The logo that Gerard Holtom created without copyright for an anti-nuclear war protest group in the 1950s has been perennially adopted and adapted around the world ‑ perhaps most memorably in the wake of the Paris attacks..click on the source link above for my images and stories.
In the early evening of 21 February 1958, a middle-aged man travelled right across London from his home in suburban Twickenham to a shabby Victorian building in Finsbury Park. Among the press of commuters Gerald Holtom stood out as someone slightly different – “arty-looking”, as they used to say – with a portfolio under his arm and disorderly hair that hadn’t been smoothed with Brylcreem or trapped by a hat. Eventually, after a journey by green suburban train and then a change of tube, he reached the top of Blackstock Road and a dark doorway next to a familiar landmark: Fish & Cook, printers and stationers. Holtom walked up the stairs to an office where several people who would soon be of interest to the Special Branch had already gathered. “So, Gerry, let’s see what you have for us,” one of them said. Holtom untied his portfolio and took out some sheets. “I’ve tried a simple approach,” he began …
The film script at this point would call for puzzlement and a gathering sense of outrage among Holtom’s small audience. “But we wanted a dove,” somebody says. “Or an olive branch,” says another. “Or a cheek in the act of turning,” says a third. “This business of the three lines inside a circle won’t do at all.” These sunflowers will never sell, Monsieur van Gogh. Conventional narrative calls for rejection and dejection before the artist gathers his strength, tries again, and this time triumphs. In fact, the meeting of the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War (DAC) seems to have liked Holtom’s design without any equivocation. According to Peace News’s honorary archivist, Bill Hetherington, it was “immediately accepted” as the symbol for the demonstration that the committee had planned for Easter. On Good Friday, which that year fell on 4 April, it made its first public appearance when it was carried aloft on the 52-mile march from Trafalgar Square to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire.
This was the first of the big Aldermaston marches, and the last one to have Aldermaston as its finishing point. All future marches went the other way, reflecting the difference between DAC and its successor as the march’s loudest voice, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. DAC wanted to draw attention to the unobtrusive manufacture of nuclear bombs in the home counties: to protest at the thing itself. CND favoured the more traditional pattern of British dissent – a march on London – and the publicity that came with a climactic moment only a few hundred yards from Fleet Street and Westminster, the twin centres of media and political power. But whatever the sectarian differences that existed inside the anti-nuclear movement, Holtom’s symbol remained common to all.
Nobody had rights to it. Holtom himself had never claimed copyright; he wanted the design to be freely available to any group who fought the same cause. It success was almost immediate. By 1964, the writer Christopher Driver (a pacifist, later to edit the Good Food Guide) could justifiably describe it as “probably the most powerful, memorable and adaptable image ever designed for a secular cause”. The rest of the world adopted it for other movements – in the US, it stood for feminism and civil rights as well as opposition to the Vietnam war – so that it slowly lost its strict association with the phrase “ban the bomb” and came instead to represent peace and justice more generally, especially when those ideas conflicted with the establishment view. It has had several enemies – in 1973, South Africa’s apartheid government tried to ban it – but rather more adaptors. The encircled A of anarchism may have its roots in the 19th century; the A may stand for anarchism and the O for the order that A is the mother of (Proudhon said that, apparently); but it’s hard not to suspect that its popular form as a punk monogram took Holtom’s design as its inspiration.
Earlier this month a French graphic designer, Jean Jullien, turned the internal lines into an instantly recognisable Eiffel Tower by adding three short brush strokes – a couple of horizontals at the base and an extension of the vertical so that it broke the circle. It may be the most memorable adaptation in the symbol’s 60-year history, and according to Jullien it sprang from “an instinctive, human reaction [rather than] an illustrator’s reaction”. Within 24 hours of the attacks, it had been printed on T-shirts, posters and flags. An unwatched child might have drawn it, but (or and) it managed to convey both sorrow and hope. Jullien said that in his opinion “the strongest images are the ones that don’t require any deep background in culture or art history to decipher … It needs to be something that people from different backgrounds can recognise automatically … You understand before you decipher the image, and I think with words, sometimes, the barrier is higher.”
But Jullien had the Eiffel Tower. Why Holtom drew what he did is harder to explain. According to one school of thought, the lines inside the circle form a composite of the semaphore for the letters N and D, standing for Nuclear and Disarmament. Holtom himself, writing in 1973, believed his design to be a kind of self-portrait: “I was in … deep despair. I drew myself … with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya’s peasant before the firing squad. I formalised the drawing into a line and put a circle round it.”
Both explanations seem after the fact and too literal. Drawings, like sentences, can come out of an unknowable elsewhere. And who in any case needs an explanation? I remember my first sight of what I thought of as a CND badge: how taken I was with the elegance of its white-on-black design, how pure it looked and yet how rebellious and mysterious. It was 1961. I travelled by train to collect more badges, and literature too, from a friendly doctor’s wife in the next to nearest town. I was a sincere unilateralist, not simply a badge-lover, but I noticed that among the one or two of my school friends who agreed to take a badge there was an aesthetic appreciation of the tin buttonhole itself. Logos are commonplace now – rarer then. There was the circle and straight line of London Transport, of course, and the RAF roundel, but otherwise the tendency in the 1950s still ran towards heraldry and initial letters made illegible through compression or entanglement. What Holtom’s badge was, above all, was new.
He died aged 71 in 1985. He was a graduate of the Royal College of Art, a conscientious objector in the second world war, and an early anti-nuclear activist. So far as I can tell, he never made a penny from his design or wanted to. Should he not have a memorial or plaque? This week I discovered that in the 1960s an office block had replaced his house at 2 Holly Road, Twickenham; there seems little point in remembering him somewhere so changed. On the other hand, the Finsbury Park building that he visited with his portfolio in February 1958 still exists. The meeting that adopted his design was held in room then occupied by Peace News, which long ago left for King’s Cross. Today the offices belong to a solicitor. Down below, miraculously, Fish & Cook is still selling stationery, though via a Mr Raj rather than a Fish or a Cook. The shop sits among Algerian cake shops, halal butchers, Ethiopian delicatessens and Chinese noodle bars. Here surely is a fitting place to remember the man who drew for peace.
Saturday, November 28, 2015
He gave his unforgettable work for nothing. Shouldn't the designer of the peace symbol be commemorated?
from the Guardian: