In The Spotlight

GBCC President Gordon Milne interviews David Gentleman,
the Doyen of British Stamp Designers

David Gentleman

Photograph of David Gentleman at The Stamp Show 2000 in London, May, 2000, taken by Larry Rosenblum. His visit was sponsored by De La Rue Security Print, and behind him is a display with all the stamps he has designed for Royal Mail. 

Published in the January 2000 issue of The Chronicle, the journal of the Great Britain Collectors Club.
Reprinted by permission.

See a list of all of David Gentleman’s stamps.

Milne: Mr Gentleman, your great popularity as a G.B. stamp designer has, not unexpectedly, shown itself in the following lengthy list of questions. On behalf of GBCC members in general and myself in particular, I thank you for taking the time to en lighten us with your much-anticipated answers.

Let’s start, if we may, with some brief personal questions. When and where were you born?

Gentleman: I was born on the 11th of March, 1930, in London.

Milne: Where/how did you learn your skills as a designer?

Gentleman: From my father, himself a very good artist and designer; to some degree, from my mother, who was a painter; from my teachers at St. Albans Art School and the Royal College of Art; but mainly from working at it ever since.

Milne: Have you spent all of your life in Britain? And, if so, where?

Gentleman: Yes – in Hertford, as a child, and since then in Camden Town, London. But I have done lots of travelling.

Milne: Have you brothers/sisters? Sons/daughters?

Gentleman: I have one brother and three daughters and a son.

Milne: Do any members of the Gentleman family share your tremendous artistic talent?

Gentleman: No. They are interested and good critics but have no wish to be involved. My wife is my business partner and looks after the admin side of my work quickly and efficiently.

Milne: What first encouraged you to apply your skills to stamp design?

National Productivity YearGentleman: An invitation from the Post Office in 1961 or 1962 to design three stamps for National Productivity Year, which was, in hindsight, a Stalinist and unappealing subject. But I was too elated at being asked to mind!

Milne: Back those close on 40 years ago, how did “the system” work? By that I mean, were you (and presumably others) given a brief and invited to submit artwork?

Gentleman: Yes…five others, in those days, three experienced stamp designers and three novices. We didn’t get much of a brief – only a leaflet about NPY, a copy of its logo, and minutely-detailed instructions about the Queen’s head. Art work had to be the equivalent of a finished visual, clear enough to be understood. Two sets each by a different designer were selected by the Committee (NOT composed of Post Office officials) and these designers then had to perfect them ready for reproduction.

Milne: Does that same system still prevail today?

Gentleman: I think so, though the number of designers competing is, I think, smaller. Occasionally, one will be asked outright, with no competitive element.

Milne: How far ahead of the issue release date did/does the artwork have to be submitted?

Gentleman: In the early days, too close for anyone’s comfort! Nowadays, there’s usually plenty of time to spare. My Churchill’s Death stamps were designed in a few days, just after he died, and printed and issued as quickly as possible.

Milne: Is the artwork submitted in actual stamp size or on an enlarged basis?

Gentleman: Usually “four times up” – or sometimes “six times”. A bigger submission tempts the artist/designer to put more in than will survive in printing. But this year some people submitted big paintings for reproduction.

Milne: I know it’s a long time back, but can you recall, for that first successful submission, if you were required to make modifications?

Gentleman: I had a lot of trouble with the 3d design. So far as I can remember, I spent the time getting it right for my own satisfaction – not in response to specific suggestions from anyone else.

Milne: Has it been customary, in your “century” of successful designs, to have had to make changes from the original submission?

Gentleman: In my experience, changes are normally part of my development of the design, not impositions from outside.

Milne: In the majority of cases, do you believe that the changes you have made have improved the end-product?

Gentleman: Usually yes. If not, I have resisted making the changes and, if need be, resigned the commission.

Milne: Wow! That certainly says something about the personal values you set! Do you recall any instances where you had problems with the changes that you were requested to make?

Battle of BritainGentleman: There was a fuss about the German insignia on the planes in my Battle of Britain set. The Foreign Office said they would harm Anglo-German relations. Tony Benn, then Postmaster General, said that this was nonsense – battles were about adversaries, not friendly relations – and the swastikas and Iron Crosses stayed on the stamps!

The most disappointing request to change a set of designs was for the Ecology and Environment issue in the 80s. Each of my submitted designs showed one of the things that threatened the environment, juxtaposing, for example, a polluting power station with a fish in a nearby lake. The Stamp Advisory Committee approved them, but Mrs. Thatcher, never an environmentalist, did not, and I was invited to redesign them in a more industry-friendly manner. I politely refused, as I felt this would have destroyed their point, and someone else took on the job. So, on this occasion, the Post Office was sympathetic to me but unwilling to confront Downing Street!

Milne: How fascinating and informative! Moving on, in the late 60s and early 70s in particular, you were successful with several designs that employed the se-tenant format. Was this your idea? Or was it part of the brief given you by the Post Office?

Gentleman: My idea in each case.

Milne: In the 60s, I recall, you experimented with alternatives to the monarch’s full portrait as an identifier on British stamps. As I remember it, these alternatives included silhouettes of Royal cyphers and coats of arms. For the benefit of our younger members in particular, can you expand on your thinking in this regard at that time, and do you believe today that the adoption of the Queen’s portrait was then (and continues to be) the right course of action to have been adopted?

Gentleman: I have always felt there was an essential conflict between the monarch’s head and the rest of the design on a pictorial stamp. The two things are inevitably in graphic conflict. It is like trying to squeeze both sides of a traditional coin onto one side only.

