Poster Boy: Alfred Leete

Mark Bryant looks at the artist behind one of the most iconic images of the 20th century.

Variation of Leete's poster of 1914
Variation of Leete's poster of 1914

Though a contemporary of such well-known graphic artists as David Low, 'Fougasse', Heath Robinson and H.M. Bateman, the cartoonist Alfred Leete is not widely known today. Yet one of his drawings, originally a cover illustration for the now long-forgotten penny weekly magazine London Opinion, remains one of the most famous posters of all time. For Alfred Leete was the designer of the celebrated and much imitated First World War recruiting poster 'Your Country Needs YOU', featuring Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War and his dramatic pointing finger.

Alfred Ambrose Chew Leete was born on August 28th, 1882, in Thorpe Achurch, Northamptonshire, the eldest of the six children of John Leete, a farmer, and his wife Harriet. Due to ill health, his father gave up farming and in 1893 the family moved to the seaside resort of Weston-super-Mare, near Bristol, where his parents set up and ran a boarding-house and hotel business.

Educated at Kingsholme School, Weston-superMare and the Weston School of Science and Art, Alfred left at the age of 12 to work as an office boy in a Bristol surveyor's office. His first cartoon was accepted by the Daily Graphic (which paid him 2s. 6d.) at the age of 16 and before long he began to contribute regular drawings (including covers) to the Bristol Magpie, signing his work 'AV. Encouraged by this, he moved to London where he worked as a draughtsman for a furniture company and later for a lithographer in the City.

Before long he was selling cartoons to Ally Sloper's Half-Holiday, London Opinion and PickMe-Up (which ran his series 'Play Titles Travestied' for eight years), as well as the Pall Mall Gazette, Bystander, Sketch and Passing Show, by now signing his work 'ALFRED LEETE' in two lines with a long tail on the T. His first cartoon for Punch was published on November 22nd, 1905 (his last appeared on October 28th, 1931) and by the time Leete was 30 he was an established artist, represented by the agent A. E. Johnson and with friends such as Heath Robinson and John Hassall.

In 1914 he created the popular 'Schmidt the Spy' series for London Opinion which was published as a book the following year and turned into a film in April 1916 by Phoenix Films with Lewis Sydney playing the bumbling, bespectacled German spy, Schmidt. During the war, Leete also published another book, The Worries of Wilhelm (1916) and illustrated All the Rumours (1916) and The Bosch Book (1916) by Reginald Arkell. He later enlisted in the army himself and served in France with the Artists' Rifles.

Leete's most famous drawing first appeared on the front cover of London Opinion on September 5th, 1914, almost exactly a month after the outbreak of the First World War. By this time the original British Expeditionary Force of 100,000 men was suffering major casualties on the Western Front and fresh troops were needed. As Britain did not have conscription at that time (the only country in Europe which did not), the British War Secretary, Lord Kitchener - the hero of Khartoum - asked the public for a further 100,000 volunteers. However, such was the degree of British patriotism, spurred on by Leete's poster, that huge numbers applied (500,000 in the first month alone). By August 1915 the all-party Parliamentary Recruiting Committee had distributed 54 million recruiting posters of various kinds and, though 130 official designs had been published before conscription was introduced in May 1916, the most effective of these was Leete's Kitchener image.

In Leete's original drawing for London Opinion, the portrait of Kitchener was printed above the text Your Country Needs YOU'. The word 'YOU' was in large type (larger even than the magazine's title) and the cover designer made the most of the opportunity by adding two other lines stressing the same word: 'This paper insures you to £1000' (above Leete's drawing) and '50 Photographs of YOU for a Shilling' (below it). When turned into a government recruit-ing poster the text was altered somewhat. The heading, in even larger red type, was 'BRITONS' followed, rebus picture-riddle style, by Kitchener's head, neck, right arm and hand and the handwritten words 'Wants YOU'. Beneath, in two lines of red type, were 'JOIN YOUR COUNTRYS ARMY!' and GOD SAVE THE KING'. This final line was added as Kitchener insisted that all advertising for the army should end with these words.

The poster design was later copied in 1917 by the American artist James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) with Uncle Sam - the artist's self-portrait - replacing Kitchener and there were numerous other British and international variations. Among these were 'Who's Absent? Is it YOU?' (featuring a pointing John Bull wearing a Union Flag waistcoat), an Italian war bonds poster ('Do Your Duty, All of You!', 1917) with a pointing Italian soldier and similarly styled German and Hungarian posters for recruitment into their own armies. In the 1920s the design was taken up by the Soviet Russian cooperatives movement with a bearded farmer asking 'Are You a Member of the Cooperatives Yet? Join Now!' (1923).

After the war, Leete continued to draw cartoons for magazines and also produced seaside postcards and two books, A Book of Dragons (1931) and The Work of a 'ictorial Comedian (1936). In addition he designed many advertisements for clients including London Underground, Bovril, Ronuk Polish, Pratt's Petrol and Connolly Leather. He also created the famous bearded, top-hatted and bespectacled 'Father William' character for the brewers William Younger & Co. (originally introduced with the caption 'Oi be 101 and getting 'Younger" every day') and 'Mr York of York, Yorks', star of the first British animated film commereiai with sound, for Rowntree's Chocolate.

Alfred Leete died at his home in Pembroke Square, West Kensington, London, on June 17th, 1933. However, the legacy of his most celebrated design continued long after his death and drawings based on his original appear to this day. During the Second World War a poster by Bill Little used Leete's basic concept but with a bow-tied Winston Churchill pointing, and the text 'Deserve Victory!'. The idea has also been used for anti-war posters. For example, during the Vietnam War one variant had a hole torn in the centre of the Flagg design to reveal Death as a skeleton (seemingly wearing Uncle Sam's top hat from the poster and with the left poster eye remaining) and not pointing with its right index finger but beckoning grimly with its bony left hand.

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