Those who may not know the name Anthony Gilbert will certainly know his work. As an artist at top advertising agency J Walter Thompson he created some of the most iconic images of mid-20th-century marketing, including the ornate clock on the After Eight mints box that’s still used today. He also had a very refined, delicate style, influenced by the Arts and Crafts and Japonaiserie movements, and often worked in a Japanese-influenced “wash-off” technique, involving gouache and Indian ink, that he perfected. While at JWT he met the young Willie Landels, later the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, who admired Gilbert’s work tremendously and helped him establish an alternative career as a freelance fashion illustrator for his magazine, for Vogue and others.
“Anthony was vastly talented, his excellence was unique and he had enormous taste,” said Landels in an interview shortly after the artist’s death in 1995, but he was a retiring and reserved character and by the time his style became highly topical, in the art-nouveau revival of the late 1960s, he had become a recluse, which perhaps explains why he is not better known. He was, however, highly valued by magazine fashion editors – clothes would be collected by Gilbert’s elegant wife Ann, who then acted as his model, before returning the clothes along with the finished illustrations. His distinctive style, especially the ornate “Patterned Ladies”, influenced by the Japanese textiles and ceramics that the couple collected, became a template for other illustrators of the time.
Now perhaps it is due for a revival – Ann died last year and Messum’s gallery is holding a sale of work from Gilbert’s studio, from September 14-25, to span London Fashion Week. Items vary from simple, almost cartoon-like wash-off drawings (from £1,250) through charming, naive découpages and gouaches (from about £1,850) to mixed-media still-lifes and abstracts at up to £3,600.
But for fashion fans, the “patterned lady” genre will strike a chord – of nostalgia for those of a certain age and of fascination for those viewing the current vintage revival for the first time. The beauty and complex artistry of pieces like Christmas illustration Noel (£3,650, second picture), Red-Striped Sleeves (£2,450, first picture) and the monochrome Patterned Lady (£1,850, third picture) are breathtaking and could have been sketched from many a catwalk this autumn.