What a Gentleman!

Posted inDesign Books
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By: Peter Terzian | July 20, 2009

book covers by Joel Voelker

Above: Photograph of book covers by Joel Voelker

IN 2006, THE BRITISH designer David Gentleman blanketed London’s Parliament Square with 1,000 large paper cards, each one holding 100 splatters of blood-red ink. This installation, a protest against 100,000 lives lost in the Iraq war, was a stark new turn for the veteran artist, now in his late seventies and best known for rustic woodcuts—such as his cover illustrations for the New Penguin Shakespeare paperbacks of the 1960s and ’70s—and the delicate watercolors of his later series of travel sketchbooks. But a compact monograph edited by British design historians Brian Webb and Peyton Skipwith makes the case that Gentleman’s recent antiwar work is also the culmination of a career that has married nostalgia for what Philip Larkin referred to as “England gone” with vivid activist imagery.

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.

David Gentleman has design in his genes: His father, Tom Gentleman, was a painter who became chief artist for the oil company then known as Shell-Mex. In the 1930s and ’40s, the British branch of the company was a leader in commercial design, employing such artists as Ben Nicholson, Vanessa Bell, and Barnett Freedman to blanket the country’s roadways with “lorry bills”—posters that depicted an idyllic rural England (accessible by automobile, of course). Born in 1930, David inherited his father’s graphic skills and his fondness for a Britain that was on the brink of disappearing. One of David’s first heroes was Thomas Bewick, an engraver who began publishing the earliest catalogs of the island’s birds and animals in the late 1700s, and who perfected woodcuts of small vignettes of country life, many no bigger than a postage stamp. At the Royal College of Art, Gentleman studied under Bawden and John Nash, influential artist-designers who painted the English landscape and illustrated posters, books, and advertisements with bucolic scenes.

Like his father and mentors, Gentleman has treated the line between art and design as porous, balancing book illustration and stamp and poster design with painting and printmaking. Webb and Skipwith begin

with a quote from an address that the artist gave in 1989: “The idea of drawing and designing represents and puts in a nutshell, as it were, those two opposites, Art and Industry.” Like Bawden and Nash before him, commercial work may have kept him from being considered seriously as an artist, particularly outside his native country. But mass exposure has made him beloved—one of his most popular works is a mural at London’s Charing Cross Underground station that thousands of commuters see daily.

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.