Lewitt-Him by Dr Paul Rennie
In 1952, an exhibition of English graphic design 8 englantilaista mainospiirtäjää held in Helsinki, Finland, showed the work of eight designers. Amongst the eight were Hans Schleger (called Zero); F.H.K. Henrion; and the design partnership of Jan Lewitt and George Him (called Lewitt-Him). None of these designers were originally from England. Each had arrived during the 1930s and had been able to contribute to the development of modern communication design in Britain.
These émigré designers, arriving from beyond the cosy world of railway posters and commercial art, were able to align British design with the direction of continental developments in communication design and to extend the scope of visual culture beyond simple advertising.
The Polish colleagues, Lewitt and Him, made a fresh and lively contribution to Anglo-Polish cultural exchange.
Jan Lewitt and George Him had arrived in Britain during 1937. Their first contact with design in Britain had been through the offices of the printers and later publishers, Lund Humphries, in Bedford Square. The printing offices provided a studio for the American designer, Edward McKnight Kauffer, who was appointed design director of the firm, and also provided a gallery space for exhibitions of graphic work and photography. During the later 1930s, the offices and gallery at Lund Humphries became the first-port-of-call in London for many designers.
Under the direction of Peter Gregory, the Bradford-based printers had positioned themselves at the forefront of technical developments in printing and graphic design in Britain, and had sought to distinguish themselves from the prevailing traditionalism of much of the British print economy.
In practical terms, this was expressed in their editing and publishing of the Penrose Annual, and in the development of high-quality machine-printing of photography.
George Him was born in Łódź in 1900. Originally, Jerzy Himmelfarb, his studies were peripatetic in view of the various upheavals of WWI, the Russian Revolution, and the hiatus that followed. After stages in Warsaw, Moscow and Bonn he studied graphic design at the Leipzig Academy of Graphic Art. In 1933 he returned to Warsaw, adopted his new name and formed the creative partnership with Jan Lewitt.
Jan Lewitt had come from a Jewish family in southern Poland. Like George Him, he travelled for several years before beginning his career as a self-taught artist and illustrator.
A chance meeting in a Warsaw café provided the beginning of the Lewitt-Him design partnership. In the course of their first conversation Lewitt and Him discovered that they shared the same interest and values in design.
They worked in a partnership distinguished by a wish to combine elements of modern art, from cubism to surrealism, and leavened with humour and wit. Their creative relationship was also built on the friendly, if sometimes heated, discussion of ideas. The partnership lasted until 1955.
In the mid-1930s, Lewitt and Him were commissioned by the Polish publishers, Przeworski, to produce illustrations for three poems by the poet and satirist, Julian Tuwim. These were published together in book form, called Lokomotywa (1937). This book was also published in Germany, in France by Arts et Métiers Graphiques in Paris, and in London as Locomotive (by Minerva Publishing Co. in 1939, and Thames & Hudson in 2017). The association between Lewitt-Him and Tuwim was quickly recognised as a classic example of progressive children’s book design in Europe. The link with the design press, evident in the association with Arts et Métiers Graphiques, brought Lewitt-Him to the attention of Philip James at the Victoria and Albert Museum and to Peter Gregory at Lund Humphries. These two, senior figures in British print culture were able to facilitate Lewitt-Him coming to Britain.
French edition of Locomotive with Lewitt-Him illustrations published by Arts et Métiers Graphiques in Paris, Paul and Karen Rennie Collection
English edition of Locomotive with Lewitt-Him illustrations published by Thames & Hudson, 2017
The arrival of Lewitt-Him in Britain was well-timed. One of the slightly unexpected aspects of WWII was that the context of war provided the circumstances for a publishing boom. The general background of the war is usually presented in relation to austerity and rationing, but the war also provided a ready audience for books of all sorts. Publishers who had built up stocks of paper were able to profit. The best-known example of this is the paperback publisher Penguin. Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, had identified a market for intelligent mass-produced and inexpensive paperback books. The war, and all the attendant waiting and train travel, provided the circumstances in which many more people read, and more widely. Allen Lane and Penguin led the way, but a whole host of publishers followed.
