Emma Tennant

People + places = life

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’.

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