Suburban Hearth and Home/An Artist's Life for me

Chapter VII: An Artist's Life for me

The results of secondary education for most children in 1950, was a modest improvement, compared to the 1930s. It was, if anything, a limited implementation of the 1944 Education Act. Even five years later only twice as many stayed on at school to seventeen than in 1940. What was lacking was a long look to the future of education in the electronic and technological world by all the main political parties. Overseas countries were adapting faster to new technologies leaving Britain behind.

In my last year at secondary school all this was miles away. I drifted into the finishing school eddy - the wind driven currents of work, without me realising it was forcing me back into choppy waters! My secondary education passed by without any notable achievements… then I thought it poor, but looking back it was fitting. My last year was spent mainly painting a picture of the Old Pinner Board School in company with another keen artist. At the end of year school prize giving I receive the school prise for technical drawing. I was more than happy to receive that as a suitable encore. It was as well that preparations to find a job had turned up an apprenticeship for a Lithographic Artist… but first I had to produce a portfolio of work…

There was feverish haste to comply with the request. My father was keen for me to leave school, impressing on me the need to pay my way by contributing towards the housekeeping. A letter was sent to the firm and a date arranged to attend an interview, with my now completed portfolio. My father and I went by train to Neasden and then walked to the firm. The Board of Directors interviewed me and looked at my work. I was told what to expect... if accepted, that, ‘I would hear from them in due course’. A fortnight later I received a letter telling me that I had been accepted and that I was to report to the Doughty Street Headquarters, Holborn, of The Institute of Printing. There I was to sit an exam and take a medical… both of which I passed. This was May 1950, when I was fourteen. I received an invitation, for a trial period, in the Artists Studio at Chromoworks Limited; if the three-month probationary period was completed satisfactorily, and I was subsequently accepted by the Union, I could be indentured. My last months at school passed slowly.

The end of school party was a total flop – I was the preverbal wall flower – not being able to dance. There was I desperately wanting to ‘take a girl out’ now finally convinced that dancing was going to have to be faced. With that firm resolve in mind I enrolled at The Guy Haywood School of Dancing which met above Burton’s store in Harrow. There the intricacies of the waltz, quickstep, fox trot, and Latin American dances began – girls to line up one side of the room and boys on the other, ‘take your partners please!’ So began my introduction to girls and it did not take me long to realise that once again I had been missing out. No wonder those dark haired gigolos with their flashy suits had ruled the roost for they could show off their girls and, quite naturally too, they were more easily accepted socially, for they had learned the art of small talk, which improved their confidence and made them an interesting companion. I had much to learn!

The history of the Trades Union movement revolves around wage reviews and a shortening of the working week, whatever the shade of government. The unions also preached ‘fair deals for all and that everyone deserved a job with a minimum wage based upon the cost of living’. The Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, decided to hold a general election for 1950, which he won with an overall majority of ten. The ‘Welfare State’ and the policy of ‘Nationalisation’ for the chief industries, including the railways, were established. Both these pieces of social legislation were not just the result of one party but achieved by a social awareness of workers rights. The Conservative Education Act of 1944 and Labour’s National Health Act 1948, marked another change in the national conscience – made an effort to provide a comprehensive scheme of insurance to provide health care for the general population and long-term care for the old. For children and teenagers there were primary, secondary, and further education – each abiding to a national curriculum. This was supposed to bring about greater equality between the classes and provide full employment - but it never achieved these goals. Class was and still is a great divider.

It was not universally considered, and certainly not at home, that a person’s job might not last a lifetime. That workers might have to retrain a number of times - to adjust to industrial demands, was never thought of. Flexibility and an open mind - to changing circumstances, were not universal traits. This was not just the closed minds of my parents but a national habit… people did not readily accepted new methods of doing things in the home or workplace…, which made flexibility of thought and the acceptance of unexpected events impossible to come to terms with. It has been, and is a continuing to be, a theme in these writings, that the British population after the war had to cope with a changing world… a world that could not, would not, and will not, ever be the same again, even though hankered for.

