Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Carl Giles

I doubt I realised it at the time, but Carl Giles was almost certainly responsible for my love of comics. Long before I'd ever read a Buster, a Whoopee, a Whizzer or even a Chip, my dad used to show me the Giles cartoons in his newspaper. At first a bit non-plussed, my dad encouraged me to really study his drawings, as there was just so much going on in and around the panel. I loved it, and it wasn't long before I was demanding my Giles fix! And although the 'joke' (usually relating to the previous days news) almost certainly went over my head, the drawings were a real treat for me. In the mid 70's, a copy of the Giles Annual appeared in the 'ol Christmas stocking (is there NOTHING that Father Christmas doesn't pick up on??!), and it quickly became a yearly tradition, a tradition I pretty much kept up for the next 30 or so years. It was my interest in Giles which must have led me to become a childhood fan of Leo Baxendale. Arguably the greatest kids comic artist ever, Baxendale created some of the ultimate classics... from The Bash Street Kids to Little Plum, from Minnie the Minx to the Three Bears, from Clever Dick to Sweeney Toddler... and just like Giles, he crammed ever millimetre of his panels with drawings. So it was with some excitement that I recently visited the Cartoon Museum to see their Giles exhibition, the first showing of his work for twenty years or more...

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



The Wolfmen said...

Great, great illustrations - did he ever do a Guiness Book of Records mid-seventies cover, I'm sure I've got one similar to his style..

Anonymous said...


a really fantastic blog about a really amazing man. Like you, I've loved Giles' work since I spotted a copy at my granddad's house in the late 60s. His work reminded me of Leo Baxendale too - Not surprising really, as Baxendale's style had developed into a very similar style to Giles in the mid-sixties, but then his style evolved into several different styles during his career. I was mad about Baxendale (Wham! and Smash! comics) before I ever saw Giles, so it was the other way round for me.

Haven't visited the Exhibition yet, but I aim to go next week. You've done the great man proud, mate.

Piley said...

Thanks Wolfman... you've got me thinking on that Guinness book of records cover. I know Giles did used to do drawings for other projects (like the Christmas cards for the RNLI for example). Will look into that..

Grandma - Thanks for the kind words (and sorry I called you a battleaxe!!!). I really should do another article featuring Leo one of these days. I'm sure you'll love the exhibition, but don't leave it too much longer. Only about 3 more weeks left to run.


Anonymous said...

My mates dad had some of his books when i was a little kid 5 or 6 years old. When all my chums were watching play away or what ever i'd often pull one of these books out from under their coffee table and look at it. I used to get lost in the drawings, funny yeah but the detail and little bits and peices there in was amazing. I only have 3 or 4 of his books up in a cupboard up stairs. My wife tried to get me to chuck em the last time we had a clear out and i told her where to go. Great to find out more about him. His work has fascinated and amused me since i was a little kid. A brilliant man. Good stuff P i enjoyed that one. The one that sticks in my mind is of all the kids sitting round with transistor radios pressed to their ears while grandma comes down the stairs. Dad say's transistors off kids nothing puts grandma in her let's hang every body mood quicker than wonderful radio one. I know how seh feels :-).


Axe Victim said...

Always dead popular in our house as a kid. Me mam used to buy the Daily Depress just for the Giles cartoon and my da used to buy her the book every year for Christmas. I spent my childhood developing a sense o'umor thanks to him. Wonderful stuff. A picture of Britain never to be repeated.

Anonymous said...

You can buy a catalogue of the Giles exhibition which contains many more fascinating stories about the man, from www.cartoons.ac.uk

Piley said...

nice one Carl and Col - you can't beat those childhood memories to seal something or someone to yourself for always. I've always had softspot for Giles (& always will), and looking at the comments, it's great to see others do too.

What does worry me is that he is someone who will get 'lost' to future generations. Perhaps todays kids in 20 years time will look back fondly on Big Brother 7, Dancing on Ice 3 or maybe that fantastic text chat they had one time.... i'm not saying things have dumbed down for kids, but there is just so much more crap out there than there was when we were kids. In fact, there wern't a lot for us kids anyway. Couple of hours TV in the afternoon, a few comics and that was it! No computers, no mobile phones, no reality tv, no internet... There is so much for kids to do now, I can't imagine one getting interested in a cartoon in their parents newspaper!

Still, it's great that the Cartoon Museum are doing their bit to keep the work of Carl Giles alive. Honestly, I can't recomend the exhibition enough, so if you can get along, give it a go.

Thanks Anon - I must admit I didnt buy the catalogue when i went along, but if I do make it back again before it closes, I may well pck it up this tim.


Mondo said...

Cartoon Museum looks right up my street - and handy for Gosh and Orbital comics too..

Anonymous said...

great review. i was aware of carl giles but didnt know much about him. your bio has got me wanting to find out more and as i work in london i will be visiting the exhib for sure.

marmiteboy said...

This is a wonderful post. I loved Giles when I was a kid due to an annual I was given one Christmas by my Nan and Granddad.

There was so much detail in his work and I remember sitting for hours pouring over this annual. There was always something new to look at because he crammed so mush in.

I was happy to see that he was an old leftie too. It makes me like him even more.

Heff said...

That was a great, and very informative post, Piley.

Stephen Smoogen said...

Thank you for this post. My first cartoons I can remember were my Grandfather's Giles collections. I think I read through the various 1960 collections multiple times. His style had such depth in it that I would have to read the book three or 4 times to think I had gotten all the 'jokes'.. and then find out I missed another one. I really wish I could get some collections stateside, but they rarely make it over.

Anonymous said...

The man was a genius and still makes up laugh long after he has gone. The kids putting dozong Grandma in the stocks is a classic.