Richard Haughton "Jimmy" James, (1906-1985)

It was the Australian art world's worst nightmare. A toffee nosed, upper class Pom swanned into Sydney to avoid the war, and took charge of the art scene. Not only graphics, but industrial design, fine art publishing, broadcasting, art philosophy- the lot. He looked and sounded like Rex Harrison playing Shaw's Henry Higgins.

And did the locals like it?


It was 1939. His feet had barely touched Australian soil.

He had got a job as senior creative director at JWT.

He was broadcasting a weekly programme of "World Observations",later a weekly broadcast about the arts.

He was giving lunchtime lectures on anything that moved in Sydney.

He had been co-opted for Government recruiting / savings work, the war had just decided to break out.

He joined Dahl and Geoffrey Colllngs in establishing "the Design Centre", a revolutionary multi-disciplinary design group.

He and Geoff Collings were founding members of the Design and Industries Association of Australia (which, amongst other things, aimed to establish a register of designers).

He wrote copiously for Sydney Ure Smith's glamour publication, "Australia National Journal", introducing William Dobell (with whom he'd shared digs at the Cross) and others to a wider public.

He was 33. He'd hardly even unpacked his suitcase!

Jimmy became the icing on Sydney's culture cake. The instant mouth on all things arty and smart in the wartime pre computer years. He was convinced the public could be educated, and never tired of harassing them for their bad taste. Robin Boyd was at it in Melbourne at the same time.

His lunchtime lectures on Sir Keith Murdoch's Herald Art Exhibition, then in Sydney, which featured work by Picasso, Braque and Matisse infuriated the conservatives.

"Unhealthy- dangerous," they said."Just plain lewdness",was their take on Matisse. One critic said of Henry Moore, "too many ladies lying on their backs - unfit for young girls to see."

But Jimmy James never minded locking horns with a worthy adversary. He didn't find many. He later found formidable opponents in Melbourne, where he moved in 1948, some say to escape JWT.

In the Dungeons and Dragons game of Melbourne art politics of the late 40's he came up against arch Dragon, William Dargie, who went on to win the Archibald Prize eight times. (say no more) Dargie and others, (warmly supported by PM Menzies) managed to crush the only art magazine at that time in Australia, (The Australian Artist) for the sin of promoting progressive art in it's pages. James had been it's founder and editor.

But that was then.

What does Jimmy James mean to us now?

Jimmy is now a memory. Vivid for some, for most a name that keeps cropping up relentlessly with no real definition. That's fair enough - you can't really define Richard Haughton James.

He was born with a silver spoon. Father an Indian Army Colonel who took to fundamentalist religion on returning to the Old Dart. Not before spawning six sisters for Jimmy.

Understandably he decamped as soon as possible and became a highly sought after art director in London. A "hot property", as described by Dr Ray Marginson. He was made a "Fellow of the Royal Society of Art".

Self taught, his prodigious abilities with brush and typewriter propelled him into the London art elite. In 1933, while art director of McCann he organized the first international show of modern photography. Work by people like Steichen, Bayer, Maholy-Nagy, Man Ray, Van Der Horst.

In 1935, back at Irwin Wasey, he wrote a review of the Bauhaus. He and Gropius became firm friends. He was mixing with the cutting edge of creativity in Europe. Living a "brittle" life as he described it.

He decided on a change of scene.

In 1937 Jimmy headed for the Antipodes.

After his explosive first year in Sydney he found himself in the AIF in charge of a camouflage unit. Bill Dobell was in it too. At about this time Jimmy gave evidence at the Archibald Prize trial over the Dobell portrait of Joshua Smith. He had famous slanging matches with Garfield Barwick K.C. in defence of his friend's right to paint anything he bloody well wanted.

Then to Melbourne, establishing Haughton James Services in Collins Street and producing a stream of sublime work, while burrowing deep into the art life of Melbourne as he had in Sydney.

He joined the Victorian Artists Society and through them created the ill-fated "Australian Artist", killed after six volumes. He designed the landmark "Red Cross Modern Homes Exhibition", with model homes by Robin Boyd, furniture by Grant Featherston. It took up all of the Exhibition Buildings.

He was central to the formation of the "Society of Designers for Industry", now the DIA. He was President of the National Gallery Society, twice.

With Bernard Smith and John Reed, he was considered a major force in the contemporary art scene. He had an unquenchable needs to impart knowledge. He was also funny as a hat and great good company.

In 1952 he bit the golden bullet and went into Advertising.

Our profession can lay claim to only a little bit of Jim. His years as a graphic designer were short but powerful, as were his years as an inspired Advertising Agent. Briggs and James produced the most vital advertising in Australia at that time.

Jimmy James was the first graphic designer I ever met. Max Forbes (Hall of Fame 1996 ) was the second. He was working for Jim at the time. I assumed of course that all graphic designers were alike.

I was dead wrong.

However a vestige of that first impression still remains. Having had heroes like that in our background to inspire us, we are all still contenders.

That's what Jimmy James means to us now.

In 1967 Jimmy James retired to Positano. In those days it was not the cliche it may seem now, and he finally had what he had always looked forward to, a peaceful life of comfort and painting.

But the heroic status he had enjoyed in design and advertising in Australia did not follow him into fine art. Although he exhibited widely in London and around Europe, and returned to Australia several times for retrospective shows during those years, the magic did not happen for him.

Jimmy James life however had an enormous impact on the times he lived in and the people around him, and profoundly influenced successive generations of creative people.

You can't ask for much more than that.

Max Robinson

September 2004