Immaculate conception

Mike Dempsey pays a long overdue tribute to Raymond Hawkey for his innovative and influential contribution to UK graphics

I was first introduced to Raymond Hawkey’s work at an evening class on a November evening in 1961. Our teacher – who during the day worked in the design department of the Daily Express – showed us examples of work produced there. This was a series of illustrated banner heads, an innovation that had been pioneered by Hawkey. These mini graphic triggers helped to direct readers towards a particular feature. They were produced using a simple photographic line technique, ideal for crude letterpress printing. They looked startling within the context of the paper’s conventional layout.

Fast-forward 40 years, and I am heading for the lift in an 18-floor, 1960s tower block that looms over London’s fashionable Notting Hill. This is where Hawkey has lived for over 30 years and I am about to meet him for the first time. As he welcomes me into his flat, I am taken aback by the view from its panoramic window. It is quite breathtaking to see London looking magical on this particularly clear night with a stream of jewel-like twinkling lights from the constantly moving traffic below.

The first thing I notice about Hawkey is that he is immaculately turned out. So much so that became a little self-conscious about the state of my rather scuffed boat shoes and crumpled corduroy jacket. This attention to his appearance was just as evident in the presentation of his home. It reflected his vision and farsightedness in selecting Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen and Hille furniture when he first took on the flat. All looked remarkably current and orderly in this classic late 1960s setting.

Most of the walls were taken up with Hawkey’s passion for all things nautical; a ship’s wheel, compass, figurehead, prints, photographs and paintings of tall ships, all beautifully arranged. As a boy Hawkey had lived by the sea, which he loved. I suspect this was his way of keeping that connection going in the heart of a throbbing city.

Hawkey was born in Plymouth in 1930, an only child. His father worked as a commercial traveller. Neither of Hawkey’s parents had any creative leanings. Indeed, his father had decided that he wanted his son to become an accountant, something he himself had hankered after.

But the young Hawkey developed a natural gift for drawing, which must have been a genetic throwback to a creative ancestor. He was happiest with a pencil and paper, escaping into a fantasy world drawn from his fertile imagination. Hawkey was a bright boy and won a scholarship to grammar school.

It was here that he was singled out by the headmaster – a man with artistic interests himself – who recognised Hawkey’s creative ability. He greatly encouraged the young Hawkey and directed him towards a course in general arts at the Plymouth School of Art. From the ages of 16 to 20, Hawkey immersed himself in what had become an all-consuming passion. He achieved a National Diploma in Design and won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art to study illustration.

But Hawkey found the RCA illustration course in 1950 very dull, punctuated with endless life drawing classes and a distinctly nostalgic approach to the craft. He managed to persuade his tutor to let him switch to the graphics course.

He quickly secured a post on the RCA magazine ARK as assistant art director. A little later he became its art director. He saw this as an opportunity to push the visual presentation of the magazine forward, which, until that point, had a rather classical dusty feel. He outraged the rector Robin Darwin by introducing illustration and photography to ARK’s covers. To supplement his small grant, he took on illustration commissions from the Central Office of e e Information. He also helped out the picture editor of The Sunday Graphic – a long since defunct title.

Towards the end of his time at the RCA he was increasingly moving in publishing and editorial circles. One evening when helping out at a literary launch party, a colleague noticed that a young man had gatecrashed the proceedings and he asked Hawkey to politely, but firmly show him the door. Hawkey, however, struck up a conversation with this eager young man – who as it turned out was also attending the RCA, was also studying design, was also an Aquarian, had the same fanatical love of detail, shared the same dry sense of humour and also the contempt for a lot of the pomposity evident at the RCA. A rare meeting of hearts and minds had taken place and there, amid the clinking wine glasses and literary banter, a life-long friendship was formed.

As it turned out, this literary backdrop was going to have a dramatic effect on both of their lives. In particular the young gatecrasher’s. His name was Len Deighton.

