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Morag MacInnes on Frank Reynolds, Punch - Slightly Foxed Issue 56

Packing a Punch

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Pictures came before words. And as soon as there were pictures, there were funny pictures. I’ve always felt sanguine about the future of funny pictures, partly because they’re also up-to-the-minute social comment, available to all, whether you’re literate or not, in a war zone or a suburb.

My dad’s painting studio had a bookcase along one wall, and I was allowed – if I was quiet – to look at the big books on the bottom shelf while he was painting his seascapes. Leonardo da Vinci was there, and Michelangelo, and Bruegel, and a Victorian book on drawing from the nude complete with fig leaves. But my favourite was a volume covered – as we used to cover our school books – in brown wrapping paper to protect the jacket. The wrapping paper was from the upmarket Edinburgh department store Jenners – or at least the Sellotape securing it was. This made me think it wasn’t my Orcadian dad who painstakingly drew the title and the author on the front in red and green ink – PUNCH Pictures by REYNOLDS . He’d never have shopped there. Perhaps it was from a book sale.

Inside – a treasury, for a child who loved drawing and was just beginning to decipher and enjoy words. Picture after picture. Ladies with brollies. Golfers. Urchins. Soldiers. Buses and perambulators and train carriages and tea tables. All in scratchy, energetic, crosshatched, left-handed pen and ink. I had my favourites before I even understood the jokes – a scared little man leaping a fence, a small boy in a chair surrounded by the film characters he was dreaming about, a fat lady in high heels with a fox fur eating itself round her neck.

Now I know far more about the illustrious history of Punch – but it wasn’t till I took the book down last week to enjoy the drawings that I started wondering about the artist. Francis Reynolds, known as Frank, was born in 1876, an artist’s son. Like me, he spent time in long and absorbed contemplation of his father at work and he loved messing about with the paraphernalia of the studio – the brushes, their heads wrapped in cotton, palette knives, baby watercolour boxes, nibs and mucky, crunchy charcoal. This boy also loved soldiers. He would walk miles to Piccadilly just to look in the window of a shop which sold military watercolours. Uniforms – their florid absurdity – absorbed him. He went into business, but it didn’t work, and he became an art student at the forward-thinking Heatherley School of Fine Art

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Pictures came before words. And as soon as there were pictures, there were funny pictures. I’ve always felt sanguine about the future of funny pictures, partly because they’re also up-to-the-minute social comment, available to all, whether you’re literate or not, in a war zone or a suburb.

