Tuesday 29 August 1995
As a household name whose annuals regularly topped the best-seller lists at Christmas Giles would have been expected to accept if not to court publicity, but he resolutely refused to be interviewed and on the very rare occasions he capitulated gave nothing away, not because he was shy but because he did not feel like it. As a commentator on the contemporary scene, he should have found London attractive but he had to be dragged there and got what he wanted from newspapers, his Suffolk farm, local pubs and the view from his Ipswich studio. And, once he could get away with it, he obliged the Express to come and collect his drawings by taxi or, in snowy weather, by helicopter.
He insisted on cartooning no more than three days a week so as to leave time for the vigorous pursuit of his other interests. One editor might ad- monish him as "brilliant, but unpunctual, unreliable and unbusinesslike" but it did not matter - everyone knew the Express could not afford to lose him - he could follow Rabelais' advice "Fay ce que voudras". All this because he head found a formula that made him the first social cartoonist to have a truly national appeal.
Until Giles was established, humour knew its place. For the educated readers of Punch there was urbane social comedy; for the ignorant readers of Tit-Bits there was knockabout fun. For a cartoonists to bridge the gap seemed an almost impossible task. Phil May - he who said "draw firm and be jolly" - nearly did it with his cockney types but too much condescension showed through. Bruce Bairnsfather, the creator of "Old Bill", did do it - but that was during the First World War when national unity was a condition of survival. Heath Robinson did do it - by escaping into fantasy. Giles was the first cartoonist of real life to be appreciated as much in the public bar as he was at the Palace.
How did it happen? First a share of the credit must go to Express Newspapers. It is doubtful if any proprietor has valued cartoonists more highly than did the first Lord Beaverbrook. He wanted the best, irrespective of their politics, and in the shape of Low, Vicky, Strube, Giles and Osbert Lancaster he got them. Cartoonists liked working for him not just because he paid well and allowed them freedom, within limits, to upset his readers, but because he and his editors treated them as artists.
In Giles's case this meant agreement upon an unpunishing schedule (two cartoons a week for the Daily Express, one for the Sunday Express); allocation of generous space on the page and putting up with a good deal of artistic temperament. Most unusual in those days (the mid-1940s) was their consent to Giles's staying put in the Suffolk country so that his cartoons were never discussed or seen as rough sketches but despatched on a take-it- or-leave-it basis. The treatment worked. Giles stayed with the paper for more than 50 years - a record only equalled by Tenniel and Shepard in Punch.
When John Gordon, editor of the Sunday Express, lured the 27-year-old Giles away from Reynolds News in 1943, he was taking on a self-taught cartoonist of promise but no marked individuality. Born over a tobacconist shop at the Angel, Islington, north London, educated up to the age of 14 at the local Barnsbury Park School, Giles worked first as an office boy for a Wardour Street film company from which he graduated to becoming an animator on cartoons. He joined Reynolds News, a left-wing Sunday newspaper, in 1937, doing single-panel and strip cartoons and turned to good account his animating experience in composition and capturing movement.
Rejected for war service because of injuries incurred in a motor-cycle accident, he treated war in his early cartoons rather as Bairnsfather had done: battle as a bloody nuisance; Tommy as a wag. Later, as the Express's official war cartoonist, who had entered the concentration camp at Belsen with the liberating troops, he sometimes stopped joking to show the Nazi leaders in all their bestiality. But generally he was genial and he was no longer in search of a style. In April 1944 he drew his first classic. A group of cheerful US airmen are standing beside their crashed bomber in the street of a German city. One of them has spotted a passing Nazi car. The caption is "Taxi!"
By the time that the first collection of Giles cartoons was published in 1946, Giles was famous. John Gordon, in the introduction, hailed him as "a spreader of happiness", "a really great artist", "a genius" with "the common touch". Next year Arthur Christiansen praised his realism. But the following year Nathaniel Gubbins moved off on another tack seeing Giles as a savage satirist, "a great hater of stupid things and people". Was there more then to Giles than his admirers had assumed?
There had been the anti-Nazi cartoons; there had been frequent appearances by a skeletal schoolmaster and tormentor of Giles's youth called "Chalkie" (actually he got as much as he gave); there were to be tilts at tax inspectors, teddy boys, traffic wardens, shop stewards and Members of Parliament. But hatred? The Giles Family, who started to emerge in 1947, helped to clear things up. It consisted of Grandma, the indomitable anarchist; work- shy Father who thinks he's head of the household and sensible Mother who is; their son George, married to Vera, thin, sad and constantly under the weather; an infant son, Ernie, diabolic and prematurely bald, the Twins and others.
All the members of the cast were drawn with the sort of affection for their faults that characterised a novelist like H.E. Bates rather than a satirist like Swift. Satire implies an urge to reform which seemed totally foreign to Giles's intentions. Of course Englishmen are incurably lazy and boozy and philistine and prone to violence. But what the Hell, they're funny. His attitude was summed up in a cartoon which showed Ernie disconsolate under a tree. His father, who had been happily fishing, turns round and says, "All right. You despair of the human race, I despair of the human race, we all despair of the human race. Now hold your tongue."
