John Alexander Lobban (1919-1996): life and art
“Lobban [was] a noted water-colourist and one of Britain’s foremost numismatic artists.” — British Art Medal Society
The essay below was written by his son Michael for a posthumous booklet on John’s British Columbia medals –Philip Attwood (ed.), The British Columbia Medals of John Lobban (British Art Medal Trust, 2004), and is reproduced with permission of the author. The images of John’s work are what I could collect from the Internet (several of these are posted on a World of Coins forum page at http://www.worldofcoins.eu/forum/index.php?topic=3929.0). His Joie de Vivre medal is shown with his short bio on our Public Eye page. Click images to enlarge.
THE LIFE AND WORK OF JOHN LOBBAN
by Michael Lobban
John Lobban was born on 18 June 1919 in Southampton, the eldest of Ivy and Alexander Lobban’s five children. John’s father was a native Scot, born in Glasgow, who had been apprenticed to his uncle’s joinery business in Hebburn, where his father was a pastor in the kirk, ministering to the Scottish shipyard workers on the Tyne. Alexander moved south during the First World War, to work in the shipbuilding industry on Southampton Water, and it was here that he started his family. In the days when seaplanes were made of wood, he worked for Supermarine, helping to build the aircraft which participated in the Schneider Trophy races, one of which – now in London’s Science Museum – John was allowed to sit in as a boy. With planes changing from wooden construction to metal, Alexander left to join the British Power Boat Company, where he ended his working life as a loftsman, drawing the boats full-size on the loft floor.
As a boy, John too worked at the yard during the long summer holidays, first rubbing down and filling screw holes, and later graduating to painting water-lines, roundels and numbers on the boats. But it was evident from an early age that he would be an artist. Even at the age of five, his father noticed how full of life his childlike drawings were. Himself a fine draftsman, Alexander told his son, ‘If ye canna draw it, ye hav’na seen it’. It was advice John would always keep in mind. When he was thirteen years old, he won a scholarship to Southampton Art School. It was here, and later at the Central School of Art in London, that his natural talent was harnessed and trained. Looking back on these years, John recalled learning to draw anatomical forms:
We were young, fourteen, fifteen years old, and we were expected fully to understand the bones of our business before we flew into fancy. When eventually we did, the grammar of our drawing would be the steel structure, the armature which would sustain us. I remember exactly the moment when I understood what drawing is: I was lazily ‘drawing’ a flower when Mr. Boniface took over my board and drew a line as full of tension as the bowing of [cellist] Pablo Casals. I saw then as clearly as did St Paul, and really never needed another lesson.
Art school also introduced John to the Great Masters:
I remember sitting at my board in front of the model whilst my teacher, Ruskin Spear, puffed at his dog-end and pushed the stub of pencil up the paper as he drew the model’s back. ‘Watch old Degas’, he said, ‘while you draw this. He knew how to explain the bones and the flesh and the burden of the body. You are passing your hand over the woman’s back as you draw.’
He would often quip in later life that, whatever he was doing, Michelangelo and Leonardo — Mike and Len — were looking over his shoulder. The masters continued to inspire him. ‘Some of my happiest hours were spent looking at Cezanne or Rembrant’, he recalled, ‘to see where they had trouble. That’s where great art is – where the great were uncertain. That is the heart of it, but you have to have struggled yourself to be aware of it.’ Other formative influences on John were Auden, Isherwood, Stephen Spender, Wyndham Lewis, the Sitwells, Henry Moore, and the Bauhaus artists. John admired artists like these for their economy of expression and simplification, for making each line speak for itself.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, John was one of the first of the young men conscripted into the Royal Artillery. While his penchant for solving posers in the intelligence test in an unconventional way led to him being deemed ‘not officer material’, his artistic skills were utilised in making maps and briefing models, in particular for the D-Day landings in 1944. His wry sense of humour did not always endear him to those in authority, but delighted his fellow soldiers. He won much free beer on one occasion, when he told Princess Marina, inspecting the troops at Plymouth citadel, that his civilian profession was ‘molecatcher, ma’am’. Three years after his conscription John married Therese Vivet. John had two children with Tess, Andrew and Jacqueline, but the marriage later broke down. In June 1944 he was one of the soldiers who landed on Gold Beach, though only after wallowing for twenty-four hours in the Channel, when his landing craft broke down, its engine finally being fixed by a couple of ex-farmhands. He later spent nine months stationed in Brussels, where he continued to draw, at one point being given the task of setting impromptu drawing tests for soldiers keen on getting into the life class to catch a rare glimpse of female flesh. If there were lighter moments, the experience of war nevertheless had a major impact on his life, as it did for so many of his generation. He later recalled the war for:
Orifices spewing out fast-moving projectiles, sanctimonious mouthings, our great General Montgomery in Brussels banging on about going forth with a straight bat holding the hand of GOD … I can tell you what war is. It is standing side by side with a good friend — maybe your best — and then bang! he’s not there anymore…
After being demobilised in 1946, John entered the world of advertising, working at a number of major London agencies, including Colman, Prentiss & Varley and Bensons, where he became creative director, working for major clients such as Guinness. He also shared an office for a few months with Satyajit Ray, during the Indian film director’s time working in an advertising agency in London. It was at Bensons that John met Faith Cassy, with whom he would spend the next thirteen years of his life. John had two more children with Faith, Caroline and Michael.