My dad’s painting studio had a bookcase along one wall, and I was allowed – if I was quiet – to look at the big books on the bottom shelf while he was painting his seascapes. Leonardo da Vinci was there, and Michelangelo, and Bruegel, and a Victorian book on drawing from the nude complete with fig leaves. But my favourite was a volume covered – as we used to cover our school books – in brown wrapping paper to protect the jacket. The wrapping paper was from the upmarket Edinburgh department store Jenners – or at least the Sellotape securing it was. This made me think it wasn’t my Orcadian dad who painstakingly drew the title and the author on the front in red and green ink – PUNCH Pictures by REYNOLDS . He’d never have shopped there. Perhaps it was from a book sale. Inside – a treasury, for a child who loved drawing and was just beginning to decipher and enjoy words. Picture after picture. Ladies with brollies. Golfers. Urchins. Soldiers. Buses and perambulators and train carriages and tea tables. All in scratchy, energetic, crosshatched, left-handed pen and ink. I had my favourites before I even understood the jokes – a scared little man leaping a fence, a small boy in a chair surrounded by the film characters he was dreaming about, a fat lady in high heels with a fox fur eating itself round her neck. Now I know far more about the illustrious history of Punch – but it wasn’t till I took the book down last week to enjoy the drawings that I started wondering about the artist. Francis Reynolds, known as Frank, was born in 1876, an artist’s son. Like me, he spent time in long and absorbed contemplation of his father at work and he loved messing about with the paraphernalia of the studio – the brushes, their heads wrapped in cotton, palette knives, baby watercolour boxes, nibs and mucky, crunchy charcoal. This boy also loved soldiers. He would walk miles to Piccadilly just to look in the window of a shop which sold military watercolours. Uniforms – their florid absurdity – absorbed him. He went into business, but it didn’t work, and he became an art student at the forward-thinking Heatherley School of Fine Art, which allowed women to sketch nude men and emphasized the importance of structured drawing – something Frank took to heart. He started his career drawing for the Pick Me Up, a satirical sheet in a blue wrapper. He frequented Belgravia and Bethnal Green with a notepad and pencil. He had a ‘long stay’ with two other cartoonists in France, stalking military types whose costumes were more colourful, and feathery, than their English counterparts, until he had all the details committed to paper. He sat for hours in open carriages, so that he could get the exact posture, beam width and hat dimension of the French cabbie in front of him. He – of course – visited Montmartre, especially a café called Le Lapin Agile, where there were beautiful downtrodden women and sleazy men to draw. Back in London at the music hall his gift got him into trouble. He made a cartoon of ‘The Equilibrist’ balancing cigar boxes and wine glasses on his toes and a lighted lamp on his head; an aggrieved Equilibrist threatened to sue because he was the only man in England who did that trick and Reynolds made it look too easy. All the time he was trying to decide what his medium of choice really was. He did fine illustrations for Dickens – they’re fluid and lively. He was elected to the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour in 1903. But the money was in cartoons; the middle class liked to laugh (within reason) at themselves, and loved to chuckle at those below and above them. Reynolds knew their world, and he loved absurdity. Probably he was also having to make some decisions not unfamiliar to cartoonists now, in our Charlie Hebdo world. In 1913 he sent a couple of political cartoons to The Leprecaun, an Irish paper, right in the middle of the Dublin lock-out, ridiculing the police and mocking trades unionists. This foray into bitter politics was rare, however. When war broke out, the owner of Punch, Sir Owen Seaman, thought seriously about putting up the shutters. Famously, he met a friend on the Tube and said, ‘So, my job is ended.’ ‘On the contrary,’ the friend replied, ‘it has only just begun.’ The War Propaganda Bureau held secret meetings with writers – H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, Conan Doyle, Hardy – and with the editors of Punch, to co-ordinate a patriotic approach. Cartoonists had never been so vital. There were reprints in popular papers of the ‘Big Cuts’ – the full-page political cartoons. Slide shows featured them as did postcards, cig-arette cards, biscuit tins, vases, soap adverts. Most popular, initially, were those encouraging recruitment. Most popular of all – Frank Reynolds’s ‘Study of a Prussian household having its morning hate’. I loved this cartoon long before I learned its context. There’s a heavily curtained – I’m betting chenille – window with an aggressive pot plant. There’s one of those hefty glass and brass lights you still find in Black Forest B&Bs. The picture frames are three times the size of the pictures. The upholstery is straining to escape its confines. The beer mug shouts pewter lid and serious decorative attention. The dachshund (Reynolds is very good at dogs) has the look of a hard Brexiteer. And that’s before we even get to the family gathered around the fringed tablecloth. Opa is apoplectic – he’s stamping the newspaper into the ground. Oma is bursting out of her (comprehensive) corsets. Mutti is a spasm of disgust. Best of all are the children. The adolescent girl is lanky and malevolent; the small boy has a petted lip, puny clenched fists and buttoned shoes. It’s perfect observation. It also encapsulates a very British feeling – that mild, county-cricket sense of disbelief at the whole bally thing. ‘Whatever did we do’, this cartoon says, ‘to make them hate us so much?’ The Daily Mail reporter in France wrote that the artist ‘would feel his labours were amply responded to if he knew how much his clever satire was appreciated at GHQ in France’. It has reverberations now. Whatever have we done to make them hate us so much, might well be a cartoonist’s battle-cry post-Referendum. Satire never loses its bite. Of course, as the war progressed the cartoons became more subtle and subversive. Reynolds stayed on the warmer side of criticism – he was no Gerald Scarfe. In 1920, after fourteen years of drawing for it, he became Art Editor of Punch, taking over from his brother-in-law. Ten years later he had a nervous breakdown and stopped drawing for a few years. I don’t know why; but I have observed that cartooning – and now, graphic novels – are a refuge for those who find the world so impossibly harsh that the only way through it is humour. His Second World War cartoons are a treasure trove of social observation. A Scotsman sees a headscarfed, wellie-booted Land Girl passing by. ‘Wumman, ye look terrible!’ he says. (Alas, his Scots are all mean and old-fashioned – but cartoonists don’t do political correctness . . .) A sergeant, barely of shaving age, addresses his elderly troop: ‘Now lads, I want you to look on me as a father . . .’ A well-meaning lady hands out cigarettes to departing troops: ‘Do try, these are home-made and herbal.’ Frank Reynolds died in 1953, but his work lives on, a testament to a world of Britishness which has perhaps departed, a world where the wife says to a grumpy little husband, across the dinner table – ‘Did you not like the soup? Or did you have a bad golf round again?’ As I leaf through the big book, I can’t help but salute the craftsmanship. The drawing is just excellent. More than that though. You feel you’re spending time with a very nice gentleman who had an eye for the idiotic absurdities of the British. Look out for his work; you’ll like it.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 56 © Morag MacInnes 2017


About the contributor

Morag MacInnes is an Orcadian writer.

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