When I’m 89: Beatles artist reveals what led to his viral sketches

Celebrity fans are in awe of mini-portraits that Charles Front draws as revision notes for his online courses

Ever mindlessly doodled during a lecture? Shame on you if so. At the age of 89, the late-life learner Charles Front is setting a better example with his diligent, captivating revision notes.

When Front’s daughter, the actress Rebecca, proudly posted photographs of a few sample pages from his current studies on her Twitter account, the images swiftly became a phenomenon. Tens of thousands have now commented on their clarity and artistic flair. His neat penmanship and mini-portraits of key historic figures are chastening for all those students who claim that taking proper notes is a waste of time.

Front, a retired illustrator, is best known for designing the title of the Beatles album Rubber Soul, but now he can count Lenny Henry among the many celebrity admirers of his skills. “Wow!” tweeted Henry last week, “it’s making me want to learn calligraphy and do a drawing class and be a better person, dammit! Fantastic.”

Front, who lives in Muswell Hill, north London, has been amazed by the scale of the response to his work. “I could not believe it when Rebecca told me how many people had seen my pages,” he said. “I’m a bit bemused. The reason I draw pictures on the pages is to help me when I look back, not because I am a teacher’s pet. If I draw the face of Stanley Baldwin or Bonar Law, then I find I can remember more.”

A self-portrait by Charles Front.
A self-portrait by Charles Front. Illustration: Charles Front

Front has already completed a succession of online courses with FutureLearn, a company part-owned by the Open University. After first attaining a full degree in the history of art with the OU, Front then whipped through a run of shorter courses. “I did one on astronomy first, then one on antisemitism, then one on Rabbie Burns and on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Since then I have done a course on England in the time of Richard III and another on the literature of English country houses,” said Front.

“One of my favourite courses was ‘Music: from Notation to Performance’ and, although I don’t play an instrument, I loved it because I love music and once used to sing with Oscar Rabin and his big band. He had heard me singing in the style of Danny Kaye and so asked me to join them. My wife, Sheila, does FutureLearn courses too, and she kicks me sometimes for doing my notes so well.”

Front’s daughter and her brother, the writer and actor Jeremy, adapter of Simon Brett’s Charles Paris murder mysteries for Radio 4, have always appreciated their father’s talent but have both been “flabbergasted” by the response to the drawings.

“They really seem to have delighted people,” said Rebecca, who played hapless government minister Nicola Murray in the BBC political satire The Thick of It, and Kevin Whately’s boss in Lewis.

Front initially worked in advertising in the 1960s, after his studies at art school. He then moved into illustration in the publishing industry, later producing a series of books with Sheila, 84. His work on the cover of Rubber Soul remains a claim to fame, but the real reason for the warmth of the reaction to his notebooks may lie elsewhere in Front’s back catalogue. If his style seems familiar, it could be because he also drew illustrations for the children’s series Jackanory and Playschool.

For Front, known to his children as “Chas”, the look of the words is as important as the drawing. “I started out doing calligraphy and typography, and in advertising I learned there is a massive amount you can do with typefaces to stop people going to sleep.”

Other stars to praise Front’s scholarship include Mark Gatiss, Maria McErlane, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Adrian Lester and Samantha Spiro, who plays Rebecca’s screen sister in the sitcom Grandma’s House. “Deeply untalented family, the lot of you!” Spiro joked. Novelists AL Kennedy and Stella Duffy are also fans.

Matt Jenner, of FutureLearn, said the company salutes Front’s attitude to notetaking. “There was a flurry of excitement in the office as we saw the Twitter thread grow,” he said. “He is obviously a very expressionate and visual learner.” The company provides learning material for just under 10 million learners across the globe and has partnerships with universities, the British Council, the British Library and the National Film and Television School. “What we all enjoyed was the discussion online about the different ways people learn. I would say notetaking is absolutely important as a memory jogger, but we don’t advocate it because everyone has their own method of learning,” said Jenner.

“A lot of the courses we run on subjects such as psychology or history are put together in a way that stresses the importance of storytelling,” he added. “We have a wide demographic, but 13% of our learners are 65 or older. The great joy of this job is bringing people this kind of engagement with a subject.”

Front is studying with FutureLearn, a company part-owned by the Open University.
Front is studying with FutureLearn, a company part-owned by the Open University. Illustration: Charles Front


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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