In 1961 John moved to South Africa, where he worked with the London Press Exchange. Those three years in Cape Town instilled in him a love of the African continent, and he would return on many occasions in later years. In 1964 the family returned to Europe, moving to Frankfurt, where John became creative director for the American advertising agency, Ted Bates, at a time when its German office was undergoing significant expansion. Having spent seven years of his life as a soldier fighting the Germans, he now spent seven years living and working in Germany, whose people and culture he much admired. The admiration was reciprocated: one colleague, noticing the host of little drawings and sketches pinned all over his office, once said to him, ‘Herr Lobban, your room is a church of art’.
On his own again, in 1971 John gave up work in the commercial world of advertising, and began to devote more time to painting and sculpture, as well as freelance illustration. He also devoted some time engaged in researching aspects of the Italian Renaissance in the Reading Room of the British Museum. In 1973 he spent several months cycling through France and northern Spain, painting watercolours of the people and places he encountered. His paintings were exhibited in various locations, including the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolour. He continued to travel regularly, to Cornwall, Ireland and South Africa, where the great landscapes and wildlife remained a constant source of inspiration for his work. In later years he was to find similar inspiration in the grand scenery, wildlife and rich indigenous culture of British Columbia.
Returning to London in 1974, John’s interest in sculpture developed, and he began to carve in stone and wood, as well as modelling in clay, plaster and wax. In the following year, he joined the Franklin Mint, becoming the firm’s head of sculpture. It was here that he first began to design coins and medals, and where he met Avril Vaughan, who was to be his partner for the rest of his life.
In the 1980s John became well-known for illustrating Michael Bond’s Paddington books. He always delighted in drawing, whether for a commercial book, or for covers of magazines, such as The Oldie, or merely amusing himself by making caricatures when watching television. Drawings simply spilled from his pen: To anyone with facility, he said, ‘it is great fun to watch a drawing happen — very Klee — taking a line for a walk.’ At this time he also became known for his numismatic work. He won an international competition in 1986 to design a ten franc coin for the French Mint to commemorate Robert Schuman, one of the founders of the European Economic Community. He also won a competition to design a two pound coin in 1989 for the Royal Mint, to commemorate the tercentenary of the Bill of Rights in England and Claim of Right in Scotland. John also won a number of other competitions, including one to design a coin to commemorate the British contribution to the Battle of Waterloo for the Dutch Mint. In 1992 he won a prize for the best medal submitted by a British artist to the exhibition organised for the congress of the Federation Internationale de la Medaille (FIDEM), held at the British Museum. A council member of the British Art Medal Society, he became president of the Society of Numismatic Artists and Designers. His work is now to be found in the collections of the British Museum, the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, the Staatliche Museen, Berlin, and a number of private collections across the world.
