House, British (1932 - 2004)
of the works made during his last years by the painter and graphic
designer Gordon House, who has died aged 71, referred back to
his birthplace in the Swansea valley. He spent his earliest
years in the steel town of Pontardawe. In Tin-pan Valley, the
memoir he published earlier this year, he recalled "the
clamour of steel mills ... the tinplate works and pithead gear"
and "dynamite blasting as coal seams were struck higher
up the valley".
No doubt that world of practicalities influenced his graphic
design. Once, having produced an entirely original design for
the contents of a catalogue for a large Arts Council exhibition,
he was told that there was no money available for anything but
a few words on the front cover. He reacted calmly by saying
that he would, therefore, do a beautiful white cover - and he
did. He once described his design work for the Arts Council
of Great Britain "as a public service".
Unemployment and the depression of the 1930s led Gordon's parents
to take him from the valleys of south Wales to the order and
designed coherence of Letchworth, "Hertfordshire's first
garden city". After leaving school at 14, he went to study,
first, at Luton School of Art. For a while after that, he worked
in a hospital, before, with the aid of a scholarship, moving
on to St Albans School of Art.
He then worked as an assistant to the ecclesiastical sculptor
Theodore Kern. Work on the restoration of sculpture in bombed
churches, at a time of limited resources, provided lessons in
Gordon then joined a small advertising studio in Letchworth
- "everything in Gill Sans" - and his career as a
graphic designer was underway. Between 1952 and 1959, he designed
for ICI and, from 1959 and 1961, for the Kynoch Press. He married
Jo Hull in 1955.
By 1961, Gordon had become established among a new generation
of artists as an independently minded and adventurous painter
and designer. The previous year, he had shown his large, bold,
hard-edged canvasses at the important London "Situation"
exhibition of large-scale abstract painting, and had designed
the catalogue for that exhibition.
My generation of artists saw him as a spirited painter colleague,
and also as one who had a vision of what the environment of
art (catalogues, private view cards, exhibition posters, even
galleries) could look like.
At the start of the 1960s, galleries and museums lacked any
kind of coherent approach to matters of communication and presentation.
They were without house styles, and seemed to change graphics
with every exhibition. The art world was filled with stylistic
debris, just as London was still covered with the debris of
the second world war. Gordon's graphics helped clear away the
debris of the galleries, and contributed to a new spirit that
in turn helped rebuild London.
A new generation of dealers quickly recognised the freshness
of his designing. A simple, modular graphic layout and house
style turned every gallery into an identifiable entity; an easy-to-read
typeface made his graphics light in feel and popular with dealers,
artists and public alike. He had the ability to inspire those
for whom he worked. He became a part of the whole production
of an exhibition. Galleries seemed to change and freshen up
in response to his designs, and artists felt that their studio
adventures were being extended by collaboration with him.
As the 1960s moved on, Gordon designed for the pop world. He
worked for the Beatles, designing their White album and the
back of the Sergeant Pepper album, for which his longtime friend
Peter Blake designed the front. Later, he designed Wings' first
album. He delighted in the creative energy of others, and so
could respond to the talents of musicians and artists alike.
Gordon made paintings throughout his life as a designer. During
the 1960s and 70s, his canvasses and prints reflected the dramatic
tensions of his graphic design; by the 1980s, Wales had become
his constant subject matter. The surface, texture and colour
of his paintings softened. No doubt, he needed to pay homage
to the places and the people who had shaped him, just as he
always paid homage to the artists for whom he designed.
His canvasses reduced in size, becoming palm-of-the-hand landscapes.
He spent much time in Wales and, in his final years, he used
his brush to walk a path through memories of collieries, valleys,
smoking stacks, rows of cottages and the people who had first
I do not remember Gordon ever discussing theories of either
art or design. In graphic design, he saw "a cause",
a way of building something better. In that respect, his graphics
paid homage to his garden city. I can only imagine that his
later paintings were made in homage to the human and environmental
struggles of the country of his birth.
He is survived by his wife, and three of their four children,
Joanne, Ceri and Joel.
· Gordon House, painter and graphic designer, born June
22 1932 - died March 20 2004