PRH art director John Hamilton dies aged 55

PRH art director John Hamilton dies aged 55

Penguin Random House's longtime art director John Hamilton has died aged 55, the publisher has confirmed, with chief executive Tom Weldon paying tribute to his "incredible spirit" which "helped define" PRH.

Hamilton joined Penguin in 1997 after specialising in illustration at the Glasgow School of Art and Design. He was responsible for art directing Penguin General’s hardback imprints, Viking, Hamish Hamilton, Michael Joseph, Fig Tree and Penguin Ireland, as well as its Penguin paperback editions. 

Hamilton launched the “iconic” covers of the Penguin Essentials in 1998 and went on to work with an eclectic range of creatives such as Banksy and Chris Ashworth as well as up-and-coming illustrators, tattoo artists and designers, briefing the designers to "do what you do and ignore publishing conventions”. He also worked with authors such as Jamie Oliver and William Boyd.

The 55-year-old's cause of death has not yet been given. Weldon sent a note to staff on Monday (11th February), revealing his 30-year friendship with Hamilton and paying tribute to the “completely unmanageable” art director who had “an incredible spirit”.

In Weldon’s circular, which was shared with The Bookseller, he wrote: “I am very sorry to be sharing this awful news by email but I wanted to let you know about the sudden and unexpected death of John Hamilton this weekend. As many of you know, John was the much loved and respected art director for Penguin General and Michael Joseph.

“I have worked longer with John than 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. To begin with I could not understand a word he said because I found his accent so strong.  But we soon became the best of friends and spent (possibly far too) many happy hours down the pub.”

Weldon revealed that Hamilton “was very proud to work for Penguin” after becoming one of its two art directors “and continued the long tradition of placing great design at the heart of the company”. 

“He helped discover many talented designers, illustrators, photographers and artists at the beginning of their careers, and became friends with many of them.  One of the artists he first gave work to was Banksy,” Weldon wrote. “John also established very close relationships with authors from William Boyd to Dawn French to Antony Beevor. He loved cookery books and perhaps his most important partnership was with Jamie Oliver.  He art directed every one of Jamie’s books and they forged over 20 years a highly creative professional collaboration as well as a deep friendship. The two of them had wrapped up the design for Jamie’s new book only last Thursday evening."

Weldon wrote of Hamilton's character: “John was also a hugely popular colleague. He was completely unmanageable (I tried for nine years) and he drove people crazy with his constant knack of missing deadlines.  A regular refrain to exasperated editors was that a vital piece of artwork was ‘on a bike’.  But in the end everyone forgave him because he was funny, charming, and just very, very talented. He had an incredible spirit and it helped define this company."

Weldon's note finished with the following words: “He will be so missed by his team and everyone at Penguin Random House.  His wife, Claire, who he adored, and his two children, Sadie and Angus, of whom he was so proud, are very much in our thoughts.”

Fellow designer Jonathan Gray has paid tribute to Hamilton and told The Bookseller: "He was a big-hearted and brilliantly creative man who could always find a new angle, a new avenue or a new story.

"Like many other designers in publishing I owe my whole career to John. His faith, encouragement and direction made me a better designer and a better person. 

"As a friend you might not see him for months - he was constantly working or planning - but you knew that he always had your back. He loved his family, was hugely proud of Claire and his kids and never happier than when sharing stories of their exploits."

Gray added: "John was bold, brave and colourful - always with a new story to tell. Everything will be a little greyer without him."

The covers Hamilton directed for the Penguin Essentials series were showcased in an exhibition near his home in Lewes, East Sussex, in 2017. He was credited at the time, by designer and writer Adrian Shaughnessy, as boosting interest in the series' titles, some of which were 100 years old, by "selecting artists and designers who were working at the front line of visual expression".

Hamilton revealed last year he had only been in his job a short time when the Penguin Essentials project took off. “When I joined, a woman called Helen Fraser had just taken over as managing director and wanted to completely refresh things,” he told Design Week. “They decided to redo the backlist, and I think I’d only been in my job for two or three weeks when they asked if I wanted to redesign 10 classic titles... I looked at what had been done before at Penguin, and to be honest it was a bit dry and traditional.

"They were mostly using the same design consultancies, and I don’t think they were targeting their market or trying to move it on. I thought about the young people who wanted to buy these books and what they were looking at – magazines, fashion, graffiti and tattoo artists... I made it my mission to contact all of these different kinds of people and ask them if they’d like to do a book jacket."

He added: "The Essentials have been an inspiration for the rest of what I and the other designers at Penguin do. It has shown that there isn’t an exact route every time you design a book cover, you can be brave and different."