Stamp of approval

After years of admiration, Mike Dempsey meets David Gentleman, an unsung hero of design.

You rarely see his name on the pages of a British Design & Art Direction Annual, but the chances are that at some point over the past four decades, you and your family would have performed the very intimate act of licking the back of one of his designs.

He is David Gentleman – our most prolific and distinguished stamp designer and much, much more.

I first, became aware of his work in 1965, when I saw a set of stamps commemorating the Battle of Britain. I hasten to add that this was not out of a fanatical interest in philately – I was simply struck by the dynamic quality of the design on such a small format. I had to have a set.

I discovered they had been designed by Gentleman. He immediately became a hero to me. From that point on, I followed his career with keen interest and a great deal of envy.

Over 35 years later, I walked through the bustle of Camden Town market on my way to interview him. We sat in the sitting room of his elegant Georgian town house, sun streaming in through its long windows, surrounded by the comfort of books and paintings.

I asked if the creative gene had been evident in his family. He pointed to several beautiful paintings that graced the walls. As it turned out, both of his parents had trained as fine artists at the Glasgow School of Art in the 1920s.

His mother, Winifred, produced sensitive oils of interiors and still-lives very reminiscent of the work of Gwen John. After she married, there was a brief spell producing magazine illustrations. When the children came along, she packed her brushes and oils away to concentrate on raising her young family.

His father, Tom, moved from fine art to the commercial world in order to achieve a more stable income. Very quickly he demonstrated the same creative versatility that his son would inherit many years later. Tom worked as a political cartoonist and produced posters. He was employed by several ad agencies, including Crawfords, where he worked alongside Ashley Havinden and the pivotal E McKnight Kauffer.

During World War II he moved to the Ministry of Information, working with Sir Misha Black and Milner Gray. Post-war, he joined Shell-Mex as an in-house art director and designer. ln his free time he wrote and illustrated Brae Farm – a charming book about his childhood experiences on the Clyde. His work was also selected for one of the famous School Print artist poster series, published in 1946. He died in 1966, just a few months after Winifred.

It is not surprising against this highly stimulating backdrop that the young Gentleman began wielding a pencil with great confidence to record the world around him.

In 1948 he served his compulsory spell in the army attached to the Art Education Department, where, among other things, he painted murals. After this he studied at St Albans School of Art. In 1950 he was awarded a place at the Royal College of Art.

For the first year he studied the relatively new subject of graphic design under Abram Games. He decided to move to the illustration department. There, under the wing of Edward Bawden, he was able to exploit his drawing talent and expand into new areas of interest.

The early 1950s were a period when the RCA departments were less rigid, and a more relaxed approach enabled students to crossover to other departments and experiment. Gentleman found himself rubbing shoulders with artists John Bratby, Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach.

The RCA was also a natural reservoir for talent. Penguin Books had a good relationship with the college, often commissioning work from students and tutors. Gentleman was singled-out by Hans Smoller, Penguin’s art editor. He was commissioned to design the covers and illustrate the text for a number of books.

The first of these was Plats du Jour (1957), a handbook of the delights of foreign food. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful association with Penguin Books.

Gentleman stayed on at the RCA for a short while after graduating, working as a junior tutor alongside Richard Guyatt. Commissions started to increase, mostly from publishing in the UK and in the US, but he also produced engraved illustrations for various ad agencies. These were to top or tail press ads. This style of illustration ideally suited the letterpress printing of newspapers and magazines of the day.

In the early 1960s, he started working with his most enduring client, The Royal Mail. This was a time when stamp design had to incorporate a large photographic portrait of the Queen and was not particularly sympathetic to a modern approach to stamp design. The Royal Mail Stamp Advisory Committee of that time, chaired by Sir Kenneth Clarke, were a rather conservative group and preferred the overwhelming presence of the Queen on stamps.

All that was to change. In 1964, Tony Benn became Postmaster General. He was keen to reinvent the postage stamp and source views from the general public. Gentleman wrote to Benn outlining his vision for a new approach to British stamp design.

This led to several meetings with Benn, who showed a remarkable interest in and understanding of design – a rarity in a politician. Benn and Gentleman collaborated in plotting a new direction for British stamp design. In doing so they effected the resignation of Clarke, and with him the Stamp Advisory Committee, who found the design proposals distasteful.

