Smilby was one of the most successful cartoonists and advertising artists of his day, with a career that spanned nearly half a century. Perhaps best known for his contributions to Punch and his extensive colour work for Playboy magazine, he was also a leading authority on blues and gospel music who owned one of the world's most important collections of early 78 rpm recorded piano blues, and who was twice nominated for Sony Awards.
Francis Wilford-Smith was born in Church Street, Rugby, Warwickshire, on 12 March 1927, the second son of Wilford Smith, a pharmaceutical chemist and businessman who owned a number of chemist shops, and Frances Hunt, who died shortly after his birth. His older brother was the jazz writer and documentary film cameraman, Charles Wilford. (Smilby hyphenated his surname by deed poll in 1983 to comply with the inheritance stipulations of a relative's will.)
At Warwick School he was fascinated by the school library's collection of Punch magazines, whose cartoons he copied avidly. He had always dreamt of going to sea and at the age of 14 ran away from home but was picked up by dock police in Bristol. In 1943, having failed the eyesight test for Royal Navy officer training at Dartmouth, he left school at the age of 16 to train at the Marconi Radio School in London.
Qualifying the same year as a Radio Officer he then joined the Merchant Navy (as Francis Smith). After a period on Glasgow and South Shields tramp ships he served on convoys to Africa (especially Egypt), and across the North Atlantic – serving on British and Norwegian ships – and delivered supplies to Cherbourg soon after the D-Day landings. On one occasion he was in a convoy of 39 US-built Liberty ships when 13 of them broke up and sank in heavy weather.
During this period he also worked as an undercover courier and agent for US Naval Intelligence. Trained in Philadelphia, his duties included collecting from and delivering material to US consular staff in the Belgian Congo and Persian Gulf and eavesdropping on US sailors, as many of the sinkings of ships on the Atlantic route had been attributed to careless talk.
Demobilised in 1946, he then attended Camberwell School of Art in London (1946–50) and studied under John Minton, Edward Ardizzone, Tom Monnington and others, specialising in his final two years in illustration and wood-engraving. While at Camberwell a romantic attachment to a fellow student, Pamela Kilby (they were married in 1949), led to their collective nickname "The Smilbys" which in turn gave rise to his nom de plume. Other contemporaries at Camberwell included the future political cartoonist Trog (Wally Fawkes) and the jazz musician and cartoonist Humphrey Lyttelton.
While still a student he had his first drawings published in British Farmer, Melody Maker and News Chronicle (for whom he continued to work until 1959). After graduating as an art teacher he planned to become a film animator and worked briefly for Halas & Bachelor but had to leave as he was unable to obtain a union card. He was then assistant display manager for the women's clothing chain Richard Shops and assistant to the industrial designer Ian Bradbury.
In 1951 he was awarded a £100 Punch scholarship, offered to encourage young cartoonists, and within six months his work had appeared in Punch, Lilliput, London Opinion and Men Only and he turned full-time cartoonist. Later his drawings also appeared in Picture Post, Illustrated, John Bull, Courier, Spectator, Autosport and elsewhere, and for some years in the 1960s he was relief artist for Michael ffolkes on the Daily Telegraph's "Peter Simple" column.
In 1960 he began a successful relationship with Playboy magazine, for which he subsequently produced more than 350 full-page colour cartoons. As many British magazines disappeared around this time he decided to abandon the UK market and concentrate on the US and Europe, publishing cartoons in the New Yorker, Esquire, Saturday Evening Post, New York Times, Saturday Review, DAC News, Look, Paris-Match, Lui, Pardon, Playboy (France and Germany), Diners Club Magazin (Austria), Nebelspalter (Switzerland), Vi Menn (Norway)
As well as drawing cartoons, Smilby designed many advertising campaigns for Guinness, ICI, Boots and others and was a freelance ideas consultant to a number of advertising agencies, including KMP and J. Walter Thompson.
He also worked as a general graphic designer, from magazine layouts to bathmats, and illustrated a number of books including Malcolm Bradbury's Phogey! or How to Have Class in a Classless Society (1960), Corinne's Les Anglais – Are They Mad? (1961) and Ernest Gebler's The Love Investigator (1961). In addition he was the author (as Francis Smilby) of Stolen Sweets: The Cover Girls of Yesteryear (1981), a definitive history of the genre from 1890 to 1935, which was based on his own extensive collection of international pin-up magazines.
As a cartoonist Smilby cited his first artistic influence as being André François but he felt he also owed much to Saul Steinberg, Leslie Illingworth, Arthur Watts and the French Art Deco artists Marty, LePape, Charles Martin and Barbier. He worked in indian ink and Winsor & Newton Artists' Watercolour on Sanders (or Daler) board or Arches watercolour paper and continued drawing until 1998, when he was forced to retire due to failing eyesight (macular degeneration and glaucoma) and the onset of Parkinson's Disease, which had first been diagnosed in 1994.
Cartoons by Smilby were exhibited at the Cartoon Gallery in London, the Meisel Gallery in New York and at venues in Los Angeles, London, Munich and Switzerland. Examples of his work are held in the collection of the Museum of Caricature & Cartoons in Basel, Switzerland, and elsewhere.
More than six feet tall, bearded, bespectacled and well-spoken, with dark brown hair and grey eyes, he was an intense and enthusiatic conversationalist. Fond of cats and dogs (he owned three Great Danes), he was also a keen gardener and enjoyed restoring old buildings. An expert on and major collector of blues and gospel music, Smilby wrote and broadcast on the subject on TV and radio.
He also personally recorded many important musicians, such as Muddy Waters, Otis Span, Champion Jack Dupree, Brownie McGee, Sonny Terry and Memphis Slim – all of whom stayed in his Sussex home, which contained a recording studio – and produced multi-volume CDs of blues and gospel music. In addition he collected pre-1940 crime fiction, 1920s pocket novels, early postcards and French hand-illustrated books of the Art Deco era.
Francis Wilford-Smith, cartoonist and illustrator: born Rugby 12 March 1927; married 1949 Pamela Kilby (one son, one daughter); died Ledbury, Hertfordshire 4 December 2009.