What is clear from the 1950s was the continual fruitful connection made between graphic designers and fine artists, with the former often producing posters and catalogues and the latter giving a different visual take on the world, fuelling the minds of the graphic designers.
In 1960, a group of former RCA students (Alan Fletcher, Romek Marber, John Sewell, Denis Bailey and David Collins) were part of an exhibition called Twelve Graphic Designers. It was staged at the Time & Life Building off Bond Street and was the first time that a new British sensibility in graphics had been seriously exhibited. It was the catalyst of what was to become D&AD a couple of years later.
By 1961, Guyatt had relaxed his tight grip on tutors and had sanctioned FKH Henrion, Anthony Froshaug, the younger George Daulby and Larry Carter, among others, who brought with them a modernist approach to graphics. By this time, even Darwin’s pet hate, photography, had been embraced, with Geoffrey Ireland heading up a new department. There was also a television design department, run by George Haslam.
Darwin’s collection of friends within the industry meant that many students were often snapped up on graduation or found commissions. Ex-RCA students found their way into the BBC (John Sewell was the first graphic designer to be employed by the BBC to take charge of on-screen graphics, followed by Bernard Lodge and Douglas Merritt).
The title sequence for Dr Who designed by Bernard Lodge in 1963.
Another port of call for RCA graduates was with Shell’s Jack Beddlington, who was in charge of commissioning advertisements and posters. He was part of Darwin’s clan and another Tory anti-modernist. He regularly drew on the talents of John Betjeman and Nikolaus Pevsner, both dedicated lovers of Victoriana and thus proponents of Darwin’s view of the world.
One of a number of David Gentleman’s projects that he illustrated for Shell
But Beddlington was a good prospect for both students and graduates to earn money, as was Penguin Books. An astonishing number of 1960s RCA graphic designers and illustrators were commissioned by Penguin Books: David Gentleman, Dennis Bailey, Alan Fletcher, Quentin Blake, Len Deighton, John Sewell, Peter Blake, Ken Sequin, Larry Carter, Michael Foreman and Romek Marber.
Designed by Dennis Bailey 1958.
Designed by John Sewell 1963
Designed by Romek Marber 1963
Ane arly Alan Fletcher Penguin cover left and right with Fletcher/Forbes/Gill 1961/63.
Outside of ARK, there were many sought-after posters to design for the various RCA clubs, like the drama society, the film club and the jazz club. In addition, there were lectures and exhibitions to be publicised. It is through these posters that one can get a real sense of the stylistic struggles that permeated the college throughout the 1950s. But designers Gordon Moore, Michael Foreman, Stephen Abis, Ken Sequin, Freire Wright, Neil Godfrey, Bryan Denyer, John Fenton Brown, Bryan Haynes, Billy Apple and Wendy Coates-Smith demonstrated their prowess in projecting the college in a more modernist light, often with a perfect fusion of American style and Swiss typographical crispness.
Spread from Michael Foreman’s award winning illustrated children’s book The General 1961.
Poster for the RCA Film Society designed by John Fenton Brown 1963
Poster for the RCA Film Society designed by Brian Denyer 1963
Poster celebrating 15 years of graphics at RCA designed by Thelma Roscoe 1963.
By 1960, the old stranglehold had been broken: Britain was changing, and many ex-RCA students were now spreading to the outside world of advertising, magazines and television. Through graphics, they were expressing the beginnings of what was to become the Swinging Sixties. By 1963, graphic design in London was becoming so good that the impact of ARK magazine was subsiding, whereas it had led the way a little earlier. Darwin commented on the magazine towards the end of his reign: “What is significant is that the more generally unintelligible ARK becomes… the better it sells. Vitality is indeed an attraction in itself!”
The last batch of students to enter the RCA in 1963 covered in this introduction had a significant impact on the newly formed graphic design scene, represented by the growing influence of D&AD. In 1966, when those last students graduated, 11 pieces of work appeared in the first three very slim and monotone D&AD annuals. Among the RCA alumni were John Fenton Brown, Barrington Smith, Geoff Fowle, Derek Coutts, Charles Riddell, Robert McAulay, Freire Wright, John Tomlinson, David Chaston, Stephen Abis and Derek Holmes.
