Cartoons and Kit-Kats: 21,243 clues to the life and laughter of genius Giles
- Credit: Gregg Brown
As Ipswich Wolsey Theatre puts Giles’s Grandma on the stage, we look back at the Aladdin’s Cave her creator left behind when he died in 1995
Time often comes full circle and ties itself in a neat bow. More than 11 years ago I was deep in the bowels of the University of Kent, looking at all the things Suffolk cartoonist Carl Giles had left behind when he died – everything from 7,000 drawings worth an estimated £10million to a couple of (to my mind priceless) Kit-Kats. And countless letters.
One was to the organisers of Ipswich Carnival, who in 1977 had asked Giles about using his iconic Grandma character on a parade float. “May I suggest you find a man for Grandma,” the cartoonist advised. “They’re always more effective than using a female.”
Giles would doubtless enjoy the musical Grandma Saves the Day!, running at The New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich until May 18. For playing Grandma is a man: Steve Simmonds.
It makes me think of that enjoyable visit to the University of Kent a few days before Christmas 2007, and has me wondering what happened to that Giles treasure trove – letters to Ipswich Carnival and all.
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Box of After Eights
There were police helmets and pencil-sharpeners (manual and electronic). A toy traction engine and a child’s spinning top. A Donald Duck book and an SS dagger. (As a war artist, he was one of the first to enter the liberated concentration camp of Belsen. The Nazi commandant turned out to be a fan and gave Giles the knife, along with an armband and Luger pistol.)
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The ephemera ranged from the sublime to the mundane: from 5,750 printed cartoons in annuals, 2,750 glass negatives of cartoons and 2,300 proofs, to a box of After Eights. (Best before September, 1994, sadly.) Even his parents’ marriage certificate.
You’d have needed a shelf almost a kilometre long to box and store everything, which thus far was not really sifted. What was the story?
Carl Giles died in Ipswich Hospital in August, 1995. All his stuff – which had accumulated at his farmhouse home outside Ipswich and at his studio in the town centre – passed to three trustees and thence into storage at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for about a decade.
One day, the British Cartoon Archive (based at the University of Kent, in Canterbury) asked if it could help catalogue the collection. Well, came the reply from the V&A, it actually would be better if it all went to you.
And it did: arriving in two pantechnicons.
OK, some of the items had once been kept in a converted pig-sty back at Hillbrow Farm in Witnesham – original drawings were tied up with string and stored in wine boxes, basically – but they represented one of those clichéd Aladdin’s caves.
“Perhaps even more than an Aladdin’s cave,” Dr Nick Hiley told me on that frosty day 11 years ago. “It had all the richness of his collection: original art-work, all his studio equipment – easels, drawing boards, pencils – the toys that were models for some of the toys in his cartoons. And a vast amount of ephemera: lots of letters, bills and little notes he’d written.”
Most of it had never been seen by the public, said the head of the British Cartoon Archive.
Giles (who could be as grumpy as Grandma, his most famous creation) had disliked going to the Express Newspapers building in London. He worked at Hillbrow Farm and his studio on the Queen Street/Buttermarket/Princes Street corner. Finished work went south on the train, usually, and wife Joan took care of all his paperwork.
And the Giles era was pre-internet. If this stickler for accuracy wanted to draw Buckingham Palace, for instance, he couldn’t find in seconds a photograph online. So he created his own reference library of pictures and objects.
That’s why there were those old-style police helmets from the now-gone West Suffolk and East Suffolk constabularies, and Ipswich Borough Police. He could get the badge detail spot-on.
Correspondence collected over more than half a century was also fascinating. Dad’s Army’s Sgt Wilson, Bury St Edmunds-born actor John Le Mesurier, wrote to say how he enjoyed Giles’s cartoons and recognised some scenes as typically Suffolk.
“In the 1950s, the editor of the Express would send letters saying he must come down to London to talk about things, as there were complaints from readers that they couldn’t understand the cartoons. Then there would be telegrams saying ‘Wonderful work in today’s paper! You really are the most marvellous cartoonist!’” said Nick.
“It’s really kicks-and-sixpences: he’s kept on edge – almost deliberately, it seems.” That said, Giles became a celebrity and household name.
While the cartoonist could be a bit cussed if he felt he was being messed about by his bosses or officialdom, he did seem to adopt a friendly tone with his admirers.
Such as this reply to someone who sought one of his books: “Thank you for your nice letter. I’m really sorry I am unable to help you. I searched everywhere to see if I had an odd volume but I’m afraid I’m down to my last filing copy. If ever I do run across one it will give me great pleasure to send it to you.”
Nick said: “You’d get replies from people saying ‘Thank you very much for replying.’ Not many people would generally be moved to do such a thing.”
And to those who dreamed of emulating him, he might say: “I am afraid there are no hard and fast rules about how to begin. Keep practising… Try not to become disillusioned by rejection.”
