘Great Slump‘ as it was called. He took a stand and produced some remarkable and influential work.
Illustrated books come in all forms and styles but few break new ground in the way that Arthur Wragg’s books have done. He is part of a tradition of artists who have engaged in political and social comment; artists including Hogarth, George Grosz, Dorothea Lange and today Joe Sacco and Banksy.
His distinct black and white artwork had tremendous social impact between the 1920s and 1940s. His commitment to highlighting poverty, challenging complacency and demonstrating the futility of war was unique in that era between the two world wars. His books were published when Workhouse Infirmaries and Poor Law Hospitals still existed, when the Socialist Medical Association began its campaigns that eventually evolved into the UK’s National Health Service. His books show us now how bad poverty and despair was in those years.
Arthur Wragg (1903-1976) was an artist, illustrator, cartoonist, teacher, pacifist, crusader and highly effective social commentator.
To quote Alan Horne in his introduction to the excellent book by Judy Brook*, Arthur Wragg, 20th Century Artist, Prophet and Jester, “He attacked the abuse of power by those who governed and by those industrialists, warmongers and politicians who held such sway over the lives of the working man.”
Passionate and uncompromising
Arthur Wragg had established himself as a successful commercial artist in the 1920s. He illustrated for advertising, designed book jackets and produced cartoons for newspapers. In 1933 Selwyn & Blount published Arthur Wragg’s first book of social comment Psalms for Modern Life. This was not a commission, not a children’s book nor a classic story illustrated by a gifted artist. Arthur Wragg’s Psalms for Modern Life was a breakthrough in the way that a book could be designed to raise consciousness and make a social statement.
Psalms for Modern Life is a passionate uncompromising book; a book created by an artist much troubled by what he saw of the world around him. It became a much praised and successful book, and one which changed the way the media and society of that troubled time thought and responded.
To understand the power and impact of this book one needs to remember how different was society’s view of poverty and injustice in Britain in the 1930s. In today’s world our media allows us to be much more aware of social injustice, but following the First World War and on into the 1930s there was a huge lack of awareness and care for others.
The years between 1918 and 1939 were years of great difficulty for many in Britain. The shock of so much loss of life during the First World War must have been unbearable for so many families and communities, particularly losing so many of their youngest men. For those who survived and came back injured, shocked and confused the difficulties must have been enormous.
The world was also ravaged by the 1918 global influenza pandemic called ‘Spanish Flu’. This killed around 250,000 people in the UK alone. It can only be imagined what the atmosphere was like in Britain following that war and that deadly flue epidemic?
Depicting a loss of hope
Arthur Wragg was an artists who responded to what he saw in his world. By the early 1930s the Great Depression in the United States had spread worldwide. In Britain in the summer of 1932 three and a half million people were registered as unemployed. Many more had only part-time employment. In some areas of the UK unemployment reached 70%. Many families depended entirely on ‘the dole’. These were payments from local government that were based on the brutal ‘means test’ of that time. Poverty, hunger, depression – and a loss of hope was the undercurrent of that era.
Psalms for Modern Life is a remarkable book. It contains all 150 of the Psalms from the Book of Psalms punctuated by Arthur Wragg’s inspired illustrations. Psalms for Modern Life was an artist’s book calling for action. Two years later it was followed by his second book Jesus Wept.
Jesus Wept, was published by Selwyn & Blount in 1935. Once again Arthur Wragg designed a passionate and powerful illustrated book. Carefully selected text is combined with images of poverty, despair and war, but this time he criticised the politicians, the arms industry and warmongers as fools bent on destruction. In 1935 he warned of the resurgence of war.
I told you so . . .
During the 1930s Arthur Wragg continued to work as an illustrator. In 1937 he worked on a project close to his heart, a series of illustrations for Walter Greenwood’s book of short stories on poverty and unemployment The Cleft Stick.
Wragg then produced two further books of his own: Seven Words (1939) and Thy Kingdom Come (1939). In his introduction to Thy Kingdom Come he powerfully stated that “I told you so”, as war broke out again.
During the Second World War Arthur Wragg made a stand as a conscientious objector. The Conscientious Objectors’ Tribunal approved his stand and they directed him to become a teacher.
During the war he worked on his final polemic The Lord’s Prayer in Black & White. This was published by Cape in 1946. Again this was an illustrated book with few words, using his unique style of powerful black and white imagery.
One other book of note that he designed and illustrated was The Song of Songs published by Selwyn & Blount in 1952. With this considerable body of work behind him, and his reputation as a pacifist and campaigner, Arthur Wragg continued to receive commissions from newspapers and magazines for articles on subjects such as nuclear weapons.
Following the end of the Second World War he was finally able to see major improvements in British society. He witnessed the introduction of the modern welfare state in Britain. He saw the gradual recovery of the 1950s and the growing prosperity of the 1960s. He saw a world at peace in many ways – but always there was the warning shown in many of his works that can still apply today.
Arthur Wragg continued to design and illustrate. He illustrated other books including Moll Flanders and Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol. He also published cartoons, designed book jackets and many record sleeves until his death in 1976.
* To read a full and wonderful account of Arthur Wragg’s life and work we highly recommend Judy Brook’s book, Arthur Wragg, 20th Century Artist, Prophet and Jester. Edited by Christopher and Helen Wright. Published by Sansom & Company, Bristol, England, 2001.
Article by Christopher Sharville 2018 ©. If you spot any errors or inaccuracies please get in touch.