In 1966 I wrote to the PMG to suggest various ways of improving British stamps, including replacing the head with, for instance, “UK” or the royal crest. In the end, I replaced the photographic head with a silhouette. This fits in better with the other pictorial elements and is certainly preferable to the photograph. But the essential tension remains.

Milne: Around that experimental time, you produced an album – I think it’s preserved in the National Postal Museum – showing how stamps might be produced under more liberalized rules. Can you please explain how that album came about, what the reaction was to it, and whether you believe any ideas came from it that led, over the years, to the betterment of British stamp design.

Gentleman: Benn commissioned it. It was well received, and since most of its recommendations are in routine use to this day, I naturally think they have contributed to the betterment of British stamp design.

Milne: Have you been involved, since that time, either by invitation or through your own self-initiative, in any other reviews of British stamp design?

Gentleman: No.

Milne: Explain for us, if you would, please, the purpose and intent of the “Gentleman size”, which, as I recall, was a height-to-width ratio you developed of stamp formats.

Gentleman: It established 1 to the square root of 2 as the normal proportion of British commemoratives.

Milne: After having dominated the British stamp design scene for a decade from the mid-60s through the mid-70s, when it seemed almost every issue came from your drawing-board, you suddenly went quiet for the next two decades. What was the main reason for this?

Gentleman: I was busy doing other things!

Milne: From my reading of the philatelic press, it would appear that the 1999 Millennium series has not been popular with the British public. How would you rate it from strictly a design standpoint?

Gentleman: It has been a courageous experiment to extend the range of stamp designers to include painters, sculptors, textile designers, etc. Some of them, in my opinion, have been extremely good, whereas others haven’t come off at all. But public reaction is an unreliable guide in such matters.

TimekeepingMilne: I apologize for personalizing the next comment and I don’t intend to embarrass you with it but…your “Timekeeping” design as part of that series really stands out from the pack as being very different and a lot more conventional in design. By its appearance on the cover of the 1999 Gibbons’ “Concise” and (you may not be aware) by its being only one of two stamp designs to be featured on ALL five covers of the Scott 2000 Catalogues, it is clearly the favorite of the philatelic press, as well as collectors worldwide. In light of the fact that you recently had your 100th design accepted for the Millennium Miniature Sheet, is (hopefully) the Gentleman name back in favor with Royal Mail? And, in this regard, are there any more designs on the Gentleman drawing-board for the year(s) to come?

Gentleman: I can’t comment. I’ve always enjoyed good relations with Royal Mail, but stamps are only one of very many things that interest me.

Milne: On the general, as opposed to the specific, front, after receiving a brief, how do you go about creating a design? Are there any tricks of the trade?

Gentleman: There are no tricks of the trade. Like any design work, it’s a case of selecting the essentials and excluding the rest.

Milne: How do the design techniques you employ today differ from those, say, 30 years ago, when you were at your most prolific?

Gentleman: There is no difference. For instance, I don’t design on a computer.

Milne: I recall reading over a quarter of a century ago a review of your book “Design in Miniature” wherein, it was said, your strength, both as an author and a designer, lay in ruthlessly cutting out the inessentials. Do you still believe today that the challenge of stamp design is not what to include but what to leave out?

Gentleman: Yes.

Milne: For those (like myself) interested in reading more about your work and techniques, have you published any more books on stamp design?

Gentleman: No. I’ve written and published six large books of my own watercolours – David Gentleman’s Britain, -London, -Coastline, -Paris, -India and -Italy. But they’re about places and reactions, not about techniques.

Milne: Which other stamp designers, past or present, do you admire the most? In that vein, of Eric Gill and Edmund Dulac, whom do you revere more?

Gentleman: I admire Gill very much as an all-round artist and designer. Dulac was more restricted in his horizons.

Milne: From simply an enjoyment point of view, what gives you the most pleasure from stamp design work?

Gentleman: The interest of concentrating an idea – often an unpromising one – and making it intelligible to a lot of people.

Milne: In the last five years, for example, how much of your time has been devoted to stamp design work?

Gentleman: Relatively little.

Milne: Where has the rest of your time gone?

Gentleman: As it has been over the years, in books, watercolours, printmaking etc.

Milne: If a non-Brit is planning to visit the U.K. for The Stamp Show 2000, for example, where could he/she see other examples of the tremendous God-given Gentleman talent at work?

Gentleman: For a change of scale from stamps, take the underground to the Northern Line platforms of Charing Cross underground station where there is a 100-meter mural I designed in 1979. It is still well maintained and looking good. Further, my books on Britain, London and Paris are still in print and the ones on Italy and India are easy to find on the internet.

Milne: Have you ever submitted stamp designs to any other postal authority? If so, to which and when?

Gentleman: Yes. To Papua New Guinea for a four-stamp set of scientists who worked there – Malinowski etc. Also, to Nauru in the Central Pacific, where I and my then young family had an unrepeatably curious three-month stay in about 1976/7. I did a set of definitives about the island and its life.

Milne: Have you worked exclusively alone on your 100 successful British stamp designs or do you head a design team?

Gentleman: I’ve always worked alone.

Milne: Over your years as a highly successful stamp designer, what, with due modesty, has been your greatest accomplishment?

Gentleman: In the early days, I enjoyed the stimulus of doing things that hadn’t been done before – not in Britain anyway. Nowadays, I enjoy the elusive task of trying to make stamps (and other things) look simple, beautiful, intriguing and intelligible.

Milne: Well, you have certainly brought great pleasure, sir, to a whole legion of worldwide stamp collectors over the years with the excellence of your work, more examples of which we G.B. collectors hope will be forthcoming in the years ahead.

I personally thank you again for having donated your time so generously and promptly to this interview, and I wish you well, on behalf of all GBCCers worldwide, in whatever pursuits you follow in the new century ahead.

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