Longtime Penguin art director John Hamilton passed away in February, at the age of 55. Eight colleagues and collaborators share their memories of him.
Penguin Random House UK
I worked longer with John than with any other colleague at Penguin Random House. We met 30 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 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 more than 30 years. He had an incredible spirit and it helped define this company. I will miss him terribly.
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.
John was formative in so many, many Michael Joseph 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 [Oliver]. They established their own, unique and brilliantly creative way of working, over a 20-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.
Penguin Random House Children’s
John was such a brilliant art director—a true designer’s designer. I am so incredibly proud to have worked alongside him at Penguin. It is an irreplaceable honour, as he is an irreplaceable creative maverick.
Fig Tree, Penguin General
John Hamilton was probably the most talented person I have worked with in my 20 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 more than 20 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.
John and I worked together for 17 years, most recently on covers for John le Carré and William Boyd. John could translate an author or editor’s ideas in a magical way— even when an editor attempted to draw their ideas on a scrap of paper... he threatened to keep all of my terrible scribbles in his desk. 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?”
Penguin General & Michael Joseph
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 as a friend.
My working relationship with John was astonishingly long—starting when he first came to Penguin in the late ’90s. It is astonishing to think that his latest work on the backlist was the third iteration of the backlist that he and I had worked on. So, from my point of view, it was a unique collaboration between author and designer made all the easier because (a) he was so good and (b) he was such a nice guy. It’s remarkable to think we had worked together for over two decades—unparalleled in my publishing life. And the designs he was coming up with just got better and better. His cover for the hardback of Love is Blind is the most beautiful of all my book jackets ever, I feel. It seems impossible and unbearable that he won’t be here to work more magic.