Monday, 26 January 2009

Giles Exhibition - Cartoon Museum

Giles PosterI grew up with Giles cartoons. Every Christmas the Giles annual would arrive via Santa for my Father and would be quickly passed around the family with each of us taking time to work our way through the pages enjoying the humorous contents. The books were, and still are, collected together in pride of place on the bookshelf in our baronial library. As long as I can remember we've had a nearly complete set missing only a few of the earliest copies. Special editions, Guiness and RNLI stuff and a couple of jigsaws also form part of the collection. For a long while the Daily Express was delivered primarily for its cartoon (they also syndicated Garfield) content. Good job too as it was, and remains, a terrible useless newspaper that seems to gather copy from an infinite number of monkeys having a crack at Shakespeare. Even their most famous cartoonist didn't like them much often killing off one of thier other "stars", Rupert Bear, in the background of his scenes.

I digress. It is possible that some of my readers have been unlucky enough not to be exposed to a Giles cartoon and don't know what I'm going on about. If that is you then I suggest you first head off to Wikipedia for a brief and unusually accurate history or possible the British Cartoon Archive for those with longer attention spans. Then visit Giles Cartoons - A celebration and keep pressing F5 for new pictures.

The cartoons as I knew them normally featured the Giles family. Giles didn't actually have a family of his own but invented possibly one of the best known in the country. Pride of place goes to Grandma, a vision in heavy black coats and hat over a black dress. Permanently scowling she glares out from the Cartoon Museum window. This is my second trip to the museum, dig back in the blog for my first visit and more details on the place itself. This time I was to see an artist whose work I knew and loved.

It's strange but despite all those years of enjoying Giles work, I knew next to nothing about the man himself. Fortunately the exhibition has changed this. .The display, which fills the ground floor, takes the visitor through his life. Lots of original artwork is on display along with personal documents such as wartime identity and NUJ cards. Without sounding pretentious (moi ?) this does help me to understand the cartoons. For example before becoming a cartoonist Giles filled in frames in cartoon films - literally drawing the transitions between key frames created by the main artist. This shows later as the pictures are often a moment in time, you can imaging what has happened in the run up to the scene and what will happen afterwards. I'd not though of this before but can see it now.

Discovering that there was such a thing as a War Cartoonist was a revelation too. Giles was sent out by the Express and visited the Breendonck and Belson concentration camps. The paper wanted him to send them drawings but he refused, unable to cartoon the horrors he witnessed. Only photographs could show the truth of the camps he argued. Even towards the end of his life he said "There is not a day when I do not remember Belson.". That panel is the most moving of the exhibition and provides a counterpoint for the rest of the hilarity.

Giles ExhibitionSo important were the Giles family that the history of the man and the family become intertwined. Understandable as people will want to know about the development of the characters and trace thier development over time. This isn't unfair as in many was the fictional family were Giles, or at least parts of the man and his past.

Aside from the pictures, there is a recreation of Giles studio with lots of objects he owned and used to help with the pictures providing clutter. Some short films he was responsible for, including a slightly surreal one about the life of a hand grenade, are presented albeit without enough sound for my liking.

My favourite item was the original painting for the 34th Annual in 1980. It's a masterpiece. The workmanship is exquisite. Better still, seeing it in the flesh and perhaps studying it in more detail than I would have done on the cover, you see so much more. OK the picture is a bigger but even so. Another surprise joy is an undated drawing of trams in London. It's not funny and very impressionistic in style but encapsulates the feel of the scene. If only it were available as a poster or postcard !

This exhibition is a joy. Whether you look at it from a social history perspective (the cartoons document and comment on current events over a long period and can often only be understood if you know the history) or just as a chance to see again wonderful humorous pictures it's worth a visit.

Final handy hint - the green painted cafe at the end of the road (opposite the pub) on the corner near the museum is excellent. Top quality food at a reasonable price. I reckon I could have enjoyed sampling at least 10 of the cakes on display !

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