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The York Man who designed iconic posters of the First World War

Two of the most iconic posters of the First World War which were created by a man from York have been loaned to York Castle Museum for its major new exhibition on the conflict.

Captain Harry Lawrence Oakley was one of the most talented and prolific silhouette artists of the twentieth century who created recruitment posters used not only across Britain, but in Australia, South Africa and Canada.

He was born and educated in York and served with the Green Howards throughout the war.

His Great Nephew, Jerry Rendell, has kindly loaned Oakley’s most famous two works – the “Think” and “Remember” posters – to the museum for its new exhibition 1914: When the World Changed Forever, which opens on June 28.

Rob Wake, collections facilitator for York Castle Museum, said: “We are delighted to be able to include these posters in our exhibition and tell the story of this incredible man from York. His style of work is now synonymous with the First World War, with his many works capturing the many different aspects of the conflict – from famous officers to the men in the trenches. But it is his recruitment posters for which he is most well known and we are really pleased to be able to include examples of these in the exhibition – and the actual ones that Oakley kept as his own.”

Mr Rendell is the author of Profiles of the First World War: The Silhouettes of Captain H.L Oakley which is out now.

He said: “Captain Oakley would be very proud if he could see his posters returning to York for this exhibition.

“He designed the Think poster in collaboration with the North Eastern Railway company in York and it was used on stations all over their network.

It then became an official war poster and was used throughout Britain, and in Australia and Canada as well. Oakley’s figure of the advancing soldier became an iconic image and was adapted and used in many forms.

His work was popular during his lifetime but was never highly regarded by the critics – so he would be pleased to see that it is now getting the recognition it deserves.”

Oakley was born in Poppleton in 1882, the son of chemist who opened shops on Coney Street and Fulford Road. He showed talent for drawing and silhouette cutting from an early age and went on to study art at York School of Science and Art, Leeds School of Art and then the Royal College of Art in London where he was awarded the ARCA diploma in 1908.

In 1913 an exhibition of his work was held in the Assembly Rooms in York and he held summer studios in Harrogate and Scarborough before he enlisted in 1914.

It was while waiting to start training that he designed one of his most famous works, the “Think” recruitment poster for which he was paid five guineas.

The poster was a huge success and used throughout Britain as well as in Australia and Canada (with different wording).

The success of this poster led to further commissions, including the “Remember” poster which was used to recruit men for the Royal Navy.

By this time he was a private soldier doing his training and would have been earning a shilling a day. The two posters made his name as an artist, and opened the way to have his work published throughout the war.

Despite Oakley’s fame, he was determined to play his part in fighting for his country and after his training joined the 8th Green Howards in May 1915.

But he continued throughout his military career to create silhouettes of the front, capturing the imagination of those back home and his illustrations became a regular feature alongside the famous cartoonists of the day in ‘The Bystander’ magazine. These quirky, charming and powerful silhouettes show life on the frontline during the Great War in a whole new light.

After the war Oakley resumed his old routine of working in resort towns during the summer and in London or Edinburgh during the winter.

As well as cutting more than 100,000 portraits he did advertisements for the LNER and many other large companies.

The Think and Remember posters have been loaned to the museum for the new exhibition 1914: When the World Changed Forever, which will open on June 28 – 100 years to the day the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and the fuse for war was lit.

The exhibition will take visitors from the recruitment office to the horrors of the frontline – from the Zepplin raids at home to the thousands of men defending countries they had never stepped foot in.

New technology will be combined with the museum’s extensive military, costume and social history collections, including many fascinating objects which have not been on public display before.