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Poster boys of the pandemic

Dan Carrier talks to a creative duo whose graphic artworks give a nod to the past while raising cash for the Royal Free Hospital

22 May, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

WHEN Britain faced a national crisis in 1939, artists had a crucial role to play in getting vital information out, raising morale and making sure everybody felt they had a part to play.

And the poster art of the war years has provided inspiration for two Highgate-based artists who have produced a series of works
Artist Toby Southall-Ross has collaborated with Drew Gepp to create a series of posters for our current times – and the silkscreen printed images are for sale online and have so far raised thousands of pounds for the Royal Free Hospital.

The pair are flatmates – and it was while Drew found himself sent home from his job as a writer and strategy consultant that they began brainstorming, with the lockdown offering the chance to explore ideas of collaborating.

“We would have lunch and a chat,” says Toby. “With that time we spent together, we started coming up with ideas – and these posters were the product.”

Drawing on the classic eras of propaganda art ranging from Soviet Realism to the Ministry of Information’s works in the Second World War, they set out to re-interpret the genre for modern times.

This meant drawing on Pop Art ideas and Toby’s background in street art.

Toby went to Tufnell Park’s Acland Burghley school, studied Fine Art at Central St Martins and has worked around the world making film.

“I was always passionate about art and images,” he says.

“I wanted to be a painter – I was inspired by Burghley’s teachers such as the head of art, Joe Kusner. He was a powerhouse – he had such an impact on everyone he taught. He was almost like a guru.”

At university, he began working with film – and on graduation it took him around the world as he found work as a cameraman, director and editor.

Then came lockdown – and the poster series, representing a switch back to a medium he was already well versed in.

The five-strong series of posters are created by hand and then turned into silk screen prints.

“I wanted to put a hand-crafted aspect to it,” he says. “I drew the images with charcoal and then used oils before we scanned them for printing,” he explains.

“A lot of poster work today is purely digital – but I wanted to have that classic hand-made aesthetic.”

Studying the great propaganda posters of the war period influenced what they sought to achieve.

“We knew it needed to feel iconic, strong and immediately bring you in and tell you what it is about.

“I would say to Drew, ‘I have this idea, a feeling that it should look like this’ and he would then write up text. This again goes back to the ideas of the works of the Second World War – we looked at the posters produced then and how they used language.

“We noted how the great wartime posters were traditional, historic and actually fairly passive-aggressive – we wanted to capture that quintessential British feeling of being politely demanding.

“We felt that today’s Keep Calm and Carry On is the Stay At Home slogan – and we wanted to draw on these themes and expand them.”

Typography was also key.

“Soviet propaganda, as well as the British war poster art, uses strong, bold images with clear lettering and easy-to-digest slogans.”

And there is humour, too: one of Toby’s posters features an image of the late singer Leonard Cohen decked in a mask and bears lyrics to his song I’m Your Man, proclaiming: “If you want another kind of love, I’ll wear a mask for you.”

“We felt this was particularly poignant, and rather beautiful,” he adds.

With five completed – and selling in such numbers that they have already donated £3,000 to the Royal Free – they are now widening their range of collaborations.

Other artists such as Gavin Turk, photography and collage duo Walter and Zoniel and pencil artist Nettie Wakefield have been sent new poster pieces to add their own touches to.

And the proceeds have helped boost funds at the Free – a place close to both artists’ hearts.

“It is a special hospital for us,” adds Toby.

“Staff there have treated our parents and families both before and through the pandemic.”

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