They drew the 20th Century

By Paul Halas

Cartoons that were art.

Growing up in a family that was immersed in the visual arts – chiefly in the form of animated films – it’s little wonder I had access to all kinds of books filled with the most wonderful illustrations. From children’s illustrated books, to old “Punch” almanacs, ditto New Yorker, to collections of offbeat cartoons and drawings, to fine-art illustrations… I was always dazzled by the skill and wit of those putting pen to paper, and in retrospect I’m immensely grateful to all the publishers that sold so many beautifully produced works of art – which certainly cannot have sold in sufficient numbers to make them a pot of money. They heyday of such publications was the middle part of the century (excluding of course the war years and the immediate austerity following them); and while I have no doubt there are legions of wonderful illustrators at work today, the wonderful, whimsical books of cartoons I grew up with don’t seem to be produced any more.

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Old collections of cartoons and illustrations can still be found in antique and bric-a-brac shops – for a price – and also if one is lucky at car boot sales. Specialist book sellers can source them too, but again they don’t come cheap. I’m lucky in that I inherited a small collection of them; others are simply indelibly imprinted in my memory. With no attempt to present these artists in any sort of order of merit, here is a collection of some of those I’ve thumbed through innumerable times.

H M Bateman will forever be known as the creator of “The Man Who…” series of cartoons, depicting the foibles and social mores of his contemporaries. As a child I was attracted to his attention to detail and the accuracy with which he depicted contemporary fashion, décor and incidental detail. Growing up, I went through a period of thinking he must have been the most outrageous snob, given that so much of his humour was based on social faux-pas – but then he was simply reflecting the society he was a part of. The Britain he inhabited was probably the most snobbish, class-obsessed nation on Earth; H M Bateman reflected that with considerable genius.

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Most young boys of my vintage went through a period of loving railways and trains, and none were quirkier or more original than the creations of Rowland Emett. Emett’s way-out inventiveness was on a par with W Heath Robinson (who should get more of a mention here but doesn’t), creating a parallel universe in which the laws of physics did wonderfully impossible things. He was known for cartoons lampooning bureaucracy and quirky reflections on life in war-torn Britain, but for most people he’ll chiefly be remembered for his wonderful railways and trains – the stuff of dreams. Eat your hearts out Thomas the Tank Engine and Ivor the Engine.

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A book of my parents’ that intrigued me as a nine or ten year old was “The Half-Naked Knight” by Andre Francois, not that I had any great interest in semi-dressed men. Francois (Ne Farkas) was a French cartoonist of Romanian origin who specialised in visual humour. His style was very contemporary 1950s and 60s, and I imagine had he not progressed to fine art paining he would have also made a superb graphic designer. His themes were predominantly adult, yet I found the drawings oddly compelling.

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Ronald Searle is remembered by most as the creator of the notorious St Trinians School characters, which were published in a range of magazines such as “Lilliput”, as well as being immortalised on celluloid by the likes of Alastair Simm and George Cole. But type-casting Searle as simply the creator of St Trinians does him a disservice. His unique penmanship made him highly collectable as a fine artist, a renowned book illustrator and highly-regarded sculptor. He produced a series of drawings during and after his time as a POW in a WW2 Japanese prison camp that are both moving and distressing, which had a similar effect on me to the few images I had seen of the Holocaust. That said, I was a huge fan of Searle’s provocative schoolgirls.

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Just as Ronald Searle cannot escape his St Trinians legacy, Charles Addams will forever be associated with the Addams Family, of both TV and silver screen fame, but in his case with more justification. I always loved a book of his drawings entitled “The Groaning Board”, which contained a mixture of Addams Family and stand alone macabre cartoons drawings. It may be apocryphal, but it is said that Addams’ first job was for “True Detective” Magazine, where he had to retouch photos of corpses to make them appear less gruesome. He is alleged to have said he preferred them in their original state. It was the macabre nature of Addams’ cartoons that appealed to me.

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One couldn’t really describe Frans Masereel as a cartoonist, in fact apart from woodcut-maker it is hard to pigeon-hole him, but as creator of wonderful surreal images I wanted to look at again and again I had to include him in this list. (I could also have included the great Lynd Ward, who also created wordless stories in woodcuts, but as Ward was greatly influenced by Masereel it is the Flemish artist who has pride of place.) I was captivated by his book “The Idea” from an early age – not simply because it featured an odd naked woman floating around – and sought out his other woodcut illustrated works later in life. His dreamlike images, similar in mood to the best of German Expressionist cinema, are all admirable works of art.

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Michael Ffolkes was an astonishingly prolific cartoonist who supplied illustrations to nearly every magazine on British news-stands for nearly fifty years. He had a dry understated wit, and I think my parents liked his work because it succeeded in marrying a playful decorativeness with an unerring sense of design. His drawings are exceedingly easy on the eye – which apparently didn’t mean that he was easy company. Apparently at “Private Eye” magazine’s 21st birthday bash the cartoonist Martin Honeysett became so exasperated he threw a large, gooey cake over the “notoriously pompous” Ffolkes’ head.

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Another artist who is difficult to categorise is the great Saul Steinberg. Born in Romania, a naturalised American, Steinberg was both a stalwart of the gallery scene and an in-demand magazine illustrator/cartoonist, his work appearing in countless New Yorker magazines. His subject matter varied from surrealism, to whimsy, to visual gags and to hard political satire; his visual style both absorbed and parodied almost every artistic movement of the 20th Century, always with an immaculate sense of design. Anyone labouring under the delusion than cartooning cannot be great art needs to look at Saul Steinberg’s work.

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Highly controversial, not the least because of some questionably anti-Semitic remarks (his defence was that he was supporting the Palestinian people. Hmmm), Sine (Maurice Sinet) married a deceptively simple drawing style, scribbles almost, with subject matter that could be witty, outrageous, obscene, or highly contentious. His politics were far left, to the extent that he was even banned by l’Humanite, the French Communist newspaper, and tended to fall out with nearly every periodical or publisher that took him on. Latterly he found his natural home with the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine – although his life was claimed by cancer rather than terrorists’ bullets.

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I’m aware this list is highly subjective and probably owes more to my parents’ tastes than anything else; I’m also very aware of the absence of any women cartoonists. Given that my mother was a highly gifted artist/animator/illustrator I find that pretty shocking, and can only surmise that in the middle part of the 20th Century women cartoonists were very thin on the ground. My mother always remarked that she lived in a man’s world, and while there were always a number of excellent women film animators they were always overwhelmingly outnumbered by the men. But if anyone knows of any outstanding women cartoonist/illustrators working earlier in the 20th Century, I’d love to know more.

Paul Halas is a writer of Jewish heritage whose escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader. He is a self described Corbynista. As a result he has been a Labour activist for the past five years – and most of his current writing is political. He is currently hoping to find something funny to write about.



Categories: Art, Politics

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