Sketch of nuclear disarmament symbol by Gerald Holtom (courtesy Commonweal Collection, University of Bradford)

The peace symbol is so ubiquitous as a visual of protest and activism, including in the current anti-Trump administration demonstrations, that its creation by an artist in the 1950s is often overlooked. Back in 1958, British artist Gerald Holtom designed the symbol for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) on the occasion of its first major march. This March, Holtom’s sketches for the symbol will have a rare public showing in People Power: Fighting for Peace at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London.

Peace sign badges (courtesy Ernest Rodker, © Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), via IWM London)

“As far as I know, the originals have never been displayed in an exhibition of this kind in a national museum blockbuster setting,” Alison Cullingford, special collections librarian at the University of Bradford in the UK, told Hyperallergic. Cullingford recently shared Holtom’s art in a blog post for the university’s Commonweal Library.

“The sketches belonged to peace activist and Peace News editor Hugh Brock, and came to the Commonweal Library after his death along with his papers,” Cullingford explained. “Commonweal is an independent peace library based at the University of Bradford, thanks to its Peace Studies department. Commonweal people were very much part of the ND [Nuclear Disarmament] movement here in the late 50s and early 60s, and Commonweal acquired many archives from such activists.”

The “N” and “D” semaphore signals that inspired the lines of the peace signs (via Wikimedia)

Holtom was inspired by the “N” and “D” semaphore flag signals, as visualized above, with the “N” involving arms stretched out and slightly lowered, and the “D” having one flag up and the other down to make a straight shape. But he also saw something of himself in the angled lines, as he later told Brock in a letter:

I was in despair. Deep despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya’s peasant before the firing squad. I formalised the drawing into a line and put a circle around it.

The symbol was not his first activist involvement; Holtom was a conscientious objector in World War II. And the design caught on quickly, with the ND movement creating ceramic buttons emblazoned with the symbol, some of which made it to the United States. The symbol’s adoption by the American Student Peace Union helped establish it as an icon of the 1960s Vietnam protests, and from there it thrived as a signal of solidarity.

Edward Barber, “Embrace the Base,” 30,000 women linked hands, completely surrounding the nine mile perimeter fence at RAF/USAF Greenham Common, Berkshire (1982) (© Edward Barber, via IWM London)

IWM London’s People Power exhibition will feature Holtom’s fragile drawings among 300 objects that explore a century of anti-war campaigns in the UK. These include a handwritten poem by poet and World War I soldier Siegfried Sassoon, a letter by Winnie-the-Pooh author A. A. Milne wrestling with pacifism in the face of fascism, and contemporary art, like Peter Kennard and Cat Phillipps’s photomontage of Tony Blair taking a selfie with an explosion.

As for Holtom, he passed away in 1985. Two peace symbols adorn his tombstone in Kent, England, which is engraved with this epitaph: “Campaigner for Peace. May he find peace.”

Banner made by Thalia Campbell, one of the original 36 women to first protest at Greenham Common airbase in September 1981. A camp was set up at Greenham that remained in some form until 2000 (© Thalia Campbell, courtesy of The Peace Museum, via IWM London)

People Power: Fighting for Peace will be at the Imperial War Museum London (Lambeth Road, London) March 23–August 28. 

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...