Have Pen and Ink - Will Travel
Lionel Lambourne, former head of prints and drawings at the Victoria and Albert Museum gave a talk to CAT Friends on the 28th January, in which he stated that Phil May was once described as the supreme 'ad lib' artist -which was perhaps an injustice since usually 'ad libs' are the result of hard-rehearsed work.
An influential self-taught artist whose work stands among contemporaries such as Beardsley, WG.Baxter, Beerbohm and Hassall, Phil May (1864-1903) was born at 66 Wallace Street, New Wortley, Leeds on 22 April 1864. The seventh child of Philip William May, a commercial traveller who had trained as an engineer under George Stephenson; William May painted in watercolours and died when Phil was nine years of age. His mother was the daughter of Eugene Macarthy, manager of The Drury Lane Theatre; his Aunt Maria was a famous actress married to Robert William Honner, Manager of The Sadlers Wells Theatre. May attended St George's School, but left school at 13 and after a number of temporary positions he became assistant scene painter at the Grand Theatre, Leeds where he also drew very accomplished caricatures of actors. This was a perfect beginning for a cartoonist, who was to remain a lifelong bohemian, mixing in the twilight world of the theatre, the gin palace and clubs, peopled by toffs, toppers and flower girls whom he knew so well.
In 1879 he joined a travelling burlesque company in the joint capacity of bit part player and set designer During his early struggle to survive as an artist, Phil May related; 'I never had a drawing lesson in my life, but I can't remember a time when I didn't draw ... When I was sixteen I made up my mind to come to London.. .1 had no friends and no introductions.. but in six months I worked for Society, the Penny Illustrated, St Stephens Review and the PictorialWorld'. In 1883 he moved to London and at the age of 19 joined the newly launched St Stephens Review contributing theatrical, racing and political cartoons.
There were many parallels in May's early career with those of Stan Laurel and Charles Chaplin. The early experiences of Phil May in the theatrical world of Leeds and the northern cities in the 1870's, and the slums of London in the 1880's, remind one vividly of the boyhood of Charlie Chaplin in the Lambeth streets of the 1890's, and his early tours with the clog dancing troup 'The Eight Lancashire Lads'. Many reminiscences in the haunting early chapters of Charlie Chaplin's autobiography illuminate the world seen and depicted with such wit and compassion by Phil May. Listen to Charlie Chaplin while recalling Phil May's drawings of vaudevillians. 'As a boy of 12 on Sunday morning, along the Kennington Road, one could see a smart pony and trap outside a house ready to take a vaudevillian for a ten mile drive, stopping on the way at various pubs- the White Horse, the Horns and the Tankard. I often stood outside the latter watching those illustrious gentlemen, the vaudeville stars, alight from their equestrian outfits, to enter the lounge bar where the elite of vaudeville met, as was their custom on a Sunday to take a final 'one' before going home to the midday meal. How glamorous they were, dressed in chequered suits and grey bowlers, flashing their diamond rings and tiepins! At 2 o'clock the pub closed, and its occupants filed outside and dallied a while before bidding each other adieu; and I would gaze fascinated and amused, for some of them swaggered with a ridiculous air. When the last had gone his way, it was as though the sun had gone under a cloud.'
In late 1885, May was offered a good opportunity as cartoonist to the Sidney Bulletin, an opening that appealed to him. It provided regular employment and a routine, both viral to May's rather feckless character and his indifferent health. May remained in Sydney until the autumn of 1888, although his Australian employer never really understood his art and asked for more elaborate and detailed drawings. May's reply was, 'When I can leave out half the lines I now use I shall want six times the money.' His Australian years, in which he produced some 900 drawings for the Bulletin, provided the discipline and professionalism that had previously been lacking. It is also possible that the required speed of work and the less refined printing methods forced May to abbreviate and invent so successfully.
May returned to Europe to study in Rome and Paris, because he 'wanted to improve his drawing'. He shared a studio in Paris's Rue Ravignan with William Rothenstein who leaves an account of May that is both sad and revealing:
'Phil somehow managed each week to get his weekly drawings done for The St Stephen's Review, and sometimes he sketched at night in cafés and café-concerts, but little else. There was no vice in him. He had a touchingly simple and affectionate character, but unfortunately he wasted himself and his means on a crowd of worthless strangers, who settled round his table like flies: while his terrible weakness for drink sapped his will and his physical strength.'
