Bruce Hobbs

Art director who changed the face of Guinness
Click to follow

Eric William Hobbs (Bruce Hobbs), designer and art director: born Oxford 10 October 1915; married 1942 Eugenie Gillett (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1968), 1972 Nicola Lightfoot; died Grundisburgh, Suffolk 7 October 2004.

Eric William Hobbs (Bruce Hobbs), designer and art director: born Oxford 10 October 1915; married 1942 Eugenie Gillett (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1968), 1972 Nicola Lightfoot; died Grundisburgh, Suffolk 7 October 2004.

When Bruce Hobbs applied for a design job at the advertising firm S.H. Benson in 1944, his method was characteristic. Among the specimens of artwork he provided was a beautifully produced piece of lettering which read, "I think I am the man you're looking for." He got the job, and so began a career in advertising that spanned five decades and literally changed the face of Guinness.

He was born Eric Williams Hobbs in Oxford in 1915, and his early childhood was mainly spent in India and the Near East. His father died in 1918 and his mother, widowed for the second time in 1923, returned to Oxford with two children and in straightened circumstances. At 15 Eric joined the Alden Press as an apprentice printer. The company recognised his potential and in addition to asking him to proofread (including The Seven Pillars of Wisdom) set him up with a small studio. He studied art and design at evening classes at the Oxford College of Art.

He acquired the nickname Bruce after the jockey Bruce Hobbs, who won the Grand National in 1938. Gradually it came to be used more and more, although he continued to sign his artwork "EH" for many years - or even, as with a modern art series in oils for Guinness, "Erichobbsky". And it was a Hobbsovitch that was selected for "100 Great Advertisements" published by Times Newspapers and Campaign magazine in 1978.

He left Alden before the end of his apprenticeship to take his first job as a designer with the new American marketing company Nielsen. Childhood TB and poor eyesight kept him out of active service during the Second World War, but he spent some time at the Admiralty drawing maps of Norway from photographs supplied by the public and aerial surveys by Allied planes. He also had a regular cartoon slot in The Tatler.

Hobbs married Eugenie Gillett in 1942, and joined S.H. Benson in 1944, where he found his true métier in advertising. He worked his way up quickly, becoming an art director with responsibility for the agency's most important accounts, including Guinness. He was consulted in the early stages about the fanciful Guinness Clock, commissioned by Martin Pick at Guinness for the Festival of Britain and designed by the firm Lewitt Him.

Mary Gowing, the advertising consultant and director, wrote of Hobbs in the journal Art and Industry in 1957:

I think he is the possibly the only agency art director in this country who combines a compositor's experience of the setting of type with an artist's love of type for its own sake. Hobbs' typesetting has harmony and colour. It has strength. Its detail is quite perfect. It is always a pleasure to read.

Hobbs also produced a number of cartoons to illustrate advertisements and Guinness-sponsored books. Gowing wrote,

In Hobbs' drawing, there is a little of the surrealist in his nature. It comes out in many of his ideas and in his very individual sense of humour. In his humorous drawings, which are always kind, he is apt to caricature types rather than actual people.

As well as creating finished artwork himself Hobbs also commissioned many of the top illustrators of the day, including Tom Eckersley, Gerard Hoffnung, Rowland Emett and Edward Ardizzone.

In the early 1960s Guinness began to move away from the humorous adverts that had previously defined the company's campaigns, typified by the John Gilroy "zookeeper and animal" posters of the 1930s and 1940s. "They wanted a more realistic approach to their ads," said Hobbs. Along with using photographic images commissioned by the up-and-coming Terence Donovan, Hobbs changed the whole look of Guinness advertising. In 1964 he was responsible for introducing the corporate identity that is still largely in use today. The distinctive typeface bore his name ("Hobbs-face"), and the variation now being used is known as "Unified Hobbsian".

Hobbs worked on numerous other campaigns for Benson's, including BP, Rank Films and Strand cigarettes. The 1960 Strand campaign, for billboards and television, was one of the best remembered of the time, a mixed blessing for Hobbs. The image of a man in a trench coat, standing on the Albert Bridge at night and smoking a cigarette, with the slogan "You're never alone with a Strand", was a huge creative success, but the campaign failed commercially. Hobbs recalled:

It was creatively successful because it was one of the first to be shot in a black-and-white reportage style. Everyone was full of admiration for the memorable image of the man on the bridge. However, the campaign backfired and was misinterpreted to mean the opposite to its intention. On top of that, it was a lousy cigarette which no one liked.

The photographer Hobbs chose for the stills was the former Picture Post man Bert Hardy, taking on one of his very first jobs in advertising. Hobbs also commissioned a virtually unknown photographer named Tony Armstrong-Jones to produce advertisements for Queen magazine and later other accounts.

In 1964 Hobbs moved to New York having been headhunted by David Ogilvy. While there, he worked with Elliott Erwitt, among other notable photographers. The two of them created a series of successful campaigns for White Horse Whisky.

When Hobbs returned to England in 1966, he was welcomed back to S.H. Benson with open arms. "I'm sure you will be pleased to hear that Bruce Hobbs will be rejoining us," wrote Benson's creative director:

He is generally regarded as being one of the best creative designers in the business. Please regard Bruce as a creative task force of one, to be called in whenever anyone feels that an account is creatively in the doldrums.

Hobbs's career in advertising ended with 16 years at J. Walter Thompson before retiring in 1990, aged 74, to live in Suffolk. There he found more time to pursue his love of drawing and painting. He also continued to supply the occasional cartoon to magazines such as Private Eye, and travelled widely up until two years ago.

John Cole

Comments