Book-signing with Bernard Crossley
On the evening of Tuesday, November 18, there will be a book-signing with author Bernard Crossley, of his definitive new volume: Donald McGill – Postcard Artist.
In this meticulously researched book, surprisingly the first full-scale biography of such an important illustrator, Bernard tells the story of his extraordinary life. At the age of thirty two he gave up a secure job to embark on the extremely insecure and at that time novel occupation of postcard artist. After retiring at sixty five, he returned to work at the age of seventy and at the age of seventy six he took over the running of his publishing company in addition to designing postcards, continuing to work right up until his death at the age of eighty seven.
The book also explains how a man from a very straight-laced and highly respectable Victorian background virtually created and came to be associated with the saucy seaside postcard. It describes his skirmishes with the censors and the law, culminating in a show trial in 1954, and the disapproval which he also suffered from his own family.
The author shows however that this association with the saucy does a great disservice to his work which featured an extremely wide variety of subjects, of which the risqué was but a small part, and which illustrated and documented many different aspects of British society during the first half of the twentieth century.
In addition there are chapters on the nature of the man, his working methods and his continuing influence as well as an evaluation of his remarkable achievement.
Copiously illustrated and including many full-colour reproductions of postcards from all periods of his career, the book paints for the first time a detailed and fascinating portrait of a major illustrator of the twentieth century whilst also presenting a wide-ranging selection of his work to enjoy.
This is a brief glimpse into the topics covered in this volume.
Donald Fraser Gould McGill was born on 28 January 1875 at 46 Park Street near to Regent’s Park in London and not far from the monkey house at the Zoo. It was “pure luck I was outside the cage” McGill characteristically joked to Peter Stewart of the Daily Sketch in 1953.
Initially it was the family that launched him on his postcard career though eventually it became a source of embarrassment for most of them.
During the two years that he worked for the Hutson Brothers McGill designed around 350 more cards with his customary wide variety of themes. The seaside was again much in evidence with one of his earliest saucy double entendre captions as a bathing belle standing in the sea is asked if it comes up to her expectations to which she replies: “Oh, no! Only up to my knees!”… McGill disapproved of the brothers according to Ronald Knaster who was told by McGill that they “became impossible. One drank heavily and the other was always womanising.”
So it was that McGill now continued his postcard career producing for Joseph Asher & Company some further 2400 or so designs during the next four years. The most striking feature of these cards is the enormously wide variety of subject matter which they cover and in so doing the invaluable insights they give into so many aspects of British society at that time.
The early years of his postcard career had been a struggle but with the outbreak of the First World War business boomed and for the next four years he produced a body of wartime postcards which was truly phenomenal in number, nature and influence. Working night and day he turned out an average of nine cards a week and some 18 million were sold during the war.
The end of the war led to the beginning of a new phase in McGill’s career. While he continued to work for the Inter-Art Co., the post war world required a new approach. There was a change of mood. The formality of Edwardian life and the austerity of wartime were replaced by a greater emphasis on pleasure seeking. Having been boosted by the war, the sales of comic postcards were now to be boosted by the boom in post war holidays and leisure pursuits. McGill was of course quick to adapt and the humour and horrors of war and patriotic propaganda were replaced by the humour and horrors of the British seaside holiday…
In 1932 his contract with Wilson Bros recorded his address as 174, Victoria Rd, London SE7 and soon afterwards he moved to 5 Bennett Park in Blackheath where he spent the rest of the 1930’s and it is this address which displays a blue plaque marking his residence there.
Even though McGill’s Second World War postcards did not play such a major part in the war effort as his First World War ones, they nevertheless helped as in the previous conflict to keep up spirits… as when a grinning soldier exhorted the buyer to “KEEP SMILING!”…
On 29 December 1940 the premises of D Constance in Ivy Lane with all stock, fixtures, books and original sketches were completely destroyed by a direct hit from enemy aircraft… The business now ceased and McGill produced no more cards until the end of the war…
At this point, having reached the age of sixty five and having stopped producing cards and retired to Guildford, it might have appeared that McGill’s career had come to an end and so it was perhaps just the right time for George Orwell to have then published an appreciation of his life’s work… Despite living quietly in apparent retirement in Surrey Donald McGill had now after all this become a national figure.
