More great lost Guinness art: new evidence for the genius of Gilroy

If we didn’t already know John Gilroy, creator of so much iconic beer advertising, was a genius, then the latest images to surface from the mysterious “lost” art archive of the former Guinness advertising agency SH Benson would surely convince us: marvellous pastiches of other iconic works of art, sadly unseen for the past 60 or so years.

I’ve already talked here about the mysterious stash of 800 or more pieces of Gilroy advertising artwork that disappeared, existence unknown to Guinness experts, on the sale of the former Guinness advertising agency SH Benson in 1971, and how items from the collection began to turn up for sale on the American market from 2008 onwards. These are oil paintings, done by Gilroy to be shown to Guinness for approval: if approved, a final painting would then be made which the printers would use to make the posters. Now they are being sold by a couple of art dealers in the United States on behalf of their anonymous possessor for tens of thousands of dollars each. It has been estimated that the 350 or so paintings sold so far have gone for a total of between $1 million and $2 million.

Van Gogh by John Gilrou
‘I’d give my right ear for a pint of stout’

Much of the stuff that has been turning up was never actually used in advertising campaigns, for various reasons. There was a series of posters featuring Nazi imagery, for example, commissioned from Gilroy because Guinness was thinking of exporting to Germany in 1936.

This week, David Hughes, who has written an excellent just-published book, Gilroy was Good for Guinness, about Gilroy that includes some 120 reproductions of artwork from the “lost” stash, gave a talk at the St Bride’s Institute in London on Gilroy and Guinness. During the talk he revealed that he had recently been shown something new from the Benson collection, too late to include in his book – a series of 21 takes by Gilroy on “Old Master” paintings, copies with a Guinness twist  of works by painters such as Picasso, Van Gogh, Vermeer and Michaelangelo, that had been commissioned in 1952 with the intention that they would hang in the Guinness brewery at Park Royal in London. They were never used, however, and instead ended up hidden in the SH Benson archive, vanished from (almost all) human ken.

Picasso by Gilroy
From Picasso’s ‘Brown (stout)’ period …

Now the paintings are on sale as part of the general disposal of the Benson Gilroy collection, they are being swiftly grabbed by eager collectors with thick wallets: the “Michaelangelo” went for $20,000. I would love to own the “Van Gogh” – somehow Gilroy has captured the essence of the mad Dutchman’s art even as he subverted it with a bottle of Guinness on the chest and a pint of stout on the chair – a humorous homage, done, I am sure, with love and affection. Note Gilroy’s signatures on that and the “Picasso” – cheeky takes on the originals.

A few others are in the “great but not fantastic” category, but the “Toulouse-Lautrec” really does look as if little Henri himself had been commissioned to design an ad for la fée noire. I haven’t seen any of the other 21 apart from those here, but they would have made a superb series of advertising posters, and would be as much loved now, I am sure, as Gilroy’s toucans, sea lions and men with girders. It’s a huge pity they never went into proper production. (Some of the reproductions on this page – the obviously rubbish ones – are from photos taken by me off the giant screen David Hughes was using at the talk, subsequently poorly “tweaked” in Photoshop – my apologies, but I thought you’d be more interested in at least seeing something now of these marvellous illustrations than waiting an unknown time until you could see them reproduced perfectly.)

In the audience for the talk was Edward Guinness, 90 this year, the last member of the family to hold an executive position on the Guinness board, and a man to whom brewery historians owe a huge debt: it was while Edward was chairman of the Brewers’ Society that the Society commissioned Terry Gourvish and Richard Wilson to write their mammoth history of brewing in Britain from 1830 to 1980, a massive resource. He also helped ensure Guinness the company supplied the money to make John Gilroy’s last few months comfortable, after it emerged that the artist who had done so much to promote the Guinness brand was seriously ill and could not afford private health care. It appears that David Hughes is helping Edward Guinness write his reminiscences – bugger, that’s another Guinness book I’m going to have to buy.

Michaelangelo by Gilroy
The ceiling of the Sistine Saloon Bar – don’t you love the strategically placed shamrock?
Millais by Gilroy
Gilroy’s take on John Everett Millais’s Boyhood of Raleigh of 1871: “Sod the potato, bring the world stout!’
Mondrian by Gilroy
Piet Mondrian’s hugely influential ‘Composition in Black and White’, painted after his death in 1944
Vermeer by Gilroy
Vermeer’s ‘Girl with the Pint of Guinness”
Toulouse-Lautrec by Gilroy
Henri ‘Half-Pint’ Toulouse-Lautrec advertises Guinness in the Paris of the 1890s

22 thoughts on “More great lost Guinness art: new evidence for the genius of Gilroy

  1. Superb. Such rich commercial art characterized a time when the product was truly distinctive by being naturally conditioned and, I believe, all-malt. Guinness ads might be deft or clever today, too (I don’t know) but I don’t look at them due to disappointment at the palate of the drink. Exception made for Guinness Foreign Extra Stout but it is not always easy to find and e.g., I have never seen it in Canada.


