Wednesday, 16 February 2011

F Gregory Brown: from craftsman to designer

Very little seems to be known about the British designer and graphic artist F Gregory Brown (1887 - 1941). I've even been unable to find out what his Christian name was and as you can see in his poster design for 'Leatherhead' above, he commonly and confusingly signed himself Gregory Brown. Yet his work must have been almost commonplace and he remains well-known and well-liked to this day.

He started out as an apprentice art metal worker but dropped this some time in the early C20th to become a book illustrator. My guess is that he might have attended classes at a London art school like Camberwell or Bolt Court that specialised in graphics and training for the print trade. The subtle and perceptive way he often drew on Hiroshige's 1857 colour woodcut 'The plum garden at Kameida' during his career, shows someone acquainted with the ways of aestheticism. Look how marvellously he transforms the large and small tree shapes to make the 1931 design for his furnishing fabric below. What looks like typically subdued and sophisticated 1930's tones are shown to be inspired almost exactly by Hiroshige. I think this shows a perceptive designer-artist who had understood that arts and crafts had had its day and was keen to modernise.

In 1914 he made his first graphic designs for London Transport. Betwen then and 1940, he produced 61 poster designs for LT and the Underground, almost all intended to be highly visible and to attract passengers at off-peak times and weekends in order to maximise revenue. The following year he was a founder member of the Design and Industries Association. He was obviously someone who knew what he was about.

I think you can see more than a trace of metalwork enamalling in the design below, combined of course witha Hiroshige tree as framing device. Also note how cheaply the poster has been produced. The colours only approximate to Brown's design and I assume this is an earlier production. The later designs are reproduced with greater care.

I would think that one of the highlights of his career was winning a gold medal for fabrics design at the 1925 Exposition des arts decoratifs in Paris (I've shortened the very unmodern title). The gaudy and hackneyed design for Bobbys Ltd contrast nicely with the 1922 design for linen. The folds are voluptuously twenties but the geometry and starkness look forwards with considerable confidence.

The other great source for his work were the British painters who were working after the London Post-Impressionism exhibition of 1910. The Camden Town Group, and particularly Spencer Gore, provided the necessary modern feel and use of purer colours that could be ratcheted up to produce this Southern Railway poster. What really strikes me is the way he does seem to reproduce Gore's view in 'The cinder path'. He turns something typically downbeat and Camden Town (named after the north London suburb) and turns it into a bright version of Henri Riviere. (I should also mention similarities with the more pastel efforts of the colour woodcutter Phillip Needell).

This was a man who was aware of trends and was able to manipulate imagery with the expertise required by modern commerce. These later images are far more thirties in their spareness of design and muted colours. His uncompromising lettering for 'ZOO' neatly co-opts the Underground logo and the font designed by Edward Johnston (1872 - 1944) in 1916.

Unfortunately, I failed to upload one of his most striking poster designs here but you will have seen it at the very top - a brazen and yet articulate meeting of Hiroshige and post-Impressionism. The point I wanted to make earlier was that he didn't just look at van Gogh; he knew what van Gogh had been looking at. Completely in contrast, the plainness and clarity of the poster below for a recognisably modern cause. Here he achieves something both unnerving and unsentimental. Nowadays we are used to shocking imagery in graphics. If I gave the impression Gregory Brown knew how to manipulate the work of other artists, this poster, along with his fabric designs, show up the default Brown - both stylist and innovator.


  1. Given the importance of the type in the best of these images, do you know if Gregory Brown was responsible for the typography? Often the lettering was (even is today) someone else's responsibility.

  2. Neil, your point looks like the subject for a post in itself. The idea behind Edward Johnston's 1916 designs was that they gave London Underground a consistent, recognisable image so I assume the fonts used on Underground posters may have been his. There is at least one fairly exhaustive site on Flickr about such things and I think I must consult! There is room for a comparative study here.

  3. In his many posters he shows he is the master of cutting and printing trees. The British Baumann. The use of such modern colors(combinations)used printing his landscapes by someone from that era is also very remarkable I believe. I envy the British for the many brilliant poster artists.

  4. Perceptive, Gerrie. That comment also the subject for a post. I see shall be kept busy this weekend.

  5. Especially love the the poster of the lamb re cruelty toward animals. Amazing artist!