A Queen’s favorite cartoonist

     Ronald “Carl” Giles (1916-1995), whose birthday is today, was voted “Britain’s Favorite Cartoonist of the 20th Century” in 2000.  Unfortunately, his work is almost unknown in the United States. 

     For over 50 years he drew thousands of cartoons documenting Britain and its people.  John Gordon, editor of the “Sunday Express,” said, “Giles is something more than just a cartoonist.  Study his work closely and you find … that he is a great artist as well.  A really great artist.  His backgrounds are perfect in structure, in detail and in balance.  His figures have the poise that makes them just right.  You sense that far and above the trick of cartooning here is a man who loves drawing and lavishes love as well as labor on it, seeking always artistic perfection, not merely the performance of a job.”

     Giles, as he signed his cartoons, was born in London, England, son of a tobacco seller and a farmer’s daughter.  His friends nicknamed him “Carl” (shortened from “Karlo”) because they thought he looked like Boris Karloff.  He left school at 14 to work as an office boy for a film company.  He was soon promoted to animator for cartoon films and worked on the first full-length British color cartoon film with sound.

A bronze statue depicting “Grandma” looking up at the newspaper office where Giles used to work.

     In 1937 he started work as a cartoonist for the left-wing “Reynolds News,” a Sunday newspaper.  His work attracted a lot of attention, and eventually he accepted a position as editorial cartoonist with the “Daily Express,” a job which made him wealthy and immensely popular with the public.

     After a motorcycle accident left him blind in one eye and deaf in one ear, he was rejected for service in World War II, so he worked for the Ministry of Information creating animated cartons and cartoon posters.  In 1945 he became the “Daily Express” war correspondent cartoonist with the British 2nd Army.

     During this time he was assigned to the unit which liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and he interviewed the camp commandant, Josef Kramer.  Kramer was actually an admirer of Giles’s work, and gave the cartoonist his Luger pistol and holster, a ceremonial dagger, and his swastika armband, asking in return for a signed original of Giles’s work.

     Giles said later, “I have to say that I quite liked the man.  I am ashamed to say such a thing.  But had I not been able to see what was happening outside the window I would have said he was very civilized.  Odd, isn’t it?  But maybe there was a rather dishonorable reason.  I have always found it difficult to dislike someone who was an admirer of my work.  And strangely, Kramer was.”

     “I never sent him an original,” Giles added, “What was the point?  He had been hanged.”

“Butch” one of Giles’s family of characters.

     Giles’s single-panel cartoons were highly detailed, usually with a lot of little jokes going on along with the main topic.  He often used recurring characters, in particular the “Giles Family” which first appeared in 1945.  The family was “born” when Giles was trying to come up with characters now that Hitler, Mussolini, and other war figures were no longer needed in his cartoons.

     The Family is a wild assortment of characters headed by “Grandma,” an battleaxe who takes on all challenges armed with her “brolly” (umbrella) and padlocked handbag.  Grandma didn’t hesitate to take off on motorcycle, skis, or hang-glider, trailed by a cloud of cigarette (and sometimes pipe) smoke.  She has been captured by aliens and dragged off by the police, but always manages to come out on top.

     The artist was always late for deadlines, and generations of editors with a four-column space worked up a sweat while they waited for his cartoon to arrive by train from his home in Ipswitch.

“Grandma” one of Giles’s most famous recurring characters.

     Giles’s fans included the British Royal Family, who often requested the originals of his work.  In 1959 he was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire).  After retiring from editorial cartooning in 1991, he continued to contribute cartoons to magazines, drew advertising cartoons for a number of well-known companies in Britain, and designed Christmas cards for charities.

     He never sold any of his cartoons to fans, preferring to donate them to friends and charitable organizations.  Some of these organizations still issue Christmas cards each year bearing his work.  Collections of his cartoons have been produced annually ever since 1946.  Until his death Giles selected which cartoons would be in the annual.

     Along with his many tributes, possibly the best and most unique is a bronze statue depicting “Grandma” looking u at the newspaper office window in Ipswitch where he used to work.  Giles, by this time in a wheelchair, was able to attend the unveiling of the statue, which honored a lifetime of achievement in art.

Published by on February 2013. Filed under Archives, Art-to-Art Palette Journal, Bugle Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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