Oliver Elmes – A life in art and design

Oliver Elmes - Artist and Graphic Designer book jacket illustrations © John Long [Simon & Schuster, Inc.]; © Hutchinson [Penguin Random House]; © Anthony Blond Ltd. [Penguin Random House]; © Jarrold Publishing.

Desmond Bagley Running Blind UK Abridged EditionIn 1975 Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., licensed by Collins, published an abridged edition of Running Blind in their Bulls-Eye series of paperbacks for young readers. The cover art commission for this edition was given to artist Thomas Oliver Elmes.

More commonly known by his middle name Oliver, Elmes was born on 24th October 1934 at Smirna House in White Notley, Essex. He was the younger son of Thomas Patrick Elmes (1896-1981) and Lucy Florence Maude Holmes (1905-1996).

His father, born in Melbourne, Australia, of Irish descent, joined the Australian Imperial Force in 1916 and came to Europe at the age of nineteen to fight in the Great War. He was already known as an artist and cartoonist, working in Sydney for the Cartoon Newspaper and he decided to remain in England after the war. Working under his professional name of ‘Rick Elmes’ he was soon a regular contributor to The Bystander, The Sphere, and in particular the Daily Herald. [1]

In 1926 he illustrated Stephen Graham’s London Nights: Studies and Sketches of London at Night (London: George H. Doran, 1926) and in 1927 worked for the Illustrated London News. In 1933 he illustrated Stephen Graham’s Twice Round the London Clock & More London Nights (London: Ernest Benn, 1933), and in this year, prior to his son’s birth, he also drew cartoons for the weekly magazine Punch. Rick was also responsible for drawing Bobby Bear in Mickey Mouse Weekly in 1936, and also drew the popular and long-running daily cartoon strip ‘All in a Day’s Work’, published in the Daily Herald, going on to provide cartoon illustration for the Happy Families Comic in 1938. It was therefore no surprise that Oliver would inherit his father’s talent and consider a career in art.

At the age of twenty-one months and weighing 27lbs, Oliver Elmes won the ‘Champion Baby in the Show’ award in the Bonny Baby Competition at the Clacton Carnival in August 1936. Elmes was educated at King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford from 1942 until 1948 and during that period showed early promise as an artist. In May 1944, as part of Chelmsford’s ‘Salute Week’, he won the Borough Schools Junior Section of the Children’s Poster Competition (judged by Mr Popham of Great Leighs and Miss Alexander, the art mistress at Brentwood High School). [1]

Elmes went on to study in London at the Regent Street Polytechnic School of Art  from 1950 to 1954. Leaving the polytechnic he started work for the prestigious advertising agency S.H. Benson Ltd, a job recommended by his girlfriend, and future wife, Donnatilla Glenn (whose genealogy has lineage to the famous Brontë family). Whilst working at Benson’s, Donnatilla had been responsible for Crosse and Blackwell’s Branston Pickle ‘Bring Out The Branston’ advertising campaign. Elmes took a flat in Victoria and became friends with sculptor Laurence Broderick (best known for his work ‘The Bull’, a public sculpture erected in 2003 at the Bull Ring in Birmingham), and artist Peter Kent, all of who socialised in the vibrant community of The Troubadour coffee house in Earl’s Court. Through the 1950’s and 60’s The Troubadour was one of the centres of London’s intellectual and artistic life:

It’s where Private Eye was first produced and distributed; where the early Ban the Bomb meetings were held (the precursor to CND); and where the Black Panthers met when they left Paris after the ’68 riots. The Troubadour was the first place where Bob Dylan performed in London. Paul Simon, Martin Carthy, Redd Sullivan, Charlie Watts, Sammy Davis Jr.and Jimi Hendrix have all played here. Richard Harris fell in love with his wife Elizabeth here (she was doing the washing up). Ken Russell recruited staff for his first shorts here, and it was here that he became friends with Oliver Reed. Led Zeppelin used to come and jam here after their Earl’s Court gigs. [2]

From 1960, and continuing throughout his working life, Elmes (often signing his work T.O. Elmes or TOE) took on cover art commissions on behalf of publishers: Anthony Blond; Chatto & Windus; Hurst & Blackett; Hutchinson & Co.; Jarrolds; John Long; Michael Joseph; G.P. Putnam’s Sons; Puffin; and Souvenir Press.

