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Remembering John Gorham

Posted by David Sames on

Not so long ago a notification pinged up on my phone to say that a Pentagram related title had just been posted on eBay. What with being a super-fan of all things Fletcher/Forbes/Gill, I dropped what I was doing and logged in to find a very early Pentagram poster on offer - which without hesitation I purchased for my collection. Typical to their work of the time, this delightfully engaging poster features a series of risqué handwritten calling cards, all of which are offset against the more formal business card of London photographer Frank Sweeney that appears last in the bottom right corner - what a find! 

So, when it comes to eBay there’s one commonly overlooked ‘trick’ to finding more great material, and that is to just ask the seller if they plan on listing any similar items. I’ve been doing this for close to 20 years, and it’s proven to be one of the most fruitful ways of unearthing material that otherwise might not see the light of day for a very long time — and on this particular occasion, I was not left disappointed.

Almost immediately after reaching out to the seller I was met with a wonderful response. I was advised that the poster had come from the formidable collection of British graphic designer John Gorham, and that this poster was just the tip of an iceberg! Now, John Gorham was a name that I was aware of, but I just couldn’t pin down from where exactly. So off I went online in search of some more information, and rather than finding an avalanche of content, there was very little on offer other than a couple of articles posted by Mike DempseyDesign Week, and Johnson Banks back in the 2000’s.

Of these articles, Mike Dempsey’s aptly titled ‘John Gorham: Local hero’ provides some wonderful insights into John, his personal life and career — all of which were bought to an untimely end with his passing in 2001. 

Having taken just two scrolls through Mike’s article, I was quick to remember that this vaguely familiar name had an amazing story to tell, and was a highly respected and adored figure in the world of design. For someone whom contributed so much to the British design scene over a 40 year period, it puzzled me why he didn’t have a firmer place in my mind; the type of recognition where like so many of his contemporaries, just hearing his name should have conjured up images of all the work he’d produced, and left me in no doubt of who he was or the impact he had!?

Little did I know but my chance purchase of a Pentagram poster had opened the door to me learning more about a true creative, one that to my delight had an insatiable appetite for collecting printed ephemera (or his “treasures” as he called them), and one that afforded me a little time with his adoring wife Pauline – who shared first hand stories of John and afforded me time to browse through some of his personal collection, which was now slowly being released into the wild again for other collectors like myself to enjoy.

John first came to my attention late 90’s whilst studying my design degree at Falmouth College of Arts. ‘A Smile in the Mind’ had recently been published and it proved to be quite a hit with me and all my friends, and that is where I unknowingly first took sight of John’s wonderful work. Beyond that his name was very quiet within my sphere of influence, which maybe put down to the fact that, as according to Mike, “John was an unassuming superstar who kept his ego firmly in a cardboard box in the attic along with his treasures”.

What I discovered is that John is very much a man after my own heart - a craftsman, an advocate of ideas, a man who had an insatiable appetite for collecting and preserving our rich visual and cultural heritage. In the brief time I spent with Pauline she added so much more to what Mike Dempsey had to say, which only cemented him in my mind as indeed being our ‘“Local hero”, one that must be afforded more space within the digital realm – so he can be remembered for his significant contribution to design, and to inspire future generations of designers.

Shortly after John’s passing Beryl McAlhone (co-author of 'Smile in the mind') and James Beveridge (ex of The Partners) sought to publish a book on John's work, so to celebrate him and to fill the void of information, but despite all efforts it never happened. They did manage to produce a small edition entitled ‘This is not a book on John Gorham’, a collection of affectionate anecdotes from his many friends in the design and advertising industry. But that was near to 20 years ago, and unfortunately the full book was never published.

Keen to lay my hands on a copy of the small edition, I could not find a source to one anywhere, but much to my delight Pauline gifted me a copy when I visited her – which has proven to be a fascinating read, and one which I hope could still be published in print one day (or online at the very least)!

The one thing I love most about being a collector is that you’re always finding new threads of information on hugely talented designers whom have become either overlooked or lost to time, and the pleasure I get from following these threads is unmeasurable. So, if you’ve taken the time to read this far, then go that one step further and investigate John and his work – you won’t be left disappointed.



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