Visual Arts: The discreet charmer of the bourgeoisie

The cartoonist Pont may have died young, but he was old enough to be remembered.
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The Independent Culture
THOUGH HE died of polio, the artist Graham Laidler, who signed himself Pont, was a war casualty. His youthful talent was honed and tempered to a condition of rare exquisiteness by the war, yet it was also swallowed up by it, his audience mourning just as long as anyone being pelted nightly with bombs could be expected to do.

The Times printed both an obituary and an appreciation by his friend JB Priestley, who described him as "merry and modest... with a sly sense of humour". Pont was 32 at the time of his death, but tragedies were two-a-penny in Britain in 1940. There wasn't time to rearrange the portraits in the Cartoon Hall of Fame. Though Pont had created unique and potent celebrations of Britishness, he had streamlined the medium by inventing the single- figure cartoon format and pioneered the use of voices from outside the frame, there was little time to fully absorb the impact of an artist who had emerged only a few years before.

In addition, the war meant that there were precious few young cartoonists around to pick up the baton. There has not been another artist remotely like him since.

So if not quite forgotten, Pont was not around long enough to become a household name, or achieve the national heritage status of Low and Vicky. Those who love his work haunt the few London galleries devoted to illustration, such as Chris Beetles in Mayfair, or Rae-Smith in Cecil Court, which both feature original Ponts in their current collections. The Rae-Smith has 25 Pont cartoons on display, ranging in price from pounds 400 to pounds 2,000 - a snip for a British classic - in its exhibition celebrating 100 years of cartoons.

It doesn't take long to become familiar with the Pont oeuvre. The fascination lies in speculating what Laidler might have produced had he lived longer. His cartoons in the eight years he worked for Punch (he was the only artist to be employed by the magazine on a contract basis) reveal a rapidly evolving technique.

His first accepted submissions betray the inherited awkwardness of the Victorian tradition; his last are altogether modern. In between came his three major series, The British Character (with such titles as "A Disinclination to Sparkle"), The British at Home and Popular Misconceptions, in which he developed the idea of the cartoon as a social observation story in a single picture. The joke may be revealed in the caption, but there are more insights waiting to be unravelled in the detail. All of Pont's work rewards scrutiny in this way. It may just be the discovery that the family living in the flat upstairs, which spends its days studiously stamping the floor in hob-nail boots, has a picture on the wall of a studiously stamping hippopotamus. Or it may be the characters themselves.

Look deeply into his finely observed faces and you not only comprehend their personalities and relationships, you sometimes fancy you can glimpse their souls too. Some of these faces were left blank, or were cross-hatched into oblivion. Sometimes Pont's line was sharp and precise, sometimes it wafted away into background whimsy. At first this can seem arbitrary and idiosyncratic, but the deeper you look at Pont the more perfect it seems and the more loath you are to have it any other way.

Even the most ghastly of his protagonists benefits from his lightness and freshness of touch and what can only be described as a sense of tranquillity, which pervades even his busiest drawings. This is a measure, not so much of the subjects, who were everyday beastly middle-class English people, than of the man himself, who was a thorough gentleman.

Pont was born into a well-off Newcastle family, which owned a high-class and long-established painting and decorating business. He picked up his pencil in the cot and could not be persuaded to put it down; his earliest ambition was to have a cartoon in Punch.

Pont's father died mysteriously when he was in his teens by falling out of a window and the Laidler family moved to Jordans, Beaconsfield, where his aunts ran a finishing school at Seer Green House. The sight of high- bred debutantes grappling with character-forming housework chores provided Pont with much subject matter.

Initially he trained as an architect, but an attack of TB and his recuperation in the ski resort of Igls in the Austrian Alps, ruled out a conventional profession. At least he was able to concentrate on cartoons. The travel allowed him to view his British subjects from a sceptical distance.

While at Igls , Pont fell in love with a girl 10 years his junior. They became engaged but her parents thought the union too hasty and insisted the couple prove their steadfastness by not seeing each other for six months. They stuck by the pact, but Laidler left a cipher for her in every Punch drawing he did: a small S in the lower left- hand corner. But to no avail. The girl's parents still would not relent.

When the 1938 Anschluss put Austria out of bounds, Pont returned to England permanently. He died within a few days of contracting polio while ferrying evacuee children to the country in his car during the Blitz. Tantalisingly for his many admirers, his death interrupted an extraordinary transformation in his work, which had been hastened by the war.

Much of the playful clutter of his earlier work had been pruned away and replaced by a new economy of language and line, achieving an arresting power rarely found in cartoons. He was using washes and pencil shadings as well as pen, producing forms that seemed to come less from intellectual effort than from a visceral response to the world outside.

His last cartoon showed a pair of middle-aged women at breakfast. One of them looks up irritated from her newspaper to say: "Must you say `Well, we're still here' every morning?" It's funny, yes, but it feels like a profound moment of English history, haunted by tea cosies and bombs and misted windows.

100 Years of Cartoons, at The Rae-Smith Gallery, 8 Cecil Court WC2. To 15 Jan (0171-836 7424); Chris Beetles Gallery is at 8 & 10 Ryder Street SW1 (0171-839 7429)

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