Almost four decades ago, John Thirsk was an illustrator who was popping up everywhere. His reportage style made him the perfect choice for projects that needed a sense of ‘on the spot’ visual reality. Here are two lovely examples illustrated by Thirsk, which were designed by a very talented and prominent consultancy at the time, Delaney & Ireland.
Both projects take the form of slip-cased portfolios. The first (produced in 1978) records a two-week journey by narrow boat loaned to John Thirsk by the British Waterways Board after they had seen a series of drawings by him of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal; these drawings had been commissioned by The Sunday Times.
The second (produced in 1983) promotes Croft Port and captures the history of the company. Through Thirsk’s fluid line, the illustrations visually conjures up the atmosphere of Portugal and the process of producing their rich liquid treasure.
In 1978, during my time as Art Director at Fontana Paperbacks, I commissioned Thirsk to illustrate the cover of H. G. Wells’ Kipps. It still looks very fresh…
John Thirsk is still working away on paper with pencils and brushes and also digitally, as I discovered when hunting for him.
This drawing was done using Macromedia FreeHand. So, old dogs and new tricks? Not a bit of it.
If you’d like to see more of John's work, you can reach him here.
Gerard Hoffnung (1925 –1959) was an illustrator and musician. He was best known for his humorous cartoons on musical themes, and also illustrated the works of novelists and poets. In 1956 Hoffnung mounted the first of his Hoffnung Festivals in London, at which classical music was spoofed for comic effect, with contributions from many eminent musicians. Here are some examples of his lovely line...
The 50th anniversary of the death of C. S. Lewis and the reading of his The Screwtape Letters on Radio 4 this week makes for perfect synchronicity with the illustrator I want to celebrate, and not just me. The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) will honour Tony Meeuwissen with Royal Designer for Industry at their annual awards next week.
Above a selection from the Fontana C.S. Lewis paperback series that Tony Meeuwissen designed for me in 1974.
Back in the 1970s, when I was art director of Fontana paperbacks, I commissioned Tony to design many paperback covers. This included a series for C.S. Lewis, which Tony executed with his usual brilliant attention to detail and conceptual brilliance.
Born in 1938, Tony Meeuwissen has been quietly beavering away since the mid-1950s. Over the decades, he has been responsible for some of the most staggeringly beautiful work ever produced: work that has constantly won awards, accolades and praise along the way. He is a modest, obsessive worker, spending three to four years on single-book projects.
Alan Fletcher once said that there are few real mavericks in our business. Well, Tony Meeuwissen is just that: a true maverick. His work is always inventive, intensely detailed and full of wit and beauty. On becoming a freelance illustrator in the late ‘60s, Meeuwissen worked for a range of clients, including Radio Times, The Sunday Times magazine, Penguin Books, Fontana and Music Sales. He also created the cover artwork for the classic Rolling Stones album Their Satanic Majesties Request.
Centre lable for Transtalantic records 1972
Tony is not only an exceptional illustrator but he also has the mind of a designer. His work is infused with inventive ideas and wit, always breathtakingly realised through his gift of supreme craftsmanship.
One of the most beautiful D&AD covers designed by Tony in 1973
This excellence has earned him two D&AD silver awards and two of the much-coveted D&AD gold awards; he is the only illustrator to have achieved that. He has also received a V&A book illustration award. His work is in their permanent collection.
Remarkable Animals 1997
Above from The Key to the Kingdom 1993
Meeuwissen has also produced his own books: the children’s titles The Witch’s Hat, Remarkable Animals, Flip-O-Storic and The Key to the Kingdom, which is a book and set of beautifully realised ‘transformation’ playing cards that took him three years to complete.
Above 2 examples from the many paperback covers Tony designed during David Pelham's era as Art Director of Penguin Books
David Pelham, Penguin Books’ art director from the late 1960s to the late ‘70s, recalls: “On first meeting him it quickly became apparent that, armed as he was with a singular and quite remarkable illustrative technique, he was a keen reader with a sharp insight, able to absorb the essence of a book and to consequently define it with a strong and relevant image. Few have the ability to convey a notion from the mind’s eye to the drawing board with such clarity, originality and wit as Tony.”
Royal Mail Christmas Stamps 1984
Royal Mail Weather stamps 2001
Royal Mail Greetings stamps 1991
He has also produced a number of stamps for Royal Mail, one of which was voted the world’s most beautiful stamp. Now age 75, he shows no sign of retiring and is in the middle of another lengthy book project.
Tony Meeuwissen has spent his life demonstrating an extraordinary level of craftsmanship. All produced by hand, without the aid of digital technology.
He is an inspiration to anyone wanting to understand the hand-and-eye craft that is being lost in this digital age. And, what’s more, he never went to art school and learned his craft the old way of working in many long gone ‘commercial art’ studios in the mid 1950's, climbing his way up in a bygone era.
The main bulk of his output has been in the promotion of literacy through not only the many covers he has produced but also his own book projects for children, which have engaged and enchanted many young readers to look deeply into his work, where they are richly rewarded. His work educates, illuminates and delights through its breath-taking beauty and unsurpassed skill.
Now that’s what I call a contribution to society, and it is truly fitting that he should be honoured as a Royal Designer for Industry.
