Stamps designer David Gentleman

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David Gentleman’s stamp designs have been inspirational for over 40 years and 100 different Grat Britain designs. His father was Tom Gentleman, who was a very good artist and was noted for his work in watercolours and oils, particularly for posters and children’s books. His mother, Winifred, was also an accomplished painter.

After attending grammar school, it was a year at St. Albans Art School, before National Service in the army. After the army he passed the entrance exam for the Royal College of Art. Gentleman explained: ‘During those years I was privileged to have been in such close proximity with good teachers, such as Edward Bawden and John Nash, who had a strong influence on me’. After three years as a student he stayed at the Royal College for a further two years as a Junior Tutor.

Early work
His introduction to Royal Mail came with the 1962 set of three stamps for National Productivity Year. Gentleman recalled: ‘No specific brief was provided for the NPY issue, although a logo had already been designed’. Several designers were invited to submit ideas, and Gentleman’s were selected. He said: ‘I quickly grasped the essence of designing to a small scale. My aim was to keep the designs simple; to ensure they will print well; to make them interesting and beautiful; to be meaningful; to keep the inessentials out; to ensure that The Queen’s portrait is an integral part of the design and not an intrusion; to make the final result look inevitable, even though achieving that aim may have meant a great deal of hard work’.

That year of 1963 was to see the idea of Grat Britain commemorative stamps really take hold. However, in those days, those in control did not see the need for unified sets. So one finds two distinct approaches within the Lifeboat Conference set, albeit all three values were designed by Gentleman. He commented: ‘I could easily have redesigned one or two of the values to produce a set which was uniform in style’.

Those days were also to see some blurring of the edges. The rules didn’t allow a set to honour William Shakespeare, but there could be stamps to mark the Shakespeare Festival. Gentleman was working on these particular designs when he first met Tony Benn, the then Postmaster General (PMG).

Adventurous issues
Tony Benn wanted to be adventurous with the stamp issuing policy. Gentleman wrote to Benn with several ideas and as soon as the letter reached him, Benn responded eagerly. Gentleman suggested abandoning The Queen’s portrait, as this often caused design restrictions. In 1964 Benn, unbeknownst to the Royal Mail Advisory Panel, invited Gentleman to produce an album of design concepts. The ideas Gentleman produced included alternatives to the use of The Queen’s portrait, ingenious ways of linking stamps, particularly through the se-tenant arrangement, and a premature leaning towards ‘thematics’ with sets showing the Telford Bridge, rulers of Britain, butterflies and aircraft, and many others.

The album was published in the spring of 1966, albeit that Benn was quickly advised that any thought of dispensing with The Queen’s portrait should be abandoned immediately. Nevertheless, many of the ideas which Gentleman created with the album have gradually been implemented.

Perhaps the first was the innovation, for a British stamp issue, of a se-tenant arrangement. The block of six 4d stamps for the Battle of Britain worked well. He recalled: ‘This particular set was produced to a relatively short time scale, but my personal interest in aircraft meant it was a pleasure to undertake, and the results were particularly satisfying. The se-tenant approach was even more appropriate for the set to mark the Battle of Hastings, with designs based on the Bayeaux Tapestry’.

One of the techniques for which Gentleman has become noted is his use of effect of the overall sheet on a design. This was first seen within the Post Office Technology set in 1969, but was especially effective on the Social Reformers set. The 1980 Liverpool and Manchester Railway series proved ideal for linking one stamp with the next. The 1999 Millennium design and Millennium Timekeeper miniature sheet again demonstrate this ability for one stamp to blend with its neighbours on the sheet.

The thought process
When presented with a stamp commission, Gentleman explained: ‘I find ideas for the approach normally come first, though more detailed research may follow. I don’t really believe in flashes of inspiration, preferring to think my designs through’.

For the Millennium Timekeepers stamp, suggestions were made that he should look at the idea of clocks. He felt that showing an actual clock was too much like an illustration in a textbook, and instead developed a design that suggested the more elusive idea of ‘Time’. He said: ‘I don’t believe in revealing my design ideas too early – only when I have made up my own mind on the right approach will I show his ideas to others’.

But all has not always proceeded smoothly. He recalled one important subject, Ecology and the Environment, when: ‘I fell foul of a conflict between the Post Office and the government of the day. The designs dramatised sensitive subjects like power stations spewing out acid rain and the environmental effects of intensive farming. They were commissioned during the Thatcher era and although the Post Office liked them, Downing Street wanted them made more industry-friendly. At that point I resigned the commission – industry and ecology make poor bedfellows and there is no point in a designer trying to fudge such a head-on conflict’.

Source: Philatelynews