Obituary: John Lewis

Nicolas Barker
Saturday 28 December 1996 00:02 GMT

John Lewis combined distinct and original gifts as a typographer and as a converter and sailor of small boats, and enjoyed a long life in which he was able to run both careers together in singularly happy combination.

He was Welsh on both sides of the family, born at Rhoose on the west side of Cardiff overlooking the Bristol Channel in 1912. His father was a bank manager who would rather have been a doctor; very soon he became a soldier. Surviving the First World War, he was in his element at Farnham, in Surrey, where the family moved in 1920. From there his son went to Charterhouse where in the "Studio", like Osbert Lancaster before him, he acquired a taste and considerable aptitude for drawing.

His father wanted him to be a doctor, so he obediently went to Bart's. This was not a success, and he moved to Deptford to study art at Goldsmiths' under Rowland Hilder, who also awoke his passion for ships and the sea; among his fellow-students was Denton Welch.

In 1935 he set up as a freelance illustrator, and was doing fairly well when war broke out. This he spent in camouflage, a neglected art between the wars that had to be revived. It took him to Canada (posted to the far north, he pointed out that ten feet of snow was no training ground for Europe and transferred to the greens and browns of British Columbia) and Italy, where he spent a brief but enjoyable time on "secret devices". It also brought him in contact with like-minded friends: Victor Stiebel, Oliver Messel, Gabriel White and his brother-in-law Ted Ardizzone, Freddy Mayor of the Mayor Gallery, Basil Spence, Blair Hughes-Stanton and Lynton Lamb.

It was Larry Lamb, most gentle but also perceptive of men, who gave Lewis's post-war career its direction. As they were pondering the future, he said to Lewis: "As you have illustrated books and collected books all your life, why don't you design them - it means knowing about typography, about printing and book-binding. If you could manage it, the best thing would be to go and work with a printer and a book-binder." James Gardner, also in camouflage, who had made Puffin Books a household word, provided the necessary introduction to W.S. Cowell Ltd of Ipswich. Geoffrey Smith, a good and generous man, full of enthusiasm, was anxious to move the firm into printing more substantial books than Puffins. For Lewis, this meant learning on the job. Together, he and Cowell's taught each other.

The first product was A Handbook of Printing Types (1947), at once a manual and a showcase of Cowell's resources, notably in the technique, still new for books, of photo-lithography. It had a striking jacket showing the title as printer's type in a composing stick resting (or so it seemed) on Speed's map of Suffolk. Armed with this, Lewis enlarged his portfolio, making friends with Barnett Freedman and Henry Moore. "Plastocowell", a new process that encouraged artists to work on film that could be directly transferred to lithographic film, resulted in commissions to Braque, Matisse and others; Lewis went to Golfe Juan in the South of France to persuade Picasso to join in, a wholly happy experience that he never forgot. It also brought work designing print and even opera productions for the newly established Aldeburgh Festival.

The great advantage of Ipswich was its proximity to navigable waters, and, after settling with his wife Griselda at Manningtree, Lewis lost no time in acquiring and converting his first serious boat, a 26-foot former lifeboat. He became something of an expert on conversion and published two books on it, with his friend and fellow-sailor Adlard Coles. More of his professional time was spent in London, with Cowell's a reliable ground-bass to an increasingly wide range of activities.

From 1951 to 1963 he taught at the Royal College of Art under Robin Darwin. His students all benefited from his warmth and encouragement, and with one in particular, David Gentleman, it led to a long-lasting and fruitful association. He also founded the College's Lion and Unicorn Press, producing some 25 handsome and original publications, in part designed and all produced by the students.

In many ways his most original and permanently influential publication was Printed Ephemera (1962). This arose from the chance acquisition from an Ipswich bookseller of a huge blank-book in which a large number of single sheets, including a 15th-century Indulgence and the rare 1757 specimen of the famous Birmingham printer John Basker-ville, had been pasted by a former owner. The quest for the origin of these and the many other pieces led Lewis to ponder on their sources, on what made them different from more substantial printed matter. This led him to pursue and collect these then unconsidered trifles with a zeal and method that made Printed Ephemera, when it came out, a pioneering study, not merely an anthology. The section on sailmakers' needle-packets (a natural product of his nautical interests) was a model of its kind.

John Lewis continued lively and productive, and his autobiography, Such Things Happen, was only published (by Unicorn Press) in 1994. Not tall, but strongly built, with a ruddy complexion and a fine mane of hair, latterly white, he was a warm-hearted and sympathetic friend to all who came his way. He found it easy to talk to anyone in his melodious voice, with a touch of his Welsh forebears' lilt, and was the best of company on any occasion. Both as a creative designer and the commissioner of work by other artists, he left a definite mark on the graphic scene in his time which will not grow stale, its vitality a tribute and memorial to his own.

John Lewis, typographer, illustrator, boat designer and sailor: born Rhoose, Glamorgan 11 December 1912; married 1940 Griselda Rideout; died Woodbridge, Suffolk 22 December 1996.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in