Ever since leaving home, my thoughts were consumed by doubts and fear. Every part of me charged with foreboding. My walk, dodging in and out of the streams of workers, lead me down Station Road, Neasden, taking me away from the railway station… past the bombed out sidings and goods-yard - that stretched as far as Wembley. The soot blackened factory walls - hiding behind spearheaded railings… The endless rows of terraced Victorian villas - bravely advanced upon the pavement; their geranium filled window boxes trying to lend colorful distraction from the all too obvious bomb damage. A poster-hung hoarding exclaimed, by stark design, the virtues of Persil’s whitening power and Tetley’s superior leaf - promoted by a colorful plantation scene, which gave welcoming colour… softening the hardness of the landscape…

The printing works was surrounded by chain-linked fencing… Advancing through the open gate, I reached the iron studded factory door; on knocking… a face peered from behind a small grilled hatch. The gatekeeper acknowledged my knock. He was attired in a brown, patched, warehouse coat… Gripping a rolled-up cigarette between a few stained teeth, he croaked a gruff, ‘What-ja-want?’ My fear returned; I thrust out my letter - Mr Oppenheimer’s elaborate hand graced the paper… I made my first utterances since leaving home, ‘Here sir, letter sir!’ The door opened… I reluctantly squeezed in. My working life was about to begin…

The Gate Keeper showed me the clocking-in procedure, having found my card; then marched me down the long corridor which followed the whole length of the factory… to the Artist’s Department. There, a grey painted sliding door opened onto a room furnished with eight six feet by four feet wooden tables, several racks of metal plates, and a small anti-room which contained the Forman’s toilet and a storeroom. He introduced me to the foreman, whom I had met previously - at my interview. He, in turn, introduced me to the eldest artist in the room, although past retirement age, had elected to stay on - at onetime he had been the foreman. I was then shown to an empty bench - to be mine, and to the storeroom cupboard... my responsibility. It had been explained to me at the interview that I was to serve a trial period and that if then I was accepted my indentures would be signed and sealed, over a stamp. The binding document would be made by the Master and the Apprentice, stating the terms and conditions, witnessed by the firm’s Secretary.

For my daily duties, I had the previous apprentice, who was now a journeyman, show me the ropes. As he was a most sensitive and industrious fellow, his explanation of my tasks were most detailed and seemed to last for ages! The first thing in my day was to mix up the ink using an enamel plate as the mixing container. I had to rub onto it a greasy wax black stick and then by rubbing the tip of my middle finger over the applied wax, using water as the medium. By this method, a black drawing ink was produced, the consistency of thin cream. My second task was to take the orders for dinners and snacks. Chromoworks had an efficient and popular canteen. Their rolls freshly baked rolls done to a nicety, and the butter and cheese unsparingly applied. The Works Drama Group laid on frequent dances, and the annual christmas pantomime a great hit. The firm was a family run affair and the directors looked upon their factory with a parental responsibility; the workers viewed the firm as a means of employment and social companionship. Chromoworks was self contained, not only having a canteen but a carpenters shop, it’s own engineers and electricians, a resident nurse, social worker, and the work’s painter and decorator. It was efficiently run, clean, freshly painted… windows regularly replaced, and cleaned, and the industrial site up-to-dated - regarding methods of production and delivery of goods. I was lucky, to have a general printers to work at that would give me a good grounding on all aspects of production - to understand the printing industry and its history.

I was taken on a tour of the factory- to every department and shop, introducing me to all the workers. The Works employed sixty percent men. The forty percent women mostly occupied positions in the warehouse and print finishing. Any man walking through these areas, for the women would call out and barrack them, took great care. However, it was all in good fun and never got out of hand. If any of the machine minders became too fresh they were soon slapped - the women sheet feeders - who fed the paper into the grippers of the large machines, worked on platforms above ground and the men passing would make to grab for a leg, only to have their hand stood on. Mostly the machine minders were very protective of their women helpers so there were hardly any problems.

Chromoworks was a Lithographic Printers - a printing house that was able to reproduce in colour all forms of commercial printing work. Their work covered production of the smallest labels right through to the largest posters. The reproduction of drawings, paintings, photographic prints, and transparencies, reproduced both photographically and by hand. A Lithographic Artist in 1950 was still using the same tools, materials, and processes adopted in 1796. His position in the industry was high being one of the most highly paid and trained men. He was drawing on the printing surface with a wax crayon and ink… either copying a previously painted artwork or making his own drawing. The standing, and future development of the industry, were not explained to me - that the industry was about to be revolutionised by new technology.

