The artist was born in Eccles, Greater Manchester. During his childhood the family moved quite frequently, before settling in Sheffield. Wragg suffered from bullying at school and at the age of 13 won a scholarship to Sheffield School of Art. In 1923 he left for London with two art school friends. One of these was Frederick ROBERTS JOHNSON, with whom he had a close friendship for many years. Wragg's initial work in London was in magazine illustration.
In 1924 he and Johnson visited Polperro for the first time and fell in love with the place. Frederick Thomas Nettleinghame, a publisher and financier, had arrived in Polperro from Essex the year before. Subsequent to some shady dealings which saw him in the Bankruptcy Courts, Nettleinghame re-invented himself in Polperro as a tourist operator. He set up a business dealing in artefacts for the tourist market, and found the two young artists to be enthusiastic in assisting him in the production of burnt wood designs, or 'pokerwork'. Subsequently Wragg and Roberts Johnson rented a cottage in the village each summer. This continued throughout the 1930s, during which time they became integral members of the Polperro community.
The illustrations that Wragg was producing in the 1920s were for postcards that have come to be known as CORNISH LITANY POSTCARDS. The distinguishing feature of this 'tourist art cards' is that they carry the following legend: 'From Ghoulies & Ghosties/And long-leggetty beasties/And things that go bump in the night/Good Lord deliver us!' Why this ditty is connected to Cornwall is unknown, and similar ditties are found in Devon and Scotland and other West Country destinations on boxes, cups and other artefacts. The illustrations are of beastly images, goblins and other endearing though outlandish figures, perhaps referencing some old Celtic horror stories, a bedtime prayer or moral tales for children. Other known illustrators of this postcard genre was one Stanley T CHAPLIN, about whom nothing is known, and the Polperro artist and historian Alice C BIZLEY (nee Butler). An article in the Postcard World Magazine, Nov/Dec 2011 explores the topic of the craft community in Polperro in the 1920s. 'The Cornish Litany is referred to as one of their first and best selling items. The publication boasted of the artwork of Arthur Wragg in their souvenir line of pokerwork and postcards.'
During the 1930s Wragg became troubled by the struggles of working-class people in the aftermath of the First World War, followed by the Depression. In 1933 he produced a ground-breaking work, 'The Psalms for Modern Life'. His black-and-white illustrations for this publication made a powerful, uncompromising comment on the political and social issues of the day. It also raised his profile to the extent that his work began to be compared to that of William Blake, William Hogarth and Francisco de Goya.
Wragg wrote and illustrated 'Jesus Wept' in 1934. This was a hard-hitting publication, which he intended as a warning on a future which seemed without hope. He began to be regarded as a prophet. In 1936, he met the author Walter Greenwood while on holiday in Polperro. Greenwood was well known at the time, as he had completed his first novel, 'Love on the Dole' in 1933, to considerable acclaim. The two became good friends, as they had much in common, including their political views. Wragg illustrated a book of Greenwood's short stories, entitled 'The Cleft Stick'.
Despite the sombre nature of some of his work, Wragg had a great sense of humour and created lightweight drawings, jacket covers for novels and much else. He and Johnson enjoyed a busy social life during winters spent in London. In 1938 Wragg was focussed on a project entitled 'Seven Words', relating to the Crucifixion. The black and white illustrations seemed to suggest influences such as Hieronymous Bosch and surrealism. Published in 1939, it did not receive a great deal of critical acclaim as by then attention was focussed on the impending global conflict of World War II.
Alarmed at the rise of Fascism, in 1935 Wragg helped form the Peace Pledge Union. Alongside Roberts Johnson, he became actively involved in the left-wing newspaper The Tribune, creating front cover illustrations for the first seventeen issues of the publication. When World War II broke out, Wragg applied to register as a conscientious objector. He became a prison visitor and art teacher at Wandsworth Gaol, and in 1941 began to teach at Beltane School, a progressive establishment in Wimbledon. From there he brought groups of students down to Polperro on sketching trips. When peace was declared in 1945 a celebratory party was held in the village. Both Wragg and Roberts Johnson produced visual depictions of the event.
After the War, Wragg moved into a flat in London's Old Brompton Road, which he shared with his partner Sigurd, and subsequently David. He remained in demand as a commercial artist, obtaining regular commissions from the Decca Record Company for their album covers. While he continued to produce satirical work reflecting the post-war political climate of fear and uncertainty, it is his hard-hitting black and white images from the 1930s for which he is best known.
He llustrated such books as Cranford (1947) and Moll Flanders (1948) and biblical subjects such as The Song of Songs (1952) and working for magazines such as Woman's Pictorial. (Long list in Peppin & Micklethwait.)
Pen & ink, black & white studies, book & magazine illustrator
works and access
The best all-round tour of the subject is to be found in Debra Meister's handsome self-published book on the subject, listed above, now in its 3rd edition. She reproduces images from a wide range of artists, historical and contemporary, and postcard publishers who have employed 'the prayer lines' under the banner of the Cornish Litany. Arthur Wragg was only one of a fair few of illustrators who have worked on the series for a number of publishers, but there is no biographical information to tie these artists to Cornwall in particular, with one or two exceptions.
Brook, J (2001) Arthur Wragg: 20th Century Artist, Prophet and Jester, Bristol: Sansom & Co Ltd.
Hack-Lane, Susan (2011) 'A New Look at the Old Cornish Litany', Postcard World, Nov-Dec issue on-line
Meister, Debra (2012 3rd edition) A Litany...Cornish and Otherwise;
F T Nettleinghame (1926), Polperro Proverbs and Others, Polperro Press for the Cornish Arts Association, 1926
Peppin & Micklethwait (1983) Book Illustrators of the Twentieth Century
Tovey, David (2021) Polperro - Cornwall's Forgotten Art Centre - Volume Two - Post-1920, Wilson Books