OBITUARY: James Holland

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The Independent Online
In the spring of 1948, less than three years after the end of the Second World War, with the euphoria of victory over and national morale at a low ebb, rationing still continuing and a critical shortage of building materials, five of the most experienced exhibition architects and designers in Britain started to plan the 1951 Festival of Britain. With James Holland were Sir Hugh Casson, Sir Misha Black, Ralph Tubbs and James Gardner.

Apart from the South Bank exhibitions, a huge funfair in Battersea Gardens and a series of regional events were proposed. It was, in the words of the Ministry of Works, which had studied the ambitious plans and visited a site still buried beneath its wartime debris, "quite simply impossible".

Ignoring this and backed by Herbert Morrison, who was its champion and provider, the festival was agreed and dubbed "A Tonic for the Nation". The team began to assemble the largest group of designers the country has ever seen and not only took on the "impossible" task but each personally designed a section of the site. To his delight Holland drew "Sea and Ships" out of the hat (with Sir Basil Spence as architect and Laurie Lee as scriptwriter - if a meeting started late, Lee would play his violin) and to Holland's further delight everyone agreed he should have the design of the escort carrier Campania to be a floating exhibition hall touring Britain.

Holland always said that his reward was not his OBE but seeing the crowds on the opening day. The public, who were accustomed to demob suits and Utility furniture, had experienced nothing like it and were thrilled. It was a signpost for the future and, above all, the first real fun on offer since the victory celebrations and street parties. So advanced for its day was the design work that this genre of architecture and furniture design lasted right through the Sixties and had a major influence on building design in Britain into the Seventies.

I first met this quiet self- effacing man when I applied for a post on his design team at the festival office and, as with all of those who worked with him, he remained a firm friend; true to his conscience, his painting, the sea, the French life- style. It would be difficult to overestimate Holland's contribution in those years.

James Holland was born in Gillingham, Kent, the son of a naval blacksmith at Chatham. At his father's insistence he was sent not to grammar school but to a school of mathematics and studied navigation; his ship drawings earned him the President's Prize of the Royal Drawing School and a painting scholarship to Rochester School of Art, where he later returned as a Governor. He went on to the Royal College of Art painting school in 1924, where amongst others he met and worked with Henry Moore and Edward Bawden and studied under Paul Nash.

Of his contemporaries, the Canadian painter James Boswell was notable. They became lifetime friends and the two students made a number of painting trips to France on a shoestring budget. Holland held the first of many exhibitions while he was still at the college and he recalled the RCA sketch club gave him an invaluable opportunity to meet many of the leading painters, including Wilson Steer, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.

On graduating, Holland joined Foote Cone & Belding, working on advertising accounts such as Shell, and was commissioned by Jack Beddington with John Betjeman to write copy. He worked with Misha Black on the 1937 Peace Pavilion in Paris and by the time he met and married Diana John in 1937 he was a member of the London Group and the New England Art Club and had established himself as a freelance illustrator of some stature.

Also about this time Holland, with Boswell and James Fitton, started the Artists International Association, a pacifist organisation of artists. In 1940 he was offered a post at the Ministry of Information in the exhibition design department; here he worked with Misha Black, Milner Gray and James Gardner. His experience at the MoI was to prove invaluable to the Festival of Britain. When the festival finally closed Holland returned to advertising.

Shortly after he was appointed Group Art Director at Erwin Wasey Advertising, Holland remarried in 1953 to Jacqueline Arnall, with whom he spent the rest of his life. He was elected President of the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers (SIAD) in 1960/61; then in 1963 he accepted the offer to return to teaching as Head of the Faculty of Visual Communication Design at Birmingham Polytechnic.

This appointment allowed Holland vigorously to espouse his view that something taught was not something learnt. When in 1971 he retired from Birmingham he became Education Officer to the SIAD. The society (now the Chartered Society of Designers), then representing over 8,000 designers, is the professional qualifying body. Holland played a leading role in course construction and was instrumental in bringing a new spirit of realism and professionalism into British design courses. In 1980 he published Minerva at Fifty, a history of the society.

James Holland thoroughly enjoyed his retirement, continuing to write and paint with characteristic energy until he died. He urged others to follow suit.

Dick Negus

James Sylvester Holland, painter and designer: born Gillingham, Kent 19 September 1905; staff, Ministry of Information 1941-49; Design Co-ordinator, Festival of Britain 1949-51; OBE 1951; Art Director, Erwin Wasey 1952- 63; President, Society of Industrial Artists and Designers 1960-61, Education Officer 1971-81; Head of Graphic Design, Birmingham Polytechnic 1963-71; married 1936 Diana John (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1950), 1953 Jacqueline Arnall (one son, one daughter); died Pembury, Kent 7 January 1996.