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...
Richard Nixon was finally shown up for the crook he was and resigned.
The first British television-savvy politician, Harold Wilson, was elected Prime Minister.
Professor Erno Rubik invented his 'Magic Cube'
The bar code strip was introduced
“Goodnight John boy” – The Waltons was first screened.
Tom Baker became the fourth Dr Who in 1974
Alan Fletcher won a D&AD Gold with this Reuters gift.
“We’d like to offer you the job as Art Director of Fontana Paperbacks,” said the voice at the other end of the phone. Filled with excitement and the dread of having the task of telling Charles Pick, Managing Director of William Heinemann, that I was going to leave to join Collins’ paperback division. He simply said. “Oh well, at least they are in the family.” Both Heinemann and Collins had joint interests in Pan Books.
Roland Gant, Heinemann’s Editorial Director plus a wonderful mimic and raconteur, took me for a farewell lunch at The Garrick Club, a male-only haven for thespians and arty types. On arrival, the porter discreetly told me that I would have to wear a tie and produced a most inconguous specimen for me to put on. While standing at the bar, Roland said, “Oh look there’s Osbert.” (Osbert Lancaster was a well-known cartoonist at the time, and a rather short man.) I was taken aback as I’d always imagined him as a tall, elegant figure, like the many aristocratic characters depicted in his cartoons. In a nervous moment, I was about to splutter, “I didn’t realise you were so short” (yes, I really was), until I felt a sharp prod in the ribs from Roland, who’s antenna was up. I quickly changed it to “I would have recognised you anywhere.” I was still socially inept in certain circumstances.
Osbert Lancaster's Illustration for the cover of The Kindly Ones
At the time, lunch was served at The Garrick at long, refectory-style tables with large jugs of water placed at regular intervals. A bevy of what I recall as dinner lady types provided the service. I realised very quickly that many of these London clubs were simply extensions of public school environments with their porters and servers.
Above the last catalogue I designed for the World's Work children's list for '74
3 covers by John Gorham towards the end of my time at Heinemann
For the last months of my time at Heinemann, I had a new secretary in the shape of Penny Waldmann, daughter of some property tycoon or other. After working out my notice, I walked ten minutes away from my familiar Mayfair environment to the equally exclusive address of St James’s Place, where William Collins & Sons was located in a charming Georgian house.
The home of William Collins & Sons and Fontana Paperbacks and also my new home for the next happy 5 years, way up at the very top of the building.
Once more, the studio was right at the very top of the building, in what would have been the maids’ quarters.
On my arrival, I found a two-roomed studio painted entirely in matte black. It was dark and depressing; apparently, the previous Art Director, John Constable, rather liked the gloomy atmosphere. This was exacerbated by the fact that Britain was plunged into a three-day week due to industrial action, and the electricity supply was cut off each day at 4pm, when everyone had to work with the aid of candles or Tilley lamps.
Illuminated by gaslight during the industrial dispute of '74.
It created a wartime spirit and miraculously, everything still got done in those analogue days – God knows what would happen now.
Within weeks, I’d had the whole studio repainted white throughout, with a mid-grey lino floor and two spacious plan chests. I had also inherited a secretary – who I seem to recall was the stepdaughter of the wartime flying hero Douglas Barder – and a young Anglo-Polish designer called Tad Aronovitch. It is always tricky inheriting assistants from another regime – a lot of suspicion and judging goes on in the background. I actually needed two assistants, so the call went out and, a week or so later, I hired a charming young college leaver called Bill Jones. So now there were four in my new tight-knit ship.
The Fontana team. From the top me, Bill, Rosmary (who replaced Douglas Barder's step daughter) and Tad, on the roof of 14 St James's Place in the summer of 1974.
Fontana had a much larger list to deal with: almost 500 titles per year. The list was very varied: extremely commercial at one end and highly intellectual at the other. I had a secret agenda to transform the look of Fontana Paperbacks to rival Penguin. Even though a large part of the list was escapist airport fodder, I decided that if they had to look commercial, I would still care about all the elements that made up the covers.
Nothing to write home about but this was the very first Fontana cover I designed on my maiden day there. Film tie in covers were common and turned around very fast. This is an example of me with my 'commercial' hat on. There would be a lot more of that over the next 4 years.
My immediate boss and the person who hired me was Mark Collins, the youngest of the Collins publishing dynasty. He was a bespectacled, gangly, ungainly character with a rather disarming, boyish shyness. He inhabited an unbelievably messy office with manuscripts piled high and covering most of the floor. It also had a large double-sided partners desk sitting in the middle, with every drawer filled to the brim.
My letterhead that was included in the '74 D&AD Annual
My first few months were spent gaining familiarity with the list of authors, genres and the increased volume of work. I very quickly introduced a uniformed typographical style to the spines. And I pulled in many of the designers and illustrators who I had used at Heinemann along with some new finds, and I set course to hopefully make some waves.
My Film for 1974:
Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather II
My album for 1974:
My Job for that year:
Very Brief Encounter. Beautifully photographed by Graham Miller
This is Ben Shahn’s 1964 hardback book to memorialize John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Originally a poem by Wendell Berry published in The Nation magazine 4 days after Kennedy’s assassination. Shahn’s beautiful hand lettering has a sense of poignancy for such a tragedy.
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.