Obituary: John Glashan

Martin Plimmer
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:06

JOHN GLASHAN had both the down-turned mouth of the man who has made life exceedingly difficult for himself and the uplifted spirit of one who has succeeded in bucking the trend. In an era when the space newspapers allocated to cartoons was contracting faster than readers' attention spans, when cartoonists were going for the quick gag expressed in the minimal drawing, Glashan opted for elaborate set-piece jokes in several acts, incorporating full-colour architectural landscapes and labyrinthine textual threads. Victorians would have found him wordy.

At the very least Glashan productions (it seems wrong to call them "strips" as they so wilfully eschew the conventional strip form) require half a page of space, otherwise the scratchily worded story would be unreadable and the ant-like protagonists, upon whose tiny shoulders lays the burden of expressing Glashan's philosophy of human folly, invisible.

It is possible to get lost in a Glashan production, particularly if he has omitted the advice "follow these easy-to-follow arrows" (this on a two-page cartoon coyly titled "Literature"); sometimes when you do make it to the end you find nothing more than a sardonic aside. There is only one thing to do: go back and linger among the beautifully realised settings. These are shaggy dog stories in which the shaggy dog might be a gothic cathedral.

On top of all this, just to be bolshy, Glashan threw in intelligence, obscure obsessions, surreal madness, compassion, whimsy, subversiveness and epic, brooding darkness, not the marketing expert's seven top selling points. Take for example Glashan's "Tomb of the Unknown Lens Designer's Tax Advisor". It is larger than the Kremlin, surrounded by shoals of bowed mourners and, despite its humorously banal inscription, chilling. In the territory of imagination, Glashan is closer to Mervyn Peake than Andy Capp.

These are not the kind of cartoons you memorise to describe to your friends in the pub. In fact, whether they are cartoons at all, or whether Glashan saw himself as a cartoonist, is a moot point.

He was not born a cartoonist; he was born an artist, into a family which allowed no other option. One of the first sounds he heard was the susurration of a brush: his father, Archibald A. McGlashan, member of the Royal Scottish Academy and president of Glasgow Art Club, painting him. McGlashan believed that anybody who did not paint wasted his life. Once, John told his father that a journalist writing about cartoonists had questioned him about his background, to which his father said, "Well, you know what your background was . . . Michelangelo, Velzquez, Rembrandt."

Inevitably the young McGlashan studied painting at Glasgow School of Art, then in the early 1950s he moved to London, in a six-foot by three- foot studio garret, where he lived the inevitable artist's threadbare life. When portrait painting failed to provide a reliable income - largely, he claimed, because of his embarrassment at discussing money - he streamlined his name to Glashan (a rare concession to brevity) and tried his hand at cartooning.

Though not for the mass market, his work has always by its quality attracted a passionate following and publications which were willing to indulge his idiosyncrasies. Lilliput magazine allowed him three pages per issue, then Queen (under Jocelyn Stevens) took him on. In 1978 the Observer magazine gave him a regular half page, in which, for 228 episodes, he recorded the absurd and epic adventures of Anode Enzyme and his employer Lord Doberman, under the title Genius.

Released from the petty encumbrances of normal life - Enzyme by his superlative IQ (12,794, though he lost a few points when he watched television) and Doberman by his superlative wealth - these two embark on a programme of esoteric research, performing laboratory experiments on sex therapists, exploring the vulgar extremities of wealth and poverty, isolating pure guilt in a flask, inventing such useful devices as the Doom module, which runs in terror from anything that moves, and a machine which lobs portable television sets into the sea.

Genius was a cult, loved, according to the magazine's then editor Peter Crookston, by precisely 50 per cent of its readers. "The world was divided into those who thought it was a work of genius and those who didn't get it. Donald Trelford [the newspaper's then editor] hated it; I defended it to the death."

Glashan was a perfectionist who didn't turn up with his work till the very last moment, causing editors to tremble on the edges of their seats. When he did turn up, there were always fresh challenges. They would find he had achieved his background colour effect with an old tea bag, a serious challenge to the printing skills of the time. When Trevor Grove took over as magazine editor, Genius was dropped, though an American production company is currently animating it for television.

The place where Glashan's genius is most obviously demonstrated is in his fine painting technique. It is extraordinary how, with a few scratchy lines he can denote a crumbling rococo pile or with a broad brush-stroke, a bleak moor. In later life he drew for the Spectator and for the re-launch issue of Punch in 1996 he supplied a cartoon of an elderly man on a grandiose bed with a naked woman. The caption reads: "Emily, pass my teeth, I want to bite you." Mostly he devoted himself to landscape painting, having exhibitions at the Francis Kyle Gallery in 1979 and 1983, and the Fine Art Society in 1991 and 1994. He remained bitter at his lack of success in fine art. Once, when asked to give a speech at the Royal College of Art, he walked on stage, growled, "You're wasting your time, all of you!" and walked off.

Despite his gloomy demeanour, Glashan was a warm man who told a funny story well. He was a popular companion at El Vino's, the Fleet Street journalist's bar. He grew out of his embarrassment over money and took to grumbling about his fees. Once, when asked by an advertising agency what his fee would be, he told them he would charge "plumber's rates". The agency agreed but was horrified when a bill arrived calculating his work at an exorbitant hourly rate.

Glashan's work was occasionally too perceptive to be funny. It went beyond humour. As a cartographer of the human condition he was most interested in the frontier where humour and joy abut tragedy and seriousness. "I have discovered that the nearer humour approaches seriousness, the funnier it will be," he said. "Being funny is not funny. Humour is seriousness in disguise." Once he urged a friend to make the most of his child while he could. "You'll never forget the day when your son doesn't hold hands with you any more," he said.

John McGlashan (John Glashan), cartoonist and painter: born Glasgow 24 December 1927; married 1959 Anna John (one son, one daughter); died London 15 June 1999.

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