Unlike so many other artist from days gone by, who's artwork was not at all cared for (often just thrown away in the rubbish by the publisher without a care), Carl Giles kept just about everything he ever did. When he died in 1995, his collection (6500+ cartoons and 1500+ drawings and sketches) passed to his family. To their credit, they passed the whole lot over to The British Cartoon Archive at the University of Kent, and it is a selection of 70 or 80 of those beautiful originals that are currently on display at the Cartoon Museum.
The first thing that took me was the shear size of some of these originals. Considering they were somewhere in the region of A5 when published, the vast majority of the originals are A3 size, with some at A2 and even a couple at A1... HUGE!!! I'm sure I spotted some intricate detail that couldn't possibly have survived after being shrunk for the newspaper.
Not really knowing much about the man, other than his 'funny' cartoons, I found the exhibition really informative, and I learnt a fair bit about Giles himself, not least the incredible revelation that he was actually blind in one eye from the age of 27, after a motorcycle accident....
He started off in 1930 as an office boy for a film company in London, and was soon promoted to an animator in their cartoon department. He continued to be involved in animation for various companies up until 1937, when he started work for a left wing newspaper 'The Reynolds News', where he created topical cartoons as well as his own strip 'Young Ernie'. His work soon came to the attention of the Express newspapers, who eventually hired him in 1943 - although Giles said he always felt guilty about it, as he never agreed with the politics of the Express.
Rejected for military service due to his sight, the Express sent Giles into various World War II locations as their very own 'War Correspondent Cartoonist', and some of his wartime sketches are also on display in the exhibition. He was assigned to the Coldsteam Guards and was with them when they liberated Belson concentration camp. Apparently the Express asked him to draw the full horror that he saw at Belson, but Giles always refused, choosing instead to just draw the various rooms and cells, rather than the thousands of dead bodies that he witnessed. Years later Giles remarked that not a day went by without him thinking of the atrocities he witnesses during that time. Again, some of the haunting personal sketches that he did whilst at Belson are on display at the museum.
Originally, Giles drew topical, war related cartoons for the Express, but the end of the war meant he also lost most of his regular 'characters' (Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, Mussolini etc), so in 1945 he introduced the 'Giles Family' as their replacement. The family became his new medium for expressing life in post-war Britain, and appeared in more than 2000 of his Express cartoons. Head of the family (and by far the most famous character) was the old battleaxe herself, Grandma. Then there was 'Father' (Grandma's son) and 'Mother', their children 'George', 'Ann', 'Carol', 'Bridget' and 'Ernie', 'Vera' (George's wife), 'George Junior' (George and Vera's son) and the twins 'Lawrence' and 'Ralph' (Ann's illegitimate children). Oh, and not forgetting Natalie the cat and Randy the goldfish! Phewwww!
There is something about those Giles cartoons that is quintessentially British. Some years ago, a good friend of mine - Dave, and his wife were travelling through Manila in the Philippines, and had an experience that sums Giles up perfectly... here it is in his own words:
"The heat and humidity was indescribable, the roads grid-locked with honking cars belching noxious emissions which made the air even more unbreathable. Even walking down the streets was difficult, clothes clinging to you through visible perspiration. We entered a small shopping mall just to get out of the heat for a while and it was there that I found an open fronted second hand book shop, with books and magazines all laid out in messy rows on a dozen or so long tables. While browsing, I found one familiar book I wasn't expecting to see -- an 'old faithful' from England in the form of a battered Giles 'Annual'. Opening it up in that busy shop, I was immediately transported by beautifully drawn cartoons, back to far away Blighty. Snow covered roofs, double decker buses, shabby garden sheds in unkempt gardens, English style churches and terraced houses, policemen and traffic wardens, the welcoming interior of a pub. He seemed to be able to sum up all that was England. Perhaps it was simply because I was a long way from home that the images resonated so much, but these Giles cartoons were never more powerful and mesmerising than on that day."
A great anecdote, and no doubt it was his uncanny ability to conjure up such wonderful imagery that led to him (quite rightly) being voted ‘Britain’s Favourite Cartoonist of the 20th Century’ in 2000.
Giles left the Daily Express in 1989, as his cartoons were being given less and less space. However he continued working for the Sunday Express until he was 75 years old (1991). He died in 1995.
If you find yourself in or around London, the Giles exhibition is a real treat, and runs until the the 15th Feb (and is located just by the British Museum). Full details can be found at The Cartoon Museums website.
Find out all about the great work that The British Cartoon Archive is doing with the Giles colection over at their website.
Finally, thanks to Dave Whitwell for letting me use his words above, and also for providing me with the wonderful book scans below.
Giles Annual Number 34 (1980): Front Cover
Giles Annual Number 34 (1980): Back Cover (note: the original artwork to this annual is just one of the great pieces on display at the Cartoon Museum)
Giles Annual Number 31 (1977): Front Cover
Giles Annual Number 31 (1977): Back Cover
Giles Annual Number 32 (1978): Front Cover
Giles Annual Number 32 (1978): Back Cover