Gordon House was born on the 22nd of June 1932 in Pontardawe, South Wales. Early exposure to art on trips to the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery as a young boy inspired House towards creative endeavors and at the age of fourteen he was awarded a grant to enter art school which he readily accepted. From 1947 to 1950 he studied at Luton School of Art, Bedfordshire, and St. Albans School of Art, Hertfordshire. House’s contemporaries included Richard Smith and John Plumb with whom he remained close. During the early fifties, after finishing art school, House began work as assistant to the ecclesiastical sculptor Theodore Kern. He also spent time at an advertising studio where he honed his burgeoning skills in typography and graphic design. In 1952 House was offered the position of designer for Imperial Chemical Industries Plastics Division where he stayed until 1959. This was followed by two years spent as graphic designer for the Kynoch Press in London. In 1961 House set out on his own as a self-employed designer and typographer. Initially this was supplemented by part-time teaching at art schools in and around London but by 1964 House was able to devote himself entirely to his design work which freed up valuable time to concentrate on his own artistic output in the studio.
In the late fifties, informed by the new art emerging in America and that of his contemporaries in England, House began to create large-scale abstract works which he was invited to show in 1959 at Dennis Bowen’s legendary New Vision Centre in Marble Arch.
Richard Smith wrote the catalogue introduction: ‘His paintings are like the momentarily in-focus forms of the daily-recurring landmarks of the Kings Cross-Welwyn Garden City route. The bright white space in which they exist is a non-atmospheric dazzle; the landscape has been burnt out by speed...the image in House’s painting is big within the canvas area, over-exposed, making it loom toward one, close as a tunnel wall. It is as if they had only a second to register, like signs on the new motorways’.
House was an active participant in the vibrant London art scene of the sixties, regularly attending lectures, exhibitions and discussions. In 1960 he exhibited in ‘Situation’ the key abstract exhibition of the decade held at the RBA Galleries. Other participating artists included Robyn Denny, Bernard and Harold Cohen, Gillian Ayres, John Hoyland, Richard Smith and William Turnbull among others. These artists, united by a common admiration for American Abstract Expressionism, were frustrated by the lack of exposure given to large-scale abstract works in commercial galleries so they organised their own exhibition. The name was derived from the participants’ idea that an abstract painting that occupied the whole field of vision would involve the spectator in an ‘event’ or ‘situation’. This exhibition was followed by ‘New London Situation’ in 1961 and a nationwide touring Arts Council presentation in recognition of the significance of the two earlier shows.
In 1961 House began producing his first prints at the Kelpra Studio, run by Chris and Rose Prater, where he made the earliest fine art screenprint ever to be produced in Britain. Artists such as Paolozzi and Hamilton followed in his footsteps and together they started a printmaking revolution in Britain. They cemented the medium of the screenprint in the world of fine art as opposed to the commercial sphere and secured the reputation of Kelpra in the process. Later, together with Cliff White, House set up the White Ink print studio in London, where he produced etchings and wood engravings on a series of magnificent antique printing presses he had collected. White Ink soon gained a reputation for innovative and high quality printmaking, attracting artists such as R. B. Kitaj, Richard Smith, Joe Tilson, Sidney Nolan, Victor Pasmore, Eduardo Paolozzi, Bernard Cohen and Elizabeth Frink.
Printmaking was to remain a key part of House’s oeuvre throughout the rest of his career, whether in the medium of screenprint, etching, woodcut, linocut or lithograph. In 1981 a retrospective exhibition of his graphic works opened at the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, and in 1982 this travelled to the Brooklyn Museum, New York. These shows were instrumental in bringing House’s prints to the attention of a wider American audience. In the catalogue introduction Gene Baro wrote: ‘House has been remarkable for his range of apt creative vision. His ideas have been intrinsic to the mediums in which he has worked. He has so thorough an understanding of the processes of printing that he has been able to formulate his visual ideas in print terms. The overlays of ink, the particular qualities that derive from the interaction of ink with paper or from acid with plate have allowed him to create prints that are in the truest sense original’.
Gordon House was involved in the creation of some of the most iconic musical imagery of the twentieth century. This was a period when the art and music scenes were closely connected - the gallery of Robert Fraser or ‘Groovy Bob’ as he was known became a fertile meeting point for the movers and shakers in both spheres. Having designed all the stationary, cards and catalogues for the opening of Fraser’s gallery on Duke Street House was very much a part of this exciting new scene. At private views he rubbed shoulders with all the key players. In the late sixties he was regularly employed in his capacity as designer by Apple Records at their premises on Savile Row and also did work at the Rolling Stones’ offices nearby.
House collaborated with Peter Blake on the 1967 Beatles LP ‘Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band’ for which he did the typography on the back cover. The pair joined forces again in the eighties on the poster designs for Live Aid. In 1968 House worked on a second Beatles release ‘The White Album’ for which he was responsible for the production and typography. After the Beatles’ break-up design commissions continued for McCartney on both his solo albums and those of ‘The Wings’. Another artist whom House was heavily involved with was Ian Dury of ‘Kilburn & the Highroads’ and ‘The Blockheads’ fame. Having designed typography for his various musical projects, in 1995 House produced the ‘What a Waste’ portfolio of screenprints in hommage to Ian.
Gordon House designed catalogues and publicity for many of the major London galleries of the day, from museums such as the Tate to commercial galleries such as Robert Fraser, in particular he was known for his fine collaborations with Eskenazi. Artist Bernard Cohen wrote: ‘At the start of the 1960s, galleries and museums lacked any kind of coherant approach to matters of communication and presentation. They were without house styles, and seemed to change with every exhibition...A new generation of dealers quickly recognised the freshness of his (House’s) designing. A simple, modular graphic layout and house style turned every gallery into an identifiable entity’. House revolutionised the appearance of gallery graphics of the twentieth century and set the benchmark for design now taken for granted as standard in the art world.
Return to Wales
House lived and worked in London all his adult life yet he always retained a deep attachment to his native Wales, he wrote: ‘On leaving the valley of my origin there has always been that pull to return’. In 1975 he bought a house in Penrhos on the Welsh borders which he visited nearly every weekend for the following decade. He described how ‘The landscape from the house, which was raised above the fields sloping away, was probably as it had been for hundreds of years. To me it was even reminiscent of the background landscapes seen in Italian Renaissance paintings. In the distance one could see the higher, familiar ground, the beginning of the Brecon Beacons. Blorenge, Sugarloaf and Skirrid. Not quite as my childhood memories of the hilly Wales surrounding the industrial black valley further south, but for me it was still Wales’.
House was profoundly inspired by his new surroundings. Both the local landscape and the characters he met there found expression in a multitude of paintings and prints notably ‘The Welsh Portfolio’ of 1984. His vision of Wales encompassed memories of Wales from his early childhood and also the area’s historical and mythical past. Thus local farmer Herbert Gunter, his grandfather Benjamin Evans, poet Dylan Thomas and even Saint George and the Dragon were all subjects he embraced in artworks of the period.
House continued to make paintings and prints into his sixties and seventies, exhibiting in shows in the UK and further afield. House died of a brain tumour in 2004. A memorial exhibition was held at The Millinery Works, London. His Memoir ‘Tin Pan Valley’ was published that same year by Archive Press, London.