Richard Hamilton, one of the most influential British artists of the 20th century and the man who gave birth to the pop art movement in the late 50s, has died aged 89.

Richard Hamilton invented the term ‘pop art’ 54 years ago and, from his Just What is it that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? to his 60s Swingeing London series to Tony Blair as a cowboy, he had always been one step ahead of the curve.

Hamilton was an everyday Londoner, born in Pimlico; he was the son of a Henley’s car showroom driver and far removed from the stuffy, aloof backgrounds of some his contemporaries. Art was something that found him by chance. He was 10 when he saw a sign in a local library and despite the classes being for adults, he was allowed to continue because of his natural talent. Six years later Hamilton was enrolled at the Royal Academy.

Pop art was born when Hamilton exhibited a piece of work that to this day still stands alone as the forerunner of a movement that would entice the Warhols, Lichensteins and Hirsts of this world to create the masterpieces they did. It was 1956 when Hamilton created ‘Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?’ for the catalogue of This is Tomorrow, the Independent Group’s historic exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery.

The show was a quasi-anthropological, semi-ironic look at the mass-market imagery of the post-war age. The collage included an innocuous, out of place, lolly in the hands of a muscleman, however the letters POP on it were to define a generation of art. There was also a sign of Hamilton’s political leanings that would play a strong role in his future work.

In a letter to the architects Alison and Peter Smithson in January 1957, Hamilton created the formula for others to follow, when he wrote:

“Pop art is popular (designed for a mass audience), transient (short term solution), expendable (easily forgotten), low cost, mass produced, young (aimed at youth), witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, big business.”

His paintings of Mick Jagger, and the art dealer Robert Fraser, in handcuffs following a drug raid (the Swingeing London series), his images of an IRA hunger striker (The Citizen series); his 2007 inkjet print, Shock and Awe, in which Tony Blair is done up as a cowboy, with double holster and boots against the Iraq war all showed how he could meander through pop and political culture without losing one iota of credibility. He even designed the sleeve for The Beatles’ White Album and his draughtsmanship can be found in his illustrations of Joyce’s Ulysses.

In an age when celebrities are two-a-penny and pop culture is celebrated more than ever, Hamilton can truly be classed as an icon in his own right and on his own terms. He was a leader in his field, a crafter, a visionary and a downright brilliant artist.

Rest in Peace Richard Hamilton (24 February 1922 – 13 September 2011)

As written on THINK-WORK-PLAY – a website celebrating the creative process