It is perhaps history’s most famous pointing finger.
The image of British war minister Lord Kitchener’s index finger unsettlingly aimed at the viewer remains immediately recognisable 100 years after its design. Still regularly copied in advertising, it has also served as a satirical motif in the media and inspired military recruitment campaigns across the globe.
Most people assume this image owes its fame to a government recruiting campaign during World War One.
But of the estimated 5.7 million official posters printed in the UK from 1914-18, as few as 10,000 copies of this particular image were made.
It was initially intended only as a front cover design for the London Opinion magazine on 5 September 1914, created by professional illustrator Alfred Leete, supposedly in a single day. The cover bore the message “Your Country Needs You”.
The slogan was then slightly tweaked to simply “Wants You” and the image was privately produced as a poster shortly afterwards. But there is little photographic evidence of it on display in public places and only a handful of original copies survive today.
The authorities had already anticipated that an image of Kitchener – immensely popular with the public and seen as a great symbol of army and empire – would be good for recruiting.
But in the first instance the official Parliamentary Recruitment Committee poster used a completely different and far less dramatic image of the field marshal. It was next to a rather uninspiring quote from one of his speeches: “Men, materials & money are the immediate necessities. Does the call of duty find no response in you until reinforced – let us rather say superseded – by the call of compulsion? Enlist today.”
With a print-run potentially 15 times that of the poster based on Leete’s image, it was given the resources and prominence to be remembered above all others, but is now largely forgotten.
So why, almost 100 years on, does Leete’s design retain such potency?
“Among the myriad of images pushed towards us each day, that of Kitchener pointing is an instantly recognisable symbol of World War One,” says the Museum of Brands founder Robert Opie. “Television programmes have used the poster in advertising campaigns to immediately establish that the show is set at the time of the Great War.”
Its longevity, he adds, is also a result of Leete’s powerful design with “Lord Kitchener’s eyes following you round the room like the Mona Lisa”.
Leete’s illustration carefully manipulates Kitchener’s actual appearance. Firstly, his squint – clearly visible in the official, long-winded poster – is corrected. His moustache was darkened and widened. The design is probably based on a photograph taken some 30 years earlier, as by the start of the war, Kitchener was 64.
Kitchener’s hand gesture is equally provocative in its directness. “Pointing is individualistic, it singles out one person alone,” says University of Hertfordshire psychology professor Karen Pine. “This makes you more engaged and places you under an obligation to respond.”
The illustrator’s work also compared favourably with official recruitment posters of the time. As Richard Slocombe, senior curator of art at the Imperial War Museum, explains: “Poster design was a very mechanical process with little finesse. A large number solely used words.”
In contrast, Leete was a renowned cartoonist “who knew how to connect with the wider public through his work and understood the importance of simplicity”.
Those four words, “Your Country Needs You”, also proved effective. “They evoke patriotism and guilt in those yet to enlist without straying as far as emotional blackmail,” says the National Army Museum’s David Bownes, co-author of Posters of the First World War.
The success of the image has arguably enabled it to transcend the legacy of Lord Kitchener himself. Leete’s design has been copied by military recruitment campaigns from India to Canada to Germany. Four million copies of James Montgomery Flagg’s Uncle Sam poster were printed by the US during WW1. Indeed, the image still features in the country’s recruitment drives today.
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