Derek Holmes formed Churchill/Holmes/Kitley. This book jacket from 1965 designed by the group had lenticular device of lips opening and closing adhered to each cover.
I would single out three design collectives that were formed after leaving the college at this time. Abis/Stribley/Sida produced some wonderfully clean and inventive graphic work very much on par with Fletcher/Forbes/Gill, but they split within a year. Stephen Abis joined Panther Books as its art director, where he had a considerable impact on the publishing scene, commissioning masses of the very best British creative talent. Derek Holmes formed Churchill/Holmes/Kitley, another highly creative design group that lasted only a few years but in that time produced some stunningly original work, especially in the publishing arena. Lastly, George Daulby (who was a tutor at the college in 1959–60), along with Derek Birdsall, George Mayhew and Peter Wildbur, formed BDMW Associates. This was another short-lived but wonderful design collective that was responsible for some sublimely timeless work.
One more 1963 RCA student graduating in 1966 was Gert Dumbar. He returned to Holland and was to resurface in the 1980s as Studio Dunbar with work that had a major impact on the graphic scene and echoed around the globe.
Poster to celebrate the RCA's move to Kensington Gore (above) in 1963.
By 1963, the Swinging Sixties had arrived, along with music from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Who. Young documentary-style photographers David Bailey, Brian Duffy and Terence Donovan surfaced (proving Darwin wrong in his assessment of the power of photography). The leading models were Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy, Pattie Boyd and Celia Hammond.Fashionistas Mary Quant and Ossie Clark and tonsorial supremo Vidal Sassoon were having a great impact. Pirate radio challenged the BBC’s airwaves; satire mocked the political circles, with Gerald Scarfe viciously scratching his wicked caricatures at Private Eye.
Poster for RCA Convocation Ball designed by Neil Godfrey 1960. Godfrey went on to become a major creative force at the advertising agency Collett Dickens Pearce.
Peter Blake's The Beatles1963
Robyn Denny's graphic style painting from 1960 Baby is Three
David Hockney (centre) and friends outside the RCA in 1963.
Pop and op art was led by ex-RCA students Peter Blake, David Hockney, Robyn Denny, Richard Smith, Bridget Riley and Allen Jones, and there was an explosion in creative British advertising and graphics. The design scene in London had transformed into brilliant Technicolor. A great deal of this transformation was down to the many RCA students who doggedly pushed against the status quo during the 1950s to create a new graphic landscape that has endured ever since.
Part 1: Here
Part 2: Here
A contemporary of David Gentleman’s was Dennis Bailey (above right chatting to Robin Darwin), another 1948 arrival at the college. One of his fondest memories was being present in the senior common room (SCR) – an innovation of Darwin’s, who invited many established working artists and poets to mingle with the tutors and (occasionally) students. Bailey, like so many students at the time, was a Rizla roll-up man, until he spied one of Darwin’s distinguished guests removing a cigarette from a distinctive blue package.
Bailey went straight down to Soho to purchase his first pack of Gauloises: a brand that became ubiquitous with students at the college.
Bailey had started off on the illustration course that shared the same space, tutors and often the same projects as the graphic department, with which he became more intrigued. After his first year, he transferred to that department, where he came into contact with a number of fellow students who wanted to breathe new life into the staid teaching at the college, among them Len Deighton and Raymond Hawkey. On graduation, Bailey went on to art direct many magazines, including the iconic Town.
Two photographs from 1952 with Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud in the RCA Senior Common Room
The SCR was Darwin’s brain child: he wanted it to be an inspiring place where fine wine, good food and intelligent conversation took place along the lines of Cambridge, with its High Table complete with white-gloved serving staff. Many who visited found it outrageously pompous. Artists Francis Bacon (who was a tutor at the college in 1950), Lucian Freud and John Minton would often hold court there. The ever-inventive Darwin had it in his mind to build up a collection of paintings from students, visiting tutors and artists to decorate the SCR walls. He kick-started the collection by personally donating several works, including pieces by Stanley Spencer and Walter Sickert. Over the years, this was to develop into a significant horde: he secured donations from Francis Bacon, Peter Blake, Lucian Freud, Barbara Hepworth, William Scott, David Hockney and Henry Moore, among many others. The collection continues to this day.
