Incarnations of an oak leaf

National Trust oak leaf logo designed by David Gentleman

The latest issue of the National Trust magazine includes an article about David Gentleman, the designer who in 1982 created the National Trust logo that we still use today.

The original 1936 National Trust logo on a sign at Derwentwater, Cumbria. ©National Trust Images/Paul Harris

The original 1936 National Trust logo on a sign at Derwentwater, Cumbria. ©National Trust Images/Paul Harris

The original National Trust oak leaf logo dates from 1936 and was designed by sculptor and designer Joseph Armitage. It was slightly more attenuated, in tune with its time, but already had a strong symbolic presence.

Sign at Nanjulian Farm with David Gentleman's post-1982 National Trust logo. ©National Trust Images/Ian Shaw

Sign at Nanjulian Farm with David Gentleman’s post-1982 National Trust logo. ©National Trust Images/Ian Shaw

By 1982 it was thought to be in need of an update (a ‘brand refresh’ as we would call it today). The commission was given to David Gentleman as he had already designed a series of successful posters for the National Trust during the 1970s. They conveyed the organisation’s changing identity through their refreshingly modern, semi-abstract style.

National Trust logo in chocolate powder. ©National Trust Images/William Shaw

©National Trust Images/William Shaw

For the new version of the logo David Gentleman went back to nature for inspiration, collecting oak leaves on Hampstead Heath. He then carved a number of designs in boxwood, ending up with one that was elegantly simple and yet still botanically feasible.

National Trust logo in new branded colours

The subtle harmony of the design reinforces the symbolic messages around Britishness, heritage, nature and growth. Recent National Trust brand updates have only made the Gentleman design more prominent, and it now features in a rainbow of colours.

David Gentleman has just published his latest book of almost ukiyo-e-like drawings, entitled London, You’re Beautiful. And images of his Camden studio and his and his wife Sue’s Suffolk cottage (very ‘English wabi‘, both of them) feature in Ben Pentreath’s recent book English Decoration.

8 Responses to “Incarnations of an oak leaf”

  1. artandarchitecturemainly Says:

    Why a floral symbol of heritage? I suppose it is easier to create and read than, say, a Georgian bookcase. But some architectural symbols would work well – a Gothic arch, for example.

    Clearly the oak leaves suggest that gardens are as important a part of heritage as architecture etc.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    That is an interesting question. In Britain the oak has a strong historical and traditional resonance. The future King Charles II hid in an oak tree when on the run from Parliamentarian soldiers following the battle of Worcester. The ships of the Royal Navy were made of oak (and ‘Heart of Oak’ is the official march of the Royal Navy). William Morris & co loved oak for its ‘honesty’ and its associations with medieval and renaissance furniture.

    Ironically, a number of other nations also cherish the oak as part of their heritage, and of course all this symbolism has a lot to do with invented traditions and romanticism and antiquarianism and so on.

    But in the case of the National Trust this metaphorical ambiguity turns into a strength, as the oak leaf symbol inclusively refers to both the ‘historic interest’ and the ‘natural beauty’ parts of our mission.

    By contrast, a more explicit cultural symbol, like the gothic arch you mention, or a classical pillar or a nice Soaneian urn or something, would cause endless trouble: some people hate the gothic style, some think the classical style is elitist, the nature lovers would feel left out, etc etc :) All much too divisive for the broad church that the National Trust wants to be.

    David Gentleman did do a beautiful logo of a little gothic building for the Bodleian Library in Oxford (http://bit.ly/TJywfO), but then that particular institution is in fact housed in that sort of building, and it speaks of ‘venerable library’, so it makes perfect sense as well as being visually attractive.

  3. Andrew Says:

    Gosh, such a successful redesign that I had not even noticed it! Was there a problem with the old 1936 symbol?

    No doubt we can expect another new (but almost exactly the same) redesign in 2028.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes I think occasional ‘refreshes’ are just part of the life cycle of an organisational brand :) And it is yet another illustration of that great quote from ‘The Leopard': ‘Everything has to change, so that everything can remain the same.’

    I have just found that the 1935/1936 design brief stipulated one of three symbols: the rose, the lion or the oak (http://bit.ly/WxysMO). In retrospect it seems fortunate that Armitage’s oak design was chosen, as it would appear to be more flexible and inclusive (both in terms of national identity and in including both nature and culture) than the other two symbols.

  5. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    I really enjoyed looking at the work of David Gentleman, at the link you provided. His success is of course due to more than just a range of fine styles; he also has an incisive mind that solves how best to convey an idea. I’m sure art directors love collaborating with him. The poster for Richard III is brilliant!

  6. style court Says:

    “The Leopard” line is perfect here.

    I really admire Gentleman’s work and was struck by his early 70s take on the gardens at Sissinghurst. Thanks for including all of the links.

  7. The Devoted Classicist Says:

    I am a fan of David Gentleman’s work and particularly like his watercoloured pen & ink sketches of architectural scenes.

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Mark, Courtney, Classicist, very interesting to note your individual favorites.

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