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A life in illustration - the old & new world of commercial art

"Rockpool"  This detailed illustration featured in a book of poetry.
"Rockpool" This detailed illustration featured in a book of poetry.
All images are the work and property of John Dugan.

Last October I visited my home city of Edinburgh in Scotland. This is the last article, for now, stemming from that visit. It spotlights Edinburgh as it used to be and an artist who is still following his calling.

John was one of a group of artists who worked on the same book of poetry illustrating individual poems.
John was one of a group of artists who worked on the same book of poetry illustrating individual poems.
All images are the work and property of John Dugan

In the last 50 years technology has taken printing and publishing from the thunderous heavy industry of hot metal presses down to tidy little computers and clean, quiet printers. I recently met an artist whose professional career spanned this change.

When John Dugan began his apprenticeship at Morrison & Gibb in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1938 he was 14 years old and the world was a different place. He trained 7 years at this prominent city printer, developing the practical skills needed to showcase his natural talents in order to become a commercial artist and illustrator. “I learned my craft there,” John said, “Lettering, illustration, book design.”

Despite “being interrupted by Hitler” when John served in the Signals during World War II, he worked in total 17 years in this company before striking out on his own as a freelance illustrator in 1959.

Edinburgh was the major centre for printing and publishing in the UK, outside London, until the mid 1960s. It was the bustling hub of a national and world-wide trade in books and printed material. As well as supplying universities, schools and companies the general public were in need of entertainment and edification and printed publications provided all.

“I worked for book publishers, chiefly educational publishers, advertising agents, children's comic publishers and various commercial firms and printers wanting logos, calenders, calligraphy and so on,” said John.

Edinburgh had a number of big educational publishers who traded internationally and kept John busy. He also illustrated 'twopenny library' novels. This was the lending of 'popular fiction' for the princely sum of twopence, which revolutionised public reading habits. These, and whatever editors and publishers needed in mainstream publishing were the mainstays of John's business. “It was before people generally had televisions so people read a lot more then,” John says about the great need for printed material.

“I am very much a commercial artist, never showing work in an exhibition,” John explained. “We produced as required by clients, the work had a specific use. Few of us were exhibiting artists. I have painted presents for friends or relations or for my own enjoyment but as an artist I am only 'known' to my customers!”

When you see the expression, movement, detail and humour present in John's art it should be lamented that the work from this branch of the art world did not have greater longevity or have more appreciation from a wider audience. The fact it did, by definition, have a marketable purpose unlike much fine art should recommend it.

From his small freelance studio in Gorgie, Edinburgh, John produced drawings and paintings to order. From the 1960s onwards he saw large publishers grow smaller; they closed, moved or changed and when one of the largest educational publishers closed its Scottish offices and conducted all business from London, meaning all contractual work was conducted in or around London, the publishing world grew further away and smaller still.

In the early '70s, web offset litho replaced letterpress as the primary form of mainstream printing. This was a faster, cheaper method with better color reproduction but it meant the demise of many of the old established print shops. In the '80s John had to look south to England for much of his business since M. Thatcher's de-industrialised Scotland meant few opportunities at home.

When John retired, he proved that the good thing about being an artist is you never really stop. John continued to work for his own enjoyment in a studio in his home. Some of his own favourites are framed and on view at home but he has cabinets with layer upon layer of artwork, drawings in pen and ink and watercolour. Some drawings are amusing and caricature-like, some beautiful and stylised while the picture tells a whole story. This is his life's work; he has kept everything! Most of the books he illustrated are out of print but the stories and facts he depicted for the reader are still there in this library of pictures. And he is still adding to it with paintings detailed, humourous and beautiful in turn.

Please contact Lorraine Thiel for any further information.