The Lion and the Unicorn Pavilion at the Festival of Britain.1951
The year 1951 gave RCA graphic students the opportunity to shine when they were involved, under the beady eye of Guyatt, in working on The Lion and the Unicorn Pavilion at the Festival of Britain. But instead of a new broom in the world of RCA graphic design, it was more of the same, with whimsy representations of ‘Englishness’ expressed through Victorian typefaces like Egyptian Expanded, Doric Italic, and Throne and Figgins Shaded.
The Festival of Britain graphics designed by Abram Games who taught for many years at the RCA
The whole place was filled with tweed jackets, handmade brogues, briar pipes, walking canes and images of country life, all reinforcing the nostalgic view of a bygone era and completely ignoring any acknowledgement of modernism.
The wonderfully surreal Goons' who changed the face of comedy
As the 1950s progressed, a radically new concept in comedy surfaced; the surrealistic The Goon Show was a particular hit with students. There was appreciation for modern jazz imported from the States, with its free-form, abstract quality. It wove its influence on the creative scene at the RCA. Students began to rebel more openly against the traditional barriers of conservatism still preached by the college hierarchy.
Music in the shape of modern jazz from the US was also influencing the creative scene.
Like Bailey, fellow RCA student Raymond Hawkey (who had won a scholarship to the RCA to study illustration) found the course very dull, punctuated with endless life-drawing classes and a distinctly nostalgic approach to the craft.
Bailey managed to switch to the graphics course and quickly secured a post on the RCA magazine ARK,edited at the time by Len Deighton. The magazine’s main task was to publicise the college and was originally conceived in 1950 by student Jack Stafford, who self-funded the enterprise. Later, the RCA decided that it was a worthwhile pursuit and chipped in the money and office space above the students’ common room at 2 Cromwell Road to make it an ‘official’ part of college life.
In its early days, ARK stayed within the ‘genteel’ bounds of Darwin’s sensibilities, but it was to develop into a major force and voice in the wider creative arena way beyond the confines of the college, being sold through London bookshops and on subscription internationally. It was also to cause a lot of aggro between staff and students. One such moment was when Hawkey created a photographic cover for ARK, which greatly upset Darwin, who dismissed photography completely.
Alan Fletcher's startling cover for ARK 13, 1955 fueled with his experience of being exposed to the American graphic scene.
Alan Fletcher, who’d won the first RCA/Yale student exchange scholarship, returned to the college full of enthusiasm from his experience of meeting US designers and artists, including Robert Brownjohn, Ivan Chermayeff, Tom Geismar, Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Bradbury Thompson and Josef Albers. Fletcher became the art editor of ARK in 1955 and immediately broke the classical typographical stranglehold of the magazine by using sans-serif typography on its cover. Fletcher remembers that the keeper of the RCA print room held all of the sans-serif type under lock and key like cocaine.
As the 1950s progressed, fashion, film and new forms of art fuelled the graphic students. Many from the painting department added a graphic dimension to their work, especially Peter Blake, Eduardo Paolozzi and Robyn Denny, the latter producing a wonderful typographical mural for the Austin Reed men’s fashion department in 1959, against which The Beatles posed in 1963.
Top: Robyn Denny's typographical painting for Austin Reed. Below: the Beatles posing in front of it in 1963.
Another student from the painting department was Keith Cunningham, who ended up being a significant graphic designer in the 1960s and 1970s.
During this time, the relationship between staff and students at the college became increasingly at odds, with the students tending to learn and be inspired by one another rather than their tutors.
Like Fletcher, many saw America as the leading light in graphics, illustration and advertising, with high-quality finishes and supreme wit and humour. Swiss modernist typography was also admired, but there were no jokes in that. Len Deighton was a passionate lover of US creativity, especially its advertising (also unpopular among the staff), and was determined to introduce it into ARK when he was its editor.
