Obituary: Harry Blacker

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The Independent Culture
HARRY BLACKER was the "Giles" of Anglo-Jewry, maybe even its Saul Steinberg. His cartoons, signed "Nero", probed the unique identity of a community torn between tradition and assimilation, between spiritual ascent and the more social variety.

His genius was to encapsulate this bigger story in poignant, anecdotal incidents. A prep-school boy with Maltese crosses on his cap and blazer threatens his mother, "If you won't let me watch Chelsea next Saturday, I'm going to become a rabbi instead of a brain surgeon." (The threat is an ominous one: being a rabbi is no job for a Jewish boy.) The rabbinic profession had to wait for Jackie Mason for anything like the caustic wit Nero meted out upon it, but as often as not, the joke was on the mean-spirited, too-clever-by-half congregant, like the besuited macha (bigwig) who in one of his cartoons announces, "And by a clear majority of 12 to four the Board of Management wishes our rabbi a speedy recovery from his present illness."

Blacker's humour was rich in puns which underlay the collision of ancestral faith and the surrounding culture, and he had an extraordinary ear (and eye) for the pretensions and contradictions of Jews in social transition. But his wit was underwritten by a deep personal involvement with Judaism and Jewishness as living phenomena, and an instinct for how much his audience was willing to laugh at itself.

He was born to Russian immigrant parents in 1910 and grew up in the East End of London. He had to forgo an art scholarship and leave school at 14 to apprentice as a process engraver. He did manage to attend classes at the Sir John Cass School of Art, which was as well, because a slump in the printing trade meant that it was as an illustrator and designer that he earned his living in the inter-war years. His first commissions were for the Radio Times and (later) elsewhere on Fleet Street, and he went on to design posters for Shell-Mex, BP, London Transport, and the Post Office.

Blacker only turned to Jewish cartooning late in life, after winning a Jewish Chronicle competition in 1962. Before then he had contributed cartoons and sketches to Punch, Lilliput, Bystander, Picture Post and The Stage. Much of his creative energy was taken up with remembering his childhood in the East End. He published two books of reminiscences and drawings of the picaresque quarter, Just Like It Was: memoirs of the Mittel East (1974) and East Endings (1989). Some of these vignettes were based on talks he broadcast on Radio London, where he was a regular contributor.

East Endings also served as the title of a 1993 documentary film about him by Mark Jay where the artist gathers with old friends around a table at one of the last remaining kosher cafes in the East End to reminisce. (The eatery was the kind, no doubt, that would employ the waiter of the Nero cartoon, who - carrying a tray with three cups - asks, "Which of you gentlemen ordered coffee in a clean cup?") Anna Tzelniker, billed as England's last Yiddish theatre player, was among the company, while the film also interviewed Rabbi Lionel Blue and Brian Sewell, both admirers of Blacker's art and humour.

His drawings of street life, the workplace and the rituals of the Jewish home are remarkably free of sentimentality, for all the unabashed nostalgia he felt for that lost civilisation. He was, however, capable of exquisite attention to feeling: his drawing of a weary young man hunched over what could equally be a sacred text or an article of sewing, is a pose that directly recalls Rembrandt, and was chosen as an illustration for the Yom Kippur prayer book of the Reform Movement to which he belonged.

His drawing style could vary from a densely hatched, richly detailed realism, usually for scenes crowded with human traffic and commerce, to a much sparer, more graphic treatment, for a woman hanging out washing, for instance, or a couple of men standing by a goods yard. The unmistakable Nero cartooning style looks, at first, like something else altogether: schematic, flattened, angular figures drawn with an inimitable economy.

Well into his eighties Blacker added yet another calling to his rostrum of professions: art criticism. He wrote a syndicated column for The North London Advertiser, and was fiercely proud when gallery owners told him that more punters came in clutching his articles than the listings from the national press.

Harry Blacker, cartoonist and illustrator: born London 1 May 1910; married 1934 Maidie Bloom (died 1976; one son, one daughter); died London 27 June 1999.