Ken Sprague

Political artist who sought to build 'a picture road to socialism'

Ken Sprague was a prolific political artist - some would say Britain's most truly committed political artist. He had a rich and varied career, as fairground boxer, circus roustabout, cartoonist, poster designer, trades-union journal editor, television presenter, and towards the end of his life, psychotherapist.

Kenneth Reginald Sprague, artist and graphic designer: born Bournemouth, Hampshire 1 January 1927; married first 1951 Sheila Kaye (died 1973; one son, two daughters, and one son deceased and one daughter deceased), second Marcia Karp (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved); died Barnstaple, Devon 25 July 2004.

Ken Sprague was a prolific political artist - some would say Britain's most truly committed political artist. He had a rich and varied career, as fairground boxer, circus roustabout, cartoonist, poster designer, trades-union journal editor, television presenter, and towards the end of his life, psychotherapist.

He was born in Bournemouth on New Year's Day 1927, the son of an engine driver. His childhood home was in Winton, a working-class area far in its culture from the conventional view of Bournemouth as a retirement home for Britain's highest concentration of Tory voters. Fellow pupils would come to school with holes in their shoes, and one boy wore pyjama bottoms with the fly sewn up, because he had no trousers. Sprague still recalled with anger over 60 years later how the teacher made the boy stand on a chair in front of the class and ridiculed him.

His decision to become a Communist was founded in the distress of his parents at the Fascist bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War, when he was only 10. He made a linocut about the raid and printed it on his mother's mangle. The design was used on collecting sheets for Spain.

After studying art at Bournemouth Municipal College, he left at 16 and joined the Royal Marines and the Communist Party on the same day. He played rugby for the Marines against the Commandos - "They smashed us" - but was transferred to a secret research establishment where he became a technical artist working on ejector seats for Spitfires, despite being unable "to do simple maths to save my life". He was also sent to Yugoslavia to bring back an ejector seat from a German plane the partisans had shot down. It was while he was with the partisans that he adopted the big moustache that was to become his trademark for the rest of his life.

In the Fifties and Sixties he was living in London, and did several set designs for the left-wing Unity Theatre, including productions of Shaw's The Applecart, Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and Arthur Miller's The Crucible, the last employing a non-realistic design separating the stage with cheesecloth screens. He worked in the publicity department of the Daily Worker, now the Morning Star, but also did reporting jobs, once interviewing Ernest Hemingway.

Perhaps his greatest coup was when he persuaded the businessman and philanthropist Charles Clore, who was organising a Soviet exhibition at Earl's Court, to invite the astronaut Yuri Gagarin to come to meet members of the foundry workers' union in 1961; Sprague had discovered that Gagarin had been a foundry worker before he went into space. The authorities tried hard to stop the astronaut from meeting the union members in Manchester, so Sprague and an associate sat down in front of the Lord Mayor's Rolls-Royce and Gagarin got out and addressed the workers. He even sang them a song.

In the first few months of 1976 he became editor of the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, developing the statement of intent which included the pledge "to campaign against racism wherever and whenever its poison is detected". But he was sacked peremptorily when he published a criticism of Israeli oppression of Palestinians.

In 1979 he was invited to join the panel of judges for an International Poster Competition held in Baghdad, as a result of which he was invited back by the Iraqi authorities to cover the Iran-Iraq war as a war artist. He accompanied an Iraqi regiment during an attack on the oil town of Abadan when it lost 582 men in a single day. He met Saddam Hussein and sketched him.

On his return he was criticised by many fellow Communists, whose Iraqi comrades had been slaughtered by Saddam (working from a list provided by the CIA when they helped him into power). But Sprague maintained he was documenting the brutality and senseless of a war that killed a million young men on either side.

In 1971, Sprague and his wife, Sheila, moved to a 13th-century farmhouse near Barnstaple, in north Devon, which he transformed into an arts centre. After Sheila's death, he met and married Marcia Karp, an American psychotherapist, and the couple set up and worked together in the Holwell International Centre for Psychodrama and Sociodrama, a project which collapsed when they discovered they should have been charging VAT to their clients and they were hit by a Customs and Excise bill for £40,000. They moved to a smaller house in Lynton, where they continued the work, but later divorced.

At the time of his death Sprague was no longer a member of the Communist Party, but he never lost the ideals which had inspired his work all his life. He once described his aim as "to build a picture road to socialism, to the Golden City or, as Blake called it, Jerusalem".

Karl Dallas



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