This volume on Gentleman is the latest in a series of slender, affordable monographs, simply titled Design, published by Antique Collectors’ Club. Earlier books have focused on Edward Bawden and his close friend, the designer and watercolorist Eric Ravilious; John Nash and his brother Paul, also an artist; the American-born E. McKnight Kauffer, who designed posters for the London Underground; Harold Curwen and Oliver Simon, owners of the Curwen Press and employers of many of the aforementioned artists; and the Festival of Britain, a 1951 exposition that displayed the work of mid-century British artists. Future books may cover subjects outside of the United Kingdom—an entry on Rodchenko is planned for later this year—but so far the series has unearthed a canon of half-forgotten artist-designers whose work was at one time ubiquitous, and whose vision of a green and pleasant England was suffused with affection and charm.
Gentleman’s early work has a cheerful busyness. His ingenious cover for Plats du Jour, a British cookbook of “foreign food” published in 1957 by Penguin (and recently reissued by Persephone Books) shows a robust group of eaters seated around a long table, waiting for a meal, adjusting their napkins and opening bottles of wine. The back cover is set post-dinner: Empty chairs are left askew, and only a few pieces of fruit remain in the serving bowl. With time, Gentleman pared down any signs of visual clutter. Webb and Skipwith write about his “puritanical spirit,” a necessity when designing for small spaces, such as postage stamps and coins. Much of his work draws from British history and folklore. His New Penguin Shakespeare covers use iconic images—three witches on a dark heath, a reclining, donkey-headed Bottom. A series of stamps from 1976 effectively pays tribute to social reformers with images of hands—a chimney sweep’s for Lord Shaftesbury, who campaigned against child labor; a manacled prisoner’s for Elizabeth Fry, who fought to improve prison conditions. For large spaces, he produced simple, striking effects. His poster of a tire trackmark across the lawn of a stately home protested a plan for a highway through Petworth Park, made famous by Turner. Such political statements show that Gentleman is a designer with a conscience and hasn’t been content to rely on his considerable charms. PETER TERZIAN