In Search of Hanna

Intrigued by the illustrated covers of 1950s magazine Country Fair, Nick Asbury blogged an appeal to find out more about the artist responsible. Four years later, a comment left by the illustrator’s son began a process of filling in the gaps and rediscovering the career of Australian commercial artist John Hanna

The first issue of Country Fair magazine appeared in the UK in July 1951. Billed as “a monthly journal of the open air”, it was personally funded by editor Macdonald Hastings and never reached more than a niche readership, surviving for eight years before folding. But one thing about the magazine was a consistent creative and commercial success: its cover designs. Each depicted a familiar animal, in a winningly anthropomorphic style, usually employing just one background colour. And each was signed with a single-word name: Hanna.

I came across a pile of the magazines six years ago in a secondhand bookshop. When I looked up the illustrator online, I expected a long list of results: old magazines for sale, a biography of the artist, forums full of enthusiasts, links to more of his work. But the internet was eerily silent. I wrote a blog post in 2009 appealing for information, which led to a scattering of messages from people who had stumbled across the magazines in car boot sales and secondhand shops in various parts of the world. Someone unearthed an editorial in the 50th edition of the magazine, dated August 1955, in praise of the illustrator John Hanna, an Australian-born artist who moved to the UK in 1947 and worked here for over a decade before returning home. But most of the details of his life and work remained elusive until earlier this year, when a new comment appeared on the post. It was from Hanna’s son, Max. He has since been helping to fill in some of the gaps.

 

A life in illustration
The illustrator behind the Country Fair covers was born in Melbourne in 1919. At the age of 20, he began work as a satirical cartoonist for the Argus in Melbourne, penning a series of pen-and-ink cartoons documenting the outbreak of war and – following his conscription – sending up the humdrum realities of army life. In 1947, aged 28, he emigrated to England and got a job in the art department of SH Benson, creators of the ‘Guinness is good for you’ campaign among others. By 1950, having developed enough contacts, Hanna turned freelance. One of those contacts was Macdonald Hastings, who had given him his first assignment on arriving in England – an illustration for an editorial article in another magazine. That contact led to the Country Fair commission, which signalled the start of a productive decade for the commercial artist – the illustrations were even produced as limited-edition place mats and sold in a separate promotion. At the same time, Hanna was busy working on assignments for Wall’s Ice Cream, Sugar Puffs, The British Tourist Association and others.

However, by 1961, work was harder to come by. Concerned about the increasing use of photography in advertising, Hanna accepted a position as art director at Briggs Canny James & Paramor in Sydney. A few years later, now in his late 40s, he turned freelance again and spent many years working for brands including Penfolds wines, Kellogg’s and Peek Frean biscuits. In his later years, he painted landscapes and worked on book illustrations. He died in 1992, apparently having worked until the end: one of his last projects was a series of illustrations for a book on traditional folk dance, co-authored by his daughter.

 

The clue’s in the photograph
Much of Hanna’s work remains out of reach. A trawl through the Advertising Archives website reveals plenty of work that might be his, but the attribution is uncertain – some advertising illustrators found room for a signature on their work, but Hanna didn’t make a habit of it. He spent his life working under different names, including Wiz, Jack Hanna and John Hanna, or more often no name at all.

In that context, it seems telling that all the Country Fair covers bear that prominent, one-word signature: Hanna. It may not be a stretch to imagine that this was work in which he took personal pride, and into which he put much of himself. Nor may it be a coincidence that a portrait taken by photographer John Gay in 1955 shows Hanna working on one of the Country Fair covers. The picture doesn’t give many clues to the techniques Hanna employed. But contemporary illustrator Joe McLaren, whose work includes commissions for White’s Books and the Penguin Great Ideas series, sees evidence of a particular craft.

“I think it’s possible some of the images were produced, at least in part, using scraperboard,” says McLaren. “This may be my natural bias, as I also use scraperboard, but it fits for the time. It was developed in the late 19th century as a medium for producing images that resembled woodcuts, but without the need for a printing press, to produce an image that could be prepared for print. It flourished in the 1940s and 1950s as the magazine industry in Britain expanded. The high-contrast images it created were easy to reproduce even with the cheapest production methods.”

As well as its practical advantages, McLaren believes the technique places Hanna in
a recognisable tradition. “The woodcut style recalls that particular English tradition of illustration which includes Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious, but goes back to Thomas Bewick some 150 years earlier. Hanna’s pictures have a sentimental, wide-eyed anthropomorphism to them (which may have something to do with Disney), but they retain something of the legacy of Bewick: a warmth and gentleness of character, based on shrewd, witty but nonetheless accurate observation.”

In his editorial in the 50th issue of Country Fair, editor Macdonald Hastings points to another quality in the work: “Coming from a land of budgerigars and kangaroos, most of the creatures of the English countryside were, to John, unfamiliar. But largely, I think, because as an artist he has looked at them with a completely fresh eye, he has presented them in a completely fresh manner.”
Clare Hastings, daughter of Macdonald Hastings, recently gave her blessing for the artworks to be reproduced on a series of place mats by designer Jenny Duff, reviving the promotion that took place during the 1950s. The illustrations are now beginning to reach a wider audience again.

 

From garages to Google
For me, the story resonates for two reasons. One is the work itself, which has such warmth and wit to it. But the other is the personal dimension. Some of the recurring themes in Hanna’s career have parallels today: the insecurities of the freelance lifestyle and the ever-present threat from new technology. But above all there is this sense of being an artist in a commercial world, your work tethered to various clients and campaigns, usually uncredited and quickly outpaced by the eternal present tense of advertising. Much of Hanna’s work is for businesses that have long since become obsolete or changed beyond recognition. But while the business imperative behind the work disappears over time, what survives is the humanity invested in its creation. It would be too sentimental to say that good work always gets rediscovered – no doubt much of it doesn’t. Hanna’s work spent years consigned to people’s lofts and garages, evading the algorithms of Google and instead travelling the loose real-world network of car boot sales and secondhand shops. But there was always a good chance it would resurface, looking as fresh as the day it was created.

 

Nick Asbury is a copywriter and one half of Asbury & Asbury, asburyandasbury.com. He also blogs at asburyandasbury.typepad.com/blog. With thanks to Max Hanna, Nicky Lo Bianco, Clare Hastings, Sir Max Hastings, Joe McLaren, Dr Chris Mullen and Jenny Duff. The John Hanna placemats are available from jennyduff.co.uk

 

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