Sun, sea and censorship

It seems hard to believe now, but Donald McGill's saucy seaside postcards got him in trouble with the law. Even George Orwell baulked at their bawdy images

Ah, Britain in the Thirties. You saved up all year for a week at Ilfracombe or Ramsgate (the Ibiza of the North), where you shared a bathroom with a dozen strangers, splashed in the filthy, freezing sea, and made your friends at home envious with messages such as: "Joan has had a chill & some days in bed & now has jaundice." But that doleful greeting, on show at the Cartoon Art Trust Museum, bore a picture on the reverse that must have cheered up the recipient - if it got through the post. For it was drawn by the man whose name is synonymous with "seaside postcard", who was called in his time a pornographer and a folk artist - Donald McGill (1875-1962).

Ah, Britain in the Thirties. You saved up all year for a week at Ilfracombe or Ramsgate (the Ibiza of the North), where you shared a bathroom with a dozen strangers, splashed in the filthy, freezing sea, and made your friends at home envious with messages such as: "Joan has had a chill & some days in bed & now has jaundice." But that doleful greeting, on show at the Cartoon Art Trust Museum, bore a picture on the reverse that must have cheered up the recipient - if it got through the post. For it was drawn by the man whose name is synonymous with "seaside postcard", who was called in his time a pornographer and a folk artist - Donald McGill (1875-1962).

The exhibition Censored at the Seaside displays many of the riper examples of the form, whose top-heavy sirens aroused not only what their creator intended but the wrath of the killjoys as well. In the first half of the 20th century, local censorship boards could have postcards banned or burnt, and McGill's set alarm bells ringing in Morecambe, Torquay, Southend, Weymouth and even that supposed capital of naughtiness, Brighton. McGill never ran into any trouble in Eastbourne, however. Everything he drew was banned in Eastbourne.

Each time he was confronted by furious puritans, McGill would infuriate them even more by insisting that any impropriety existed only in their minds. Take the card on which a woman leans from a window to ask, "Milkman, have you got the time?" and gets the reply, "Well, yes, miss - but who's goin' to mind the 'orse?" McGill pointed out that, since the woman was on the ground floor rather than at an upstairs, or bedroom, window, all that could be inferred was a "mild flirtation". Well, then, how could he defend the card on which one little girl says to another, pointing at a baby in the bath, "It isn't a whistle. I've tried"? Hand on heart, he asked: "Can there be anything obscene in what a child of this age says?"

In 1953, McGill said that he had only once been in trouble with the police, when he was charged with forgery after reproducing a £1 note on a toilet roll. But the following year he was arrested when he went too far for Cleethorpes. The 79-year-old McGill spent an hour in a cell and, after pleading guilty on the advice of counsel, was fined £50 plus costs. Small change, one might think, for a man who had sold 3.5 million copies the year before (and sold more than 300 million in his career of nearly 60 years). But the wealth that those figures implied existed only in other people's minds. Nine years later, McGill died as he had lived, nearly broke.

Though his family tree sprouted bankers and politicians, one of whom founded McGill University, in Montreal, Donald McGill's father managed to squander most of his inherited wealth on fantastical investments. Another less-than-canny Scot, McGill never capitalised on his talent and originality. "Postcard artists didn't own the copyright of their pictures," says Anita O'Brien, curator of the exhibition, "and they didn't get royalties. Their original artwork wasn't even returned." In 1952, McGill earned only £3 3s per drawing; the man who produced the block for the printer was paid £5. In his lifetime, McGill's work had started to interest collectors, and soon after his death one of his watercolours would sell for more than he had earned in a year. They now cost thousands.

Nor did McGill's private life reflect the racy content of his work. A quiet, courteous man, who had had to have a foot amputated after being kicked in a rugby game (with Victorian stoicism, he waited six months to see a doctor), McGill worked as a draughtsman for architectural and engineering firms until his brother told him that a get-well card he had drawn was good enough to sell. In 1904, he took the plunge, and by 1906, censorship boards in the North had ordered one of his cards destroyed. Set in the corridor of a boarding-house, it showed a maid, eye to a keyhole, telling a man: "'E won't be long now, Sir. I can see 'im adryin' of 'imself." McGill always started with the written joke, inventing some and getting others from funny papers, conversations in pubs, and comedians. For the last, he didn't have to go far from his home in Blackheath, south-east London: his wife's father owned the music hall in Greenwich.

In their exuberance, some of McGill's jokes are startling even today. The one that landed him in trouble is captioned: "A stick of rock, cock?" and shows a man holding an example of that seaside confectionery that has shot up well above his head. But, for all his mischief, McGill is never unpleasant, nor do his women, unlike those on some other cards, use the smutty diction of men.

In 1941, George Orwell, in his essay "The Art of Donald McGill", brought the artist to the attention of people for whom a dream of an English seaside holiday would be reason to wake up screaming. But, while Orwell considered McGill's postcards seriously from a literary and social point of view, he dismissed them as art, saying they had no "aesthetic value" and that their colours were "hideous". The figures, he said, were "ugly", the women "monstrous", with "grossly over-emphasised" breasts and "bottoms like Hottentots [sic]". Orwell's sexual squeamishness can be blamed for his dislike of McGill's women - who, after all, merely had the bustles and magnificent bosoms of the artist's youth, inadequately clad by the garments of the next century, just as its polite conventions barely restrained their passions.

Orwell's judgement of McGill's artistry was unfair, as can be seen by the originals on display. The delicate tints of fawn and peach are transformed, through three-colour letterpress, into screaming scarlet and purple. Neatly drawn and shaded details become blurred or overemphasised on the cards or simply disappear. Many of the cards themselves, though, show that Orwell wrote McGill off too quickly. On one perennial bestseller, a worried man's enormous belly hides a small boy sitting beneath it from his view. The caption: "I can't see my little Willy anywhere!" McGill has here abandoned his usual careful perspective to keep the horizontal stripes on the man's bathing costume straight instead of curving them round the body, thus exaggerating its bulk. A distant cliff on one side of the figure and a tiny woman bather on the other further emphasise its width, and a round red cheek is echoed by a round red knee.

What Orwell admired in McGill's cards was their expression of a spirit then banished from mainstream literature - the raspberry blown at the forces of respectability, "the voice of the belly protesting against the soul". And for all his condemnation of the "vulgarity" and "obscenity" of the cards, Orwell saw that they implied, as a background, a world in which sex outside marriage was as rare as it was reprehensible. "The four leading jokes are nakedness, illegitimate babies, old maids and newly married couples, none of which would seem funny in a really dissolute or even 'sophisticated' society."

Now, of course, when a honeymoon is just a trip, a fatherless child is a common cause of sorrow, and women sunbathe in bikini bottoms, this exhibition of Donald McGill postcards is something George Orwell could never have imagined: a celebration of innocence.

Censored at the Seaside, Cartoon Art Trust Museum, Brunswick Centre, London WC1 (020-7278 7172; www.cartooncentre.com) to 14 August

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