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Telephone: 0131 226 6932 or 0845 388 5879
46 Queen Street, Edinburgh, EH2 3NH, Scotland

Biography and current catalogue for

Professor John Thomas Young (Jack) Gilroy Hon MA ARCA FRSA (1898-1985) 

John Thomas (Jack) Gilroy was born on 30th May 1898 at Whitley Bay, Newcastle, one of a family of 8 (5 boys, 3 girls) born to Elizabeth and J(ohn) William Gilroy, a marine landscape painter who exhibited from 1898 to 1904, although his profession was technical draughtsman.

The young John practised copying cartoons from “Punch” and took on all kinds of work to pay for drawing materials. From the age of 15, he worked for the Newcastle “Evening Chronicle”, producing cartoons of well-known entertainers who played the Newcastle theatres. He was schooled in Newcastle and in 1912 won a scholarship to Armstrong College Art School at Durham University, to study under Professor K G Hatten. The Great War of 1914-18 interrupted his studies and he served as a gunner with the Royal Field Artillery in France, Italy and Palestine.

In 1919, at the age of 21, he was awarded a place at the Royal College of Art in London, where he excelled, winning several prizes for drawing and decorative painting, as well as keeping goal for the college football team. He won an RCA travelling scholarship in mural painting, having missed the Prix de Rome by only one vote. Gilroy graduated from the RCA in 1923, staying on there as a teacher and from 1924 to ’26, he also taught life drawing at evening classes at Camberwell School of Art. He married a fellow student from the RCA, Gwendoline Peri-Short and they had a son, yet another John, in 1927.

In 1925, Gilroy embarked on his long association with the advertising agency S H Benson. Although Benson’s was the first agency for which he worked as an in-house artist, his first known piece as a commercial artist was a promotional leaflet for a tunnelling thrust-borer for the Hydraulic Engineering Co. His early work at Benson’s is reputed to have been on campaigns for Skipper Sardines and Virol (health foods). During his time there, he also worked on campaigns for Bovril, Macleans Toothpaste and Monk & Glass Custard. His first significant assignment was the Mustard Club campaign for Coleman's of Norwich, on which he worked with fellow artist William Brearley and copywriters Oswald Greene and Dorothy L Sayers. Between 1926 and 1933, the pens of Gilroy and Brearley brought eccentric characters like Baron de Beef, Signor Spaghetti and Miss Di Gester to life on bill boards and in magazines everywhere.

In 1928, Benson's won the Guinness advertising account and Gilroy became involved with the product with which his work is most closely associated. Gilroy's first known Guinness poster was produced in 1930. Working with copywriters like Ronald Barton and Robert Bevan, Gilroy produced more than 100 press advertisements and nearly 50 poster designs for Guinness over 35 years. He is perhaps best remembered for his posters featuring the girder carrier and the wood cutter from the Guinness for Strength campaigns of the early 1930s and for the Guinness animals. The animals, including a lion, toucan, gnu and kangaroo, appeared, with their long-suffering zookeeper, on posters, press advertisements, show cards and waiter trays from the 1930s to the 1960s. Gilroy continued to produce Guinness advertisements well into the 1960s, even though he left Benson's employment as an in-house artist in the 1940s to continue freelance work.

During the 1920s and succeeding decades, commercial art was not Gilroy's sole occupation; he began to build his reputation as a painter both of portraits and landscapes. One of his earliest portrait commissions was to paint the future Edward Vlll for the Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club, of which Gilroy was a member and the Prince was patron.

In 1930, while the family was living at The Cottage, Hyde Park Road, Kew Gardens, Gilroy had his first painting, “Gwen” (his then wife), exhibited at the Royal Academy. Throughout the 1930s, Gilroy's work continued to be exhibited at the Royal Academy and to appear on advertising hoardings, in newspapers and even in the Radio Times. In 1941, with the onset of the Blitz, the artist moved to Rasehill, Chorleywood Road, Rickmansworth. His wife and son moved to safety in Cheltenham where, in the same year, he held a one-man exhibition of his work, which then travelled to Sunderland Public Art Gallery.

Throughout the war years, Gilroy's work continued to be exhibited at the Royal Academy, while his commercial art talents were employed by the Ministry of Information in campaigns such as Make-do-and-mend, Keep it under your hat and We want your kitchen waste. He also improved morale by painting murals at various Royal Air Force bases and produced a series of drawings-in-one-line of contemporary political and military figures, called Headlines, which appeared in “The Star”.

By 1945, when his painting “Diamond Setting” was exhibited at the Royal Academy, the artist's address was given as 6 Avenue Studios, Sydney Close, London SW3. A year later, he produced another mural, this time in the bar of the Morritt Arms Hotel near Greta Bridge, near Barnard Castle, on the Rokeby Park Estate of his close friend Major Morritt. The mural was to commemorate Charles Dickens’ stay at Greta in 1838, while researching for “Nicholas Nickleby”. The work at the Morritt Arms began on the 1st February 1946 and was completed within 10 days. When Gilroy and his assistant proudly displayed the walls of the bar, decorated with Dickensian figures, closer inspection revealed them to be caricatures of local people and staff from the hotel.

In 1949 Esme Jeudwine, a former pupil and portrait subject, introduced Gilroy to the Royle family and another long and successful association began. Gilroy produced five greeting card designs for Royle Publications in that year, with another 464 published designs over the next 35 year. In 1966, Gilroy was acting Art Director for Royles.

In 1950, Gilroy married his second wife, Elizabeth Margaret Bramley (nee Outram Thwaite). The couple lived initially at 17 Queen's Gate, Kensington, but his fortunes were improving and they moved a year later to 10 Holland Park Road, London W14, the former home and studio of Sir Bernard Partridge, whose cartoons Gilroy had copied from Punch as a child. The magnificent studio at Holland Park saw the creation of advertising work for T.F. Carrington Van Posting Ltd (I don’t think that’s a Dutch name…) where Gilroy was Head of the Art Department, and was regularly visited by members of the Royal Family, the military, politicians, actors and many others who came to have their portraits painted.

In 1957, Gilroy held another one-man exhibition, this time at Leighton House Gallery and two years later produced a series of landscapes of McGill University, Montreal, to illustrate a book “McGill, The Story of a University”, edited by Hugh MacLennan. In 1970, Gilroy held a retrospective exhibition at Upper Grosvenor Galleries (London) and three years later an exhibition of his humorous designs for Royles was held at the London headquarters of Austin Reed Ltd.

'Jack' Gilroy was a longstanding and much loved member of the Garrick Club where, in his later years, he was Chairman of the Works of Art Committee and where a number of his portraits now hang. In 1975, Gilroy was awarded an honorary MA by Newcastle University and in 1981, now living at 6 Ryecroft Street, Fulham, he was appointed a Freeman of the City of London.

John Gilroy died at Guildford on the 11th April 1985, aged 86, and is buried at Ampney St Peter in Gloucestershire, near the home of his son and three grandchildren.

With grateful acknowledgement to Diageo Guinness.

afternote: I’m not sure about Gilroy’s third name, Young. It does not appear in earlier reference works and I have a suspicion that it may be a corruption of “(the) younger”, in common use up to the late 19th century to differentiate between father and son artists and the like of the same first name. Also, I cannot find reference to his title of Professor, although I have seen a photograph of Gilroy’s headed writing paper bearing the prefix. If anyone can illuminate, do get in touch.