Some time back, I spent a couple
of years studying the Constantin Stanislavski approach to acting at the Method
School in London – originally set up by Lee Strasberg’s wife, Anna – which is
sadly now closed. I became quite obsessed and extremely passionate about the
whole thing, mainly because I was going through a bit of a personal trauma at
the time and found it relatively easy to tap into raw emotions that bubbled
away under the surface. That is the stuff that makes a performance ‘real’; that
and the fact that it was fantastic therapy to help get
bottled-up emotions out of the system and shared. I would thoroughly recommend
It got me thinking about how Stanislavski’s teaching could manifest itself in
other creative areas, and illustration seems a perfect candidate.
Above pub sign by John Gorham the original master method illustrator
There are four illustrators that I would class as ‘method’ illustrators: the
late John Gorham, Mick Brownfield, Andrew Davidson and Mark Thomas. Why? Well,
because they all have the ability to ‘inhabit’ another era in their work to
such an extent that they ‘become’, effectively living in the shoes of early
John Gorham was a man who would have been more than happy living in the late
19th or early 20th century, when craft and attention to detail were the norm.
If you looked at a cigarette card from the 1930s and compared it to a Gorham
rendition, you couldn’t tell the difference.
The remakable thing about the above is that it was all hand drawn and lettered by Gorham. A real labour of love.
When working, he became that
artist back in the 1930s. He lived, breathed and loved it and it showed in the
results. I commissioned John a hell of a lot in the 1970s and he would often
bring in a new ‘treasure’, as he referred to his latest pieces of ephemera
unearthed from a junk shop or (more often than not) from David Drummond’s shop
of curiosities just off St Martin’s Lane. John would positively salivate over
an engraving or illustration from an old annual. One could see that he was far
more excited about the quality of that bygone era of work than anything that was
being done at the time.
A different personality but just as passionate is Mick Brownfield: a master of
his craft and drenched in the glory days of ‘commercial’ illustration when
cheeks were rosy, jaws were square and highlights glistened. He has been at it
since the 1970s and can still be found at his very analogue drawing board with
Radio 4 purring in the background. Or at least that’s how I imagine him.
Above shows Brownfield's astonishing
versatility in styles from earlier periods executed with supreme craftsmanship.
Mark Thomas, another ‘method’ candidate, is just so spot on with his pulp
The last of this quartet is Andrew Davidson: a wonderful wood engraver but,
when not doing that, he often slips into the shoes of Frank Newbold et al. He
does this with great aplomb, as you can see here…
Above the marvelously evocative work of Andrew Davidson
It is heartening that the world of illustration is not only retaining its hands
on craft but that there is a whole wealth of new illustrators flexing their
young wings to show that craft is alive, kicking and developing. Hooray.
For those of you who remember the wonderful
last interview with playwright Dennis Potter, I think you will appreciate this
touching radio chat with children’s book illustrator Maurice Sendak shortly before
he died. The same love of simple things and love of nature was clearly permeating
his mind in those last months.
It is made even more powerful by this delightfully sensitive animated
tribute by Christoph Niemann for The New York Times.
Make some coffee, sit in a
comfortable chair and watch here.
It always fascinates me when so-called ‘fine artists’ wander into the commercial scene, such as last year’s Olympic posters by a bevy of Tate-blessed artists with a resulting diabolical set of posters that, had they been under the exacting brief of the commercial arena, would have all been rejected. But regular readers of this blog will know I’ve already had a rant about that.
But what about the other way round, when a ‘commercial’ artist turns fine artist? Well, in the case of Michelle Thompson, it transitions beautifully.
This is Michelle…
Michelle at work – she is rather camera shy.
This is her most useful tool…
And this is her material…
Old magazines, books, packaging, comics and catalogues all go into the mix.
And lashings of paint...
Michelle graduated from Norwich School of Art and went on to a postgraduate course at the Royal College of Art under the watchful eye of Robert Mason and Dan Fern: considerable illustrators in their time.
Collage has always been an important creative vehicle for many artists: Picasso, Paolozzi, Rauschenberg, Schwitters and Blake, to name just a few. And in the commercial arena, Cristiana Couceiro has seen great success with her surprising re-assemblages of familiar 20th-century graphics...
Cristiana Couceiro cannibalises immediately recognisable 20th century graphics in her work
And firmly in that camp is Michelle Thompson, with a wonderfully sensitive approach to this age-old genre. And as well as taking on commercial commissions, she produces a regular flow of self-published personal works as limited edition high-quality Giclée prints (a form inkjet printing that has become increasingly popular with photographers, illustrators and artists alike).
A recent piece called Flight, in this case not a Giclée print
but a good old fashioned screen print which Michelle started producing in 2010.
In recent years, Peter Blake has unleashed a plethora of Giclée printwork available in many galleries up and down the country on an industrial scale.
Above Peter Blake, James Dean at the Albert Hall 2012
I find Michelle’s non-commercial work extremely beautiful, sensitive and even moving.
Take a look…
See what I mean? When she is at her most minimalist, there is a real power and beauty to the work and she has a wonderful sense of colour and composition.
Above: Michelle’s other activity: selling prints through galleries. In this case her own yearly 'Open Studio'.
It is not surprising that her work has graced many book covers and editorial spreads around the world. It is great to see a working mum of two managing to juggle the pressures of family life with a creative heart; sadly so many women I have known have hung up their creative hats: a great loss to the design world. But, thankfully, not Michelle: long may she continue cutting and pasting.
Back in the 1960s when the Radio Times was still printed letterpress and, apart from the cover, was only in black and white there was a wonderful array of pen and ink illustrators who created very personal styles, among them Jim Russell whose work I absolutely adored. This is my favourite of Jim’s work from that special period of Radio Times.