ICI: PORTRAITS OF AN INDUSTRY - PRESTIGE ADVERTISEMENTS
By Margaret Bear
Within these covers there are brought together, for the first time so far as I know, the portraits of a
representative selection of the people on whom one of the basic industries of Britain depends for the efficiency
of its production and for the research which is necessary to enable it to keep at least abreast, and often ahead
of the best that our overseas competitors can achieve (1).
Imperial Chemical Industries made advertising history during WW2 by conveying its
message not only on its own behalf but also on behalf of British artists. In an endeavour to
raise the prestige of British research and the British chemical industry throughout the world,
their public relations controller, Sidney Rogerson, obtained permission to adopt a different
approach to advertising.(2) To this end, fifty-six portraits of ICI employees were commissioned
by ICI from leading British artists between 1942-1944, for use in a nationwide newspaper
It was Rogerson’s contention that, as commercial advertising was unnecessary during the war,
it was important to develop a strategy to keep ICI’s profile high. Having been the largest
advertiser in the British trade press, rather than withdraw all advertising, he would use the
space to inform the public about the chemical industry itself. He would choose topics of
interest not commonly known, in order to communicate the uses of chemicals for
processing primary commodities. To achieve this goal, he devised a unique approach –
deliberately designed to escape convention – which he called ‘Prestige Advertising.’(3) The first in the series of three was Aspects of an Industry which appeared in the national
press July 1941- June 1942. This was immediately followed by Services of an Industry, July
1942 - August 1944, and finally the third, Portraits of an Industry, September 1944 - March
1946. Each had a different theme, but collectively served a similar purpose specific to the war
years. Between 1946 and 1950 there were three further series of prestige advertisements,
Equipment, Ancestors and Elements of an Industry; however this essay is confined to
Portraits of an Industry.
There were several layers of intent in the Portraits series. Lord McGowan stated that one of
the objects of these advertisements was ‘to show one half of the ICI family what the other
half looked like, what it did, and how its work affected the life of the community’.(4) More broadly, it
was aimed at informing the public of the sort of men and women employed by
the company and how their work ‘benefited the nation in health or wealth, in peace as in
war’. (5) To achieve this, the plan was to adorn the page on which the advertisement appeared
– not merely inform. Crucially, the commissions provided badly needed employment for
British artists. But the key objective was propaganda. It was a means to counter Germany’s
dominance in the field, pursuant to its military and scientific successes. Disseminating
information would help regain the prestige of British trade in overseas markets.(6)
As well-painted portraits were critical to the success of the advertisements, Rogerson wanted
‘men who were doing serious work without being fashionable’ to paint them.(7) To this end he
sought advice from Sir Kenneth Clark – Provisional Chairman of The Central Institute of Art
and Design (CIAD)(8), who provided a list of willing and available artists.(9) These included such
distinguished artists as Charles Cundall; William Dring; Eric Kennington; B. Fleetwood-Walker;
F. Ernest Jackson and Rupert Shephard, among the nineteen artists.
For each portrait, the artists were given a choice from six to ten people selected by
different ICI divisions, from which they were at liberty to chose their subject.(10)
Most of the
artists did several portraits, involving much travel around England, Scotland and Wales, as the
portraits were done on site. The media used included oil, watercolour, pastel drawings and
gouache. The artists were paid fifty pounds per portrait upon completion, plus expenses. Not
only did the artists benefit from the commissions, but the public was afforded fresh and
extensive contact with the arts.
Rogerson wanted portraits of typical men and women from the factories, workshops and
research laboratories around the country, illustrating ICI’s great diversity of products. It
was intended to heap praise and publicity on the unsung heroes of the war effort, who
received none of the plaudits given for instance to government workers filling the bombs.
The ICI workers performed the essential work without which there would be no explosives
to fit into shell cases or bombs.
The sitters, of whom eleven were women, varied in age from a war disabled man in his twenties
to some over seventy and everything between. Several due for retirement had volunteered
to stay on because their expertise was required during the war. Many had started work as
early as eleven years old and put in over fifty years on the job. In many instances, a specific
trade had been in a particular family for three or more generations, with all members of the
family on the job. One worker had a record of seven sons, one daughter, two grandsons, and
eleven nephews and nieces employed at the same time!
