Remembering John Hamilton, Penguin Art Director

John Hamilton. Photo credit Charlie Clift

It is with great sadness that we mark the death of John Hamilton, 55, the much loved and respected Art Director for Penguin General and Michael Joseph, and both friend and inspiration to so many here at Penguin Random House UK.

John joined Penguin in 1997 as Art Director for Penguin General Adult Publishing, immediately taking the art department by storm with what would later become known as his trademark wit and creativity, and his unerring eye for remarkable, thought-provoking design. In over twenty years with Penguin he continued – and pushed to new limits – our long tradition of placing great design at the heart of the company. 

Working with so many of our bestselling authors – from Zadie Smith, William Boyd and Nick Hornby to Jamie Oliver, Dawn French and Antony Beevor – John created timeless, iconic covers which have become synonymous with the texts themselves. On a personal level, too, John’s charm and empathy, coupled with his profound ability to read between the lines of a book, helped him establish close relationships with authors and help realise their vision through his design.  

He particularly loved cookery books (he collected over a thousand of them), and perhaps his most important partnership was with Jamie Oliver. He art directed every one of Jamie’s books and they forged over twenty years a highly creative professional collaboration as well as a deep friendship.

He also made a lasting impact on the wider creative industry; helping to discover and then nurture many talented young designers, often straight out of art school, as well as spotting the very best illustrators, photographers and artists early on in their careers. He brought some of the biggest names in art and design into Penguin: from Banksy to Peter Blake, from Shepard Fairey to William Eggleston, John always believed that everyone would want to work for Penguin – and he was right.

John’s creative vision was stimulated by a broad range of interests and a catholic taste. He loved the very English illustrative heritage of Ravillious and Bawden on the one hand, as well as the international edginess of his favourite tattoo artists, who - increasingly in recent years - practiced their art on John’s body. In 1998 he led the launch of the Penguin Essentials collection – a collection of modern classics aimed at a new generation of readers. John purposefully commissioned a diverse and eclectic selection of work from around the world – from graffiti artists and tattooists to fashion and music industry designers – to rethink and reinvigorate the visual identity of these classics. He famously instructed his designers to ignore publishing conventions and just “do what you do”; resulting in a collection of books with striking, unconventional cover designs which still powerfully resonate with readers over two decades later.

John’s legacy won’t just live on in his book covers, but also in the culture he fostered in his team and further across the business  He was an inspiration and mentor to many of our young designers, and a great colleague and friend to those who had worked with him over the years. He loved the books business. Not just the design end of things. He liked to know that the books he thought highly of also sold well and became bestsellers. He was passionate about Penguin: its past, present and future and believed fully in its mission to bring the very best books to the widest number of readers. He was central to that and it’s hard to imagine the place without him.

A selection of book covers art directed by John, including Jamie Oliver, Zadie Smith and John le Carre
Some of the book covers which John art directed

Colleagues across the company have paid tribute to John and celebrated the impact he had as both an Art Director and a colleague:

Tom Weldon, CEO: “I worked longer with John than any other colleague at Penguin Random House. We met thirty years ago when I was a young editor at William Heinemann and John had just started his first job as a jacket designer, having recently graduated from Glasgow School of Art. We soon became the best of friends and over the years spent (possibly far too) many happy hours down the pub.

“John was a hugely popular colleague: funny, charming, and just very, very talented. He was not just popular within the company but outside of it too. He had a knack for establishing close relationships with authors, and was also much loved and respected across the wider industry; helping to discover talented designers, illustrators, photographers and artists right at the beginning of their careers. He was very proud to work for Penguin and so many of us are equally proud to have had him as a colleague – and friend – for over thirty years. He had an incredible spirit and it helped define this company. I will miss him terribly.”

