David Langdon: Cartoonist who depicted the incongruities of everyday life for six decades


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The Independent Online

Once described by The Evening Standard as "The greatest comic artist of our time... the Phil May of our day", and by the Punch historian RGG Price as "the great master of the topical comic idea", David Langdon was one of Punch's longest-serving and most prolific cartoonists, drawing at least 5,000 cartoons for that magazine alone over a period of 55 years. In addition he was a regular contributor to the Sunday Mirror for more than 40 years and to The New Yorker for more than half a century, as well as being a successful book illustrator, writer and advertising artist.

David Langdon was born in London in 1914, the elder son of Bennett Langdon and his wife Bess. After attending Davenant Grammar School, Essex, he worked as a trainee in the London County Council architects' department (1931–39), and, after five years' study, passed the London Matriculation Exam. In 1935 he had his first cartoons published in the LCC staff journal, London Town, and the following year he sold his first drawing – a joke about Mussolini – to the magazine Time & Tide.

In 1937 his first drawing was accepted by Punch; it showed two sheep in a field at night and was captioned: "Try counting shepherds." That same year, he sold an advertising idea to Shell, his work appeared in the first volume of Lilliput magazine and he began producing sports cartoons for the Sunday Referee.

During the early years of the Second World War he worked in the London Rescue Service and continued to draw cartoons freelance and for government agencies. Among these was the "Billy Brown of London Town" series for the London Passenger Transport Board (later London Transport), with verses by Richard Usborne. Other campaigns included an advertisement for the Ministry of Food featuring a real-life BBC radio newsreader: "Here is National Wheatmeal Bread – and this is Alvar Liddell eating it."

Langdon produced his first collection of cartoons, Home Front Lines, in 1941 and later the same year joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve. In 1943 he illustrated Squadron Leader CH Ward-Jackson's guide to service slang It's a Piece of Cake: or RAF slang made easy. The following year he produced All Buttoned Up! A Scrapbook of RAF Cartoons, and illustrated Jenny Nicholson's Kiss the Girls Goodbye, a book about women in the forces. In 1945 he retired from active service and became editor of the RAF Journal (1945-46) with the rank of squadron leader in the RAF Volunteer Reserve. In 1946 he illustrated Slipstream: a Royal Air Force Anthology and published a further collection of his drawings, Meet Me Inside.

After demobilisation in 1946 he became a full-time freelance, working for such publications as Paris Match, Radio Times, Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Spectator, Aeroplane, Royal Air Force Review, True, Marie-Claire, Look Magazine, New Yorker (since 1952), Punch (1937–92), Evening Standard, and the Sunday Pictorial (1948–90; in 1963 it was retitled the Sunday Mirror).

He also continued to publish collections of his own work and for a time these were almost an annual event with titles such as The Way I See It (1947), Hold Tight There (1949), Let's Face It (1951), Look at You (1952), All in Fun (1953), Laugh with Me! (1954), More in Fun (1955), Funnier Still (1956), A Banger for a Monkey (1957), Langdon at Large (1958), I'm Only Joking (1960), How to Play Golf and Stay Happy (1964), David Langdon's Casebook (1969), How to Talk Golf (1975) and Soccer – It's a Funny Old Game (1998).

He illustrated eight books by George Mikes (1951-69), two by Dennis Rooke, two on a law theme by Fenton Bresler and Basil Boothroyd's Let's Move House (1977), and edited two anthologies of Punch cartoons about flying: Punch with Wings (1961) and Punch in the Air (1983). He also produced a Ladbrokes racing calendar from 1959 to 1989, drew caricatures of lawyers and High Court judges for Sweet & Maxwell and produced a considerable body of advertising work for companies such as Bovril, Winsor & Newton, Shell and Schweppes. He also designed corporate logos, gave lectures and was the official artist for the Centre International de Recherche et des Études at St Ghislain, Belgium.

In 1955 he married April Sadler-Philips, whom he had met at the War Office in London, and they had a daughter, Beth, and two sons, Ben and Miles.

A self-taught artist, Langdon never carried a sketchbook and worked in ink (and sometimes watercolour) with a brush over a pencil outline drawn larger than reproduction size on small sheets of white card, cartridge paper or Bristol board, using blue or grey wash to indicate where tints should appear. His drawings were instantly recognisable by their economical and deceptively simple style. A shrewd observer of human nature, he excelled at topical cartoons and witty commentaries on the incongruities of everyday life. As one observer put it, Langdon's world was "peopled by quaint souls who wear a continual look of surprise, who are obviously trying very hard to do their various jobs seriously – and failing. For they all prove themselves to be unconscious comedians."

He cited Daumier and Fougasse (Kenneth Bird) as influences and claimed to have popularised the use of the "open mouth" in humorous art – speaking cartoon characters previously having been drawn with their mouths shut. He believed firmly that the idea behind a cartoon was paramount (though draughtsmanship was also important) and coined the phrase "controlled mind-wandering" to describe his method of getting ideas.

David Langdon was awarded an OBE in 1988 and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts – one of very few cartoonists to achieve this honour. In addition he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Cartoon Art Trust in 2001. His work is held in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum, the British Museum, and the Centre for the Study of Cartoons & Caricature at the University of Kent. He has also had solo exhibitions of his work in Oxford, Ottawa, New York, London, Lille and elsewhere.

Of medium height, clean-shaven and always immaculately dressed, David Langdon was a quiet, softly spoken man. He was also a keen golfer and an ardent fan of cricket and football.

Mark Bryant

David Langdon, cartoonist and illustrator: born London 24 February 1914; OBE 1988; married 1955 April Sadler-Philips (two sons, one daughter); died 18 November 2011.