Ideas above his station (and below it)
David Gentleman, graphic designer, illustrator and artist, is 92 today. Many areas of visual culture have benefited from his quiet yet consistent work over the decades: paperback covers, poster designs, corporate logos, coins and stamps, book illustration. Adopting a variety of styles Gentleman has used almost every technique, often pushing the, er, envelope in so doing. In recognition of his service Royal Mail has just treated him (and us) to the very rare honour of a presentation pack featuring a selection of his stamp designs, whilst his new book My Town – An Artist’s Life In London mixes fresh and lively topographical sketches with his own text.
From the early sixties Gentleman has permeated daily life, whether one was picking up a classic Eng. Lit. text, working for British Steel (he designed their logo, a simple but strong thing evoking two pieces of bent rebar) or discovering the capital’s Victorian architecture via his London Underground publicity. And he isn’t always a ‘gentle man’, as a section of his website labelled Dissent demonstrates. His stamps – a hundred of them – represent an entire field of study on their own, even without reference to his ground-breaking introduction of a reduced profile of the Queen to free space for the art.
Commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Britain in 1965, Gentleman deployed bold silhouettes of iconic aircraft from that conflict zoomed, cropped and repeated like frames from gun camera footage. His designs celebrating Concorde brilliantly and elegantly compress and overlap its most famous elements – wing, nose and tail. In the winter of 1977, as Britons were wrapping their presents and looking forward to a little thing called Star Wars, the cards they were receiving that year carried Gentleman’s Twelve Days of Christmas; cleverly, he fitted more than one ‘day’ into each stamp, whilst if you look carefully the partridge actually appears twice.
For me, though, Gentleman’s masterpiece is at the opposite end of the scale. For all of my life I have been entranced by his striking linear frieze running the entire length of both Northern Line platforms at Charing Cross tube station. Completed in 1979 to mark its remodelling and renaming, this bold, monochrome mural tells the story of the last Eleanor Cross, the 13th century stone monument that gave the tube and railway station their names and whose much later replica stands in the forecourt today.
Twelve Crosses were erected by King Edward I between 1291 and about 1295 in memory of his wife Eleanor of Castile, one in each of the cities where her funeral procession stopped overnight on its journey between Nottinghamshire and London. That at Charing was the most lavish, placed to the north of Whitehall. Gentleman carefully illustrates the stages of its construction, from felling trees for scaffolding and arch centring through quarrying, dressing and assembling the stone blocks to installation of the eponymous cross. Appropriately Gentleman employed woodblock printing to realise his designs, blown up so that the figures are life-size (he still has the printing blocks). The pleasure as a viewer comes from the wit he deploys whilst telling the story and the clever way he integrates the events of seven centuries ago with today’s commuting life, in a kind of artistic handshake across time. In the 1200s dogs run around, a man struggles with his horse and another rubs his chin wondering whether the carved figure matches the drawing he holds. In the 2000s, medieval masons ‘rest’ on the benches commuters use or wheel loads along them, the staff letter box is being removed from a bed of stone and women appear to be waving a train off.
The overall effect is remarkably powerful, even more so given the multi-coloured visual blizzard that usually assaults the eye in a tube station. The mural has never been disfigured by advertising and I have never seen it graffitied. Physically it has lasted very well (the actual Cross was removed in the 17th century) with only a couple of chips. Perhaps TfL have a special hit squad that pops out at night to clean it. I hope so.