Brian Grimwood at WORK Gallery: Changing British Illustration

‘I’ve had quite a lot of luck with drawing’, says illustrator Brian Grimwood as we sit down to talk about his new book and retrospective. We are sat by the window whilst the finishing touches are being added to the exhibition around us at WORK Gallery.

I have a quick look around before the interview and the small gallery is full with book covers, magazine cut-outs, free and abstract figures and beautifully coloured illustrations. However, as Brian Grimwood points out, there is a lot more that is not in the show, ‘I could put three hundred in between each one of these’ he states jovially.

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The title of the Brian Grimwood new book and exhibition invites high expectations and a slightly raised eyebrow. I need not worry though, because The Man Who Changed the Look of British Illustration is actually well named. The title derives from not only the extensive work Grimwood has done in setting up an internationally renowned illustration agency, but also from the vast amounts of illustrations he has created for many major publications including the Guardian, the Independent and the Radio Times (to name a few) which have been often witty and subversive.

The show was created around the premise of the book and is echoed in the way the viewer is taken round the gallery in a timeline of work. Somewhere in Grimwood’s career his work began to change (about half way round the exhibition). To begin: a soft blurry wash here, an indistinct figure there, but very soon a whole new style is established: a style we see in Grimwood’s current work. In the gallery this transition is particularly more noticeable: all of a sudden, crazy colours and striking lines that seem at once powerful and playful. I can see references from his love of outsider art, ‘what I love about it, which is something in my own inner self, is, I like the idea of showing people how to see something.’

The wiggly figures which feature in so much of Brian Grimwood’s work have their roots in a squiggle drawing game he played as a child. The game works by getting someone to draw a scribble and then making a picture of it. Then the roles are reversed and the process repeated. I comment on this, as an avid squiggler myself, and Brian replies firstly by telling me that lots of his drawings start in this way and then saying ‘Give us a squiggle and I’ll draw one’. Quickly, it takes shape; I now have a kangaroo in my sketchbook.

In a juxtaposition of the rough, textured portraits on manuscript and the book cover canvases are a series of images created on an iPad. I ask about this new process and receive a joyous reply, ‘I love it, love it!  It was made for me, God made the iPad for me.’ He then goes on to recount how he conceived the idea for an iPad twenty years ago, whether it was premonition or just a good tale doesn’t really matter. It is a means for Grimwood to work digitally without compromising his creative process or style.

Drawings produced on iPad and computer also feature in the book, interspersed with often biographical text. It is written in the manner of an interview, with Grimwood answering questions on life and work asked by an invisible interviewer. I find these short bursts of text work well, as it is easy to get distracted by the pages of bright, exciting colour. I found myself reading the book in a patchwork way, picking out bits and going back on myself to look at another illustration until I felt I had read the whole thing through.

However, talking to Brian, I discover the identity of the interviewer; a friend of his who helped conceive the initial idea of the book. This was something Grimwood always wanted to do, ‘I’d been wanting to do a book ever since I was an illustrator, even before, even as a boy I always wanted to do a book. It’s one of those things… having a legacy, leaving something behind.’

The cover sets the tone for the books content and, personally, I think it’s rather wonderful. A portrait of a red man’s head chopped in two to create an enormous mouth. It is a book full of playful images, visual puns and wiggly figures. It has something I am always looking for in an illustration book (which I’m frequently disappointed by) – a balance of information and pictures. Grimwood describes it as a picture book, and there are definitely a lot of pictures in this book: packaging designs, travel posters, canvases, the list goes on and it seems that there is no stopping as Grimwood is planning to paint a set of canvases for a resort in Koh Samui, having completed one already.

The foreword is a brief but lovely letter from Peter Blake in his extraordinarily broad handwriting. The whole book feels really quite personal, like reading someone’s memoirs. Whether I enjoyed it because it satisfied my own nosiness, I’m not sure, but it was a welcome change to seeing fabulous pictures alongside rather dull and uninspiring text. Grimwood writes about his experiences in a way that feels honest and to the point and he has some lovely stories to tell about being an illustrator and being in the year below David Bowie in school. The book is also rather endearingly supplied with photographs from Grimwood’s early life as well as family and friends in the acknowledgements. It ends with another flattering report, a school report for a young Brian aged twelve point eight (to be precise). After all, as the illustrator himself says: ‘If you’ve got it, flaunt it!’

Both the book and the exhibition of The Man who changed the Look of British Illustration are a celebration of the success and the achievements of Brian Grimwood thus far. Whilst there is no end in sight yet, this has proved to be an excellent point to stop and look back, before carrying on the seemingly trifling task of changing the look of British illustration.

To claim a 40% exclusive Flux Reader discount on Brian Grimwood’s The Man Who Changed the Look of British Illustration, email with your delivery address within the email and FLUX MAGAZINE as the subject-heading. The exhibition is showing at WORK Gallery –

words Elizabeth Connolly


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