Forza Fantoni! The art of Private Eye's cruel cartoonist

Private Eye's best-known illustrator is also a poet, musician, playwright and painter with a self-destruct button as red as his shoes. By Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

The most famous of Private Eye's cartoonists, Fantoni was at the forefront of the British Pop Art movement and is an accomplished jazz musician, playwright and poet. He is the inventor of such famous Private Eye fixtures as the rhyming obituary writer "EJ Thribb", the spoof "Neasden FC", with its perpetually "ashen-faced" manager Ron Knee, and the new cartoon series "Scenes You Seldom See".

He is sitting in the office of Eye editor Ian Hislop, and is indeed wearing bright red loafers. They are handmade from soft leather by "Maurizio", a cobbler in Positano in southern Italy who sent them to him by post. Fantoni, 69, has always liked red clothing. "It's really weird, the psychologists tell you it's giving off danger signals and when women paint their lips really red they're gagging for it – I've risked life and limb trying to prove that theory."

He started art school at the age of 14, spending much of his time in the classroom painting, drawing, making puppets and designing scenery, but by the age of 18 he was locating his self-destruct button with regrettable efficiency. "It went off every day, until they said 'We can't have you here any more, your drunken behaviour, your lack of respect for property, your theft of the student union funds, your wrecking the home of one of the teachers in a state of drunken madness..." he recalls.

The headmaster of Camberwell School of Arts summoned Fantoni's teetotal mother. "He was a very sweet old patrician gentleman and he said 'Mrs Fantoni would you like a glass of sherry?' I can still see the look on her face. I said 'She doesn't drink, headmaster, but I'll have a glass'. He said 'You've drunk quite enough already young man,' and I was summarily expelled."

Not for the first time, Fantoni landed on his well-shod feet, being invited to continue his studies at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, before at the start of the Sixties becoming part of the Pop Art movement, mixing with such artists as Peter Blake and David Hockney.

He started working for the fledgling Private Eye in 1963, and fetches down from a shelf the magazine's bound archive of that year. He alights on an illustration ridiculing the Tory party of the day, with a vicious caricature of a decrepit Winston Churchill. "That should be thought of as extremely cruel," says Fantoni. "Here you've got a man in his dotage bombing Dresden with toy bombs."

He has no truck with Gordon Brown's recent protestations that political cartoons are unfairly spiteful. Fantoni has never had any regrets on that score. Private Eye cartoons should "always be aimed at something specific and intended to either wound or mock". He was never much impressed by the often formulaic humour in the rival Punch. "Largely, Punch's cartoons were men on desert islands saying 'I keep thinking it is Thursday.' I don't find them very funny."

He is similarly blunt about the pool of cartoonist talent. "The people who can draw really well and are very funny are few and far between. In 50 years of Private Eye they probably number no more than 100 and that's not many when you consider how many people can write good journalism, there are thousands, literally. Cartoonists? It's hard to find a good one."

Fantoni's contribution to the Eye has always been greater than his cartoons and soon after starting at the old Greek Street offices he was painting the doors in a Pop Art style. He organised a mural, showing all the staff in Victorian dress. "It's been painted over now but it's probably still there underneath. It's priceless, it's got work by Gerald Scarfe, Willie Rushton, Ralph Steadman. I got everybody to paint something, a portrait or a head or something." A framed photograph of the mural hangs above the staircase in the Eye's current home in Soho's Carlisle Street. Rushton's unflattering depiction of Fantoni appears intended to either wound or mock.

Fantoni's EJ Thribb obituaries, always sombrely headed "In Memoriam", have delighted generations of undergraduates and its stock phrases ("So. Farewell then" and "That was your catchphrase") have become part of the modern lexicon. Thribb, eternally aged 17 and a half, is intended to parody the media's often excessive reaction to death. "It's that celebration of very often quite worthless people. That's the thing about the catchphrase – in other words, that's what really sums you up and you weren't anything more than that."

He was pleased with one about the actor Brad Dexter. "He's the one in the Magnificent Seven who no one can ever remember," he says, failing to suppress a laugh. "There's something hugely significant about that in comedy terms." A classic Thribb read: "So. Farewell then Ken Wood. Inventor of the Reversible Toaster. Reversible the of inventor Wood Ken. Then farewell so."

Fantoni has loved poetry since his Italian grandmother gave him a copy of Dante's Divine Comedy as a child. "I've had a life-long obsession, absorption and need to write poetry. It is the key feature of my life, more than anything else, more than the plays, more than the musicals, more than my jazz, more than Private Eye, more than painting, more than everything. It's the bedrock of my life."

As a presenter of the Sixties music and fashion show A Whole Scene Going, Fantoni was voted TV Personality of the Year. He is currently producing a play on the life of Annie composer Charles Strouse and, to be frank, he says, cartoon drawing is not what he really wants to be remembered for. "If I could be honest I would put it at the bottom of the list. It requires so little effort."

But after 46 years on the Eye, Fantoni is still insightfully poking fun at modern life. His "Scenes You Seldom See" depicts such an unlikely scenario as a woman rushing from her house to ask for more pizza leaflets, so that she can give them to all her friends. A forthcoming art exhibition will offer, through landscapes, interiors and images of friends and lovers, Fantoni's personal view of post-war Britain. Like Fantoni himself, his painting is not easily categorised but is "an amalgam" of different styles. "The style isn't important," he says. "It's the message, ultimately, that matters."

Barry Fantoni: Public Eye, Private Eye is at the Thomas Williams Fine Art Gallery, London W1 (020-7491 1485), from 22 April to 22 May

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