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 here
Part 3 here