In addition to the increased interest in reading, the circumstances of war also provided for a change in the types of books and in the wider visual print culture of Britain. The lead time for production became shorter and the books included much more visual graphic and illustrated material, whether of images or diagrams. It was into this moment that Lewitt-Him arrived.
In the course of the 1940s, Lewitt-Him illustrated a number of books for children, and designed magazine covers and other graphic material for publishers.
In 1940, Lewitt-Him designed the cover, maps and line drawings for a small pamphlet, published by MI Koln, giving useful information for Poles arriving in London, and with the title, Informator dla Polaków w Anglii: Handbook for Poles in England.
Their best-known illustrated work is probably that for The Little Red Engine by Diana Ross for Faber publishers in 1940. The printers for Faber are not listed, but the illustrations appear to be printed in colour using acetate-sheet offset-litho. In 1943, they worked with Faber, again, to produce Blue Peter, and with the Sylvan Press in 1944 for the publication of The Football’s Revolt.
The Little Red Engine by Diana Ross for Faber publishers, illustrated by Lewitt-Him, 1940, Paul and Karen Rennie Collection
Blue Peter for Faber publishers, illustrated by Lewitt-Him, 1943, Paul and Karen Rennie Collection
The Football’s Revolt for the Sylvan Press, illustrated by Lewitt-Him, 1944, Paul and Karen Rennie Collection
The acceleration of image culture evident in book publishing was even more pronounced in relation to the posters produced in the context of the late 1930s and WWII. The period before the war is widely recognised as a golden age of poster advertising with a number of important organisations acting as patrons. The most important of these were London Transport and the General Post Office. Lewitt-Him were almost immediately commissioned to contribute posters to these wide-ranging campaigns of public information.
When the home front began to demand more urgent communications, Lewitt-Him were again able to secure commissions from the Ministry of Information and other Government agencies.
Lewitt-Him’s designs for the General Post Office, Paul and Karen Rennie Collection
Lewitt-Him’s designs for the General Post Office, Paul and Karen Rennie Collection
In addition to their flat-work, Lewitt-Him also played an important part in articulating the idealistic post-war vision for the rebuilding of Britain that was expressed through the Festival of Britain (1951) and, before that, in the Britain can Make it (1947) exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The Festival style promoted a form of light-hearted and progressive modernism that integrated art, architecture, and design into a coherent experience. The appeal to light-heartedness, visible in Lewitt-Him’s use of surrealistic association and humour in their illustration became a defining characteristic of the Festival style.
The critical response to the Festival style was to diminish its simple sophistication and human scale through the term whimsy, and to contrast it unfavourably with the larger-scaled schemes of American 1950s culture and European post-war rebuilding.
Nowadays, the benign intelligence of mid-century British modernity is seen as increasingly appealing. Jan Lewitt and George Him played an important role in developing this style through their art work and design.
Folkestone, 8 October 2022
All illustrations courtesy of Paul and Karen Rennie Collection
Informator dla Polaków w Anglii: Handbook for Poles in London, 1940, MI Koln, London
8 englantilaista mainospiirtäjää, 1952, Helsinki
La Locomotive, Le Navet, La Radio des Oiseaux, 1937, inscribed 1942, Arts et Métiers Graphiques, Paris
The Little Red Engine gets a Name, ND 1942, Faber, London
Blue Peter, 1943, Faber, London
The Football’s Revolt, 1944, Sylvan, London
The Vegetabull, 1956, Harcour Brace & CO, NYC
Dr Paul Rennie is a poster enthusiast and collector of modern British posters from the 20th century. He is the curator, along with Karen, of Rennies Seaside Modern, in Folkestone. A gallery and shop that presents objects from the past in new and exciting ways…
Paul has written about the history of graphic communication in Britain. His most recent book is about the graphic designer, Tom Eckersley, and was published by Batsford in 2021.
Paul has previously written about poster design in Britain; the Festival of Britain (1951); the cultural history of the seaside; and about the poster campaigns of the General Post Office (GPO); and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA). Paul is a Graphic Communication Design Practices tutor in Contexts, at Central Saint Martins, part of the University of the Arts London. Paul also teaches in visual communication at The Margate School.