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Features / Art

The lost paintings of graphic designer Keith Cunningham

Words:

Mike Dempsey

Ahead of a new exhibition that opens at the Hoxton Gallery in London this month, Mike Dempsey tells us the story of graphic designer Keith Cunningham who created artwork that, until now, had remained unseen. Now, for the first time, It’s Nice That publishes some of the paintings alongside his graphic design work.

We all have memories of people, places or things that have inspired us. For me, it was a startlingly simple two-colour book jacket, spotted in my local library back in 1963. I was so taken by it that I stole it — keep that to yourself though. The book jacket was designed by Keith Cunningham, and it appeared in the very first D&AD annual in 1964. Cunningham supplemented his (then) very private painting activities by teaching and freelancing for publishers Peter Owen. Their meagre production budgets meant that most covers were produced in just two colours. Rather than hampering the design outcome, Cunningham used the restriction to create covers of great simplicity, often using found imagery and photograms juxtaposed with simple, clear typography.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he produced a stream of recognisable graphic covers. During this time, Keith worked for Design magazine, The Economist and The National Book League as well as creating a series of art and design books for Thomas Nelson Publishers. He also continued with his weekly two-day slot at the London College of Printing. During the 40-odd years Keith was there, students such as John Hegarty, Michael Peters, Fernando Gutiérrez passed through his hands.

Few students knew much about the modest, quietly spoken Australian who would crit their work, underline the importance of understanding the print process and enthuse about the creative coupling of design and photography, or perhaps simply give them a nudge in the right direction.

Keith retired in 1994 and disappeared from the scene until I tracked him down and wrote a feature for Design Week about his life and work. It triggered interest and he was included in the 2004 Barbican exhibition Communicate: Independent British Graphic Design since the Sixties.

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Keith Cunningham: book jackets for Peter Owen

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Keith Cunningham: book jackets for Peter Owen

Born in Sydney in 1929, Keith Cunningham left school at 15 with the ability to draw and little else. He found a job as a general assistant in the ad department of Sydney’s largest retailer, David Jones. Whilst there, he noticed that the eminent Australian designer Gordon Andrews was a frequent visitor. Eventually, Keith plucked up the courage to speak to Gordon. From that point, Gordon took a keen interest in him, providing books on design and suggesting that Keith attend evening classes at East Sydney Technical College. Keith had dreams of escaping an unhappy home life to explore the creative world. He set his sights on New York, but with guidance from Gordon, he opted for London. At the age of 20, with a pitiful sum of money, he made the 10,000-mile journey via ship, working his passage by waiting tables. 

Post-war London was a grim city of bomb damage, rationing and smoke-induced smog. Clutching a single contact address, the David Jones store in Regent Street, Keith Cunningham made his way there in the belief that they would secure him a place at art school Central St Martins. But no, they simply drew him a map, pointed him in the right direction and said ‘good luck’.

With a portfolio of work, he presented himself, unannounced, at Central St Martins’ reception. The staff took pity on this quietly spoken, shy individual who had followed his dream for 10,000 miles. They called one of the principals, who interviewed him in the corridor. Impressed with Keith’s work, he was offered a place there and then, but his hopes for a better design education quickly faded: the projects set were uninspiring compared with the world he had been exposed to by Gordon Andrews back in Sydney.

He supplemented his meagre living by washing dishes at local restaurants. But luck came when Gordon arrived from Australia to work as a consultant at the Design Research Unit, famously headed by Sir Misha Black. Gordon was in need of an assistant, and Keith jumped at the opportunity. What he thought would be a few weeks’ work turned into a year. During this time, he worked on major exhibition designs, including the Festival of Britain at the Science Museum. 

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Keith Cunningham

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Keith Cunningham

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Keith Cunningham

On graduating from Central St Martins in 1952, Keith was left feeling unfulfilled and yearned for a deeper creative education. He was offered a place at the Royal College of Art along with a bursary and, at the suggestion of tutor Abram Games, he went to see Rodrigo Moynihan, then the head of painting. Moynihan offered him a place on the fine art course. Here, Keith worked alongside fellow students and new friends Joe Tilson, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and David Methuen-Campbell. At last, his heart and mind were fully engaged. He worked furiously in the heady atmosphere of creativity at the RCA. The results impressed a clutch of Royal Academicians, including Sir Roger de Grey, Carel Weight and John Minton, with the latter stating that Keith Cunningham was “one of the most gifted painters to have been at the Royal College”.

Keith left the RCA clutching an impressive First along with a travelling and continuation scholarship. He was now able to devote himself to painting without the pressure of money worries. With his RCA bursary and the addition of a six-month travelling scholarship, he opted to explore Spain and later returned to London to complete his final year. During his RCA period, he exhibited at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, the Beaux Arts Gallery and, for two consecutive years, the prestigious London Group show. This culminated in Keith being asked to submit work for full membership to the group, which he declined. He then made the extraordinary decision to withdraw completely from any further public exhibition of his paintings. Instead, he worked in the solitary atmosphere of his chapel studio in Battersea, where he would travel each day to work on his canvases. Keeping him company there were flayed sheep heads, a human skull and a brace or two of hanging birds – subjects that were to populate his work over the years. It was here, eternal cigarette in hand, that he would pour out his emotions, striking, stabbing and scraping the canvases into life. The physicality of his work is evident in the build-up of manipulated paint and texture, creating a visceral, brooding intensity that vibrates the longer you gaze. Whatever was going through Keith’s mind in that lonely studio, it is encapsulated forever in this astonishing body of work.

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Keith Cunningham

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Keith Cunningham

Keith Cunningham was an eternally guarded and secretive man: a man who had carefully balanced his life, using his design and teaching work to fund his private obsession for painting. He made art so deeply personal that he found it difficult to share it with others, even with his wife for fear that it may lose something.

Keith died in 2014, with much of his life’s work stored in a studio, left unseen. Through the determination of his wife, illustrator Bobby Hillson and the work of accessories designer Stephen Rothholz, who were responsible for gathering the paintings for exhibition at the Hoxton Gallery, Keith Cunningham’s work can at last see the light of day. 

Keith Cunningham: Unseen Paintings opens at the Hoxton Gallery, London on 30 September.

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Keith Cunningham

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Keith Cunningham

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Keith Cunningham

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Keith Cunningham

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Keith Cunningham