The resultant advertisements were intentionally not commercial in appearance, with
only the ICI rondel inserted in a corner. Besides the reproduction of the portrait,
they included some text with background information about each individual, plus a
description of their occupation at ICI. Collectively, they illustrate a wide range of workers
representing a huge diversity of labour, which involved salt, coal, limestone, plastics,
varnish, dyestuffs, paints, brass, leathercloth, industrial explosives, synthetic drugs, to
name but a few products. Management is represented along with research chemists,
medical staff and safety officers, but the majority of the portraits represent those doing
the essential labour, often very specialised craftsmen. Depicting what each individual was
doing was a means of showing appreciation, as well as conveying the importance of their
role and that of ICI. What particularly appealed to the public was best expressed by
Henry Rushbury, who, in his praise of the Portraits, remarked that ‘nobody before had
ever thought of drawing the common man in industry’. (11)
No longer confined to the trade press, the advertisements appeared in a wide variety of
newspapers and publications throughout Great Britain, including The Times, The Scotsman, The
Glasgow Herald, The Studio, Art and Industry and War Illustrated, among many others. In fact,
for five or more years, ‘pictures commissioned by ICI from painters of good standing have
appeared in the magazines of Britain and the Commonwealth, of Western Europe, the Middle
East and South America’. (12)
Because of the interest these portraits generated within and outside ICI, an exhibition was
held in London at the RBA Suffolk Street Galleries from 18th October to 9th November,
1946. It was organised with help from the CIAD and the New English Art Club. An illustrated
catalogue was published in association with the Arts Council of Great Britain – Portraits of
an Industry: An Exhibition of Paintings depicting the Personnel, Aspects, and Services of the
Chemical Industry. Sir Charles Tennyson stated that these advertisements had made advertising
history by carrying a message overseas, ‘not only on behalf of the British chemical industry,
but all British Art’. (13) So successful was the exhibition that it subsequently travelled around
England and Scotland over a period of two years, 1947-1948.
A glowing review in a Scottish newspaper described the exhibition as ‘most out of
ordinary’ largely because of the subjects being ‘ordinary working people ... some of whom
have the sweat of the day’s toil on their brows and grime on their hands ... which tells the
story of the British man-in- the-street’s inherent capacity for hard work.’ It went on to say,
‘It tells one aspect of our rough island story, and it leaves a message of rehability and sound
craftsmanship’. (14) Not all the press was as enthusiastic and the exhibition came under some criticism.
Kennington wrote that some questioned the employment of artistic power for and by a
large organisation and likened it to ‘half-way to State Patronage; and was that not the tomb
of aesthetics and freedom and the individuality of the soul?’ However, it is clear he was
quite dismissive of these criticisms, and elaborated on the many advantages the unusual
employment had provided, not least of all a sense of ‘worthwhileness’.(15) This ‘worthwhileness’ is best expressed in Jonathan Black’s book, The Face of Courage: Eric
Kennington, Portraiture and the Second World War, in which he records Kennington’s
response to his involvement in the ICI project. In a letter to his daughter, Kennington wrote,
‘I love people, and people and more people, ... it’s all fascinating .... The salt works had been
going on ever since the Romans were here and perhaps before .... You see, I’m really learning
something about my own country and my own race.’ His portrait of Oswald Carter was done
deep inside a salt mine.(16) In other correspondence concerning an artist, we read of Jackson’s enjoyment in doing four
ICI portraits at different factories which Pamela Ovens considered ‘superb’,(17) but also how
angered he was over those badly reproduced.(18) As a token of appreciation, all the subjects were presented with their portraits in 1949.
Rogerson hoped the beneficiaries would appreciate good art, but, always with an eye to
publicity, he saw the benefits of permanent publicity for ICI. The sitters were also each given
a copy of the book produced by Clifford Martin in 1947, containing colour reproductions
of all 56 portraits with their accompanying text. Due to paper shortage, this volume was
produced in limited edition – enough only for each subject and artist to receive a copy. (19)
In 1949 ICI gave a dinner at the Dorchester Hotel to pay tribute to all those artists –
over thirty in number – who contributed to all the Prestige Advertisements during the war.