  2. Superb.

    Wasn’t there a prominent artist who reproduced famous pictures, but to ensure that people did not mistake his copies for forgeries added contemporary images. I think he painted the Laughing Cavalier with a glass of Guinness in his hand.

    But to me, the most memorable Guinness ad was in 1966 when the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings was celebrated as a Guinness advert in the style of the Bayeux tapestry, entitled ‘1066 the Battle of Hastings – 1966 the Bottle of Guinness’

    1. My husband renovated a bar in NJ. The Irish bar owner was throwing out an old fabric, possibly linen, Guinness ad & told my husband he could have it. As it turns out, it is the “1066 the Battle of Hastings – 1966 the Bottle of Guinness”! The ad was in very good condition and we had it reframed. Do you know of any fabric versions of this ad?

    1. Very interesting indeed: I certainly wouldn’t rule it out yet, as the Guinness poster artist’s full name was John Thomas Young Gilroy, so he could well have signed his name “John T Gilroy”.

  3. I knew John Gilroy in the 1960s. lived in his house with my wife and son. They rented out two apartments connected to the main house. I saw many of his paintings in his big studio and the one pictured is in his style, as I recall. He and I once collaborated on a painting for a military exercise (a parachute brigade in Aldershot) – on the occasion of the Queen visiting. It didn’t work out well. I had the canvas one day, worked on it, passed it over to him, he’d paint out my stuff and over-paint with his, and then I did the same to him. I finally gave the partially finished canvas back to him and resigned from the project. Yet we remained friends for years after. Lovely guy, his wife was lovely too.
    Bruce Macdonald
    Lexington, Virginia

      1. You are welcome. He was a terrific guy. He and his wife made our four years in London very pleasant ( I was also in the advertising/illustration business).

    1. Hello Bruce, I have some interesting elements to share with you about John Gilroy and a couple of important questions. Would you mind contacting me? Thanks a lot, Alex.

  4. I have just discovered the Zythophile website and have a couple of items to add to the archive.
    In the early 1970’s I bought a Gilroy crayon drawing from Sotheby’s at a charity auction related to the advertising profession. I had a friend who was working at Sotheby’s at the time and he asked me to participate knowing that my father had been the financial director of Pearl and Dean. In reality I left a bid for Gilroy’s artwork for his ‘Gnu at the Zoo’ poster but somehow ended up with a different lot. But this item has hung on my walls for some 50 years and it still gives me great pleasure when I look at it.
    It is an original full colour crayon drawing by Gilroy. In the 1960’s Guinness entered into a joint advertising campaign with ABC Cinemas and Anglo-Amalgamated (Film Distributors) Ltd. for the 1963 comedy film ‘The Iron Maiden’. The Guinness advertisement featured the man with the iron girder, but instead carrying a showman’s traction engine. It’s in its original frame measuring approx. 22″ x 16″.
    I also have a couple of copies of the advertising distributor’s information card relating to the finished poster, as well as a small foyer poster for the film itself. Sadly I do not have a copy of the Guinness finished article.
    I notice on your site that there is reference to the mysterious “lost” art archive of the former Guinness advertising agency SH Benson, unseen for the past 60 or so years. Also that there was a mysterious stash of 800 or more pieces of Gilroy advertising artwork that disappeared, existence unknown to Guinness experts, on the sale of the former Guinness advertising agency SH Benson in 1971. Apparently items from the collection began to turn up for sale on the American market from 2008 onwards. These were oil paintings, done by Gilroy to be shown to Guinness for approval.
    Perhaps my crayon drawing was an ‘escapee’ from this hoard that turned up in a Sotheby’s charity auction. It is very much a ‘finished’ piece which, unlike many others apparently, did end up as a actual poster.
    I do not know whether there is still a demand for Gilroy’s work but any information on this would be much appreciated. I can easily provide photographs but can’t find a way to post any on this site.
    On the other matter I have some pub glass beer mugs with a design that I have never seen before. They date almost certainly from the late 1930’s and both bear the duty mark for GR. One has the ‘date’ no. 323 CCC S whilst the other is marked 64. The former one looks to be earlier as it has an intricate design whereas the latter looks to be an earlier version of the later ‘dimple’ glasses.
    If anyone can shed some light on these, it would also be much appreciated. I think somewhere there are more of the same but, in any event, they will all end up as casualties of the dreaded downsizing.
    I am quite content to publish my e-mail address should anybody wish to contact me directly, if that is permitted:

    1. Thank you very much for that, Andrew – fascinating. There is HUGE demand for Gilroy’s art, and your drawing is likely to be quite valuable – certainly hundreds of pounds. If you have a photograph, I would love to see it – you can send it to me at

      The glasses also sound very interesting. Your 323 CCC is, in fact, 323 GCC – the G is often mistaken for a C – meaning the glass was stamped by Gateshead county borough council – there were a number of glass manufacturers in Gateshead.64 is Newcastle upon Tyne – again, Newcastle was home to a number of glass companies. Do you have pictures of those as well?

  5. I have a ‘Guinness’s Stout’ pub oil painting with the name of the pub owner and date of 1928 within the painting. Can you tell me more?

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