SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 150 - July/August 2011

The red flag’s flying here

On the March: banners by Ed Hall

People’s History Museum, Left Bank, Manchester

To 30 October 2011, 10am to 5pm

Reviewed by Paul Gerrard

THESE ARE the banners you have marched behind, but you might not know who designed and made them. This exhibition is a selection of over 400 banners that Ed Hall has created for trade union and other campaigning organisations since the early 1980s, and this is the first solo exhibition of his work.

On display are regional and branch banners of major trade unions, like Unison, RMT, CWU, PCS, and trades councils too. There are campaign banners from organisations like Stop the War, Abortion Rights and the Construction Safety Campaign. There is also a moving series of banners commissioned by the families of those who died in custody or were victims of police violence, amongst them Brian Douglas, Sarah Thomas, Roger Sylvester, and Jean Charles de Menezes.

Hall trained as an architect and worked for Lambeth council at a time in the 1980s when that council was defying the Tory government over cuts and rate-capping. He was drawn into trade union activity as a Nalgo convenor and later branch secretary, and used his graphic skills to design many of the posters which the branch used to publicise strikes, mass meetings and fund-raisers. More and more trade unions commissioned banners from him and eventually this became his full-time job. He makes banners from start to finish, designing, cutting and stitching, even supplying the poles, and the bag to keep them in.

In a video accompanying the exhibition, Hall relates his work to a long tradition of popular banner-making, from religious processions to fairground stalls. In some of his banners there is clear influence from William Morris and the Art and Crafts movement of the late 19th century, as well as the huge, classically-inspired union banners of the 1920s. But the overwhelming impression is fresh, modern and distinctive.

Hall frequently juxtaposes rich, deep, contrasting primary colours. Sometimes these can be quite sober – after all, demonstrating is a serious business. Crimson, olive green, yellow ochre and deep sky blue predominate, occasionally relieved by white or black, silver or gold. Symmetrical design is also a powerful feature: the magnificent Manchester and North West RMT banner (2005) depicts Manchester’s Peterloo massacre of 1819 with a central speakers’ platform and cavalry, with sabres drawn, attacking the crowd from both sides.

A strong sense of place, achieved through the depiction of highly recognisable public buildings, reminds the visitor of Hall’s training as an architect. A striking example is the Eastern Region CWU banner (2010) which incorporates the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford, Ely Cathedral and the Milton Keynes Gallery. Finally, Hall uses simple, clear, contemporary fonts for names, titles and slogans: there is no mistaking who is carrying these banners and why.

It feels strange to see so many banners hanging lifelessly, instead of swaying above the crowd, and the museum recognises this by including in the wall label a photo of each banner in action, ‘on the march’. Several are suspended from the ceiling in the engine hall so that the visitor has to look up to see them, before being drawn into the main part of the exhibition and its showcases. But the advantage of this display is that closer examination enables an appreciation of the extraordinary pictorial and graphic skills deployed. It also shows our movement at its best: proud of its fighting traditions, united in struggle, and seeking to change society.

The exhibition is sponsored by the RMT, for whose branches and regions Hall has made over 60 banners. The RMT has made a 15-minute film about Hall’s relationship with the union and his banner-making methods. It has footage of the RMT delegation on March 26 and can be viewed at the exhibition or on YouTube

The exhibition will still be running on the day of the demonstration (5 October) in Manchester against the Tory party conference. If you have the chance to visit on that or any other day, don’t miss it.

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