Dick Negus: Designer celebrated for his work with British Airways and other national institutions
Monday 04 July 2011
The graphic designer Dick Negus became prominent during the 1960s and 1970s, following the Festival of Britain of 1951, which he called the most significant design influence of his life.
First at Negus and Sharland, and then at Negus and Negus, he did work for some of the best-known institutions in Britain including the Royal Opera House, the National Theatre, and British Airways. The latter may be his lasting legacy. It resulted from a competition, lasted nearly a decade and was to lead to further airline identifications, including Pakistan International and Emirates. The scale and range of the project, covering all aspects of the airline's appearance, tested the capacity of the office; Negus compared its implementation to having a tiger by its tail. But the style he developed, and particularly the use of part of the Union flag on the tailfin, set a precedent for the airline which survived subsequent re-designs and remains in place today.
Dick Negus was born in London in 1927. His mother and father, from Quendon in Essex, arrived in London shortly after the Great War; both worked at the Turf Club in Piccadilly, where his father was a clerk in the Secretary's office, his mother a maid. Dick commented that "both families regarded these jobs as excellent".
At Battersea Grammar School, he showed interest in drawing and painting. After his mother died during the Second World War, his father remarried, to the daughter of someone also on the Turf Club staff, but Dick did not care for his stepmother and was keen to leave home. He left school at before his 16th birthday in 1943 and joined the Royal Marines after failing to get into the merchant navy or the submarine service. He was invalided out in the winter of 1945.
He went on to Camberwell School of Art, where he was taught by John Minton (for illustration), Victor Passmore, Lawrence Gowing, and William Coldstream (life drawing and painting), as well as Keith Vaughn – who, with Passmore, remained favourites of his. At this time he also met Philip Sharland, who was to become his business partner, and Pamela, whom he married in 1949.
The two-year course did little to prepare students for commercial realities, but his portfolio eventually landed him a job as an exhibition designer on the 1951 Festival of Britain staff. With Sharland, he worked on the fisheries section (with scripts by Laurie Lee) and the aircraft carrier Campania. Under Charles Hasler he helped to create the Festival alphabet used for the lettering on the Royal Festival Hall, where it can still be seen today.
The design practice of Negus and Sharland was established in 1951, but work was scarce; it consisted mostly of illustrations for murals, posters and magazines, much of it commissioned by advertising agencies. Over the next two decades this developed into larger-scale projects and into new areas including the embryonic "house style" field now known as corporate identification. During the same period, Negus lectured at the Central School of Art and Hornsey College of Art, and served as an external adviser at polytechnics in Birmingham, Bradford and Manchester. He and Pam, with their growing family, moved into a house in Surrey which he designed himself, down to the door handles, before returning to London some 15 years later.
By the early 1970s the office was snapping at the heels of the larger, more established design groups in the competition for big identification contracts. The partnership became known as Negus and Negus when Pam Negus joined, replacing Sharland. Despite acquiring a number of large and well-known organisations as clients, including, in one year, John Laing, Godfrey Davis, Lloyds Bank and the City of Westminster, Dick scaled back the number of staff from 20 to seven to reduce the administrative burden. He later allowed it to increase to 12, which remained its maximum even after he won the British Airways contract, then the biggest identification job in Europe.
After the novelty of flying first-class wore off, Negus claimed to hate air travel, and he was constantly up against problems with unions, board-level interference and staff antagonism. But he developed a skill in dealing with people, up to and including board members. Later, he was said to have been awarded one important contract because he "looked mean and tough". Mean he certainly was not, though he could act tough. He had no illusions about the ephemeral nature of much design work, particularly graphics, but he believed strongly that design was more than merely cosmetic.
The standing and reputation of Negus & Negus was at its highest in the 1980s when design as a whole seemed finally to have "arrived",particularly after it was publiclyendorsed by Mrs Thatcher; Negus was among those invited to attend aseminar on the subject at 10 Downing Street. Britain was the theme of aninternational design conference at Aspen, Colorado for which he provided graphics. His client list broadened during this period to include a number of national organisations such asEnglish Heritage, Royal Armouries, the Tower of London, National Maritime Museum (for whom he wrote a booklet on the display of text in museums), the National Theatre and the Science Museum.
The flow of commercial clients continued, among them the John Lewis Partnership, Waterford/Wedgwood and Vickers on its merger with Rolls-Royce Motors. He provided the graphics for the SDP, to which he was personally, as well as professionally, committed and was greatly saddened by its failure.
Dick and Pam were warm and generous hosts. Parties, often in fancy dress, occurred frequently, both at home and in the office (which he saw as an extension of his family). And at monthly lunches a variety of carefully chosen guests were invited to discuss design-linked subjects in the conservatory of his Islington house.
Dick also found time for professional bodies: he was President of the Chartered Society of Designers from 1977-78, belonged to the Society of Typographic Designers, and the Design Council. He was a governor of his old college at Camberwell and of the Chelsea School of Art, and a member of the Court at the Royal College of Art. Among other committees, he served for 25 years on the Post Office's Stamps Advisory Committee.
After his formal retirement, Dick returned to his first interest, painting, and took up pottery. He devoted more time to sailing, a favourite pastime since youth. He remained active, despite health problems over the past two years, until shortly before his death on Good Friday.
Richard Charles Negus, designer: born London 29 August 1927; married 1949 Pamela Wheatcroft-Hancock (died 2000; two sons, one daughter), 2011 Aurea Whittingham; died London 22 April 2011.
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