The Poster Workshop was set up in the summer of 1968 in a basement in Camden Road, Camden Town, London. It was inspired by the Atelier Populaire, set up in the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris, in May 1968.
Posters were printed by silkscreen, using very simple rudimentary techniques.
Printing presses at that time were expensive to buy, it was very costly to have posters made, and to be at all cost effective thousands of one image needed to be printed. Silkscreen methods meant people could have just fifty or a hundred posters, if that was all they required.
All kinds of people came to us when they needed posters - GLC (Greater London Council) tenants' associations, protesting against steep rent rises, workers at the Dagenham Ford plant, anti-apartheid groups, CND, International Socialists (now Socialist Worker), Young Communists, civil rights/ freedom/ liberation movements from all over the world, anti-Vietnam-war groups, Black Power movements, California Farm-Workers Union, GLC Fire Brigade, radical film and theatre companies, situationists and many different student organisations. (The Women's movement was yet to make its mark).
Since silkscreen printing does not involve a press or expensive equipment, we could also set up workshops in other places when asked, and if desired teach the people there how to make their own posters. Workshops were set up in some universities (notably LSE - London School of Economics - and Essex) and in the heart of Free Belfast and Free Derry in the North of Ireland, in August 1969, at the request of People's Democracy.
Memorably, earlier that summer, on an island on Lough Corrib in western Ireland where John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy lived with their 4 boys, the Land League wanted posters for a campaign against the sale of good farming land to large conglomerates for the creation of golf courses. The posters were printed on a table in the open air and hung up to dry on lines strung between the trees. The Land League were very secretive about their identity; two men rowed out to the island and when the posters were dry they took them and all trace of them – roughs, stencil etc, and rowed away into the night. So we have no record of those posters.
However, the majority of the posters were designed and printed in the Camden Town basement workshop.
There was no fixed charge for posters. The idea was that groups paid what they felt they could afford toward the cost. Our funds were maintained by benefit shows given by – in particular – CAST theatre group (created by Roland and Claire Muldoon) and Agitprop street players, and by donations. In practice, the voluntary payment system meant that some groups (such as council tenants or factory workers, for example) paid scrupulously, if not too generously, whereas some of the less well organised (eg students associations) were more variable in their contributions.
We were also given some paper and huge quantities of unwanted posters - we printed on the reverse side – and sometimes ink. All of our work was unpaid; people did other jobs – teaching, cleaning, working in bars, and so on. One of the mainstays of the workshop was Bert Scrivener, (Scriv), a 70 year old pensioner who became involved through the GLC rent strike, and would be there all day.
Another was Peter Dukes who came from a Communist Party background. He had found the premises, dealt with the landlord and much else besides, and generally kept the place functioning.
Then there was Harry Beck who worked in a dry-cleaners opposite, (having left the Merchant Navy after a long strike). He became intrigued by the sight of streams of people and posters emerging from the dingy basement, came to investigate, and joined us.
A number of us had been to art school - Jo Robinson, Sarah Wilson, Sam Lord. One of the founder members was a Tunisian sculptor from Paris, Jean-Loup Msika. He had been involved in the Atelier Populaire at the Beaux Arts in Paris, and was expelled by the French Government (until a campaign supported by Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir succeeded in allowing his return the following year.) Also involved from the beginning was Ian Purdie, while later on Alison Waghorn very much kept the workshop going.
There were many, many others.
The majority of the posters were made at the request of specific groups and, with a few exceptions, they were not our own slogans.
Decisions on posters were usually made by whoever was around at the time. Some people were involved in certain campaigns more than others. Scriv dreamed up almost all the GLC Rent strike designs. From time to time there were big meetings, but much that happened was on an ad hoc basis.
Conditions in the basement were pretty dire. Many of the solvents and cleaning products gave off toxic fumes, and were inflammable. Many people smoked - Scriv always had a fag hanging out of the side of his mouth. The basement had two small rooms, and a space at the bottom of the stairs with notice board etc. Most work went on in one room – designing, discussing, printing. The other room had lines on which the posters were hung up to dry. (Later, drying racks were made). There were times in winter when there were icicles hanging from the lines. In summer it could be suffocating, (though Scriv invariably wore a waistcoat, tie and hat).
The 'best job' for most was designing, which all were encouraged to try, if they wished. However, everyone was expected to muck in and help with the dirty, tiring jobs such as printing and cleaning up, as well. Some, like Harry, didn’t want to do any designing. His 7 years in the Merchant Navy had turned him into a cleaning dynamo and he got great satisfaction from 'cleaning the deck', as he put it, and he tried to keep us shipshape.
We could, if necessary, respond very rapidly to a request for posters. The most extreme case was probably for a strike at Fords, Dagenham. The vote to strike was taken at a meeting at 10 pm and the shop stewards rang through for posters to put out in time for the 6am morning shift. We worked through the night, designing, printing and finally drying the posters with a hair dryer, before driving out to Dagenham in time to hand them over to the shop stewards.
The Workshop continued until the end of 1970. By this time small, relatively inexpensive off-set litho printing-presses had become available. A number of organisations such as Black Dwarf (with Tariq Ali at the helm), and International Socialists had bought one and were able to make posters for more accessible commercial rates, (though nothing could compare with the low to zero rates of Poster Workshop).
The Poster Workshop existed at an exceptional time. It thrived on the energy generated by the belief that huge changes were possible - indeed, were already taking place around the world, through movements for equality, civil rights, freedom and revolution. The posters made there show the extraordinary diversity of those who came to the workshop. It was a microcosm of much that was happening nationally and internationally. It was an expression of that time - of excitement, change and hope.
Sarah Wilson, April 2009