Obituary: Roland Davies
Thursday 16 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.
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