Dulwich Artist in Residence
Leslie Gilbert Illingworth, 1902-79
By Mark Bryant
Having recently moved to the area I joined the Dulwich Society and was delighted to discover in the welcoming issue of the Journal (No.175, Winter 2012) an article by Judy Fitton, whom I had met some years ago while researching an entry on her father, the artist James Fitton, for a biographical dictionary I was writing.
Judy's article, about the local painter Percy Frederick Horton, mentioned that he had studied at the Royal College of Art in the 1920s with fellow students Henry Moore, Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious. This caught my attention as another Dulwich resident who had studied at the RCA at that time was the political cartoonist and illustrator Leslie Illingworth. I later attended the opening of the Society's 50th anniversary exhibition in the Wodehouse Library, Dulwich College, and was pleased to see on display an article in the Tatler from 1963 which mentioned that Illingworth lived in the area and published a photograph of him beneath one of James Fitton.
Born in Barry, Wales on 2 September 1902, Leslie Gilbert Illingworth was the second son of a clerk (later Chief Clerk) in the engineers' department of the Barry Railway & Docks Company and one of his uncles was Frank William Illingworth, who had studied by correspondence course at the Press Art School in London, and had drawn a famous First World War Punch cartoon. Though he had won a scholarship to study at the RCA in 1921, Illingworth left before graduating to become daily political cartoonist on the Western Mail at the age of 19. He resigned from the paper in 1927 to concentrate on illustration work and within ten years The Artist would describe him as ‘among the half-dozen most eminent magazine artists of our day'.
With the outbreak of the Second World War he joined the Daily Mail as political cartoonist, and during the conflict produced more than 1000 cartoons for this paper alone. Amongst these was the wonderfully apocalyptic VE-Day drawing 'Night Passes...and the Evil Things Depart' (8 May 1945) which includes a donkey-headed former Dulwich resident, Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce), amongst the Nazi hordes fleeing from the rising sun of Allied victory (Joyce's family home in Allison Grove was ironically the first Dulwich building to be destroyed by German bombs). Not surprisingly, Illingworth's wartime cartoons upset the Nazis and cuttings of some were even found in Hitler's bunker at the end of the war, carefully filed and classified by Goebbels' propaganda ministry.
After the war, Illingworth continued to work for the Daily Mail and Punch (later becoming the magazine's main political cartoonist). Between 1960 and 1968 he also drew (for the Daily Mail) more than 120 political cartoons featuring another Dulwich resident (Court Lane) - George Brown, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party from 1960 and Foreign Secretary in Harold's Wilson's government (1966-8).
From 1940 onwards Illingworth had lived in a flat in Knightsbridge but on 14 July 1959 he took out a lease on 67 Dulwich Village, the end of a terrace of four postwar neo-Georgian terraced houses next door to the Crown and Greyhound. A neighbour, living at No.61 was another Punch cartoonist, Antonia Yeoman (who drew as ‘Anton’).The four-house terrace was built on the site of Camden House, family home of the celebrated architect, Charles Voysey (1857-1941). Camden House, together with the adjoining ‘Plas Gwyn’, was destroyed by bombing in the Second World War.
While he was living in Dulwich Illingworth was at the height of his fame. In 1962 (aged 60) he was voted Political and Social Cartoonist of the Year by the Cartoonists' Club of Great Britain, featured in Queen magazine and appeared on BBC radio and ITV. The following year he was commissioned by Time magazine to produce a colour cover, he was a castaway on BBC Radio's Desert Island Discs and a bronze sculpture of his head by Karin Jonzen was displayed at the Royal Academy.
On 15 June 1964 he drew a prophetic cartoon on the sentencing of Nelson Mandela. It showed the Lilliputian figure of South Africa's Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd (later assassinated) watching as the smallest finger on the left hand of a huge Mandela is restrained and saying, 'There, I think that'll hold him!'
In 1965, while still in Dulwich, Illingworth was given a Special Award for Distinguished Services to Cartooning. The following year he became a founder member and first President of the British Cartoonists' Association and in this role was introduced to US President Lyndon B. Johnson at a reception at the White House in June 1968.
In 1966 Illingworth left the house in Dulwich and moved into a flat in the Barbican while spending an increasing amount of time in his smallholding in Robertsbridge, Sussex (which he and his long-term companion, Enid Ratcliff, had bought in 1946). He would drive up to London on Sundays and return to Robertsbridge on Fridays. Having retired from Punch in 1968, Illingworth finally retired from the Daily Mail in 1969 (his last cartoon for the paper appeared on 22 December that year). Though he returned briefly to draw for the News of the World (1974-6), this marked the end of his professional cartooning career and his life in London. However, ironically, one of his last cartoons featured another celebrated future Dulwich resident, Margaret Thatcher. It was published on 25 January 1976; the day after the Soviet media branded her the 'Iron Lady' for her 'Britain Awake' speech attacking the USSR's involvement in Angola.
Towards the end of his life Illingworth received many accolades, including being made an Hon.D.Litt by the University of Kent (home of the British Cartoon Archive) in 1975. His work was also much praised. James Gillray's biographer, the American political cartoonist Draper Hill, described him as 'simply the finest draughtsman of our time to have devoted himself to editorial caricature'. Malcolm Muggeridge, editor of Punch magazine called him 'an incomparable black-and-white artist' and believed that his cartoons were even better than those of David Low. Sir Alfred Munnings (Past President of the Royal Academy) admired his drawings and Nicholas Garland OBE, former political cartoonist of the Daily Telegraph, described him as 'the last of a great line of black and white draughtsmen...There is no mystery about his work. It is just superb.'
Since Illingworth's death on 20 December 1979 his reputation has continued to grow. He now features in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Who Was Who and other major reference works and was included in 'The 100 British Cartoonists of the Century' exhibition in London in 2000. I also curated a major exhibition of his wartime cartoons at the National Library of Wales, in Aberyswyth, in 2005. However, although there is a 'Pride of Barry’ plaque to him at his birthplace in Wales, there is no such memorial in London, his home and workplace for most of his life. Having successfully campaigned for the erection of official Blue Plaques to three other cartoonists of his generation (none of whom, ironically, was born in the UK), I was disappointed when my suggestion of Illingworth was turned down by English Heritage some years ago, and my more recent campaign for a Southwark Council plaque also failed.