D&AD 50: A union, Jack! 1963

To mark its 50th birthday, D&AD is delving into its archive to highlight significant pieces of work that have featured in the awards. We will be publishing one a week with accompanying analysis by ex-Design Week editor Lynda Relph-Knight. First up, a controversial art show poster from the 1963 annual

To mark its 50th birthday, D&AD is delving into its archive to highlight significant pieces of work that have featured in the awards. We will be publishing one a week with accompanying analysis by ex-Design Week editor Lynda Relph-Knight. First up, a controversial art show poster from the 1963 annual

Punk rockers might have thought they were on to something new and subversive when the Sex Pistols launched Anarchy in the UK in 1976, a torn Union Flag featuring on promotional posters by Jamie Reid, writes Lynda Relph-Knight. But a bastardised flag had been used before – ironically also to promote youth culture.

The poster, A union, Jack!, was created in 1962 by New Zealand-born Pop Artist Barrie Bates (later known as Billy Apple) to promote Young Commonwealth Artists’ fourth annual show. It features a partially crayoned-in flag and, by making it into the first D&AD Annual in 1963, became an early icon in graphic design. The Commonwealth was an important political entity and the Union Flag its proud banner.

 

 

While it looks totally innocent now, the poster was no doubt a shocker in its time and would have grabbed public attention. Whether there’s any significance in only the St George’s Cross element being partly coloured in, we don’t know – maybe Bates was short of crayons.

 

 

The poster predates by some five years the massive I’m Backing Britain campaign, instigated by five suburban secretaries to boost the British economy. That hugely patriotic venture subverted the Union Flag in other ways, putting it on everything from underwear to teapots – and the rest – and proved majorly successful.

As a result, the ‘Union Jack’ became one of the symbols of the Swinging Sixties [though some claim that, strictly speaking, it’s the Union Flag, the Jack only being used at sea], synonymous with Carnaby Street in London’s Soho, the Mini car and mini skirts. The creative industries cashed in nicely on the optimistic mood of the day. It was a red, white and blue world, with a bit of psychedelia thrown in for good measure. No doubt Reid was sick of seeing the flag when he created the Sex Pistols’ poster some eight years later.

 

 

The flag later gained more sinister connotations, becoming associated with the tribalism of inner-city racism and football hooliganism. It was the natural emblem for the über right-wing National Front in the 1970s and 1980s and remains the banner under which NF splinter group the British National Party campaigns.

 

 

Politicians of all sorts have rallied behind the Union Flag in their day. But one unfortunate encounter came in 1997 when British Airways, then under Bob Ayling, launched its new ‘ethnic’ livery, designed by the then Newell & Sorrell, and featuring graphic interpretations of national identities. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher saw fit to drape a handkerchief over a model plane sporting one of the ethnic designs on the tailfin in disgust. In 2001, the scheme was dropped and the Union flag re-instated.

 

Fortunately, there wasn’t the same fervour for the flag when Tony Blair formed his first Labour Government in 1997, despite Labour embracing the phrase ‘Cool Britannia’ and conducting a love affair with creativity.  We were, after all, in a global society by then and jingoism was not politically correct, given that Britain was joined at the hip with the US and its version of a red, white and blue banner.

We’ve seen the rise of design’s interest in national identity since then, with Wally Olins invariably in the driving seat. But the focus has been on emerging nations like South Africa and the array of mid-European countries newly emerging from the Eastern Bloc – or, at the other end of the scale, on cities. The Union Flag is for high days, and holidays and international sporting fixtures – though even it disintegrates into its component parts whenever England, Scotland and Wales are competing.

But with Britain in disarray again, as it was in the disaffected 1970s, and people taking to the streets in protest at Government cuts, the Union Flag has become more visible of late, not as the standard of the masses, but to honour the fallen and raise awareness of the plight of British military personnel caught up in current conflict.

However, with devolution in the air and Scotland and Wales looking to increasing independence of what the English consider the motherland, maybe the Union Flag will become a relic and the new creative challenge will be to push the various colours of St George, St Andrew and St David.

Perhaps Bates foresaw this in 1962. The partly-coloured St George’s Cross in the A union, Jack! poster might suggest a premonition of what’s to come.

D&AD has produced an online timeline of work from its 50-year history of honouring creative work. View it here

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