Gilroy Was Good For Guinness
Liberties Press, 256 pages
How about a nice off-speed pitch? Today's review touches only tangentially on beer. Almost everyone, beer fan or no, is familiar with the iconic ads from the twenty years on either side of midcentury: My Goodness My Guinness, Guinness For Strength, and Lovely Day For a Guinness. The main illustrator behind those ads was John Gilroy, an English artist whose Guinness ads started appearing around 1930.
What interested me most was not the familiar art (though flipping through the pages and seeing rough sketches and discarded ideas is fascinating) but the amazing grasp Gilroy and Guinness had on the brand--in decades long before ad men used the term. This part of the story is only hinted at, and yet with each new illustration, you see how the clarity of the vision led to an iron-clad sense of the brand. One of Gilroy's most memorable series involved a zookeeper whose stouts kept getting purloined by different animals. In one, a satisfied-looking ostrich has a pint glass descending his long neck. In another, an upside-down kinkajou cradles the glass. Gilroy suggested a theme with a cobra and a snake charmer--the rough sketch is included--but Guinness rejected the pitch because snakes weren't cuddly enough. It's a great idea, and it must have taken some soul-searching to discard it, but such was the clear-eyed sense of what the company wanted to project.
Hughes doesn't do a spectacular job with the text. The long introduction spends way too much time on Gilroy's personal life and way too little time on his life as an artist. Except for my reading of Peter Schjeldahl, I have very little sense of art. It would have been useful for Hughes to have covered the artistic side of Gilroy. I would also have liked a sense of the Guinness ads in a larger context--what was their influence? What kind of art was typical for the time? How did Gilroy influence other illustrators and ad men, and what was the legacy of the Guinness ads? Hughes skips all this.
The art does speak for itself, however. We learned earlier this year that a cache of Gilroys revealed some unsettling illustrations for export ads to Nazi Germany. In the context of his full scope of work, though, they look pretty typical. Gilroy was asked to adapt a lot of his themes for foreign markets, and--remember, these are advertisements meant to sell beer--he played on national and cultural themes of the countries in question. That a 1936 campaign for exports to Germany involved Nazi images is not incredibly surprising (they were never produced commercially). Nevertheless, they are fascinating and add to the narrative.
It's a full-color book that captures the richness of the Guinness campaign. It's not a cheap book, but the money is well-spent on the reproductions. Those who enjoy commercial art, and especially the fans of breweriana, would probably appreciate having this on their bookshelf.