HELP IS BETTER THAN SYMPATHY is a rather curious slogan, as if the two were opposed. In most circumstances, Sympathy without Help is not much use, of course, but the slogan presumably means Help as well as Sympathy, please. And indeed, the phrase comes from a poster designed by Frank Brangwyn for the Belgian & Allies Aid League, at the outbreak of World War One, when refugees from the German invasion of Belgium arrived in Britain. “Will you help these sufferers from the war to start a new home”, it asks. “Help is better than sympathy.” Brangwyn was born in Belgium, so his sympathies were fully engaged.
The chief trigger for Britain’s war declaration in August 1914 was the violation of Belgian neutrality; otherwise, there seemed no urgent reason for British participation in the imminent conflict. But once the die was cast, four terrible years of almost innumerable deaths and futile hatred ensued, whose aftermath is still palpable a century on.
Brangwyn’s second career as a poster propagandist is examined in the latest exhibition at the William Morris Gallery - which he actually founded by bequeathing his collection to the local council in honour of Morris, who grew up there. As with other WWI commemorations this year, it’s a sobering display, with its monochrome visuals, Brangwyn’s heavy, angry, black graphic style and above all its subject. The ‘worst’ work, in the last sense, is his 1918 poster for War Bonds [surely extorted from a population who had already overpaid in more than money] urging a Final Push in the form of Tommy bayonetting Fritz face-to-face, with evil ferocity. It is said that even the War Bonds department thought this mistaken ardour. But so had Sympathy for Belgium transmuted into Violence towards Germany.
More details of the exhibition here: http://www.wmgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions-43/help-is-better-than-sympathy/