May shared models with Rothenstein but spent much more time collecting sketches and ideas for types.
Returning to London, editors vied for his drawings. He took up his old job at the Review in 1890 and in 1891 had great success with his illustrations to The Parson and the Painter, a week-by-week account of the adventures of a country parson, the Rev. Joseph Slapkins, a veritable innocent abroad. The success of this venture enabled May to buy a house 20 Holland Park Road. At the end of 1890, May joined the art department of the newly founded Daily Graphic and was sent to cover the Chicago World Fair. His swift penline, evolved from his experience of newspaper cartoons, was reproduced perfectly by the new photogravure process. The following year he began his own publication Phil May's Annual and produced between 1892-1905 eleven winter and seven summer editions. His first Punch drawing appeared in 1893 and he joined the staff in 1895 at the age of thirty. His scenes of Cockney types with brief captions of comic repartee won instant popularity.
May's great strengths were in his empathy with the ordinary Londoner and his psychological understanding of the street children. In Guttersnipes (1896) and ABC (1897), he shows the cheerful and cheeky urchins, and their molls, who laugh and joke about their destitution. An example of this is the drawing of two young women admiring an engagement ring. The caption is 'What sort of stone is it? Don't know, but my young man says it's an 'ammersmith!'
May died of cirrhosis of the liver on 5 August 1903, at the age of only thirty-nine. Although he is mainly associated with black and white work he was also able to handle colour brilliantly. A year or two before his death he spent a holiday in Holland. This experience lead to series of Pine drawings and Water colours.
May was flamboyant and genial figure, generous to friends and spongers alike. Despite his early death he left thousands of drawings and several publications. His influence can be seen in the work of contemporaries such as Hassall through to the work of Reg Smytbe.
The following passage from Joyce Carey's The Horse's Mouth shows how May's work still has a magic to inspire us today.
The hero, the mural artist Gulley Jimson complains about a model's figure: 'I didn't care for Lottie in her skin. She was a sculptor's shape, with no neck or waist and feet like ammunition boots. But I liked her dressed. Lotties' style is well known; bodice with buttons, long skirts, hat's with feathers, in the old Phil May fashion. The fact is, as she told me, that she had to have her hair long, and as there was a lot of it, she put it up, and it didn't go with anything but a real hat. And as her legs were short and thick, she liked a long skirt. So she had taken to the style of 1890, and it suited her very well with her pug face... Of course, she wasn't a real woman, for she'd been brought up in the chromium plate period and finished off with a synthetic spray. But Lottie dressed, took me back to my youth when a woman was a female' to see her with a glass of beer down at the Eagle and her ostrich feathers shaking in the breeze of the gasworks made me feel like twenty again, in a curly bowler and chase-me trousers. But when I put my arm round Lottie and squeezed her she didn't giggle like a real old girl' still I liked going about with that bodice and those feathers, and we haunted all the pubs in the likely spots, Chelsea, Hampstead and Hammersmith.'
August 2003 will he the centenary anniversary of his death.
|Cover: Jensen, from The Cartoon Art Trust Collection.
'HRH Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother'
One of many cartoons that the Trust will be displaying at the forthcoming exhibition, The Kings and Queens, at The Mall Galleries from the 2nd -17th December 2002. If any friends or working cartoonists have good drawings relating to the monarchy (1750 to the present day), and would consider lending them, please contact: Amanda Jane Doran on 01892 528 322
|John Jensen (b. 1930) Born in Sydney, Australia, and studied at the Julian Ashton Art School, Sydney. His first cartoon was published in the Sydney Sun in 1946 and he emigrated to England in 1950. His work has appeared in Punch, Lilliput, The Daily Express, The Evening News, New Statesman, and many others. He was the first-ever political cartoonist on the Sunday Telegraph. Jensen was a founder member of the Cartoon Art Trust and chairman from 1992- 1993.
From: Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists by Mark Bryant - available from the CAT shop, at the special discounted price of £30 plus £2.50 p&p.
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