David John King was born on 30 April 1943 in Isleworth, west of London. From 1960 to 1963, he studied graphic design at the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts (now London College of Communication). After graduating he worked at Queen magazine, the Stratton & Wolsey advertising agency and the Observer newspaper before, in 1965, moving to The Sunday Times Magazine to become a designer under the art direction of Michael Rand. He was promoted to art editor and remained at the magazine for ten years, five as a staff member, five as a freelance.
King’s first book, Trotsky: A Documentary (1972), was a collaboration with his Sunday Times Magazine colleague Francis Wyndham. A research trip to Moscow in 1970 started King on his path as a collector of graphics and photographs about the Russian Revolution and its tragic aftermath. His second book, published in 1975, was a photographic biography of Mohammad Ali, featuring some of his own pictures of the boxer. After leaving The Sunday Times Magazine, King designed many covers for Penguin Books and other publishers, such as Pluto Press, often based on left-wing and political themes.
In the late 1970s, outraged by the treatment of black people under the South African system of apartheid, he volunteered his services as a designer to the Anti-Apartheid Movement, producing many trenchant posters for the cause. Similarly alarmed by the racist language and actions of the National Front, he designed protest posters for the Anti-Nazi League, which was set up to confront the NF. King’s covers for the left-wing London listings magazine City Limits share the same ultra-bold manner of design, which became his signature style. King’s last major commissions as a graphic designer were the art direction of Crafts magazine, from 1984 to 1988, and book cover designs for Earthscan, a publisher of titles about sustainable development.
In the course of the 1980s, King’s private collection of Russian graphics, photographs and other artefacts grew to around 250,000 items. He co-authored three books using visual material from his archive: Blood & Laughter (1983), The Great Purges (1984) and Trotsky: A Photographic Biography (1986). By the end of the decade, his library of Russian and Soviet photographs and images was a thriving business, the pictures in constant demand from newspapers, broadcasters and publishers. King’s long immersion in the collection bore fruit with The Commissar Vanishes (1997), a visual dissection of the falsification of photographs and art in Stalin’s Russia. The book was internationally reviewed and led to exhibitions. King followed it with another photographic study, Ordinary Citizens: The Victims of Stalin (2003).
In 2002, Tate Modern in London mounted a display of almost 100 posters from the David King Collection. A series of displays drawn from the collection followed at the gallery. Before he died in 2016, King had arranged for Tate to acquire the entire collection for public access and research. In 2009, Tate published King’s Red Star Over Russia, an ambitious visual history of the Soviet Union built from material he collected. The Red Star Over Russia title was used again in 2017 for a posthumous exhibition at Tate Modern based on his collection. King published three more books with Tate: Russian Revolutionary Posters (2012), an expanded edition of The Commissar Vanishes (2014) and his last project, John Heartfield: Laughter is a Devastating Weapon (2015), a tribute to the political artist who had most inspired him.
Photograph: Judy Groves