John found the medium of the medal ideally suited to his skills as a designer and sculptor. As he put it,
Control is an essential part of drawing. To sail as close to the wind as possible. Matisse did it as if there never was any danger –– Picasso did it to show how dangerous it is. To return to the medal, there has to be some limit, some border to inform us how closely we are sailing, some edge of danger – some tightrope upon which we shuffle forward on our calloused feet. A rigid form, a circle, a square, lozenge, hollow, what you will, is as important to a medal maker as the Alexandrine form to a poet or a string quartet to a composer — it is the form within which his idea is presented. There are ideas exquisitely fitting a string quartet — there are others which need the spread of a symphony — we need to know which key is the right one for us.
John remained ever aware of the duty of the artist to teach people how to look and to see. He always strove for the highest standards. The medallist, he said, should always ask himself, ‘Would Pisanello have respected me?’ For John, ‘the quality which distinguished great designs of the past is grandeur; this is a quality which has fallen away in recent work. This is in part due to the meaner manufacture – the coins get thinner, polished surfaces have to be allowed for, the technical tolerances become more and more minute.’
In his seventies, John determined to keep learning, and set himself the task of learning a new skill every year. At this time, he and Avril went on a Greek holiday organised by the artist Paul Millichip, for painters seeking to improve their work. Not a man to take it for granted that he had nothing left to learn, John used his time in Greece to push his art in new directions, towards a more abstract style. In 1996 he was diagnosed as suffering from cancer, ‘a miserable, underhand means of ending a robust life’. He remained to the end as enthusiastic about his life and art as ever, spending much of his last summer in his studio, completing a sculpture entitled Memories. Never losing his urge to create, he continued to make drawings and designs for medals, often returning to the theme of the raven, which features prominently in his British Columbia medals. The muse that had driven him since infancy was still alive, even as his body faded. As John himself once put it, ‘My work is not studio bred, gallery bred or museum bred. It is the by-product of my life – it is the white stick with which I find my way.’
Footnotes: the process of making a medal
1. G.P. Dyer ( Br Numis J 1990: 141-142) gives an account of the process of selection of designs for the British Numismatic Society Membership Medal, and describes the designs submitted by John and the editorial suggestions the committee made and John accepted.
“Two from the group of six submitted by John Lobban, his seated Britannia and his impudent magpie stealing from an open drawer of coins, quickly emerged as front runners. … In asking John to model these two designs, the committee suggested certain minor modifications. It was a little concerned, for instance, that Britannia’s trident seemed to be without any visible means of support and it recommended a slight adjustment so that the trident rested on top the letter E. It also suggested that an Alfred the Great monogram penny and a 1672 halfpenny should be substituted for two of the coins in the drawer so as to give a more representative, if perhaps less realistic, range of types. In addition, for technical reasons, John Lobban was asked to distance certain features, such as Britannia’s helmet, from the edge to prevent loss of detail when the medals were trimmed after striking. To these suggestions the artist raised no objection and his plaster models were available by the beginning of August. … Sample medals (pl. 29) were struck in November in the presence of the President and unveiled by him at the Anniversary Meeting at the end of that month.” Plate 29 shows all his submitted drawings as well as sample medals and can be seen at https://archive.org/details/britishnumismati1990harr/page/n171; color images of the two faces of the bronze version are shown below; it was also issued in silver.
2. About ‘Homage to Collectors,’ the artist wrote (quoted in The Medal, Autumn 1990, p. 92): “After listening to many discussions among BAMS members as to what a medal should be, I set out to make one which would have most of the traditional characteristics. It is round, it is in honour of something, it contains some allegory and it is well finished. The medal is in honour of those who support medallists – the collectors. On the obverse, the impulse-buying collector is represented by a magpie who has picked up something way beyond his means [Pisanello’s Kaiser Johannes VIII]. His opposite, the collector who, having bought carefully for investment [Chadwick’s Diamond medal], buries his treasure for safety, is represented by the squirrel. The reverse shows another aspect of collecting, the sheer joy of the collector. I made the original in wax and had a cast made in silver. This was so that I could work on the metal, silver being more workable than bronze. I believe a medal should be worked in metal rather than simply cast in metal. By using engraving tools and by chasing with hammer and tools of my own making, I obtained interesting contrasts of texture. A master cast in bronze is being made from the silver and from this the edition will be cast.”
Page assembled by Christopher S Lobban, posted 20 Jan 2020, revised with Michael Lobban’s text 8 Feb.