From the top: Us illustrators Ben Shahn, Andy Warhol, and David Stone Martin were changing the face of the craft in the 50’s with their scratchy, emotive, immediate styles. Bottom: an example of Len Deighton's work from that period.
By this time, Deighton and Hawkey had become friends and often collaborated to disrupt the status quo. It was Hawkey who went on to design the book jacket of Deighton’s first novel The Ipcress File in 1962,with a beautifully stark, one-colour, photographic cover.
Raymond Hawkey's 1962 cover design for Len Deighton's book.
The publisher hated it, but Deighton insisted. The book sold out immediately, and a bit of graphic history was born. Hawkey became a significant editorial designer throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
John Sewell, another graphic student with a love of surrealism, made some bizarre short films and produced a great deal of original collage work that he later used to great effect with the graphic identities for the independent bookshops Better Books and The City Bookshop, both long gone.
For part 1. click HERE.
For more on David Gentleman click HERE.
For more on Raymond Hawkey click HERE.
For more on John Sewell click HERE.
In 1983, a film school student started work on his first feature film. It took him 7 years to complete. On 24 December 1990 that film, A Grand Day Out was screened on TV. The rest is history.
On its’ 25th anniversary I thought you might like to hear my recorded interview with the film’s creator Nick Park about his life, work and how the inspiration for the now national treasures, Wallace and Gromit, came about. Listen HERE.
I recently wrote an essay for this book...
GraphicsRCA: Fifty Years and Beyond spans from 1963 to the present. But, importantly, the years from 1948 to 1963 were the very foundation of British contemporary graphics and this was the area I was interested in. Here is my essay which is broken down into 3 parts with images to set the scene for those early years.
Poster designed by Geoffrey Ireland 1948
The roll call of graphic designers who attended the Royal College of Art during the 15-year period between 1948 and 1963 is very significant, including David Gentleman, Dennis Bailey, Raymond Hawkey, Len Deighton, Alan Fletcher, June Fraser, Romek Marber, Neil Godfrey, Ridley Scott and John Sewell, to name just a fraction of the talent that passed through the hallowed Huxley Gate. Collectively, they went on to help shape the very foundation of post-war contemporary British graphics and advertising.
But let’s first rewind back to those early days when the term ‘graphic design’ was unknown in the UK. London in 1948 was a sad, drab place: large areas had been decimated by the Blitz, when 31,000 bombs were dropped over eight short months, killing 22,000 people. The devastation continued right up to 1945, with the dreaded doodlebugs and V2 rockets whose engines would cut out exactly over central London to silently fall towards their targets. Miraculously, none hit the RCA, which at the time was located at the back of the V&A through Huxley Gate, opposite the Science Museum.
Life at the RCA resumed after the war, with many tutors and students returning to Civvy Street following National Service. Some had received ex-service or local council financial grants to enable them to attend the college, but many came from wealthier backgrounds and could afford to pay the fees. Although there was a general sense of optimism in the air, there was still little in the shops due to continuing rationing and general shortages. Fashion was very limited: many students would favour cheap, surplus-store clothing, the duffel coat being the order of the day. Radio was still in post-war ‘variety hall’ mode, and television was confined to the middle classes, with dull programmes to match their conservatism.
The dreaded winter smog
London was undergoing major rebuilding, and the reliance on the burning of coal created spectacular winter smog that often brought London to a standstill. RCA students coming to London for the first time would find cheap digs in unfashionable areas like Lavender Hill, Bayswater, Westbourne Grove or Notting Hill, the latter populated with large mansion properties converted into a myriad of bedsits offered at 30 shillings a week (around £50 a week today).
There was little for students to do apart from go to the pub or cinema, smoke and drink ‘frothy’ coffee out of clear, Pyrex cups in dreary cafes. In the evenings, they might party in each other’s digs, listening to traditional jazz records while downing bottles of stout. For many, the college was the most exciting place to be, and at least it was warm in the often-bitter winters.
