Les Gibbard: Artist held to be one of the finest political cartoonists of his generation
Saturday 23 October 2010
Les Gibbard was one of the most distinguished political cartoonists of his generation.
He drew for The Guardian for a quarter of a century, producing an incisive daily pictorial commentary through five premierships, from Harold Wilson to John Major, and also worked as a caricaturist, journalist and film animator.
Leslie David Gibbard was born in 1945 in Kaiapoi near Christchurch in the South Island of New Zealand, to schoolteacher parents. At Auckland grammar school he drew caricatures and cartoons for the school magazine and was tutored in charcoal and pastels by the refugee Hungarian artist Frank Szirmay.
At the age of 16 he left school and began work as a cub reporter on the Auckland Star; his first published drawing, in 1962, was a caricature of the future British Conservative chancellor Reginald Maudling (then Colonial Secretary). He then joined the New Zealand Herald, where he spent two days a week as an "apprentice" to the paper's long-standing political cartoonist Gordon Minhinnick, while producing drawings for the paper's sister publication, the Weekly News. This was followed by a stint at the Sunday News in Wellington and a brief period hitchhiking in Australia and working at the Melbourne Herald before he left to try his luck in Britain.
He arrived in London in 1967 and worked as a freelance cartoonist for publications including the Daily Sketch and Sunday Mirror before becoming arts caricaturist and pocket cartoonist for the Sunday Telegraph (1967–70). His first cartoon for the Guardian (featuring Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Concorde on the day of its maiden flight) was published in 1969, when he was 23. Later the same year, he succeeded Bill Papas (who had been on sabbatical leave) to become the paper's youngest ever Political Cartoonist and remained with the paper for 25 years (1969–94) He also contributed to the Daily Mirror, Daily Telegraph, Evening Standard, Time Out, Melody Maker, Independent on Sunday, The House Magazine and others.
Like his earlier predecessor at the Guardian, Sir David Low, a fellow New Zealander, Gibbard was never cruel or malicious in his cartoons. None the less his drawing of the newly elected Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in May 1979 was not published by the paper as it was deemed too strong. As Gibbard commented wryly, it was thought "ungentlemanly to attack a lady at the start of her honeymoon". Almost exactly three years later, on 6 May 1982, one of his Guardian cartoons published during the Falklands War led to a storm of protest, with the Sun's leader writer branding him a traitor. It concerned the sinking of the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano by the British submarine HMS Conqueror with the loss of 362 lives. Gibbard drew a pastiche of Philip Zec's famous Second World War Daily Mirror cartoon on the price of petrol, showing a seaman clinging to the wreckage of his ship. In Gibbard's version it was re-captioned "The price of sovereignty has increased – official".
Alongside his Fleet Street work, Gibbard had a successful career in film animation. Beginning in 1973 he spent two years as an animator in the Soho studios of the Canadian Richard Williams (who worked on the Oscar-winning Who Framed Roger Rabbit?). He also assisted master animator Ken Harris, and attended classes given by the legendary Disney animator Art Babbitt. He produced his own political cartoon series, Newshound, for Granada TV's Reports Politics (1976–77) and worked on a number of animated TV projects, including Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood (1992), Beatrix Potter's The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends (1992-95), The Wind in the Willows (1995), the Oscar-nominated Famous Fred (1996), based on a story by fellow cartoonist Posy Simmonds, and two films based on stories by Raymond Briggs: The Bear (1998) and Ivor the Invisible (2001). In addition, he drew weekly political cartoons for BBC TV's On the Record (1988–95) and Newsnight programmes and Channel 4's A Week in Politics (1982–86).
As well as producing a collection of his own work, Gibbard's Double Decade Omnibus: Modern History in Political Cartoons 1969-91 (1991), he illustrated two books by the MP Austin Mitchell, The Half-Gallon Quarter-Acre Pavlova Paradise: An Introduction to New Zealand (1972) and WestminsterMan: a tribal anthropology of the Commons People (1982). He also drew cartoons for Caught by Keating: sporting quotations from the Seventies (1979) by the Guardian's sports writer Frank Keating, and in 1998 illustrated three books by Norman Redfern based on the Forgotten Toys children's television series.
A retrospective of his work "Gibbard at the Guardian, 1969 to 1994" was held at the Guardian Newsroom & Archive in 2005, and solo exhibitions of his drawings were also held at the Holland Gallery in London, the University of Kent and elsewhere. In addition, some of his cartoons were included in the 1970 exhibition Drawn and Quartered: the World of the British Newspaper Cartoon, 1720-1970, at the National Portrait Gallery and The 100 British Cartoonists of the Century held at the British Cartoon Centre in London in 2000.
Gibbard cited his influences as Sir David Low, Sir Gordon Minhinnick, Tom Webster, Ronald Searle and Walt Disney. He worked in pen and ink using a Gillott 404 nib on cartridge paper, an HB pencil and a No. 4 sable brush, signing his cartoons simply "Gibbard" with a circumflex over the letter "I". After early reproduction problems with printing blocks, he preferred hatched lines to indicate shade but used a neutral tint wash on Daler line-and-wash board for his television drawings. Though a fine draughtsman and caricaturist he once said: "I treat the political cartoon as a journalistic task, giving bite to the news stories...idea, and originality, is all-important, and with me has priority over drawing."
A large, bearded man with shaggy red-brown hair and a soft New Zealand accent, Gibbard was a kind, modest gentle giant who was much liked and respected by his colleagues in Fleet Street. He was very fond of dogs and cats and at one time he and his second wife Susannah owned two Irish wolfhounds, one black labrador and seven cats. A keen movie fan, he collected information about the golden age of animation. He also enjoyed music, the theatre, pubs and restaurants, and was a formidable fast bowler for the Guardian's cricket team. Les Gibbard died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism caused by deep-vein thrombosis after a routine knee operation.
Leslie David Gibbard, cartoonist and animator: born Kaiapoi, New Zealand 26 October 1945; married 1968 Glenys Bowman (marriage dissolved 1973), 1978 Susannah Taylor; died Epsom, Surrey 10 October 2010.
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