The approach found favour with the Queen – who still has approval of all British stamps issued – including the greatly reduced and silhouetted portrait of herself. This resulted in the design of many stamp sets by Gentleman continuing to this day. At the last count he had clocked up a staggering 103 published stamps.

His 1964 set, celebrating the Shakespeare Festival, was no doubt the catalyst for Smoller at Penguin Books approaching him to redesign the covers for the entire Shakespeare series in 1968. It was this series of over 30 covers that enabled Gentleman to perfect his engraving technique and produce some of his finest work in this area. They used simple, flat block-colour overprinting on to black engravings. This was complemented by Gentleman’s favourite typeface, Helvetica Bold, for the titles. For me, they look even better now, some 30-odd years later. Like a good wine, some designs improve with age.

The largest and most dramatic example of Gentleman’s engraving work can be found in London’s Charing Cross Underground station. It is an illustrated frieze depicting the story of the 13th century construction of the first Charing Cross. This spans the entire length of the station platforms and is a wonderful example of the ancient skill of wood engraving reinvented through modern eyes. The graphic grouping of figures and objects, beautifully balanced, is a particular gift Gentleman has.

His ability as a pure graphic designer can be seen in his 1968 logo design for the British Steel Corporation. This was used for over 30 years until last year, when British Steel Corporation became Corus. It perfectly expresses the characteristics of a powerful industrial process with great economy. This, in my view, makes it one of the great marks of the 20th century.

Over the years, Gentleman has built up a small, but highly prestigious client list. The National Trust commissioned him to design its now familiar logo and produce posters to promote its more unusual properties. In 1975 he was asked to design a series of posters to alert the public about the potential plan to run a by-pass through the centre of the historic Petworth Park in West Sussex, a favourite backdrop for many of Turner’s paintings. These are still very powerful statements.

His architectural illustrations came to the notice of The Sunday Times and he was commissioned to create a series of full-page images to accompany a weekly feature on the future of modern architecture.

Gentleman continued to record buildings that interested him in and around London. These colourwash and ink drawings found a new outlet with the established fine art printer, The Curwen Press. The first set of prints produced in 1968 were landscapes of the British countryside. These proved to be very popular and The Curwen Press went on to produce 92 prints over the years.

It was inevitable with such an interest in recording buildings and the countryside that a book would be the next logical step in his career. This led to a publishing contract with Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and was the beginning of Gentleman’s very personal illustrated travel books. The first of these, David Gentleman’s Britain, was published in 1982. Six books later, you can see the passion that he feels for buildings. From the most opulent to the most humble, all are treated with equal importance. These highly individual books allowed him to travel widely and share his experience with us all.

Now a youthful 70-something, he can look back on an amazing body of work. In 1970 he was made a Royal Designer for Industry, Britain’s highest honour for a designer. He has work in the collections of Tate Britain, the Victoria & Albert Museum and the National Maritime Museum. He is also a member of the Alliance Graphic International.

Every morning he climbs the three flights of stairs to his top-floor studio, where he has worked alone for over 30 years. He’s never had the slightest desire to work with or for anyone. In my view, this has contributed to his success.

For me, Gentleman represents the kind of designer who makes me proud to be part of the same profession. His work demonstrates integrity, intelligence, skill and beauty. It has an enduring quality that enhances our visual experience and positively contributes to the world we all share. That is what design should do Sadly it rarely does.

At the end of our meeting l asked Gentleman who were his heroes? He mentioned Paul Nash, Edward Bawden and particularly Eric Revilious.

Then the conversation returned to his father Tom, who he felt could have been a very successful fine artist had he the personality to cope with the galleries and the business that goes with it. But, as Gentleman points out, he was very modest and reluctant to promote himself.

This modest trait is quite evident in Gentleman, who seems uncomfortable in that uniquely charming British way, when praise is directed towards him.

On the journey home l realised who were the real heroes of this piece. Tom and Winifred Gentleman. Their work and inspiration continues to live on through their son and we have all benefited from that.

The wood engravings of David Gentleman is published by David Esselmont, priced £300

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