Prior to graduating from the RCA, Hawkey entered a design talent competition organised by Vogue magazine. He not only won, but was offered a job by the magazine’s parent company Condé Nast. Here he became art director of magazine promotion and he quickly familiarised himself with the editorial world. He spent three happy years there. There was a short period with the ad agency Colman Prentis and Varley as an art director. In 1959 he was offered a position with Beaverbrook Newspapers to art direct a new magazine that was set to rival the great American title Fortune. Alas, it never saw the light of day, but Hawkey’s talents had not gone unnoticed and he was made design director of the Daily Express.

It was here that he quickly introduced graphic devices into the editorial pages. He trail-blazed the use of diagrams to help demystify complex news items. He often teamed up with a reporter and went on assignments to crime scenes. It was in this context that his work contributed to the arrest of a rapist and murderer through his accurate reconstruction of the attacker’s likeness as described by a witness, before identikit pictures were the norm. Hawkey’s graphic use of banner heads revolutionised the look of newspaper features and very quickly other major papers followed suit.

While Hawkey was at The Daily Express, Deighton had established a career in advertising as an art director. This was a love/ hate relationship for him as he found the profession overrun by ex-public school types, whom he found tiresome. However, he redirected this irritation into writing. Hawkey remembers being handed a draft manuscript by Deighton in 1960. It was called The Ipcress File. On reading it, Hawkey realised that Deighton could afford to turn his back on the advertising world. Because, there on the page was Harry Palmer, the bespectacled sophisticated working class anti-hero who enjoyed cooking and worked as an intelligence officer.

Although very capable himself, Deighton asked Hawkey to design the cover of The Ipcress File. What Hawkey did with it was one of the key moments in design history. It is important to view this piece of work within the context of the period. Hawkey’s photographic use of inanimate objects to give a narrative dimension to the cover was startlingly new and made a dramatic impact on the publishing scene. The publisher, Hodder, found the design too spartan with its black and white photography, plain background and small undifferentiated typography, but both Deighton and Hawkey held firm. They were right, because on publication in 1962, The Ipcress File sold out within 24 hours.

A few years later, Michael Caine was to make Harry Palmer his own in the film version of the book. The image, so perfectly captured by David Bailey in his classic 1965 Caine portrait, e e still inspires many a young designer to emulate the look today.

In 1964, Hawkey became presentation director of the Observer and its colour magazine, concentrating on enhancing layout and improving the quality of the magazine’s covers. In parallel with this, he became a much sought-after book cover designer. He was always linked with Deighton’s work, but was also the favoured designer for the work of Kingsley Amis, Jane Gaskill, Ian Fleming, Thomas Hinde, Gavin Lyall, Frederick Forsyth and many others.

Hawkey’s dramatic influence and modern approach to book cover design spawned imitators that turned his simple graphic approach into a design cliché. To a certain extent Hawkey became a victim of his own success. The clarity and inventiveness of his later cover work was often defused by over-large typography brought about, I suspect, by the increasingly aggressive publishing sales departments who have always managed to dilute creative work.

One of Hawkey’s most memorable pieces came about once again through Deighton, who had formed a film production company. He had written the film script for Oh! What a Lovely War. It was to be Richard Attenborough’s directorial debut and Deighton commissioned Hawkey to design the film’s titles. He approached this with the perfectionism that had become his trademark. To convey the tragedy of the First World War, he used carefully chosen objects, sensitively photographed by David Cripps to create a building narrative over the sequence.

Starting with items reflecting the jingoistic flag-waving, King and Country mentality, the images move on to symbolise the ultimate result of war. Death is represented by a skull and, in the last frame, a lone red poppy. Although a simple series of still images with the titles superimposed, the sequence retains its tragic impact. In another designer’s hands it could have easily slipped into a nostalgic pastiche.

In 1974 Hawkey turned the tables on the publishing world by becoming a thriller writer himself. Encouraged greatly by Deighton, over a ten-year period he has produced three novels, Wild Card, Side Effect and It. All have received glowing reviews and an option has been taken up on It for a possible feature film.

Now into his seventies, Hawkey understandably takes things a little easier these days, but in addition to writing a new novel, he still occasionally acts as an editorial consultant. Having a bolthole in Brighton has enabled him to enjoy the lure of the sea with his charming wife Mary, whom he married 12 years ago. m

Mike Dempsey is chairman and founding partner of CDT Design

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