The year is 1882. A plucky young seventeen-year-old from Leeds takes a train to London. He sports a bowl haircut and only has a sovereign in his pocket. Eager to make it in the city, he visits his aunt and uncle's home in Islington. They are not too keen to see him but they allow him to stay the night on the one condition that he returns home the following evening. He reluctantly agrees and spends the following day visiting the sights of the city. When evening arrives he is placed on a train and sent back to Leeds. As soon as the train reaches its second stop he disembarks and walks back to the city. Despite having nowhere to stay and hardly any money to his name he is determined to make it in London. His name is Phil May (1864–1903) and he will go on to be known to many as the 'grandfather of British illustration'.
Born in Leeds in 1864, May's father died when he was just nine. He grew up in poverty and his family struggled to survive. As a boy, he spent time working in a theatre and there he often got to sketch the actor's portraits. Poverty was hard and May tried to find income through a number of jobs. His early career saw him undertaking clerical work at a solicitor's office. He also did timekeeping at a foundry and even acted on the stages of Scarborough and Leeds. Despite his poor background, May knew that he was destined to become an illustrator.
Convinced that London was where he would find his success, he made it his goal to move to the city. He once wrote that “if a man really has any originality in him it is bound to find its way out”. In those days there were very few illustrated papers in circulation and nearly all of them were based in the capital. When he travelled to London in 1882 he had no luck in finding work. He begged for food at public houses and drank water from street fountains. Too proud to return to his Aunt and Uncle's home, he slept in parks and old market carts. He had no friends in the city and no introductions into the industry. Unlike other illustrators at that time, May had no formal art training. “I never had a drawing lesson in my life,” he said, “but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t draw”.
Fortunately May's determination paid off and he eventually managed to pick up a few small jobs. One led to an introduction to the management of a relatively new political magazine called the St. Stephens Review. When May was introduced to them the magazine didn't include any pictures in their pages but they had plans for a special illustrated Christmas edition. May was excited by this news and felt that his luck was about to change but unfortunately it wasn't that simple. The magazine had already arranged for another illustrator to do the job. May was crestfallen. His time of living rough on the streets had taken a toll and his health was poor. Unwell, unemployed and still homeless he reluctantly returned to Leeds.
Upon returning home May found a telegram waiting for him. The illustrations that had been submitted to the St. Stephens Review had been unsuitable for publication and they now wanted him to work on new ones. It was a big job that included cartoons, a cover and initials. May was undeterred. With only a week to complete the task, he returned to London and quickly rented a room in a small hotel. He worked day and night churning out every illustration that the magazine requested.
The St. Stephens Review was impressed. They loved the illustrations and published them with pride in their Christmas edition. In fact, the Review was so impressed with his work that they decided to continue to have illustrations in all their regular issues too. They asked May to join their staff and – as the saying goes – the rest was history.
Things continued to go from strength-to-strength for May. He spent time in Australia, Rome and Paris and worked for such publications as The Sydney Bulletin, Punch, and The Graphic. May had a reputation for his images of London street life and he captured this aspect of society with compassion and kindness. That said, May was also a man of his time and many of his cartoons have aged poorly. In his day racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism were all acceptable subjects for humour. By today's standards, many of these cartoons feel horribly offensive.
That said, when viewing any work from the past we need to attempt to view it objectively. There is plenty to love in May's illustration and a surprising number of his jokes still stand up. Prior to May, cartoons had been long and drawn out things. This example by William Thackeray from 1848 is somewhat emblematic of the types of cartoons that were being produced. Unlike the snappy one-liners we're familiar with, text was nearly always central to Victorian cartoons and the illustrations often struggled to correspond with everything that was mentioned in the caption.
May's work demonstrates the illustrator's keen ability for combining beautifully elegant black-and-while illustrations with short and witty captions. The cartoons featured in this article are all taken from The Phil May Album (1900); one of May's most successful books. His work was immensely popular and he produced a large number of annuals and collections. The Phil May Album is a wonderful introduction to his illustrations and it features one-hundred and twenty cartoons in total.
In his lifetime, May went from being a poor, anonymous and untrained illustrator to a widely recognised and loved cartoonist. He is exemplary of the Victorian aspiration for becoming a self-made man. Today his work remains a lasting example of a moment when the overly-detailed Victorian style of illustration is replaced by an economic line and a lightness of touch. Through the work of May, we can see a new generation of modern cartoons being born and – if the humour takes us – we might just have a few good chuckles along the way!
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Tom Browne's work in Dan Leno's Comic Journal
From 1898 to 1899, Dan Leno's Comic Journal presented comic tales featuring Dan Leno (1860–1904). Leno was a real-life figure in comedy and theatre. The comic paper was frequently illustrated by Tom Browne (1870–1910), whose contribution to the history of British comics goes arguably unequalled.
Rossetti and His Circle by Max Beerbohm
If you enjoy May's economy of line then wait until you see the work of Max Beerbohm (1872–1956). Rossetti and His Circle (1922) is often considered to be Beerbohm's masterpiece. It offers a great introduction to the work of this English caricaturist, essayist and parodist.
The War Cartoons of David Low
Another self-taught cartoonist, David Low (1891–1963) was heavily inspired by the work of May. Best known for the political cartoons he produced during World War II, his work earned him a place on the Gestapo's death-list. His book Years of Wrath – 1932-45 is a must for any cartoon fan.