Vicky once described Giles as "a present day Hogarth". But Hogarth was a satirist, more than a moralist. Giles's line of descent is traced more convincingly from Rowlandson whose morality, in so far as it existed, comes a poor second to his graphic talent for reporting the world around him. Both men were true reporters so that sentimentality towards man or beast was excluded from the fluent curving line with which they often captured beauty. Kinder than Rowlandson, and a good deal cleaner, Giles, in those senses, owed more to Baxter and Thomas, the creators of a shabby purple-nosed reprobate called Ally Sloper who with his family and friends was loved by the Victorians in the same way that the Giles family was loved by us. In our own century Giles professed admiration for Bairnsfather, "Pont",Posy Simmonds and "Trog", none of whom could be described as Hogarthian in outlook. The Hogarth analogy better suits some of the many cartoonists whose style showed a strong Giles influence, notably "Jak" in the Evening Standard.
In fact a description of Giles that was nearer the mark came from Colin MacInnes in an article in the New Left Review in March 1950. While rhapsodising about Giles's powers as an artist "There is no one (and may I repeat no one - no film director, no photographer, no painter) who has caught as precisely and poetically as he has, and with such strength of wit, fantasy and sardonic-tender observation the true aspect of the contemporary urban scene", he attacked his social attitude accusing him of being "well satisfied with society as it is". MacInnes deplored his "frantic adulation of the powerful", his sycophancy towards the royal family, his "basic respectability". However he could not have looked closely at "Grandma".
It seemed as if one of Giles's greatest joys was to set up figures of authority so that Grandma could knock them down. Black-coated, black-hatted, black-hearted and squat, she wasn't choosy in her malevolence. She and Ernie attend a meeting to debate capital punishment. Ernie pipes up, "Grandma says hang everybody". Another of her rare occasions for pleasure is at an RAF recruitment centre when the sergeant says to her, "I can only suggest that if we've called you up as a rear-gunner there has been a ghastly mistake". He underestimated her; she was heroic, and as a hero she was much needed. The Britannia of Tenniel and Partridge hardly suited a nation whose potential to cut ice in the world was sadly diminished - but Grandma as Britannia was just right. She might be old and steeped in sin but she never knew when the game was up. Brandishing her parrot-head umbrella she'd have whacked our lads inland on the beaches of Dunkirk and prodded them upwards on to the summit of Everest. In one of his letters Giles Junior said that he didn't know if Grandma had burnt her bra but that if she had it would have "gone up like Vesuvius". Any confrontation with authority was likely to produce a similar eruption.
There are many reasons to account for Giles's popularity and the conviction that it will last. His scenes set in pubs, schools, hospitals, village- halls, churches, farmyards, stables, parade-grounds, harbours, factories and above all in council-house front rooms and back gardens give an authentic picture of British life and attitudes of the second half of the 20th century. Much of the attraction of these scenes comes from an enthusiasm for detail which reflected the interests of Giles's richly varied life - as a farmer, racing-driver, horseman, sailor, DIY enthusiast and pub-crawler.
His humour, based on a marvellous eye for incongruity, laced (especially in the captions) with sarcasm and occasionally vaulting into the absurd, was rooted in affection for the comedie humaine and to his credit he had no truck with jokes based on smut or racism. Despite or perhaps because of the fact he had no children he will be best remembered as a family man - the creator of the Giles Family, as endearing a bunch of layabouts and mischief-makers (except Mum) as one could ever hope to find. Above all else he will be remembered as the creator of Grandma who will surely enter the Pantheon of immortal comic characters alongside Falstaff, Uncle Toby, Micawber and Mr Pooter, or in pictorial terms Ally Sloper, Old Bill, Colonel Blimp and Maudie Littlehampton.
The works of Giles are the least collected of all the world's collectable cartoons, writes Denis Gifford.
For most of Giles's 50-year career on the Daily Express, the originals of his cartoons have been rarer than hen's teeth, largely thanks to Giles himself, who guarded the dissemination of his art work. Now and then he presented one, but never would he personally allow one to be sold for money at auction; although one would occasionally slip through.
Giles possessed a vast quantity of his work. A one-man exhibition of his cartoons, held at the National Museum of Cartoon Art, in London, in autumn 1993, which he attended in one of his last public appearances, was so bedecked with his drawings, black-and-white and fully coloured, that no admirer could absorb the sight in one go.
For most people, copies of Giles Annuals are sufficient, but even these have rocketed in price since they were first given a value by the Book Collector in January 1985. At that time, the first annual, published in 1946, was priced at pounds 30. Five years later, it would have cost you pounds 100, and last week you would have been lucky to buy one for pounds 200. Now that Giles has left us, the price could well increase further. Cheaper, then, to buy the facsimile, recently republished by the Express. Of the almost 50 annuals that have followed, prices run from around pounds 100 for No 2 to 50p for last year's souvenir compilation.
Although they are not pure Giles books, the wartime series of humorous paperbacks edited by the Rev S. Evelyn Thomas already cost rather more than the 1s 6d (71/2p) they sold for at the time. This was the famous Laughs series, and Giles provided his first full-colour art work for their covers. They began with Humours of ARP (1941) and continued with Laughs With The Home Guard, working their way through each branch of the forces, land, sea, air and land girls. Their value was pounds 10 per piece a few years ago, but has now reached a minimum of pounds 35, with some dealers asking pounds 50.
But as to a Giles original, and in colour, bids could begin at pounds 3,000 - but where will they end?
Carl Ronald Giles, cartoonist: born London 29 September 1916; cartoonist, Reynolds News 1937-43; cartoonist, Daily Express and Sunday Express 1943- 95; OBE 1959; married 1942 Joan Clarke (died 1994); died Ipswich 27 August 1995.
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