Oliver Elmes - Artist and Graphic Designer book jacket illustrations © John Long [Simon & Schuster, Inc.]; © Hutchinson [Penguin Random House]; © Anthony Blond Ltd. [Penguin Random House]; © Jarrold Publishing.

In addition to providing the cover art  for the Hutchinson Bulls-Eye edition of Running Blind Elmes also took on commissions for a number of the James Bond novels in the same series, written by Ian Fleming and abridged by Patrick Nobes.

Hutchinson Bulls-Eye editions of James Bond novels with covers designed by Oliver Elmes © Hutchinson - Penguin Random House.

An accomplished painter Elmes first exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1961 with a painting titled Roxana [catalogue ref: 863], his address recorded at that time as 34 Church Street, Coggeshall, Essex, less than ten miles from where he had been born. Elmes would go on to exhibit further paintings at the Royal Academy in 1964, 1967 and 1970. [3]

On Friday 13th December 1963 Elmes married Donnatilla and had embarked on a career with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as a graphic designer. He remained with the BBC until retirement rising to the position of senior graphic designer. During his employment with the BBC he was responsible for graphics, programme titles and logos, on some popular programmes, which include:

The Mind of the Enemy, 1965; SirArthur Conan Doyle – The Mystery of Cader Ifan, 1967; The Goodies, 1970; Elizabeth R, 1971; Play School, 1986; Multi Coloured Swap Shop, 1976-1982; and Animal Album, 1989.

Elizabeth R BBC Television 1971, titles designed by Oliver Elmes © BBC Worldwide.

Interestingly one of the episodes of Elizabeth R, ‘Sweet England’s Pride’, was written by scriptwriter Ian Rodger who was later commissioned to write the screenplay for the ill-fated 1973 Rank film adaptation of Running Blind. Rodger visited Iceland for a research trip in May 1973 however Rank ran into financial difficulties due to an overspend in production on Alistair Maclean’s novel Caravan to Vaccarès, so the Running Blind adaptation was never made. Read more about the ill-fated film adaptations of Running Blind here. Coincidentally, Donnatilla’s brother, Rodney Glenn, worked as assistant editor on Caravan to Vaccarès and subsequently worked as a sound engineer on many film and television productions.

Elmes is perhaps best know for his work on the The Good Life in 1975, the BBC ident logos and the title sequence for the 24th season of Doctor Who, which introduced the seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy in 1987.

Inspiration for the titles used in the well-loved comedy series The Good Life, written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, came from the title sequence from a UPA cartoon of James Thurber’s A Unicorn in the Garden:

The title sequence was a little bird that would fly around the screen going upside down as it reached the top, which was very novel and I thought it was genius, you know. So it stuck in my mind and I thought well this is the thing we’ll do for The Good Life. [4]

Oliver Elmes graphic and titles designer for the BBC series The Good Life © BBC Worldwide.

When the first episode aired Elmes cringed a little thinking the title appeared a little more naive than he had expected, however it captured the humour and tenor of the series and worked perfectly.

From the early transmission days of the BBC, its clocks and idents were mechanical models filmed by a black and white camera, with colour added electronically. Elmes was involved in the 1970’s festive ident displaying a revolving Christmas pudding, replacing the traditional world globe. [5]

Oliver Elmes graphic designer responsible for BBC television ident logos © BBC Worldwide.

The turn of the decade and progressing into the 1980’s saw the introduction of futuristic striped lettering idents, which didn’t exist on either film or as models, instead the symbol was played out from a solid-state device, created by BBC engineers. This technique had the benefit that it could produce both a still image and a moving sequence, animated by the BBC Computer Graphics Workshop. The first ident to be changed, and designed by Elmes, was for BBC 2 and he was later to be involved in the implementation of the ‘COW’ – Computer Originated World design, launched in 1985.

