Where does a writer draw the line?

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The other day I was musing on the connection between cartooning and writing, saying that many a fine cartoonist has felt the urge to take up his pen and write words, but that it is very rare for a writer ever to start drawing, whether humorously or otherwise.

The other day I was musing on the connection between cartooning and writing, saying that many a fine cartoonist has felt the urge to take up his pen and write words, but that it is very rare for a writer ever to start drawing, whether humorously or otherwise.

The only example I could think of was James Thurber, who was so good at both that writers think of him as a writer, and cartoonists greet him as a fellow cartoonist. I might have mentioned SJ Perelman as well, because in his early days he did (albeit mistakenly) fancy himself as a drawer of gags. In fact, I think it was Perelman who drew a cartoon of a patient rushing into a doctor's surgery and exclaiming: "Doctor - I've got Bright's Disease and he's got mine!"

That's a writer's joke if I ever saw one - a verbal gag and nothing visual about it at all. But then, I believe there was a time when writers supplied the jokes to cartoonists and got them drawn to order. That probably explains why so many cartoons just before and after 1900 are so laboured. It seems hard to imagine now, but Victorian cartoons in Punch often included elaborate stage directions, along the lines of: "Young Blood (entering shop to purchase umbrella in case rain gets on his cravat): 'I say, have you got any etc etc ...'" and then launched into lines of dialogue, forced on the long-suffering cartoonist by the would-be funny writer.

(Very occasionally the dialogue was actually quite funny, as in the ancient exchange between two surgeons: "What did you operate on old Jones for?" "A hundred pounds." "No, I mean - what had he got?" "A hundred pounds.")

But doubts about my thesis began to creep in when I woke in the middle of the night after writing the piece and thought to myself: "Mervyn Peake!" There was a man who wrote and drew. But was he primarily a writer or artist? Who can tell where one stops and the other starts? Then I got an e-mail from an American critic in St Albans who said simply: "Spike Milligan?" and I thought glumly that he too was right. Even if Spike could hardly draw to save his life, it never stopped him illustrating his own books.

And then my glumness was increased by the thought of Max Beerbohm, "the incomparable Max", who wrote as well as he drew and vice versa. Whenever I think of Beerbohm, I remember Hesketh Pearson's description of the interview with Beerbohm just after the glittering youth had left Oxford ...

"And what do you intend to do in the world of art, Mr Beerbohm?"

"I am writing a book of studies of the obscure brothers of famous men. People like Willie Wilde, brother of the more famous Oscar."

"You are of course the brother of the actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree, are you not?"

"Yes. He will be in the book too."

One candidate for inclusion would be Jack Butler Yeats, the brother of WB Yeats. Jack is well known a painter, but less well known as a cartoonist. The biographies skate over this by saying he started out as an illustrator but soon moved on to oils, but they're being a bit snobbish, as Yeats got a lot of good cartoons in Punch. In fact, that would make a fiendish pub quiz question. "Under what name did the Irish painter Jack Yeats work as a cartoonist?" Answer: "W Bird". And Kenneth Bird, by coincidence, was the real name of "Fougasse", the only cartoonist ever to edit Punch.

A reader writes: Dear Mr Kington, Is this article an elaborate way of mentioning all the artist/writers you can think of, thus preventing further people or even American critics in St Albans writing in to outwit you?

Miles Kington writes: I would say that summed up the position very succinctly.

A reader writes: Fair enough ... What about Maurice Sendak, then?

Miles Kington: Damn!

And Edward Gorey ...

This subject is now closed.

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