In response, both the President of the RA, Sir Alfred Munnings, and Henry Rushbury paid
tribute to the lead given by ICI in supporting British artists and allowing them freedom of
choice in the matter of their subjects. Rushbury further noted that it was unique in the annals
of art patronage for so many portraits to be commissioned at one time, and likened ICI’s
policy to that of the Medicis of old. (20)
As Sir Charles Tennyson wrote in the foreword to the exhibition catalogue for Portraits of an
Industry, ‘the application of art to advertisement by this company ranks high among the many
notable developments in the relation of the arts to the public that have taken place during recent
E N D N O T E S
1 Lord McGowan, in his foreword to the book, ICI: Portraits of an Industry, Lund Humphries & Co.Ltd., London,
1947. McGowan was Chairman of ICI from 1930-1950.
2 Sidney Rogerson joined ICI in 1930; promoted to Publicity Controller 1932-1952.
3 Rogerson papers, Imperial War Museum archive.
4 McGowan, op. cit.
5 McGowan, op. cit.
6 Among Rogerson’s books published was Propaganda in the Next War, 1938. It was a matter on which he placed
much importance post WW1 and which greatly influenced his decisions.
7 Rogerson papers, IWM archives.
8 The CIAD was initiated in 1939 in order to form a central, representative body to meet the serious economic
position with which artists, craftsmen and designers were faced at the outbreak of the war. The provisional
committee included Sir Kenneth Clark, Sir Charles Tennyson ( who succeeded Clark as Chair) and Thomas A.
Fennemore ( Honorary Secretary) who all assisted and supported the ICI Portraits project.
9 Letters from Rogerson to Clark, 16 November, 1943, and 15 March 1944, Kenneth Clark archives – Tate.
10 Rogerson papers, IWM archives.
11 The ICI Magazine, July 1949 p.155. Henry Rushbury was an eminent artist who was elected Keeper of the Royal
Academy and Head of the Royal Academy Schools in 1949.
12 The Manchester Guardian, 16 October 1946 – which described ICI’s unique approach to advertising starting
13 The I.C.I. Magazine, January 1947 p 23.
14 Arbroath Herald and Advertiser,16 July 1948.
15 Eric Kennington, ‘Portrait of an Industry’, Art and Industry, March 1947, pp. 76-79.
16 Jonathan Black, The Face of Courage: Eric Kennington, Portraiture and the Second World War, Philip Wilson
Publishers Ltd, London, UK. 2011. p 133-137.
17 Letters from Pamela Ovens to Patrick Phillips, August 1944 and March 1945, private collection. Ovens was
Jackson’s secretary at the Byam Shaw School of Art. Phillips had been both a student and teacher there.
18 Jackson was angry about the poor reproduction of his work and complained to Clark that his portrait of Albert
Roberts had been cropped in The Times without his knowledge or permission. (See illustration p 233 versus
the uncropped original on p 230) In a letter to Rogerson 6 March 1945, Clark wrote; “It is worth remembering
that every time these things happen, it will become more difficult to get first rate artists to work for you”.
Clark archive – Tate.
19 Aberdeen Journal, 13 May 1947.
20 Henry Rushbury, ‘Industry as patron of the Arts’, The I.C.I. Magazine, July 1949, pp 170-175.
Margaret Bear has been researching her grandfather’s (F. Ernest Jackson) life and works for some years now. Intent on
finding the four portraits he painted for the ICI Portraits series, she was led to examine the nature of the ICI project itself.
This obscure piece of art history is documented for the first time in this publication.
There is currently an ongoing search for these portraits which is difficult as they are largely in private ownership. To date
seven have been located, two of which are in public collections. One of these is the portrait of William Tyler by F. Ernest
Jackson at the Catalyst – Science Discovery Centre in Cheshire. The other is the portrait of Lily Brookes by William Dring
at the Weaver Hall Museum in Northwick.
For further information please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are grateful to Margaret Bear for granting us permission to copy her text.