Among the last commissions completed by the late graphics genius Barney Bubbles (born Colin Fulcher 1942; died by his own hand 1983) was a typically quirky job delivered to one of his host of unusual and sympathetic clients: a tattoo design for Rat Scabies, drummer of UK punk-rockers The Damned.
Entitled The Missing Link – the ‘i’s inverted into exclamation marks – this wily construct formed a rat’s face from broken chain links. An amicable comment on Scabies’s unusual appearance, it also served to define Bubbles’ important but until recently all-but-invisible position in the development of graphics practice in the latter part of the 20th century.
A product of Twickenham Art School and senior member of Conran Design’s Sixties team, Fulcher deliberately absented himself from the mainstream towards the end of that decade, changing his name and submerging into the counterculture by operating light-shows at UFO and Drury Lane Arts Lab, art directing the underground press (Oz, Friends) and producing hundreds of record sleeves, posters and pieces of ephemera for the music industry, the vast majority without credit or under pseudonyms: Big Jobs Inc, Heeps Willard and, once, his VAT number.
Pausing to redesign big-selling weekly New Musical Express (which only dispensed with his stencil-block masthead a couple of years ago), direct idiosyncratic video clips (notably The Specials’ era-defining number one Ghost Town) and conjure post-modern furniture, Bubbles burned out at 41, just eight weeks before the launch of the first Apple Mac, which would spell the end of the hand-rendered processes over which he exercised such mastery.
Until 2010, Bubbles’ vast body of work was represented in the V&A permanent collection by a single piece, and that due to an association with one of Britain’s leading figurative artists: the Humphrey Ocean Whoops A Daisy Flick Book poster. Commissioned by new wave indie label Stiff Records to promote the 1978 single Whoops A Daisy, the 750mm x 500mm sheet displayed 35 cut-out-and-keep shots of Ocean in his trademark baggy white suit throwing the various shapes, which had made his avant-garde dancing one of the wonders of British pub-rock. But it was Ocean’s name, not the uncredited designer, which prompted the purchase.
Things are different these days; Bubbles’ monograph and exhibitions have banged the drum for the man who refused to do it himself, and his acceptance into the canon has been spurred by the increasing recognition that Bubbles joined the dots between Swinging London’s formally trained commercial art scene and the post-punk free-for-all which delivered such acolytes as Neville Brody, Malcolm Garrett and Peter Saville to the designer decade and beyond.
Coincidentally, Saville has described Bubbles as ‘the missing link between pop and culture’, by which he means that the designer used vinyl-record sleeves and promotional posters to communicate a panoply of preoccupations, from cosmology and Alphonse Mucha for Hawkwind’s Space Ritual live release of 1973, to the constructivist arrangements of such covers as the 1977 Generation X single Your Generation.
The use of a pastiche of wildlife artist David Shepherd’s work on the front of Elvis Costello And The Attractions’ 1979 album, Armed Forces, to mask the explosion of colour and art references on the back is ‘a practice we would more likely associate with the late Nineties period and one of the YBAs’, says Saville.
Now there are several examples of Bubbles’ exuberant approaches in the V&A collection, including two late-Seventies’ designs for Ian Dury, one a 2m x 1.2m silk-screened Warholian poster depiction of the new wave wordsmith. This takes centre stage in the graphics section of the museum’s just opened British Design exhibition, while the other, a foldout tour programme that doubles as a poster is also given prominence, appearing as a design on limited-edition T-shirts for the exhibition.
It’s possible that Bubbles the contrarian would not be happy about this exposure, but then, as the musician and client Nick Lowe says: ‘Barney was the closest we’ll ever meet to genius.’
Paul Gorman is the author of Reasons To Be Cheerful: The Life & Times Of Barney Bubbles.