Britain’s most recognisable artist that you may never have heard of?

5th December 2017

David Gentleman, born in 1930, is an artist whose style should be very familiar to all those with an interest in philately. He was prolific between 1962 and 2000 designing over one hundred stamps for the Post Office - more than anyone else in this period. However, what Gentleman should be commended for most is how he modernised the stamp, forever changing the fundamental design of the postage stamp in Britain.

 

His simple well-structured designs have covered topics from Churchill to Christmas and Christmas to the Millennium, and while the subject of his stamps often differ drastically, his style is consistent. A white backdrop and lack of three-dimensionality allows Gentleman’s very simplistic depictions of people, animals and buildings to stand out - crucial when working to such a small canvas size.

Speaking on design Gentleman once said “what I know about design.. I learned from stamps – my interest in refining an idea down to an absolute minimum.” His stamps for the 50th anniversary of the BBC in 1972 perfectly illustrate this; a camera, microphone and loudspeaker are broken into their simplest shapes and are layered on top of a blank backdrop. This gives Gentleman’s stamps clarity and makes his style instantly recognisable on the front of a letter. 

 

Three years after his first stamp design – the National Productivity Year set (1962) – postmaster general Tony Benn encouraged Gentleman to experiment with the traditional format of British stamp design. Gentleman responded by replacing the previously mandatory large photograph of the Queen with a smaller silhouetted cameo profile derived from Mary Gillick’s coinage head (although originally he had suggested removing it altogether). This change gave designers far more freedom and allowed for much larger pictorial designs.

 

In 1965 he worked with Benn and produced an album of non-traditional designs which included landscapes, animals, transport, famous people and the industrial revolution. In both 1969 and 1979 Gentleman won the Phillips Gold Medal for postage stamp design, cementing his success as a designer and becoming the first and only artist to win the award twice. The radical differences he introduced in the range and style of British stamp designs has influenced the subject matter of stamps for over fifty years now, making Gentleman the father of modern stamp design. 

 

While Gentleman may not be a household name, it is likely his work has at some stage entered almost every house in the country, pushed through a letter box attached firmly to the front of a letter or parcel.

Patrick Collyer


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