Jo Prior, Managing Director of Penguin General: “John and I first worked together at Heinemann as juniors (art department him, publicity department me) back in 1990.  After a couple of years I went elsewhere for a while and we were reunited in 1998 when I joined Penguin and John was already there as Art Director.  Ten years ago my role changed and I became John’s boss, which is to say I had some kind of oversight of his workload and department and I tried to persuade him to take holidays.  But John loved to work and his commitment to Penguin and producing the very best work came first.  

“In publishing we are all working in service of the authors and their books and John respected that and never showed a shred of ego.  Many good covers were abandoned on the whim of an author or because of the conservatism of a retailer; the weekly cover meeting could sometimes be a series of rejections.  But John was a brilliantly creative problem-solver. He had the temperament as well as the talent to find the best design solution for every project – from cookery to military history; from literary fiction to an established crime writer. He was at the heart of what we do as publishers which is to find the biggest readership for our authors. We shall miss him horribly.”

Louise Moore, Managing Director of Michael Joseph: “John was formative in so many, many MJ publications. He was a real ‘author-whisperer’ – to meet him was to utterly assign trust in him to deliver for your precious book. He is particularly associated in my mind with Jamie. They established their own, unique and brilliantly creative way of working, over a twenty year period. John and I had such fun together over the years and rolled with the punches as we moved first companies and then buildings together. We grew up together as our work selves. I will miss him deeply.”

Juliet Annan, Publishing Director, Fig Tree, Penguin General: “John Hamilton was probably the most talented person I have worked with over twenty years at Penguin. He was unlimitedly inventive with an incredible eye, with a hugely eclectic range of styles and looks. His covers surprised and delighted. He was also an incredible mentor, not just to his department but to all the artists and photographers he commissioned and the people he worked with – I learned an enormous amount about book design from him. He came in to work every day and invented things, and yet when (as they frequently did) anyone criticised or rejected a jacket, he was completely calm and good humoured - I never saw him lose his temper, ever. He was a brilliant design problem solver.

“I worked with him for over twenty years and more recently we made many illustrated books together, always incredibly enjoyably:  he was the best fun to bounce ideas off. He was sometimes a frustrating law unto himself – late, elusive, evasive, but he was also adorable, funny, interested in everything and everybody, (not least squid, old cookbooks, tattoos and flea markets) and utterly devoted to his family.  I will miss him more than I can say.”   

Mary Mount, Publisher, Penguin General: “John and I worked together for seventeen years, most recently on covers for John le Carre and William Boyd. John could translate an author or editor’s ideas (even when the editor attempted to draw their ideas on a scrap of paper – he threatened he had kept all of my terrible scribbles in his desk) in a magical way. He was also unbelievably resilient and was often the first person to call out a design that wasn't working. He was immensely inspiring to a great number of young designers and photographers. He taught me a huge amount and made me laugh a lot. It is unimaginable that he’s not about to call me over to look at a pile of visuals on his desk and say, ‘What do you reckon?’.”

Daniel Crewe, Publisher, Penguin General: “John was like a magician. He'd often bring to a meeting half a dozen ideas for a cover that had some sort of unimaginable brilliance, all of which could become the final choice; he’d turn them all over like playing cards, and then guide us towards the winner. And on top of being an amazing art director, he was endlessly uplifting to talk to, waxing lyrical about an exhibition launch, a trip with his family, or an old book he’d finally found. It's a huge and tragic loss.”

Richard Bravery, Senior Designer, Penguin General & MJ: “I was lucky enough to work with John for over a decade, and as a designer I owe him a great debt. Relentlessly creative, his enthusiasm for design was infectious, and his wisdom, generously imparted and often in the form of football analogies was invaluable. He shaped the careers of countless creatives and changed the way people saw book design, eschewing traditional approaches, for street art, tattoo art, and anything perceived as counterculture which he always saw as fertile ground. John set a high bar, and the reward was working for an Art Director who was constantly evolving and encouraging all around him to do the same. He is greatly missed, both as a mentor and friend.”

Further book covers art directed by John, including Zadie Smith and Antony Beevor
Further book covers art directed by John, including Zadie Smith and Antony Beevor

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