Holmes is where the art is
The work of artist, illustrator and ad guru David Holmes can be seen everywhere... including, says Dan Carrier, in a handsome volume
18 January, 2018 — By Dan Carrier
David Holmes in his studio in Primrose Hill
THE artwork of David Holmes has been seen by millions of people around the globe. It has been reproduced in countless publications, graced public spaces and won awards.
The Primrose Hill-based designer, illustrator, artist, art director and advertising guru has spent seven decades turning ideas into visual art – and now has looked back over his portfolio and produced a retrospective in the form of a beautiful publication.
His field is perhaps one of the most important, if often overlooked, areas of art since the age of mass production.
Everywhere you look, the influence of graphic design is around you: from the lettering on street signs to the packaging on the food you buy, David’s profession has had a huge, but often unnoticed influence on your daily life.
His work – David Holmes’ Book: A Brush With The Music Of Time – takes the reader through his work, his influences, and tells a story of artistic creation. He says the book isn’t one of “references or scholarship,” more a “wad of personal recollections… a valedictory dispatch as an art student, advertising art director, art director, creative director, designer, ad agency proprietor, illustrator and painter”. It is more than an autobiography – it is a work of art itself, beautifully produced and – of course – packed with wonderful illustrations and examples of seven decades of work.
David was behind some of the most memorable and iconic ad campaigns of the 20th century: his work turned a minor whisky brand, Macallan, into the third biggest seller in the world. He has designed stamps for Royal Mail, book jackets, and even posters celebrating Britain’s entry into the EEC in 1974.
David Holmes’s ad for Britain’s entry into the EEC
While he says his book runs in no chronological order – and if you look carefully there are jokes relating to this, including the fact the numbered pages go down instead of up – David’s story begins in Ealing, where he grew up, the son of Norman and Kathleen Holmes.
“My dad was good at maths and engineering. He worked at an aircraft factory and would be in the team that made the mechanism that released the gliders used in D-Day. He was good at making things – furniture, model trains.”
David enrolled at the Ealing Technical College and School of Art in 1948 and it was there he learned the basics needed for a career in design.
“I didn’t have any ambitions,” he recalls. “I just concentrated on what they wanted us to do. It was hand lettering, still life, technical drawing, photography. I had to learn how to draw a screw thread mechanically.
“With these skills I could have gone into the aircraft industry. I could have designed aircraft engineering, or model making, made puppets or gone into the film industry. We were given a grounding in all these things. They prepared us for a life in graphic design. It was a very broad experience.”
David’s generation of art school graduates learnt skills that today are not always necessary or needed.
“Because of computers, being able to create copper plate script is not so important,” he says.
“It is why art colleges today do not offer the same broad training I had. Instead, you can go in, splodge about with paint and experiment.”
He also speaks with high regard of the commercial art world of the mid-20th century that he joined.
David Holmes’s design for the Christmas 2015 Royal Mail stamps
“Many talented writers would leave Oxford and Cambridge and would find they could earn more in advertising than being an author.
“Advertising had a lot of clever people. If you could draw, you would earn a living creating posters – it was how illustrators earned a living then. I was lucky to work with lots of lyrical people.”
He joined the Colman Prentis and Varley agency and then set up his own firm.
David’s work has been extraordinarily varied, but a common thread was how he has drawn on his talents for using a visual medium to capture people’s attention.
It means he has worked on such diverse products as Dyno-Rod to Wiltshire Farms.
“Jim Zockall, who set up Dyno-Rod, was a Pan Am pilot,” says David. “He based the Dyno-Rod logo on the Pan Am one, and used the same technology of the hydraulics on aeroplanes to clear drains.”
His own influences range from Turner – “a teacher at art school once said one of my pieces was Turner-esque – I hadn’t heard of him” – and another, whose work he reproduced in the book, is the painter Alfred Wallis.
Wallis was a naïve painter, completely untrained, so innocent, slightly illiterate, he says.
“He was from Cornwall and I have always been drawn to his work.”
Above all, his book offers an insight into a medium that affects us all, every day, but without us noticing.
“Do you know what your great, great-grandfather did?,” he asks.
“I did not ask my grandfather enough questions, nor my father. My own grandchildren know I have a studio, but they do not know what I really do in it. I did this book with that in mind, and to celebrate everybody I have worked with creatively.”
For the rest of us, it reads both as a fascinating insight into the post-war to the present day in graphic design, advertising and art – and stands alone as a unique and collectable piece of art in its own right.
• David Holmes’ Book: A Brush with the Music of Time. By David Holmes, Impress, £110.
• Special offer: The book is available at a discount price of £50 for New Journal readers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org