I was born at the time Kodachrome transparency film was invented – a process giving excellent quality. In 1942, Kodacolor negative film was introduced which bought about the eventual tricolour separation for colour reproductions. It was during my apprenticeship that this discovery, and many other inventions that followed, was introduced from America. By 1950, all small colour artworks were reproduced using photographic halftone principles, adopting primary colour filters to separate the tri-colour printing images. These separation negatives and copy positives were produced on plate glass. Stable backed film was yet to be invented. Lithographic colour retouchers corrected those separations for their spectral deficiencies. Anything larger than 20x30 inches was hand drawn by lithographic artists using traditional methods.

I do not know how much the men understood about the changes that would come about when the film companies introduced their new discoveries and inventions. Even by looking at the American industry, you could not foretell the future. It has always been surprising to me how backward the Americans were in implementing new advances. Their printing processes were lagging behind European print houses. What was sure, because I was there and experiencing it, was that in 1956 the hand drawn poster industry was finished? Photographic film was now produced in large format film with a stable backing… previously; photographic plate glass size was 30x20 inches. From that moment, a very quick change took place. It was a retrograde step but customers insisted upon having their work produced using the latest technology. It is obvious that multiple printing improves commercial posters, which were now printed in four colours instead of eight. Overprinting increases depth of colour, allowing self-colours to match the original and customers house style. Those lovely art deco seaside posters on railway platforms would never be seen again.

By the 1960s, electronic scanning began to be introduced for black and white newspaper block making using a Hell Klishograph. This spelt doom to photographic screened halftone images. Still, that was to come later, although workers began to appreciate what the future held… These changes were to make the onetime power of the camera operator, colour retoucher, lithographic artist, and film planner, redundant…

After my trial period had been successfully completed - three months after starting work, I was invited to the following month’s union meeting to hear whether I was going to be allowed to become an apprentice. I stood outside, whilst my worth was discussed; later allowed back in to hear the verdict by The father of the Chapel, - elected sometime before I arrived at the firm. He continued in this position until the Printing Strike in 1956. He was my mentor and had taken me under his wing ever since my first day in the works. Frank was an avowed Socialist, proclaimed the worth of social care and the brotherhood of man and was not afraid to say so - he frequently stood up at Head Office Union Meetings and declared his position - he was a most caring individual but unfortunately he expected others to be equally strong both in opinion, resolve and care for others. This was all very well but his thinking did not seem to include a consideration for the management and owner’s need to make a profit; the effects of overseas and homegrown competition, nor union strength used undemocratically. Without the use of a sealed ballot - to evade undue pressure applied to an opposing union or works committee. The vote taken without dissention, I was pleased to stay and start my apprenticeship. However, I had to join the Union and attend Head Office and works meetings.

I started my five years apprenticeship as a Lithographic Artist continuing very much the methods and techniques used all those years ago in Prague. One of my first tasks, after mixing up the ink required for all the artists, was to draw a letter ‘c’ by hand [without the use of a compass] large enough to fill a 60” x 40” poster plate. The Foreman got down on his hands and knees, gazed along the curves by turning the plate round and if there was the slightest bump or undulation, I had to do it again. I had to do that letter ‘c’ over a dozen times which took over a week and even then he only allowed me to stop and do something else when there was grumbling from the other men that I was being unfairly treated. This sort of attention to detail followed me in all that I did. None of my work was accepted unless it was of a very high standard. Eventually such tasks were commonplace; I had to draw the whole side of a Heinz bean label - that is all the written ingredients, letters that were half an inch high. However, for this I used a ruling pen and compass. These were the first tools bought, and I have them here before me now, a half set of compasses and a ruling pen, so frequently sharpened that it’s blades are half their original length.

My days at work passed quickly. There was so much that was new to me - so much which was a challenge. I had found by luck, something that interested me - and eventually after a lot of hard work became proficient. I was never a lettering artist although I could produce a reasonable effort. It was lucky that we had Frank who did all the lettering… and he was good at it too. Sometimes to do small letters he would cut down a brush handle to make a wedge shaped tip and use that instead of a brush. It was at colour evaluation, that I found I had a natural bent. It never seemed to me to be difficult to assess how much of each colour was needed. What I did not have was the strong fingers of Reg who could lay on a three quarter tint of chalkwork over a large poster plate first time, without having to build it up by continuous application of the crayon. His tint-work would be so smooth - without any patches or undulations.

