Richard Willson: Political cartoonist and environmentalist


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The Independent Online

Best known as a caricaturist, political cartoonist, advertising artist and illustrator, Richard Willson was also an active environmental campaigner both in Britain and overseas.

He was born in University College Hospital, London in 1939, the son of Ernest Willson, an importer of bone and horn, and Elsie Williams. He had an elder brother, Brian, who predeceased him. Richard grew up in Sussex and Epsom, Surrey, where he attended Epsom College. He later studied architecture at Kingston School of Art and graphic design at Epsom School of Art.

He began work as an illustrator for Heinemann Educational Books, his early titles including Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household (1963) and two novels by Nevil Shute. In 1968 he became cartoonist and caricaturist on the Observer before moving to The Times in 1971. He remained at The Times for more than 30 years, working at first as an illustrator for the Business Diary column and later moving to the news and opinion pages and occasionally deputising as political cartoonist for Peter Brookes (he also sometimes deputised for Gerald Scarfe on The Sunday Times). In addition he worked freelance for the Spectator, Washington Post, New Statesman, New Scientist, Tablet (including covers), Business Traveller, Euromoney, Investor's Chronicle, Punch (including covers), Financial Weekly, Accountancy Age, Computing, Lloyds Log, Ecologist, New Internationalist, the United Nations and Racing Post.

A passionate environmentalist, he travelled widely after the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, and attended conferences on nuclear power in Washington DC, San Francisco and Salzburg; habitat and cities in Vancouver; armaments in New York; energy and population in Nairobi; women's rights in Mexico City and Copenhagen; and population in Bucharest, as well as attending the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. In addition he worked for Oxfam, Christian Aid and the International Institute for Environment and Development.

He also illustrated a number of books on the environment including The Green Alternative Guide to Good Living (1987), edited by Peter Bunyard and Fern Morgan-Grenville, and two books by Edward Goldsmith: The Doomsday Funbook: Seven Years of Satirical Comment from the Ecologist (1977) and The Great U-Turn: De-Industrializing Society (1988). In addition he illustrated Rodney Atkinson and Norris McWhirter's The Treason at Maastricht: Destruction of the British Constitution (1994). Another title, As Lambs to the Slaughter: The Facts about Nuclear War (1981), by Paul Rogers, Malcolm Dando and Peter Van Den Dungen of the School of Peace Studies at Bradford University, sold 25,000 copies in six months and appeared on the Sunday Times bestseller list.

Other more general books included Michael Ivens' poetry collection Born Early (1975), Brighton Waddy and Ralph Townley's A Word or Two Before You Go (1980), Richard Stilgoe's The Richard Stilgoe Letters: A Jumble of Anagrams (1981), Anthony Burgess's Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939 (1984), Clement Freud's ...No-One Else Has Complained (1988), Israel Shenker's history of the Savoy (1988), The Times Guide to the House of Commons (1997), and two books by Jimmy Tarbuck: Tarbuck on Golf (1983) and Tarbuck on Showbiz (1984). In addition he wrote and illustrated a children's book, Erik the Troll (1996). He also produced a considerable amount of advertising work for companies such as Collet Dickenson Pearce, Lowe Howard-Spinks, J Walter Thompson and Saatchi & Saatchi.

His drawings appeared in a number of major exhibitions including "Drawn and Quartered: The World of the British Newspaper Cartoon, 1720-1970" held at the National Portrait Gallery in 1970 and opened by Princess Margaret, and examples of his work are held by the British Cartoon Archive at the University of Kent.

Richard Willson had a fine, cross-hatched style (sometimes adding wash or colour using conte crayons or acrylic), with large heads on small bodies that show the influence of David Levine. He also admired the work of Honoré Daumier, Ed Sorel and Saul Steinberg.

He enjoyed country living, walking, classical music, theatre, cinema and reading (he had a considerable library. Though he never married, his close companion for many years was the actress Susannah York. He began to suffer from Parkinson's Disease in his sixties and died of cancer.

Richard David Willson, artist: born London 15 May 1939; died Ewhurst, Surrey 18 November 2011.