In September 1944 the company moved to 22 Christchurch Road, Streatham and at seventy years of age McGill amazingly resumed his career by returning to the business… Streatham News reported that he had been filmed “recently” by Rank for their feature “This Modern Age”. He duly appeared in the cinemas in Issue Number 33 of this documentary series entitled “When You Went Away”… The Empire Windrush had docked at Tilbury in June 1948 with almost 500 new immigrants from Jamaica heralding the beginning of a major influx of settlers from the West Indies and McGill’s letter provides evidence of this from the street. His neighbours may even have been passengers on the Empire Windrush…The level of detail and variety of colour and tone which were such characteristics of his output when at his peak in the 1920’s now gradually disappeared as he simplified his designs in response to the changing market…
If McGill’s resumption of his career at the age of seventy when he came out of retirement after the Second World War was amazing, his beginning a whole new career as a businessman at the age of seventy seven was even more remarkable… At work McGill’s assumption of joint administrative control of D Constance Ltd. coincided with the beginning of a nationwide censorship movement in Britain which lasted throughout the decade and proved to be a major problem not only for McGill but for the whole postcard industry. Dealing with the fallout from this was to become the major preoccupation of McGill and Maidment during their stewardship of the company during the 1950’s.
Seaside postcards also got caught up in this nationwide frenzy of narrow minded puritanism. 32,603 postcards were ordered to be destroyed in 1953 whereas the figure for 1939 was nil. … All over the country postcard retailers and publishers were now caught in a pincer movement of persecution and were inundated by a tsunami of mischievous prosecutions.
Despite all efforts to gain some kind of guidance and protection McGill eventually fell victim to this plague of supression when for the first time he personally was prosecuted… D Constance Limited was fined £50 and ordered to pay £25 costs while McGill and Maidment were fined £10 each.
Unfortunately the Lincoln trial did not signal the end of prosecutions as censorship continued to be a major headache for McGill and Constance over the next few years… the failure of local bodies to come to consistent agreements on what cards should be censored and the failure to establish a national censorship body meant that the prosecutions persisted… At the same time a report on comic postcards on the Associated-Rediffusion television programme “This Week”, which featured a filmed interview with McGill, was occasioned by… “a crisis which threatens an important aspect of the British way of life. The government is being pressed to establish a National Censorship Board to regulate the design and publication – of comic postcards.”
At 11am on Friday 5 April 1957 at Folkestone Borough Magistrates’ Court McGill and Maidment were prosecuted personally along with their firm for the second time… The case was committed to Kent Assizes at Maidstone on 8 July 1957… Despite the clampdown he remained unapologetic. On 15 Jan 1954 he told Streatham News: “I admit some of my jokes are near the knuckle. But I am not ashamed of being banned.”
The confidence which Manning and Wells initially showed in the ability of McGill and Maidment to run the company… proved in the end to be well justified for together they demonstrated their business acumen by rescuing the company fortunes from the insecure situation in which it was left by Ascher in 1951… Not surprisingly of course, given his age and his other, newly acquired duties and responsibilities for the company, his rate of output of cards fell dramatically after 1951… The designs from these years covered his usual wide range of subjects though there were perhaps a greater percentage of “double entendre” jokes, some of which did of course land him in court as a result of the new climate of puritanism abroad in the land.
The last five years of McGill’s life must have felt like the calm after the storm. Under his and Maidment’s skilful management Constance had overcome the many difficulties that had threatened its survival in the 1950’s and had prospered… However, even at the age of 83, McGill did not seem to contemplate retirement… At this late stage in his career he seemed to take a more censorious attitude himself, perhaps in reaction to the increasingly explicit and crude nature of comic postcards. Ernest Maidment said at the time of McGill’s death: “Some of the postcards published nowadays disgusted McGill. I used to show them to him and he would get quite angry.” … He had by now of course become something of a celebrity. Already a name in the 1940’s as a result of Orwell’s article and press coverage, in more recent times he had achieved further recognition on radio and television and had even been mentioned in Parliament.
It is these major events, the auctions, the exhibitions, the blue plaque ceremony, the books and the television and radio programmes, that plot the graph of the rise of McGill’s reputation and popularity to new heights in the years after his death but their impact was reinforced by an almost continuous flow of other references to him and his work during these years… His legendary status was thus assured and he continues to the present day to attract an interest in his work, unmatched by that of any other postcard artist.
No biography of McGill should fail to devote some space to a description of the methods he used to produce some 12,000 works of art.
In his own life he had little in common and little contact with the millions who bought his cards. In 1957 when asked if he ever went to the seaside and sent comic postcards he replied “No, never. I go to the country and I never send postcards!” … However he was by no means a typical product of his class and upbringing and was considered in some ways to be the black sheep of the family… The only jarring note in his otherwise kindly personality was his virulent anti-Americanism.
This final chapter attempts to indicate and underline what was special and distinctive about Donald McGill’s work and achievement… his finest achievement lay of course with his art through which for nearly sixty years and by virtue of its quality and quantity he did more than anyone to create that major contribution to British popular culture that was the comic seaside postcard. This was his true legacy… Donald McGill should be hailed and celebrated as the greatest seaside artist of all or perhaps, more accurately, the greatest seaside postcard artist of all.
Donald McGill is the greatest and most famous British comic postcard artist of all time. During an artistic career lasting over sixty years he produced over 12000 postcard designs. They sold in their millions, became an essential part of the British seaside holiday and made a major contribution to British popular culture.