Sketchbook: Postcards from the edge

Donald McGill's postcards defined saucy British seaside humour - but they often fell foul of the censors. Now a typescript has come to light that offers, in his own words, McGill's justifications for his art of laughter. By John Windsor
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Indy Lifestyle Online
n original watercolour by Donald McGill, for one of his sauciest and most controversial comic postcards, is to be auctioned at Bonhams on Wednesday. Captioned "A Stick of Rock, Cock?" and showing a man on a beach holding a gigantic stick of peppermint rock in a suggestive position, it earned a fine of pounds 50 for obscenity at McGill's trial in Lincoln in 1954. It is estimated that the picture will reach pounds 300 to pounds 400, and is among over 30 of McGill's watercolours and 23 copper printing plates made for comic cards that are in the sale. They are from the collection of Elfreda Buckland, author of The World of Donald McGill.

By the time he died in 1962, aged 87, McGill had painted up to 12,000 postcards over a period of 58 years. His double-meaning gags about fat bathers, honeymooners, nagging wives and naive vicars made him the king of a genre that became a mainstay of British culture. Living in a Victorian villa in respectable Blackheath, south London, he led a double life: he had aspirations to become a university don, did his paintings wearing a City suit, and kept his occupation "a bit dark" from his two daughters.

An insight into the paradoxical workings of his mind is contained in an unpublished typescript in Mrs Buckland's archive. In it, McGill defends 20 of the most notorious cards - the usual suspects, that were seized by police from retailers following complaints, and exhibited before magistrates. Some of his statements are as inventive as his gags. He claims, for example: "the word cock was put in as it rhymed". When he dictated his comments to his lawyers in 1954, he was approaching 80 and his postcards had not been challenged under the obscenity laws since they first appeared in 1904. Other publishers - such as Bamforth's, which produced work that was far more lewd than McGill's - had muscled in on the saucy postcard market and old-fashioned puritans had begun to complain to the police. McGill found himself tarred with same brush.

From his preamble, it would appear that butter would not melt in his mouth. "I would desire to point out," it reads, "that in quite a number of cards in question I had no intention of `double meaning' ... and I would also state that in my private life I have what might be called a Victorian outlook." In a famous essay, George Orwell credited McGill with upholding the virtues of marriage. An opposite view might be that his postcards legitimised hanky-panky. Just how disingenuous McGill may have been can now be judged from his own comments.

The art of Donald McGill, both original watercolours and mass-produced postcards, is now highly collectable but still relatively cheap. The top prices - pounds 800 to pounds 1,200 - are paid for original watercolours of subjects that are Jewish or Masonic, or to do with sport (especially golf), radio, or bookmakers - or if the card is associated with prosecutions or has been "disapproved" by one of the local postcard censorship committees set up in the Fifties. One collector, Dennis Gardiner, a retired founder of a plastics company who lives in Bristol, has 8,500 McGill-printed postcards in his collection. He was able to find not only "Rock, Cock" for sale at Bonhams, but all the images referred to by McGill in his comments. Some are shown here.

This sale of printed books, maps and manuscripts will be held on Wednesday at 2pm, at Bonhams, Montpelier Street, London SW7 (0171-393 3900). Postcard dealer, Clive Smith (0181-202 9080). The Postcard and Collectors Fair, (Sunday 19 December, 10am-5pm) will be held at the Royal National Hotel, Bedford Way, London WC1.

The whistle's blown

Today, children and sex is an explosive combination. This gag is more capable of shocking now than when it was drawn, in 1949. McGill makes a refreshing riposte to those who would impute sexuality even in toddlers: "Just a child joke. Can there be anything obscene in what a child of this age says?" The card gave sensors and magistrates a headache. The notoriously prudish Cleethorpes censors passed it (due to lack of comprehension?), so did magistrates in Grimsby in 1951, but it was judged obscene by the county court in Lincoln two years later.

A not-so-white wedding

She might mean his hair - but why wait for marriage? With this 1949 drawing, as with all his suggestive gags, McGill relies on the eye of the beholder to put a rude implication to things - and his comment seems to admit as much: "This is left to the taste and fancy of the reader." But he adds: "Nothing definite is indicated." So why, one might ask, did he consider it funny?

Comic strip

This 1952 card was judged obscene in Lincoln and rejected by censors in Brighton and Ryde. The servant's bonnet gives the clue that the "Master" is not of heavenly origin and the deshabillee is unambiguous. McGill simply pointed out that it is an old joke: "Did this for another firm 25 years ago. No objection made by police or anyone else."

The naive vicar

Little imagination is required. Why else would a child lack a surname apart from difficulty in identifying the father? The fun lies in shocking a naive vicar. McGill makes an obvious point about this 1949 picture: "To say that there is any obscenity in suggesting - and suggesting only - that the girl had an illegitimate child is just ridiculous. This joke first appeared in the Pink'un [The Sporting Times] about 60 years ago!"

In a pickle

A 1951 work which was passed by Hastings censors but rejected in Morecambe. Police and censors were obviously on the lookout for anything penis-like, even green vegetables. McGill retorted: "There is nothing to indicate here what the woman had eaten. It might have been a thumb or a big toe. The prosecution have no right to put the worst construction on everything without any evidence." A servant joke that would not have disgraced Punch.

The wrong ball

On sale back in 1938 but rejected by Brighton censors in the Fifties. McGill said: "The original joke had the words `why don't they let go of it?'. I deliberately substituted `why don't they give it him back?' so that it could and should be taken to be a ball (cricket, tennis, golf, etc)."

Rock, cock and scandal

This card led to prosecutions at courts in Brighton and Lincoln, in 1954. It was rejected by censors in Brighton and Weymouth, but passed in Paignton, Newquay and the Isle of Man. Besides claiming that the work "cock" was inserted because it rhymed, McGill commented: "I was amazed when a double meaning was pointed out to me - after publication only. From the drawing it is perfectly obvious that the man is taking the weight just above his knees. The ends of the wrapping paper show this clearly." In fact, the top end of the wrapping paper appears to be anatomically suggestive. McGill added that he had done perhaps half a dozen "bringing home a stick of rock" cards over the years - in a donkey cart, in a boat, over the shoulder etc., and this was just another. n

A lotta bottle

Clever old McGill. The horse is irrelevant but, to make the pun, he needed to cite some activity that would take more time than glancing at a watch. He was cautious when he drew this one in 1949. "It will be noted that the woman is not in an upstairs room! I had nothing in mind but that the milkman should pop in for a mild flirtation. There is nothing to indicate that I meant anything else." Censors in Blackpool and Hastings agreed.