In 1987 Elmes was commissioned by Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner, to develop the new title sequence to mark the arrival of the seventh ‘re-generated’ Doctor, Sylvester McCoy. Elmes created the first Doctor Who logo to be designed entirely on computer and collaborated with the company CAL video, chosen as they had some space effects which had been used for a Halley’s Comet programme.

Oliver Elmes - Graphic designer for season 24 titles intoducing Sylvester McCoy as the seventh 're-generated- Doctor Who © Marvel Comics.

The title sequence had to be fed into the computer a frame at a time, with every frame taking 30 minutes to prepare. With 50 seconds screen time for the opening titles and 60 seconds for the closing titles it took a long time to generate the sequences. To reduce cost some of the elements from the opening sequence were taken directly from the computer and manipulated on a digital edit suite named HARRY for the closing sequence. [6]

Elmes retired from the BBC and moved to Barnes taking a room with fellow artist Roy Pettit where he settled down to enjoy his love of nature, the countryside and painting. He liked to paint landscapes, particularly skyscapes in oils, and portraits in pastels and oils. It was Elmes’ daughter, Carlotta, who introduced her father to the London Sketch Club. Carlotta had been a model for the club and had mentioned to members Roy Pettit and Dennis Gilbert her father’s interest. Elmes spent many happy years in the sketch club and became their model master (responsible for booking models) between 1996 and 2005. He was introduced to the Chelsea Arts Club from the London Sketch Club and in addition to his exhibitions at the Royal Academy he exhibited art at the following galleries:

Pastel Society, Mall Galleries (1992, 1994, 1995, 1997); ROI, Mall Galleries (1994, 1995); Park Lane Fine Arts Gallery (2005, 2007); Bartley Drew (1996); Barnes Art Gallery (1995, 1996); Alton Gallery (1993, 1994); New Grafton (1995); Piers Feetham Gallery (2005, 2007). He also took on portrait commissions for Doug Haines in 1998 and 2007, Jane Fleming in 2006 and W. Saunders in 2006. [7]

Oliver Elmes untitled painting of Hammersmith Bridge, London 2009 © T. O. Elmes.
Untitled painting of Hammersmith Bridge, London 2009 © T. O. Elmes [8]
Elmes passed away on 4th May 2011 and three weeks later a memorial tribute was held in his honour at Chelsea Arts Club. With both Elmes and his wife Donnatilla having a love for, and careers in both art and graphic design, it is perhaps no surprise that their five children (Charlotte [Carlotta], Dervorgilla, Orianna, Donovan and Olivia) were all subsequently involved in the Arts.

Bibliography of known dust-jacket illustrations by Oliver Elmes

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Tamiko by Ronald Kirkbride (London: Cassell, 1959)
Amelia Rankin by Charles O. Locke (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1960)
Catch as Catch Can by Francis Richards (London: John Long, 1960)
One Star General by Al Morgan (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1960)
Look Behind You by Jay Barbette (London: John Long, 1961)
Show Red For Danger by Francis Richards (London: John Long, 1961)
The Killers of Karawala by Edward Lindall (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1961)
Death in the Dog Watches by ‘Sea-Lion’ (London: John Long, 1962)
Hour of the Rat by John Manchip White (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1962)
If Anything Should Happen by Kevin O’Hara (London: John Long, 1962)
Prison Feud by James Preston (London: John Long, 1962)
Teach Yourself Treachery by Jonathan Burke (London: John Long, 1962)
The Big Season by Maurice Gee (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1962)
Death’s Foot Forward by George Brown Mair (London: Jarrolds, 1963)
Fail Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1963)
Moonlight Flitting by Maurice Procter (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1963)
My Feet Upon a Rock by W. H. Canaway (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1963)
Springs of Violence by Edward Lindall (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1963)
Suddenly in Vienna by Hugh McCutcheon (London: John Long, 1963)
That Men Should Fear by John Naish (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1963)
A Kind of Justice by Edward Lindall (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1964)
Criminal Tendencies by Jonathan Goodman (London: John Long, 1964)
Mission to Samarkand by Felix Godwin (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1964)
Mister by Michael Burgess (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1964)
The Rich Pay Late by Simon Raven (London: Anthony Blond, 1964)
The Six Eleven by Al Morgan (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1964)
Two Men in Twenty by Maurice Proctor (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1964)
Assassins Road by Simon Harvester (London: Jarrolds, 1965)
Death Has a Shadow by Maurice Proctor (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1965)
Friends in Low Places by Simon Raven (London: Anthony Blond, 1965)
Skinner by Hugh C. Rae (London: Anthony Blond, 1965)
A Backward Glance by Alan Cowan (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1966)
His Weight in Gold by Maurice Proctor (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1966)
That Cold Day in the Park by Richard Miles [pseudonym of Peter Miles aka Gerald Richard Perreau-Saussine] (London: Souvenir Press, 1966)
The Sabre Squadron by Simon Raven (London: Anthony Blond, 1966)
The Serpent’s Smile by Olga Hesky (London: John Long, 1966)
Exercise Hoodwink by Maurice Proctor (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1967)
Fielding Gray by Simon Raven (London: Anthony Blond, 1967)
Much Ado About Something by Bruce Graeme [pseudonym of Graham Montague Jeffries] (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1967)
South of Hell’s Gates by Richard Butler (London: John Long, 1967)
The One Day of the Year by Alan Seymour (London: Souvenier Press, 1967)
Time for Treason by Olga Hesky (London: John Long, 1967)
Touch Pitch by Leonard Peck (London: John Long, 1967)
Deadlight by Archie Roy (London: John Long, 1968)
Fortunately in England by Alan Cowan (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1968)
It’s Locked In With You by Gael Mayo (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1968)
Leave of Absence by Eric Bailey (London: John Long, 1968)
Locust on the Wind by Raymond Collin (London: John Long, 1968)
Never Mix Business With Pleasure by Bruce Graeme (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1968)
On The Yard by Malcolm Braly (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1968)
The Judas Boy by Simon Raven (London: Anthony Blond, 1968)
A Fine Night for Dying by Harry Patterson [writing as Martin Fallon] (London: John Long, 1969)
Blind Date for a Private Eye by Bruce Graeme (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1969)
Nameless Road by Simon Harvester (London: Jarrolds, 1969)
The Curtained Sleep by Archie Roy (London: John Long, 1969)
The Innocent by Richard E. Kim (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1969)
The Mercenaries by John Harris (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1969)
The Sequin Syndicate by Olga Hesky (London: John Long, 1969)
Two or Three Questions by Alan Cowan (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1969)
All Evil Shed Away by Archie Roy (London: John Long, 1970)
Cry Hold! by Peter Harris (London: John Long, 1970)
Master of None by Hjalmar Thesen (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1970)
On the Wings of the Storm by Richard Newhafer (London: Jarrolds, 1970)
Places Where They Sing by Simon Raven (London: Anthony Blond, 1970)
The Bloody Sun at Noon by George Beare (London: John Long, 1970)
The Different Night by Olga Hesky (London: John Long, 1970)
The Shadow That Caught Fire by Hamilton Jobson (London: John Long, 1970)
The Quiet Ones by Bruce Graeme (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1970)
Sound the Retreat by Simon Raven (London: Anthony Blond 1971)
The Eye of the Eagle by Dermot O’Connor (London: John Long, 1971)
The Poison Chasers by Henry Calvin (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1971)
The Restless Quiet by Dermot O’Connor (London: John Long, 1971)
The Syndicate by Anthony Masters (London: Michael Joseph, 1971)
The Very Breath of Hell by George Beare (London: John Long, 1971)
Toll for the Brave by Harry Patterson, Harry [Jack Higgins] (London: John Long, 1971)
A Black Horse Running by James Wood (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1972)
A Kind of Courage by John Harris (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1972)
Sahara Road by Simon Harvester (London: Jarrolds, 1972)
Star Witness by James Wood (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1972)
Take Two Popes by Henry Calvin (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1972)
The Bee Sting Deal by George Beare (London: John Long, 1972)
The Killing Wind by John Lee (London: John Long 1972)
The Mustering of the Hawks by John Harris (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1972)
Death in a Sunny Place by Richard Lockridge (London: John Long, 1973)
Stay Hungry by Charles Gaines (London: Chatto & Windus, 1973)
The Uist Project by James Wood (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1973)
Two and Two Make Five by Bruce Graeme (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1973)
The Green Days by Desiree Meyler (London: Hurst & Blackett, 1974)
Running Blind by Desmond Bagley abridged by Michale Thomas (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1975)
The Victors by John Harris (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1975)
Dragonship by Robert MacLeod (London: John Long, 1976)
Night of the Savage by George Beare (London: John Long, 1976)
Search for a Missing Lady by Neill Graham (London: John Long, 1976)
The Dark Host by Archie Roy (London: John Long, 1976)
The Picaroon Gets The Run-Around by John Cassells (London: John Long, 1976)
The Water Gypsies by A.P. Herbert (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1976)
Lift-off at Satan by Richard Butler (London: John Long, 1977)
Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming abridged by Patrick Nobes (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1977)
Motive for Murder by Neil Graham (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1977)
The Damocles Factor by Roy Chester (London: John Long, 1977)
The Interceptors by John Harris (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1977)
The Professionals by John Harris (London: Puffin, 1977)
Two-Faced by Bruce Graeme (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1977)
Devil in the Darkness by Archie Roy (London: John Long, 1978)
The Man with the Golden Gun by Ian Fleming abridged by Patrick Nobes (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1978)
The Revolutionaries by John Harris (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1978)
Mather Again by Bruce Graeme (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1979)
The Pillars of Hell by Roy Chester (London: John Long, 1979)
Morgan’s Passing by Anne Tyler (London: Chatto & Windus, 1980)
The Victors by John Harris (London: Puffin, 1980)
Goldfinger by Ian Fleming abridged by Patrick Nobes (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1984)

Read about Norman Weaver – Cover artist for the UK first edition of Running Blind.


Images: © Hutchinson & Co., [Penguin Random House]; © John Long [Simon & Schuster, Inc.]; © Anthony Blond Ltd. [Penguin Random House];  © Jarrold Publishing; BBC Worldwide;  © Marvel Comics; & © T.O. Elmes.

Acknowledgements: My thanks to Laurence Worms from Ash Rare Books for providing additional information for both the biography and bibliography of dust-jacket illustrations by Oliver Elmes. Laurence has a Twitter feed and also a Pinterest page on Oliver Elmes.

My thanks also to Jamie Sturgeon from JRS Books for providing additional information and images of dust-jacket illustrations by Oliver Elmes. Jamie also displays dust jacket covers on his Flickr and Instagram accounts.

1. Worms, L. (2019) pers. comm 4th Feb 2019.

2. Troubador Properties Ltd (2019) ‘Troubador – Our History’ URL [Accessed 22nd January 2019].

3. Sarant-Hawkins, K. (2019) Royal Academy archivist pers. comm 16th January 2019. (Bloomsbury – 1926 catalogue ref 523, Still Life catalogue ref 366, First Light catalogue ref 291).

4. BBC ‘All About The Good Life’ (Documentary, first broadcast 28th December 2010).

5. Lucking (nee Elmes), C. (2016) pers. comm 6th May 2016.

6. Elmes, O. (1987) Doctor Who Magazine ‘Title Tattle’ (London: Marvel Comics Ltd., Autumn Special 1987, p.p. 14-15).

7. The Small Paintings Group ‘Oliver Elmes (1934 – 2011) Biography’ URL [Accessed 22nd January 2019].

8. The Small Paintings Group ‘Oliver Elmes (1934 – 2011) Gallery’ URL [Accessed 22nd January 2019]. © T.O. Elmes & reproduced courtesy of the Elmes family.