It was in 1950 that Chromoworks won the contract to produce the official poster for the Festival of Britain. This was excellent for the firm and a whole range of posters needed, from small Underground Station posters to the largest forty-eight sheet posters measuring 200 x 120 inches. Much of the other work printed was a succession of well-known advertisers from Tetley’s Beer, Persil, Heinz, and British Rail. Annually Lyons Corner Shop commissioned pictures for their restaurants. What was interesting was that a number of these were the self-drawn works of well-known artists - known as autolithographs.

Throughout my time as an artist, the basic drawing techniques never changed. To speed up the production of vignettes - increase the weight of chalkwork, an airbrush sometimes used. For smaller areas a Ben Day Medium applied – an imprinting, mechanical tinting devise, with a raised dot structure. A pen and ink artwork or architectural drawing could be reproduced photographically that saved drawing by hand. All these and other methods adopted to augment the use of chalk and ink. At the end of the life of the process - of hand drawn work, nothing could persuade customers to keep to the old method of reproduction, they wanted the latest technique - to help sell their produce – thinking that to be modern and up-to-date would give them an advantage. Within the space of three years training, two years National service, and a further final year of apprenticeship, the hand drawn lithographic process was finished. It staggered along for a few more years but the death toll sounded its demise.

In October 1950, I started my indentured period of apprenticeship. For one day a week, including evening study, I had to attend The London School of Printing at Bolt Court - just off Fleet Street a City and Guilds Course for Lithographic Artists... I being the only artist. Many of my fellow apprentices had been to the school for their full-time education, having passed an entrance examination. Their knowledge of the industry was far greater, for they had had the advantage of training in a department that had a longer-term future, they were all training to be photographic colour retouchers. At the same time I attended Harrow Art School for three nights a week - life drawing, commercial design and lettering.

There was an air of obsolescence about the whole process. Hand methods of producing type, metal blocks and halftone reproductions were being made redundant by scanners, and in turn union disruption. Printing, particularly for London’s national newspapers, was beset by labour problems. National newspapers are unique. Their production is geared to ‘the latest story’ and ‘the fastest deadline’. They make their profit on the advertisers who use their vast circulation for maximum coverage of their product. Any disruption in production is critical. Newspaper owners are caught by the threat of a strike. Eventually the management gave in being unable to sustain closure for fear of losing advertising revenue. This gave the unions massive power which they continued to wield until their back was broken by the management relocating and engaging new technical staff.

I had to belong to a Trade Union a fact accepted by the management. The Legal status for such gatherings of workers did not come about until the mid 1860s - eventually to include all trades. The monthly union meetings were held at Doughty Street in London, and all members took it in turn to attend and report to their colleagues what took place - raise any questions the chapel required an answer for, and to vote in a an agreed manner. The union was organised within printing houses and platemakers, in trade groups called Chapels with officials elected annually. The representative for each chapel was called the Father-of-the-Chapel, who was voted into office, with the rest of the committee, annually. It was hoped, by keen trade unionists that each member would fill these positions in turn, in reality, all the officials continued until they gave up the position. Most of the business covered was routine and to a man, the chief participants were left wing Socialists.

The Union Head Office staff also retained their position until retirement - deputies into the shoes of departing leaders. The main union policy or philosophy was one-man one job – using a ‘white card system’. Every journeyman was equal to another and the rulebook was the law. The union was there to look after your interests from apprenticeship to retirement. The minimum wage was set annually for a trained member based on ‘the cost of living index’. All other wages balanced to this sum, including apprentices paid an incremental proportion. The rulebook covered every known instance of dispute... on any ‘in house’ dispute, between a member and the employees... it was promised that the Chapel would sort it out - by self-regulation. Any self-regulating system is flawed by self-interest and a lack of farsightedness.

In my experience, there was little regulation. Workers and management flouted agreements when it suited their interests. Managements were tied to making a profit, meeting deadlines, and competing against other firms; having to cope with a changing markets, and new techniques was an ongoing sore. Workers kept new production techniques and true production times secret whilst protecting the number of jobs and working habits. Employers either extracted unfair profits in good times or did not have the will to take a moral stand in bad… They were at the mercy of the unions, especially the newspapers, who had a deadline to keep.

Last modified on 28 September 2010, at 16:48