Nick said: “He and his wife decided not to have children, but his fans were his family, and he kept all their letters. This relationship developed into the ‘family’ of the Giles cartoons: the diverse folk everyone remembers – even if, as a working-class household living a comfortable middle-class existence, they represent an odd bunch of characters.”
Sleek Jaguar XK120
Back in 2007, the Giles collection was being opened up to researchers, thanks to a £1m two-year project paid for via the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) – an educational middleman.
Archivist Gary Collins began work at Canterbury that summer, making sense of the artefacts and adding digital images of artwork to The British Cartoon Archive’s online catalogue.
Today, staff, students and researchers at UK colleges and universities can log on for free, for research purposes, and examine 21,243 items of Giles paraphernalia. About 15,000 are examples of his cartoons and drawings. Then there are things like the odd newspaper cutting and even a photograph of the helmeted artist driving his sleek Jaguar XK120 car at Silverstone.
JISC calls the Giles collection “the single most important archive of British newspaper cartoons, and a key resource for British political and social history that has never before been open to the public”.
It explains: “The images have been copyright-cleared for educational use, thus avoiding the time-consuming copyright permissions process of putting together teaching materials containing cartoon/visual images.
“Students will also be able to include parts of the material in their assignments and coursework (provided that they have been properly cited).”
It doesn’t look as if the magic of Carl Giles will be allowed to fade, does it?
I don’t find the captions very funny
“So was it worth it? From a project point of view the answer is a resounding yes,” wrote archivist Gary in a 2009 blog.
So what did the man who spent a couple of years looking at all things Giles think of his brand of humour?
“I think I’ve noted before that I don’t find the Giles captions that accompany his cartoons very funny. I even mentioned this in my interview for the post… which was perhaps not a good idea, but despite this I was still offered the job,” he wrote as his work drew to a close.
“I have made it clear, however, that the actual contents of the cartoon are usually very funny as there is so much going on, with lots of visual jokes revealing themselves if you take a very close look.
“These were often put in by Giles to try and catch out the legal team at the Express, who had to scrutinise the cartoon very carefully for anything ‘libellous’ or ‘offensive’ before allowing it to appear.”
The ordinary man suffering
Dr Tim Benson, from The Political Cartoon Gallery and Cafe in Putney, in 2017 published the book Giles’s War – bringing together for the first time his cartoons from the Second World War. Tim had no hesitation calling Giles “one of Britain’s greatest ever cartoonists”.
He reckoned the artist’s trademark style was born amid the struggles, horror and humour of the 1940s.
“The features that made Giles’s characters distinctive – the bemusement at people in positions of power; the sense of humour in the most trying situations; the stoicism in the face of adversity – were characteristics that Giles had seen, and drawn, during the war.”
The cartoonist’s work was a favourite of Nick Hiley’s, who pointed out that as well as that famous family “there are also other cartoons of disgruntled ordinary people in the grip of national events – complaining about a rail strike and standing on a rainy platform, for instance.
“I think the Giles archive is very important because of its completeness: because it helps to show the working practices of a cartoonist. He’s significant as a cartoonist who had an enormous impact on the circulation of the newspapers on which he worked. “It’s also very interesting to have a collection that isn’t overtly political. A lot of the work we have shows politicians in a political context, but Giles’s cartoons are about the ordinary man suffering the consequences of the actions of politicians.
“There will be lots of jokes about taxes and strikes, and the cartoons are about how those impact on the lives of ordinary people. It’s the way most people experience national events.”
The Giles file
September, 1916: Born Ronald Giles in Islington, London
Father was a tobacconist and mother the daughter of a Norfolk farmer
Uncle was butler to painter Sir Alfred Munnings
Family had Newmarket links
A grandfather had been a jockey who rode for King Edward VII
Got nickname Carl because of likeness to actor Boris Karloff
School holidays often spent in East Anglia
Left school at 14 and became office boy for a Charing Cross Road advertising agency
At 18 went to Elstree to work for film-maker Alexander Korda
Giles was one of the animators on first full-length British colour cartoon film with sound: The Fox Hunt
Motorbike accident left him blind in one eye and deaf in one ear
Mid-1930s: Went to Ipswich to work with Roland Davies
Davies was starting a studio in Museum Street to animate his newspaper strip Come On Steve
1937: Back to London to join Reynolds News. Draws cartoons and comic strip Young Ernie
1942: Married cousin Joan
1943: Jumped ship to Daily Express and Sunday Express
Moved to Suffolk. Home became a rented cottage at Tuddenham St Martin, near Ipswich
1945: Cartoon ‘family’ first appeared
1946: Moved to Hillbrow Farm, Witnesham
1989: Stops working for The Daily Express
1991: Leaves Sunday Express
1995: Dies in Ipswich Hospital, eight months after his wife