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

17 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.

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