Obituary: Tom Eckersley

Patrick Argent
Sunday 17 August 1997 23:02

Tom Eckersley was the quiet giant of British graphic design. He belonged to that school of eminent modernist designers like Abram Games, F.H.K. Henrion and Hans Schleger who established their formidable reputations during the Second World War.

In addition to his war service in the Royal Air Force as a cartographer (1940-45), Eckersley designed posters for public service agencies such as the Ministry of Information, the GPO and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

The emergence of government-commissioned design during the war greatly expanded the opportunities for poster designers like Eckersley. His direct, economical and powerful image-making was ideally suited to disseminating with urgency vital information about the country's war needs.

His ability to communicate more with less is portrayed superbly in a public information poster of 1944 for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Road Accidents. An approaching car is shown in a hugely enlarged side mirror with the slogan "You are being followed, use your driving mirror". The subtle simplicity of imagery delivers the message with directness and authority.

Tom Eckersley was rooted in the tradition of the old poster school of art. He believed that drawing, combined with a strong, simple visual idea, and clean typography were the essential elements that produced great design. In 1948 he was appointed OBE for services to British poster design.

He was born in 1914 in Newton Willows, Lancashire, and was educated at Lords College, Bolton and Salford School of Art (1930-34), where he studied under Martin Tyas. As a student he became particularly interested in graphic design and was influenced by Surrealist artists such as Mir and Max Ernst, by the great French poster designer A.M. Cassandre, by Edward McKnight- Kauffer's dramatic posters for London Transport and by the graphic work of Hans Schleger.

Moving to London in 1934 he set up in partnership with his fellow student Eric Lombers, and soon attracted such important clients as Shell Mex, the GPO, London Transport, the BBC and Austin Reed. His teaching career began during this period as a visiting lecturer in graphic design at Westminster School of Art and then at Borough School of Art, London (1937-39).

Eckersley Lombers was forced to dissolve during the Second World War, though a later posting to the Air Ministry's publicity unit resulted in the opportunity to continue his practice with Lombers for a short period.

After the war, Eckersley established a successful freelance practice, attracting many major advertising clients including Gillette, Guinness, British European Airways, KLM and the Post Office. Using strong, sold colour and simple graphic imagery Eckersly's posters communicated in a clear, concise and satisfyingly coherent way. In drab post-war Britain, they were colourful and engaging.

In 1957 he was appointed Head of the Department of Design at the London College of Printing, where his influence, exacting standards, devotion and constant encouragement of his students gained him respect and admiration. One ex-student, David Hillman of Pentagram, remembers him as "famous for expressing two ideas in one drawing, for instance one face with two expressions, and in all his posters there was always a strong idea".

During the 1970s Eckersley continued to produce posters for London Transport. In one of 1975 depicting an early locomotive, his bold aesthetics of solid colour and shape emphasise the subject matter's mass and power in a dramatic and point-blank graphic statement. On retiring from teaching in 1976 he returned to practice design full-time.

The character and direction of poster design had changed drastically, thanks to the use of colour photography and the garish techniques of hard- edged advertising, but clients such as Unicef and the World Wildlife Fund still sought out his compelling and original work.

Although the greater part of his finest work was for posters, he also illustrated several books including E.A. Cabrelly's Animals on Parade (1947) and D. Eckersley's Cat o' Nine Lives (1947), and in 1954 wrote Poster Design. In addition he designed murals, the most notable of which was at Heathrow Airport Underground station.

A fellow of both the Chartered Society of Designers (CSD) and the Society of Typographical Designers, Eckersley was appointed a Royal Designer for Industry in 1963. More recently he received the CSD (Chartered Society of Designers) medal, in 1990.

His work was exhibited internationally in the United States, Sweden, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Holland and Britain, and his designs are in the permanent collections of graphics in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Imperial War Museum, London Transport Museum, the National Gallery of Australia, MoMA in New York, the United States' Library of Congress, and Die Neue Sammlung Staadliches Museum in Munich.

Tom Eckersley was one of the generation that bridged the gap between what was known as commercial art and the highly developed profession of graphic design as it is known today. Marion Henrion, the widow of Eckersley's fellow designer, the great F.H.K. Henrion, remembers him as "a strongly principled man, a devoted teacher who was highly respected. He was a designer who possessed such a sure judgement and feel for what was high quality".

In a long and distinguished career spanning over 60 years, producing an enormous output of graphic work, Tom Eckersley was always the exemplary professional designer who maintained his authority and eminence as both a practitioner and educator. He remains an influential figure for many of today's leading graphic designers.

Thomas Eckersley, graphic designer: born Newton Willows, Lancashire 30 September 1914; OBE 1948; Head of Department of Design, London College of Printing 1958-76; RDI 1963; married 1st Daisy Eckersley (three sons), 2nd 1966 Mary Kessell; died London 4 August 1997.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new 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