Obituary: Mel Calman
Saturday 12 February 1994
THE CARTOONIST Mel Calman was a classic instance of the man who tried to be a philosopher but 'I don't know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in'. He called himself a 'cynical pessimist'. Gloom, he once said, 'feeds my work and I imagine that it is simply my good luck that this slant on life matches the mood of Britain today'. But in reality his stance was always more wry than cynical and the gloom never stood much chance against the humour. He liked to make jokes about people, people in the abstract, and could never disguise the fact that he was fond of them. His work showed what Italo Calvino called 'an undercurrent of melancholy good feeling towards the world' and he had 'that primary quality of every true humorist, the involvement of himself in his own irony'.
Calman was born in 1931 at Stamford Hill, north London, of Jewish parents. He was educated at the Perse School, Cambridge, and having failed to get into Cambridge University he went first to the Borough Polytechnic Arts School and afterwards to St Martin's School of Art, where he studied illustration. There he discovered that he had no natural facility for drawing and that if he wanted to be an artist he would have to live by his wits and 'find graphic solutions'. He habitually made fun of his drawing skills, once replying to a complaint that 'Any child could do better' - 'Yes, but it takes courage for an adult to draw as badly as that.' During his national service he became a sergeant in the Army Education Corps.
In 1956 Calman became a freelance cartoonist. The editor of Punch wrote to him, 'I rather doubt if cartooning (as it is generally called) is really your line. Neither drawings or cartoons measure up to the standard required here, I'm afraid.' Calman was undeterred. His drawings started appearing in the Daily Express and from there he went on to draw for the Observer, Sunday Telegraph, Sunday Times, the Times, and the Evening Standard; to become the resident cartoonist on BBC TV's Tonight programme, to illustrate books, to design advertisements, notably for Shell, and to have his cartoons syndicated all over the US. His alter ego, a middle-aged, balding man with a generously proportioned nose, expressed his wry philosophy in aphorisms like 'How about a little quarrel before bed?' and, 'Libido is something between your id and your naughty bits'. His woman, and Calman's love of women, pulsates through his commentary on the battle of the sexes, is either commanding or delectable. She is often larger than the man, which, he said, 'has some psychological significance I'd rather not know about'.
As well as cartooning, Calman was an art dealer, founding in 1970 The Workshop, which later became the Cartoon Gallery, now based in Museum Street, opposite the British Museum. The gallery was almost the only place one could buy the original drawings of contemporary cartoonists and many of them have acknowledged the sympathy and encouragement they received from him. He never made any money out of this enterprise and in this sense rightly described himself as a philanthropist, but he was a godsend to collectors.
The cartoonists Calman admired most were, among the Americans, Steinberg and James Thurber, and, among the English, Ronald Searle, Low, and what he called the 'solemn absurdity' of Heath Robinson. A stream of collections of his own drawings were published, starting with Through the Telephone Directory (1962) and including This Pestered Isle (1973) and Modern Times (1988). His 1986 autobiography is called What Else Do You Do?
Towards the end of his life he devoted a great deal of his time to the Cartoon Arts Trust, of which he was a co-founder and chairman. The aim of the trust is to establish a national museum of cartoon art and it pleased him greatly that the progress that has been made and the success of the recent Giles exhibition led to the Duke of Edinburgh's agreeing to become the trust's patron. He was the author, with Lionel Lambourne, of The Art of Laughter, a catalogue of an exhibition of cartoonists' drawings staged by the trust at the Ashmolean Museum, in Oxford, in 1992. Calman's great enthusiasms were the theatre, cinema and opera, and he produced a book of sketches entitled Calman at The Royal Opera House (1990).
Mel Calman, though he could appear grumpy, was a generous and tender-hearted man, and a very funny one. He was above all 'interested in the gap between what people say and what they think'. In artistic terms he stood for the virtues of economy, spontaneity and what he called the 'wonder of white space'. But it will probably be for his captions, written at an angle to command attention, in manuscript so that he could emphasise particular words, pithy, funny, and dreadfully shrewd, that he will be remembered. He was very amusing about God and said, 'I hope this will stand me in good stead on the Day of Judgment.'
Mel Calman was twice married and had two daughters. For the past 10 years his partner was the novelist Deborah Moggach.
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