Obituary: Maurice Rickards

THE WORD ephemera, apart from in its entomological sense, is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as "lasting only for a day". It was Maurice Rickards who first articulated the definition now accepted by ephemerists the world over as "the minor transient documents of everyday life".

Rickards was not the first to recognise such fugitive material as the very stuff of printing, typographical and social history. Distinguished forerunners had included Samuel Pepys, whose scrapbook volumes of Vulgaria are preserved at his Alma Mater, Magdalene College, Cambridge; John Johnson, Printer to Oxford University, whose immense collection of printed ephemera is preserved at the Bodleian Library; and John Lewis of the Royal College of Art, author of the first major work in the field, Printed Ephemera (1962).

But it was Rickards who identified the need to elevate the study of ephemera into an academic discipline and, moreover, to bring together people who held in common a passionate interest in the forgotten byways of history. The seed of what was to become a world-wide movement of collectors, archivists, curators, bibliographers, typographers and scholars, as well as habitues of flea markets in anoraks, was sown in Rickards's basement studio in Fitzroy Square, London, in 1975. There eight enthusiasts, including John Lewis, met to discuss the formation of an ephemera society.

The Ephemera Society held its inaugural event later that year with an exhibition, "This is Ephemera", held at Wiggins Teape's showrooms in Soho. It comprised highlights from the collections of the eight founder members, ranging from a first-class ticket for the maiden voyage of the Titanic to a souvenir printed on the frozen Thames at the Frost Fair of 1740 in honour of Hogarth's dog Trump, from the first issue of Punch to a prostitute's calling card of the 1860s. It was generally acknowledged that the choicest items emanated from the Maurice Rickards Collection.

The exhibition attracted widespread attention and membership grew apace, not only in Britain but from as far afield as Iceland, Singapore, Latvia, New Zealand, Venezuela and Kenya. Under the energetic chairmanship of Rickards, and the benign presidency of Sir John Betjeman, the society catered for a wide spectrum of interests.

Some were simply accumulators of the debris of the past, to whom a complete collection of Express Dairy milk-bottle tops was the elixir of life; others, like the comedian Roy Hudd or the novelist Len Deighton, collected as a means of illuminating their specialist interests (theatrical history and airships respectively); while social historians like Asa Briggs, the society's present President, saw ephemera as significant primary source material.

All were welcomed without distinction by Rickards, though he did assert his own stand- point on ephemera: it was valuable, he often declared, as evidence - ephemera was evidence from the past of otherwise unrecorded aspects of daily life. To Rickards an 18th- century laundry list conveyed evidence as valuable as a Royal Proclamation.

Maurice Rickards was born Maurice George Mansbridge at Twickenham in 1919. His interests and conversation being centred on anything but himself, even his closest intimates were unaware that Rickards was not the name on his birth certificate. His father, an electrical engineer, had deserted the family when the boy was four years old.

The young Rickards was brought up in Kilburn by his mother, of East European and part gypsy origin, and his stepfather, George Rickards, an ardent socialist who had led an adventurous life in Africa before establishing a business in Wembley manufacturing enamel kitchenware under the name "Easikleen". Rickards junior absorbed his stepfather's political principles, selling the Daily Worker on Kilburn Bridge while still in short trousers.

Maurice Rickards's interest in ephemera began as a strictly commercial endeavour while he was at Marylebone Grammar School. He designed a poster during Latin classes which he sold to a local grocer. Thereafter he supplemented his irregular packet money by producing showcards and notices for other tradesmen in the area. At the age of 16 he entered Westminster Art School, but left early to train as a photographer. The eminent portrait studio he selected for an introduction to this career was persuaded to take Rickards on when he offered to pay them 7s 6d a week and perform whatever services they decreed. These consisted, he admitted ruefully in later years, mainly of sweeping floors.

As a Conscientious Objector, Rickards spent the years of the Second World War engaged in agricultural work in the West Country and social work in the East End. He then set up his own photographic and design studio in Loudoun Mews, St John's Wood, his first important commission being the programme for the London Olympiad of 1948. Moving to Duke Street, Soho, in the 1950s, he established a reputation for his promotion of humanitarian organisations, including the London Missionary Society, the YMCA, the National Institute for the Blind and Save the Children Fund.

His influence with his clients extended beyond design. Rickards was instrumental in securing the coveted "Royal" as prefix to the Society for the Prevention of Accidents (Rospa). It was also he who persuaded the British Council of Churches Department of Inter-Church Aid & Refugee Service to change its name to the catchier Christian Aid. Less successful was his attempt to change the Department for National Savings to NatSave.

With his heart invariably in the right place, Rickards was nevertheless capable of stirring up controversy. Of all the graphic arts he most esteemed the poster, about which he wrote a number of important works. In 1955 he designed a series of three posters with the slogan "Road Safety MATTERS". The innocuous strap-line was run over visuals portraying, respectively, a woman collapsed over a telephone, a one-legged boy on crutches, and a little girl road casualty in the arms of a policeman. Each was formally banned by various local authorities. Where displayed they were subject to defacement, obliteration and harsh letters to editors and local MPs.

Rickards's studio was a haven for free spirits. Having scant regard for formal art-school training, he recruited his staff from the local Labour Exchange and trained them up to his own highly exacting standards. When work was slack the staff repaired to Regent's Park to fly kites under Rickards's tutelage; there were also impromptu games of volleyball in the studio played with rolled-up balls of Sellotape.

It was wholly characteristic of Maurice Rickards that when he decided to abandon design and photography in 1970 for a career of authorship he told the staff that the business was now theirs to do with what they would. In his basement flat in Fitzroy Square he produced a succession of works on ephemera which contributed much to scholarship but little to his pocket. While the basement contained a huge collection of books, including a 100-year run of the Times, there was little in the way of creature comforts. He slept on six chairs, facing each other in threes so that he would not fall on the floor.

It was here, with the chairs occupied more conventionally, that not only the society but the world-wide ephemera movement had its genesis. The early Ephemera Society had a large number of American members. In 1980, with Rickards's blessing, they seceded to become the Ephemera Society of America Inc. He subsequently lent his active support to the setting up of ephemera societies in Canada, Australia, Austria/Germany and Norway. The Norwegians started with a dedication to sardine-can labels but were persuaded by Rickards to expand their horizons.

Unable to secure charitable status for the Ephemera Society, Rickards established the Foundation for Ephemera Studies to encourage the serious study of ephemera. The first fruit of this initiative was the establishment of the Centre for Ephemera Studies at Reading University in 1993. Founded under the direction of Professor Michael Twyman, the centre has as its aims the creation of a full register of ephemera collections, the standardisation of cataloguing methods, and the promotion of ephemera studies in an academic context. In pursuit of the latter objective it was decided to set up an archive of ephemera which would merit international attention: the first acquisition was the Maurice Rickards Collection.

In 1977 Rickards embarked on The Encyclopaedia of Ephemera. More than 20 years on this monumental work remains uncompleted. The Ephemera Society is now engaged in filling the gaps in order to see the book through to publication. It will stand, they believe, as a testament to Maurice Rickards's lifelong aspiration that ephemera should be recognised for its power to invoke the past and reveal historical truth.

Maurice George Mansbridge (Maurice Rickards), designer, photographer, writer and ephemerist: born Twickenham, Middlesex 11 August 1919; Chairman, Ephemera Society 1975-86, Vice-President 1986-98; married 1946 Yolanda Martelli (marriage dissolved); died London 11 February 1998.

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