Obituary: Roland Davies

Roland Oxford Davies, cartoonist and animator: born Stourport, Worcestershire 23 July 1904; died 10 December 1993.

ROLAND DAVIES was the epitome of the commercial artist, never happy unless he was drawing or painting. His long career covered sports cartoons, topical cartoons, strip cartoons, animated cartoons, children's books and boys' weeklies, and towards the end superb paintings which were sold in art galleries to collectors who never knew of his once famous comic horse, 'Steve'.

Davies was born at Stourport, Worcestershire, in 1904. His father, a Welsh musician, was a conductor of theatre orchestras with an eye for art. 'He always encouraged me as a boy,' recalled Roland, 'by ruling in the horizon line, which taught me perspective.' Settling in Ipswich, the boy studied at the Art School there during the evenings, then at 16 spent two years as a full-time student before becoming apprenticed to a lithographer. Here he designed cinema posters and one for the Metropolitan Railway of which he was particularly proud. His obsession with speed, whether by aeroplane, train, racing car or motor-cycle, led him to freelance cartoons to Autocar and Motor Cycle magazines, and when a new weekly, Modern Boy, was launched in 1928 he found a regular home illustrating action stories and supplying wonderful two- colour covers depicting roaring motors and zooming planes.

Curiously, his greatest success came with the very antithesis of all this speed: a lumbering, genial old cart-horse in a weekly strip cartoon called 'Come On, Steve]' - the inspired title was the cry that sprang from a thousand racegoers' throats as the jockey Steve Donoghue galloped to yet another win. Davies took his sample strips - devised over a weekend - down Fleet Street, trying first the Evening News, then the Evening Standard, then the Daily Express. Arthur Christiansen, showing the editorial acumen for which he became famous, took the strip to his editor on the Sunday Express, and the following week, on 6 March 1932, Steve made his top-of-the-page debut. Davies was pounds 4 a week richer, a fee that was shortly doubled.

'Come On, Steve' was soon so popular that Davies conceived the idea of animating the old carthorse. Buying a stop-frame cine camera for 18 shillings, he set up a studio in his kitchen and spent seven months making a short animated cartoon. Although full of faults, the film when projected gave him the thrill of his lifetime. 'The biggest thrill in the world was to see my drawings move, even if I had got the speed all wrong, and Steve looked as though he was floating,' Davies remembered. In his ignorance he had placed his cel-pegs at the top of his camera rostrum instead of the bottom, causing all kinds of odd distortions. 'Well, I learnt animation from a three-page chapter in an old book,' he said.

However, he had the nerve to show his film to John Woolf of General Film Distributors. Woolf would not give a decision until a soundtrack was added. Davies hired a studio, improvised a track - and was turned down yet again. He lowered his sights and showed his film to Butcher's, a minor distributor of B-pictures. They promptly gave him a contract for six eight-minute cartoons at pounds 800 each. With finance from his father-in-law, Davies set up an animation studio in Ipswich, staffed by students from the Art School and headed by one professional animator, the young Carl Giles. One by one the six cartoons were made, this time complete with a signature tune composed by John Reynders, whose orchestra supplied the music track and sound effects. Steve Steps Out was the first, released in December 1936, and a children's book-of-the-film was published by Collins. Best was Steve of The River (1937), a burlesque of Edgar Wallace's recent film, Sanders of the River.

When the Sunday Express dropped Steve in 1939 Davies, who had wisely retained the copyright, took the strip over to the Sunday Dispatch. They snapped up Steve with glee, and soon gave Davies the added post of cartoonist. He supplied topical comment in a large weekly drawing, using the pen-name of 'Rod'. After 10 years in the Dispatch, Steve moved into children's books, and Davies wrote and drew a full-colour series for Perry's Colourprints, plus a run of the Come On Steve Annual.

Davies's work for children's comics began in 1933 when he drew the cover for the Daily Express Children's Own, a Saturday supplement starring 'Larry Leopard'. When DC Thomson's new comic Beano began in July 1938, Davies drew a tough-guy sheriff, 'Whoopee Hank', and 'Contrary Mary the Moke', a long-eared donkey who was clearly a close relation to Steve. But his mainline comic work started in 1949 with the weekly serial of 'Sexton Blake', the famous boys' paper detective, in Knockout. For TV Comic he depicted the children's hour detectives 'Norman and Henry Bones', and created the sci-fi superhero 'Red Ray the Space Ray-nger' complete with club and badge.

He drew 'Dixon of Dock Green' in Swift, 'Wyatt Earp', the western television series, and a string of Walt Disney characters (Jungle Book, Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh) in Disneyland. He even drew the adventures of 'Woppit', Donald Campbell's mascot, in Robin. This linked back to his old speed-mania, and he wrote and illustrated several books such as The Daily Mail Speedway Book (1949) and The Ace Book of Speed (1952).

The continuing pressure of strip art finally grew too much for him, and in his seventies Davies turned to painting. Under the guidance of a publisher turned art dealer, Alan Class, he began producing dramatic seascapes and colourful Parisian street scenes, which found their way into several good galleries.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders