You may never have heard of David Gentleman, because, unlike so many of the over-publicised charlatans who call themselves artists nowadays, he does not believe in personality cults. He is as modest as he is talented, which is saying something. But, even if you do not know his name, you will almost certainly have licked hundreds of stamps that he has designed, walked past his mural on Charing Cross Underground station, seen his National Trust acorn logo, read a Penguin book adorned with one of his drawings, or been influenced by a hard-hitting Gentleman poster. His work is a force for good. It celebrates the beauty of the world. It is elegant and witty, but also deeply serious. Gentleman has no truck with designers who misuse their talents to promote unworthy products or ideas. ‘Think,’ he says, ‘of all those clever Arthur Andersen fish-shoal commercials screened as the auditors were busily shredding the Enron records.’
The frontispiece to Artwork shows 20 images. There are watercolours: the Seven Sisters of Dover against an angry sky, a Suffolk cornfield with rain threatening, a green hillside in north Yorkshire. There is a bold logo for British Steel and a colophon for the Bodleian Library, which miraculously reduces the elaborate outline of that mediaeval building to a simple image. There is a diagrammatic roundabout in primary colours for the Highway Code; there are book illustrations, stamps, and an extraordinary close-up of Nelson’s face, photographed with a long-distance lens from halfway down Whitehall. The versatility of his talent and the range of his technical ability are awesome. How does he do it?
The title of the book holds the clue. For David Gentleman, art and work are, he says, ‘pretty well synonymous’. He tells us that everything he has done has been ‘interesting, often difficult, and on the whole there was nothing I’d rather have been doing’. He is never bored, because he is never satisfied.
Both Gentleman’s parents were artists. He was born with a sketchbook in his hand. After a year at his local art school, St Albans, where he was well taught, came National Service. He learnt to swear, and to bayonet sacks stuffed with straw but soon became an education sergeant in charge of the art room at a camp in Cornwall. He painted murals in the sergeants’ mess, which must have cheered the place up. Then came the Royal College of Art under Robin Darwin and Professor Dick Guyatt, who coined the term ‘graphic design’. In those days, just after the war, there was much cross-fertilisation between the different departments, and there were inspiring teachers like John Nash, Reynolds Stone and Edward Ardizzone. No wonder the college was lively and exciting, if a little old-fashioned.
If I were the new Secretary of State for Education, I would give every art student in the country a copy of this book, with its wise and positive ideas grounded in 50 years of practical experience. Underpinning all Gentleman’s work is his love of drawing, and painting in watercolour. ‘Anyone who has tried to draw something knows that it changes you, because it changes the way you look at things,’ he says, rightly, and ‘Drawing is learning to look’. He positively welcomes the inevitable constraints and restrictions that come with commissioned work, and quotes with approval a Chinese proverb, ‘The kite needs the string.’ And he emphasises the fact that all artists need, as well as a love of drawing, a love of humanity.
Since 1962 Gentleman has designed more than 100 stamps. The subjects include the battles of Hastings and Britain, Shakespeare, Darwin, Churchill, Christmas, social reform, the Millennium, and much, much else. Each design has to concentrate into a tiny space an idea, and make it both intelligible and beautiful. This is the sort of challenge that Gentleman most enjoys; a kite which tugs hard at the string. He devotes a whole chapter to his work for the Post Office. The descriptions of how each stamp evolves from the first germ of an idea to a finished design are an education in themselves.
Photography is another medium at which Gentleman excels, though he is well aware of its limitations. As he says, ”Photography never makes you look carefully or searchingly at anything; drawing it inevitably does, whether you think you can draw or not.’ His photographs of the Doric columns of Cumberland Terrace, used to promote Architectural Heritage Year, linger in the mind, as do his ‘Say No’ posters which helped the National Trust win the hard Battle of the Petworth Bypass.
More recently Gentleman has written and illustrated books on Britain (‘part paradise, part tip; part ravishing, part ravaged’), London, the British coastline, Paris, India and Italy. His drawings have become freer and more relaxed over the years, and include bustling crowds of people, their dogs, cars and bikes. What seems most interesting to him now, he says, are ‘places, buildings, landscapes and people – life’.
We are lucky to have David Gentleman. He has, of course, been ignored by our narrow-minded art establishment, but his influence over the last 50 years has been enormous. Long may he continue to enrich our lives, and to deepen our understanding of the world we live in.