Arts news: If a toucan can be an icon, its creator's centenary should be celebrated

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The Independent Online
The man who made Guinness good for you and Britain dig for victory was born 100 years ago and is to be celebrated in a major art exhibition. Paul McCann, Media Correspondent, explains how the man who put a pint on a toucan's beak made advertising art.

The man who helped make Guinness an icon of the 20th century is to have the centenary of his birth celebrated with a major exhibition of his art.

John Gilroy, 1898-1985, who created the famous Guinness Toucan and a whole menagerie of Guinness-drinking animals over 30 years, is now recognised as one of the great communicators of the modern age.

The touring exhibition will open in Gilroy's hometown of Newcastle in May and will move to the London College of Art before ending up at Guinness's own museum in Dublin.

The other key part of Gilroy's work that will be on show is the posters produced for the Ministry of Information during the Second World War. Gilroy was responsible for some of the most enduring propaganda images of the war, including posters urging that "Careless Talk Costs Lives" and those exhorting the populace to "Dig For Victory".

As well as his work for what James Joyce described as "the sublime porter", Gilroy was in demand as a painter of portraits. Everyone from Churchill, the Royal Family and Sir John Gielgud sat for the diminutive Geordie and their portraits will make up part of the exhibition.

"The Guinness work is known by just about everybody," says Michael Cudlipp, of the History of Advertising Trust, which is organising the exhibition. "But no one knows who painted it so the idea of the exhibition is ... to let people know that he was a fine artist who just happened to make money out of what he did."

Although Gilroy's name remained largely unknown to the public, his image became famous because he used himself as the model for the zoo-keeper who looked after the Guinness menagerie. This included the toucan, a sea lion, an ostrich, a kangaroo and a gnu who all developed a fondness for stout. Such was the success of his work, which started in 1928, that Guinness had to open its Park Royal brewery in London in 1936 to cope with the demand.

There is now a thriving market in Guinness memorabilia and a plaster toucan can fetch more than pounds 2,000 at auction. "John Gilroy is a very important part of Guinness's history," says Jeremy Probert, a Guinness spokesman. "I don't think it is just us who thinks his work is an icon of advertising and an icon of the century."