Gordon House

Creative and driven artist-designer
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The Independent Online

Charles Gordon House, artist and designer: born Pontardawe, Glamorgan 22 June 1932; married 1955 Jo Hull (two sons, one daughter, and one son deceased); died London 20 March 2004.

Gordon House was an artist-designer of great creativity. His myriad images were sought after by leading galleries, artists and musicians for well over 40 years.

House ranks with notable artist-designers, such as E. McKnight Kauffer, Misha Black, Abram Games, Ashley Havinden, F.H.K Henrion and Tom Eckersley, who defined how we saw things in Britain in the 20th century. He was both admired and liked by his peers, an innate modesty preventing his name being widely known outside his chosen field.

Gordon House was born in Pontardarwe, south Wales, in 1932, the older of two sons of a painter and decorator, Stanley House, and his wife Katie. Modern art seen on a visit to the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in Swansea with his grandmother steered the young Gordon towards his career. His family was encouraging when he earned a place at Luton and St Albans Schools of Art in 1947.

House had then to earn a living, lacking the means to paint and show at whim. His development over the next decade was a tribute to his single-mindedness. From 1950 until 1952, House worked in an advertising agency and as assistant to the Austrian artist Theador Kern, during the 1950s commissioned by the monks of Buckfast Abbey and others to create ecclesiastical sculpture. House liked all such techniques. The sculptor's way with materials was squirrelled away, to be drawn on again when in 1995 House returned to sculpture, producing Objects, a singular series of bronzes.

Employment as a designer for the plastics division of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) from 1952 until 1959 extended House's knowledge. He collaborated with writers working on a vast range of technical journals and became familiar with industrial moulding techniques and fabrication. House was eventually transferred to work at ICI's head office as a graphic designer to Kynock Press, engaged on pre-press work. He became widely knowledgeable about all aspects of type and printing, and was aware of the changes that were about to revolutionise the industry.

House remained fascinated by the potential of the new technologies. Not long before he died he wrote that "we stand on the threshold of endless technical possibilities extending the whole field of image presentation. It is inevitable that new directions will be sought."

Alongside his day job, House produced his own work, showing with the London Group in 1957. The 1960s witnessed his increasing involvement with the vibrant new British art scene; he took part in the key Situation exhibition at the RBA Galleries and designed its eye-opening catalogue.

In 1955 he married Jo Hull, who would act as his secretary as well as bringing up the family. From 1961, he went freelance, and so remained. At first, times were lean. Living in north London, House would walk to the West End to meet potential clients to save the fare.

In 1961-64, he taught part-time at the Central, Hornsey and several out-of-London art schools. Back from the classroom, he would roll up the carpet in the bedsitter where he and Jo lived and paint until he dropped.

Over the years, House was involved in a string of important exhibitions, from New Painting in England, at Leverkusen Museum, West Germany, in 1961, to The Sixties Art Scene in London, at the Barbican Centre, 1993, and was a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, designing its catalogues. His numerous design clients ranged from top London dealers such as Eskenazi, Richard Green, Marlborough Fine Art and Waddington, through the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. His strength was that while he would farm out parts of a job, clients knew that House would personally draw the whole package together.

Gordon House was a driven man, a workaholic who produced unique and unmistakable images, apparently abstract, but leaning heavily on visual sources. His work is held by key public and corporate collections in Britain and abroad. Good examples were seen in his 1961-68 print retrospective at the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, and Brooklyn Museum, New York; in his Ashmolean solo exhibition in 1993-94; and in his subsequent privately produced Catalogue of Editions 1982-1996.

House's "stumbling, endless task of self-analysis" continued to the end. He insisted that a colleague come in to complete a final, untitled edition of prints which employed new signwriting techniques.

David Buckman

Gordon House had just completed his book Tin Pan Valley, a memoir of his life, when he was taken ill towards the end of last year, writes Sir Peter Blake. Sadly he didn't live to see its publication, but it has now been published by Archive Press and we are able to read this beautiful, spare account of his life and work.

Gordon and I were born just three days apart, in June 1932 - he was the older by those three days. We were friends for more than 50 years. I was introduced to Gordon by Richard Smith, a fellow student at the Royal College of Art. Dick and Gordon had been students together at St Albans School of Art.

We probably met first at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, where our generation exhibited and socialised. Both of us had exhibitions there and at the New Vision Centre, which was at the cutting edge of painting for the young artists of our generation. We later would both show at the Robert Fraser Gallery and Waddington Galleries.

There are very few artists who are equally comfortable and talented at being both a painter and a graphic designer, and Gordon House was one such. We often worked together as designers, notably when I did the front cover of the LP by the Beatles Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Gordon was responsible for the typography on the back of the record. He went on to work on the White Album for the Beatles with Richard Hamilton, then on further Beatles recordings and, later, most of Paul McCartney's records. We were also working together until very recently on the catalogues for a series of exhibitions I have curated.

Gordon was a great collector, and would travel the shops and markets of Islington where he lived. Sometimes he would find things which he thought I would like, most recently photographs of and the medals won by a lion-tamer. He collected all sorts of things, but I think the most important was the group of paintings by the artists of his own generation, most of whom were his friends.

In the early 1960s, the ICA decided to produce a portfolio of prints by 20 artists. It was Gordon who asked Chris Prater, a commercial silk-screen printer working in a tiny dark basement in Islington, printing mainly soap-powder boxes, if he would print the portfolio. Of course, Chris, with Rose Prater, went on, at Kelpra Press, to become an extraordinary master silk-screen printer.

Gordon also set up White Ink studio with Cliff White, where Cliff printed both etchings and wonderfully delicate wood engravings, surrounded by a museum-quality collection of antique printing presses put together by Gordon.

I loved outings with Gordon. He would collect me in his always shiny Volvo, to take me to a printer or perhaps a bronze foundry, to discuss a project. These outings always included a meal, sometimes lunch, and occasionally breakfast at a roadside café, where we would both have a full English fried breakfast. Gordon was always very generous to his friends, and these meals usually ended up with us arguing for the right to pay the bill. Gordon usually won.

Gordon House painted consistently since the early 1950s, rather quietly and modestly in his various studios, and has left behind a large group of beautiful, delicate paintings. I hope that someone will organise a retrospective exhibition of his work. It would now of course by a memorial exhibition, but the work should be seen.

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