Gordon House: the print of a visionary
- Credit: Courtesy Joanne Marks
A key figure in the British Pop Art movement, Gordon House was hugely influential but remains little known outside of artistic cirles. Sandra Smith looks at his life and works ahead of a retrospective in Letchworth - the town where he grew up
When the impact of an artist exceeds their familiarity, public recognition is slow to evolve. In the case of Gordon House, whose work includes creating The Beatles’ iconic Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band artwork alongside Peter Blake and continues to inform artistic practice, acknowledgement is long overdue. Thanks to Letchworth’s Broadway Gallery, however, the impact of House’s talent as a graphic designer and painter is receiving the credit it deserves in the town where he grew up.
Visual arts curator Laura Dennis explains the background to the gallery’s new exhibition Gordon House: Paint to Print. ‘The idea came about because of Richard Smith, an artist whose work we opened the gallery with last year. In our first telephone conversation he told me about his old friend, Gordon House. I was fascinated by the story that he was both an artist and designer and played such an instrumental role – yet was somewhat overlooked – in getting artist screen printing off the ground. This led to exciting work in print. He was a real pioneer.’
Born in south Wales in 1932, House was raised in Letchworth and attended St Albans School of Art in 1947 before working first in an advertising agency and then as a designer creating technical journals for ICI. Combining his day job with painting during his spare time, early loose abstract images were gradually influenced by a geometric preference which went on to characterise his style for much of his career.
Prior to House, screen printing’s application lay in the commercial sector, specifically posters and packaging. Yet his lateral thinking, combined with technical proficiency and music industry links, resulted in collaborations with some of pop’s best known musicians, including The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. House’s daughter, Joanne Marks, recalls her father’s dedication and circle of famous friends:
‘I grew up just knowing that we had original artwork on our walls and lots of these were created by friends of my parents and very much treasured. Dad worked continuously and his paintings sat amongst them. Most of my parents’ social life was taken up with attending private views and famous artists were household names. I can remember musicians coming to visit and knowing that it was a very big deal and we shouldn’t tell our friends at school in case they came hunting for autographs. Christmas Day was probably the only day he didn’t work.’
Laura explains that House created a series of graphic works for the Robert Fraser Gallery in the 1960s: ‘Robert was known as Groovy Bob, a super cool gallerist. Musicians flocked to his private views. Gordon House, already doing gallery graphics for Groovy Bob, was brought in to do typography for album covers.’
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As a result, House played a key role in the creation of some of the best known images of the 20th century including The Beatles’ futuristic and groundbreaking White Album design (a striking white cover with an embossed Helvetica font) and the Live Aid posters. House also worked with Paul McCartney for many years after the Fab Four’s break-up.
As an artist and graphic designer, House harnessed his knowledge and drive to invent a style which became evocative of the 60s – a creative skill which was matched by a generosity of spirit. He remained lifelong friends with Richard Smith and regularly encouraged other artists. Self publicity rarely infiltrated his ambitions. Rather, bringing people together behind the scenes took priority, culminating in long term working relationships which were acknowledged in several heartfelt obituaries from his peers after his death in 2004.
The majority of large paintings and prints on display in the Letchworth exhibition are on loan from Gerrish Fine Art who represent the artist’s studio. In addition, Joanne has contributed some early paintings.
‘My dad had his first exhibition in Letchworth,’ she explains simply. She adds, ‘Gordon House was an important part of the modern art movement and painted practically all his life. It is wonderful that his legacy of being the first to use Helvetica and being instrumental in artists’ printmaking is now coming into the limelight. Up and coming art students will be educated as to the origins of the influential advancement.’
As a significant figure in the development of British Pop Art, for over 50 years Gordon House’s impact has resonated with artists, including his own family. Ceri, his son, has exhibited, like his father, at the Royal Academy, while grandson Oliver recently opened Marks & Tilt, a gallery in St Albans.
‘He changed the face of British art,’ Laura concludes. ‘Artists have learned that they can try new things, that it’s good to support friends. Collaboration can lead to things that in turn lead back to your own practice. Gordon House established a method which already existed but used it in a different way. He said he wanted to be an artist and that was the path he took.’
Gordon House: Paint to Print is on at Broadway Gallery, Letchworth until January 28.