Lord Kitchener – the legend lives on. Part 4

London Opinion cover from 5 September 1914HMS Hampshire sank on 5 June 1916 on her way to Russia, taking Lord Kitchener down with her. Kitchener was the face of the Empire and had led the biggest recruiting campaign in modern history, a campaign that also changed the nature of propaganda, advertising and graphic design. This is the fourth post this weeek based based on images from Kitchener Wants You, a book I have written with Martyn Thatcher that examines the story of the man, the famous poster and how that image has retained its hold on the imagination of people across the world.

Picture Post for the week of 1 June 1940

Picture Post magazine cover for the week of 1 June 1940

Leete’s Kitchener image is revived

Alfred Leete’s Kitchener image for London Opinion was donated to the Imperial War Museum, where it was only catalogued as a poster. Although the image appeared in some exhibitions after the war, it was not regarded as a great example of poster art, unlike the wartime posters of people such as Frank Brangwyn, Gerald Spencer Pryse and Edward McKnight Kauffer.

When the Second World War broke out, conscription was brought in immediately and the British government decided to use more subtle techniques for poster campaigns. So, there was no place for Leete’s image, although a different tack was taken in the US, which did re-use James Montgomery Flagg’s Uncle Sam version of the Kitchener artwork. The Russians also adopted the Leete imagery, but with the image of a painting soldier.
However, the most famous photo magazine of the era, Picture Post, did feel Leete’s artwork was worth dusting off. It was carried on the front of the popular weekly, dated 1 June 1940. It not only marked the week of Kitchener’s death, but was also the week of the BEF’s retreat from Dunkirk.
From then on, Kitchener’s face became a frequent reference, for cartoonists, for people and organisations marking iconic events in the 20th century, and for just about anybody wanting to draw attention to anything.

 Attitudes to Kitchener change

Philip Magnus biography of Kitchener as an imperialist

1958 biography of Kitchener by Philip Magnus

A 1958 biography of Kitchener by Philip Magnus portrayed him as an arch imperialist, out of touch with modern values. The April 1955 issue of Lilliput magazine described Kitchener as Britain’s Big Brother, an ironic comparison given that the WWI Kitchener posters probably inspired George Orwell’s descriptions of the character in 1984.

This period very much sees the end of empire as country after country is given independence or fights against British control. Furthermore, Britons were adopting a less deferential attitude towards the establishment, which was soon seen in theatre and the satire boom as well as in the press.

Joan Littlewood’s 1962 play Oh What a Lovely War drew on the Alan Clark book The Donkeys to portray the First World War from the point of view of the frontline soldier. It made great use of Leete’s imagery, both onstage and for publicity, and shook up both British attitudes and theatre itself. It was shown in New York and made into a film. It’s a play that resonates to this day.

Kitchener in Carnaby Street

I was Lord Kitchener's Valet

I was Lord Kitchener’s Valet

The mid-1960s saw Kitchener’s face in a different context: fronting the fashionable boutique I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet and becoming a symbol of Carnaby Street and the Swinging Sixties. Lord Kitchener’s Valet sold secondhand uniforms, which were taken up by pop stars such as The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix.

The shop sign by Pat Hartnett, which is in the V&A, was inspired by Leete’s Kitchener image.

Later in the decade, it was protesters against a contemporary conflict – the Vietnam War – who turned to Leete’s imagery, though it was the James Montgomery Flagg variant.

Leete’s image is subverted

Campaigning groups in the US took the pointing Uncle Sam from the Flagg artwork and diverted its meaning for their own purposes. There was Uncle Sam as a death skeleton, bandaged up and demanding relief, and as an aggressive recruiter of young black men seeking human fodder from the city ghettoes for an imperialist, overseas war.

Black activists in the US portray Uncle Sam as trying to wipe out their race (1968)

Black activists in the US portray Uncle Sam as trying to wipe out their race (1968)


From the late 1960s, Vietnam War protestors subverted the imagery. This is from 1971
Vietnam War protest poster - Uncle Sam as a death skeletonUncle Sam portrayed as a death skeleton tempting recruits to fight in the Vietnam War

Next: The modern images


Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: