Thursday, March 05, 2020

Ralph Dobson (1930-2011) and degrees of separation

When I did my BA Hons Design degree at (a then very dingy and grungy yet characterful) Belfast Art College from 1991-94, my main tutor was a well-spoken English gent called Ralph Dobson. He was an absolute gentleman, but quite absentee, and seemingly to us students with an eye on retirement. A few in our year claimed that he'd been in the RAF. I remember him getting frustrated with me as he often said my work was "too finished' - he wanted to see a lot of looser, more exploratory sketchbooks, whereas I was all about creating the best and cleanest end result that I could. I wanted to get a job at the end of it all!

I had no idea of just how pioneering, accomplished and important a commercial artist he was in his generation. The Arts Council booklet above from 1986, featuring Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and David Hammond, was illustrated by Ralph Dobson. A bit of digging shows that he set up a design business in Belfast in 1962 called Kinney-Dobson Associates with Desmond Kinney (obituary here).

Ralph created the famous Farm Week newspaper cartoon character Wully John; the Roamer from the News Letter; he collaborated with Richard Hayward's illustrator Raymond Piper (bio here). He also worked on Frederick Gamble pseudonym John Pepper's various Ulster phrasebooks - very popular in themselves, but which at the same time did much to position Ulster-Scots vernacular in the comedy genre in the public mind.

Among other work Dobson and Kinney created a mural for St Molua's church in east Belfast in 1962; illustrated a quite racy series for the Belfast Telegraph that year on teenage 'morals', and logos for the Ulster Orchestra, the Northern Ireland Arts Council, Londonderry Chamber of Commerce and a new red hand of Ulster design for a 'Building a New Ulster' exhibition in 1967 which, according to the Belfast Telegraph, was adopted by BBC Northern Ireland.

He also designed the 'Ulster '71' logo, and was also involved in issuing the first day covers of the special 'Ulster 71' postage stamps (link here).

I wish I'd known all this when I was one of his students in the early 90s. I could have learned so much more. But by the looks of it he was far too busy to talk to us much!

• Ralph died in 2011; his obituary is here.