The Olympic Games arrived in London, along with the introduction of the National Health Service (brought about by Labour’s Clement Attlee) and the formation of British Rail. They all coincided with the arrival of Robin Vere Darwin at the RCA in 1948 as its newly appointed principal.
Robin Darwin painted by Ruskin Spear in 1961
Robin Darwin, great-grandson of Charles Darwin and an Old Etonian (also educated at the Slade School of Art), surfaced as an accomplished painter and a quintessential eighteenth-century clubman with a visionary view of creative education. He set this view out in a Design Council report, The Training of the Industrial Designer, published in 1946, which included proposed structural changes to the teaching at the RCA. It was this report that led to his appointment as principal: a position he was to hold for 23 years.
A nude painted by Robin Darwin who also produced many portraits.
Darwin was keen not only to re-equip the college but also to build a strong connection with both industry and government in order to raise the college’s profile and create an industry pathway for graduating students.
Those early days, and indeed most of his time at the college, reflected Darwin’s very personal view of the world of art and design; he tended to favour a polite kind of traditional ‘Englishness’ leaning towards nineteenth-century classicism and Victoriana, with an emphasis on drawing, engraving, fine typography, bookbinding and printmaking. Much of the college’s output would find its way into limited editions published by the college’s The Lion and the Unicorn Press. Photography did not feature in Darwin’s view of design and was seen as a rather vulgar pursuit.
An example of Richard Guyatt's work and a portrait by Peter Blake.
Richard Guyatt was appointed professor of Publicity Design (at the suggestion of Guyatt, later renamed Graphic Design), and Edward Bawden was appointed head of the design department. They perfectly encapsulated Darwin’s teaching ethos, along with visiting tutors John Nash, Abram Games and Charles Mahoney.
Edward Bawden (on ladder) and Eric Ravilious who jointly painted the mural at Morley College 1929/30. Bawden went on to teach at the RCA. No doubt Ravilious would have, had he not tragically died in an air crash in 1942. But his influence was evident throughout the 1950’s.
Much of the design work to emerge from the college over the next decade (examples above) completely ignored the growing influence of European modernism, which was heavily embraced by Jesse Collins (principal at the Central School of Art and Design) and by modernist designers/teachers Herbert Spencer, Anthony Froshaug and Edward Wright, who actively encouraged typographical experimentation.
Above Anthony Froshaug and an example of his modernist typography taught at the Central School of Art.
In 1950, David Gentleman, after returning from National Service, arrived at the RCA under the new Darwin regime. He slotted perfectly into the ensuing discipline of Bawden, whose work Gentleman greatly admired.
Edward Bawden's Cliffs and waterfall Caesaig 1950
He embraced life classes where he rubbed shoulders with students from the painting department, among them John Bratby, Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach and Peter Blake. It was this exciting cross-pollination, encouraged by Darwin and fondly remembered by many ex-alumni of the period, that made life at the college so stimulating. Gentleman was encouraged to try his hand at engraving. This proved successful and was to become part of Gentleman’s considerable creative armoury. He was awarded a travel bursary and opted for Italy. On his return, he started work on his first paid job: the illustrations for the cookery book Plat du Jour by Patience Gray, who had been Guyatt’s secretary at the college.
Plat du Jour by Patience Gray an early Gentleman project 1957
After graduating in 1953, Gentleman became a junior tutor at the college – something he later said he would never do again. Gentlemen went on to produce many illustrated books and was instrumental in shaping the early design direction of Royal Mail’s special issue stamps. And along with a number of ex-RCA designers and artists, including June Fraser and Eduardo Paolozzi, he produced large-scale station murals for the London Underground.
Part 2 will appear here soon.
This is Atul Gawande.
He is a surgeon and writer. More importantly, he is giving this year’s BBC Reith Lectures.
So far, there have been 3. There is just one to go. They are wonderful.
It is the first time I have heard a doctor speak with such clarity, simplicity and elegance. It is a tour de force in the art of clear communication void of all jargon. Anyone who has to speak publicly should listen to this man. He has the gift of storytelling. Take a listen to this one on ageing and death. It is extremely moving. Click Here