Design of the times
Dan Carrier remembers the celebrated commercial artist and designer David Holmes, who died last week
31 January, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
David Holmes in his studio
STEPPING through the back door of David Holmes’s Primrose Hill home and studio meant leaving the hustle and bustle of London behind, and being transported, magically, thousands of miles away to the tranquility of a beautiful garden in Singapore.
As you got to know the artist and illustrator, who died last week aged 85, the reason for such an interesting design was apparent – he had spent many happy years working in the Far East and had recreated a personal Eden, with trickling streams and miniature houses, bamboo and bonsai trees.
The garden was neat, well ordered and beautiful to look at. It felt like an extension to his studio, packed with paper, inks, brushes. It also felt like an introduction to his work, and as you got to know him a little more, his character, too.
David’s art has been seen and enjoyed by millions of people around the world, but his creativity stretched beyond the visual arts to something else entirely. His work – in a pre-digital age – did not just mean putting other people’s ideas into graphic and visual form, but coming up with concepts himself.
He would ring the Review offices when he had something new to show us – and his calls were always warmly received and very much looked forward to.
A visit to his studio would mean leaving with gifts of signed posters under your arm: one, called “May Day May-Daylight Robbery!”, graces the wall of my home – his careful line drawings were married to an A to Z of ways an individual can make the world a better place, a manifesto for progressive change.
“Richness and diversity in our daily lives is being plundered,” his lettering reads. “Celebrate the things that are particular to your place and follow common ground rules to stop the rot…”
Detail from David’s poster May Day May-Daylight Robbery!
He then laid out an A-Z of such rules, including: “Work for local identity – oppose monoculture in our fields, parks, gardens, and buildings. Resist formulae and automatic ordering from pattern books that homogenise and deplete… Reveal the past! Decay is an important process. Don’t tidy up so much that the layers of history and reclamation my nature are obliterated… let continuity show… Let the character of people and the place express itself. Kill corporate identity before it kills our high streets. Give local shops precedence…”
He presented me with an original stamp he had drawn to mark the 2012 Olympics. He put it on an envelope with my address and then carefully completed the drawing with one of his ink fountain pens. Winking at me, he said that I should save it for after his death “as it may be worth a bob or two”. It’s far too treasured for a philatelist to put a price on it.
In 2016 he produced David Holmes’ Book: A Brush With the Music of Time that was part autobiography, part retrospective. It told his story of a life lived in 20th-century art and advertising. He designed stamps for the Royal Mail, column breaks for The New Yorker, front pages for Vogue, adverts for Spam and Dyno-Rod, book covers, posters for the Primrose Hill Community Association (gratis, of course), and was responsible for some of the best-known ad campaigns of the age of modern mass media, spending seven decades in the trade. He turned a small whisky brand, Macallan, into the world’s third biggest seller, and even did a range for the government celebrating the entry of the UK into the EEC.
David was born in Ealing, his father Norman an engineer who worked on the gliders that took troops silently across the Channel as D-Day was launched. David, showing aptitude for technical drawing, could have followed his dad onto such a shop floor. He enrolled at Ealing Technical College in the post-war years and was given the basic tools for a life in design.
May Day May-Daylight Robbery!
He told Review last year: “I didn’t have any ambitions – I just concentrated on what they wanted us to do. It was all hand lettering, still life, technical drawing, and photography.”
He recalled how he learned to draw a screw thread accurately, he also learned the skills of copperplate lettering, landscape paintings, figures, still lifes – everything that in the pre-computer age was needed for graphic design.
He told us how he loved Turner’s work, and that of the Cornish painter Alfred Wallis. He also greatly admired Edward Ardizzone – and once approached him to do a campaign.
David revealed Ardizzone politely declined: “It was about 1973 when I had an advertising job that would have benefitted from his illustrations,” David wrote in his autobiography. “Ardizzone said: ‘David, I remember I was once commissioned to draw some pictures for an advertising campaign and I drew exactly what they asked me to do… do you know, David, they did not like what I did… they rejected my drawings. I would rather not do more advertising drawings if you don’t mind…’ I did not press him and felt strangely grubby that I has even asked him.
“What was Orwell’s aggressive contention? That advertising is ‘simply the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket’.”
As David’s work shows, such a statement neglects to understand the creativity behind such rattling, but it is telling that he should recount such a self-deprecating line about the trade that gave him such a varied life.
David was a lovely conversationist. He was also as one of the best-dressed men in Primrose Hill – which is saying something – having a penchant for smartly polished spats, well-tailored suits and the love of a good hat.
He will be greatly missed but his work will live on, a monument to a leader in the field of British 20th-century commercial art.