How I Got Here: David Gentleman

As David Gentleman publishes a new book on London, to coincide with his 90th birthday, we spoke with the artist about his lengthy career and the stories behind his work, including his Penguin book covers and platform-length Underground mural

While many grow tired of London’s rapid expansion and hurried rhythm, David Gentleman’s outlook is a testament to Samuel Johnson’s famous quote that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. Born in Hertfordshire, the artist has called the city – and indeed, the same street – home for nearly 70 years, and if anything, he seems more transfixed than ever. His latest book, My Town – released to coincide with his 90th birthday – is filled with charming illustrations of the city’s myriad scenes, interspersed with musings on his home, studio and life’s work to date.

Much like the city itself, the aesthetic and scale of Gentleman’s work has varied on a continuous basis over the years. His wood engravings have been applied to everything from thumbnail-size postage stamps to New Penguin Shakespeare book covers to a mural stretching the length of the platform at Charing Cross Underground station. Adorned with life-size medieval figures interacting with the many fixtures, benches and entrances found along the platform, the mural was designed to draw a parallel between the workers who built the station and those who now use it everyday.

Following on from his wood engravings, Gentleman moved into working with lithography, which he used to depict scenes he encountered both in the UK and beyond. The artist has also produced a great number of other book covers, logos, menus, and posters – including a series for the National Trust and his hard-hitting anti-Iraq war designs. Nowadays, his time is primarily spent on watercolour drawings of the city that never ceases to inspire him.

Here, Gentleman talks to CR about his experience as a young creative in London following World War II, why he’s worked the same way throughout his career, and the stories behind his best-known projects.

Inheriting a creative streak That came very easily and very early in life, because both my parents were artists. They didn’t particularly encourage me to draw but they were doing it themselves, so it looked as ordinary as the other things they did, like digging the garden or washing the dishes.

They made it look normal and ordinary and just one of things that got done. They were very encouraging when they saw that I was interested, but I never, ever felt under any pressure from them to turn to this way of life.

Deciding on a creative education My education was fairly ordinary. I went to the local grammar school and I stayed on at the sixth form having done English and history and art. And I had to decide at that point whether I wanted to go to university or to art school.  I thought very hard about this and I decided that what I most wanted to do was to go to art school. Then I went to art school and did national service, and then onto my main art school teaching which was at the Royal College of Art.

Life as a young creative in the post-war years Things were beginning to look up at that point. The war had left a depressing air of shabbiness and half-done stuff and bomb sites with nothing happening to them. But then in 1951 came the Festival of Britain and that was an exciting and optimistic time of my young life. And it meant that when I finished at the Royal College, I knew that what I really wanted to do was to work – and to work on my own – and my goal was to make sure that people saw what I was doing.