Rupert Besley writes:
Few people rise to the top of their profession. Very few are still in that position half a century on. And fewer still accomplish that in two careers at once. But this was the achievement of Wally Fawkes, loved and admired equally as jazz clarinettist and as the cartoonist Trog.
Wally Fawkes, who has died at 98, came to this country from Canada with his family in 1931, when he was seven. The move followed the separation of his parents in Vancouver and the arrival of a British stepfather. They settled in Sidcup, where Wally’s talent for drawing took him on a scholarship at 14 from school to Art School. But the money ran out and then came war.
Unfit for military service after a bout of pleurisy, Fawkes spent a long summer camouflage-painting a factory roof, only to have his work pulverised by Nazi bomber two days after completion. ‘My first rejection,’ he called it later. Next, while engaged on drawing up maps of coal seams, Fawkes entered a cartoon competition run by the Daily Mail. His talent was spotted by the contest judge, Leslie Illingworth, and by 1945 Fawkes was illustrating regularly for the Mail, under the wing of Illingworth. So began a career in political cartooning that made his work over 60 years a highlight of top publications, from the Daily Mail, Mirror, Observer, and Sunday Telegraph to the New Statesman, Spectator, Private Eye, Oldie and Punch.
When eye problems obliged Fawkes to put down his pen in 2005, he returned to his other great love that was jazz, continuing to perform on the clarinet to 2011. In 1947 Fawkes had enrolled on a part-time course at Camberwell School of Art, coming under the tutelage of John Minton and having as classmates fellow future cartoonists Francis Wilford-Smith (‘Smilby’) and Humphrey Lyttleton.
Wally Fawkes with ‘Humph’ Lyttleton, 1983. Video on YouTube.
Postwar Britain returned to life to the sounds of Dixieland coming from underground shelters and bombed-out cellars. Described by those who knew him as modest and shy (according to his friend Humph, of the sort not to use one word where none would do), Fawkes was happiest knocking out trad jazz in pubs and small clubs. Self-taught on the clarinet, Fawkes put himself down as amateur. But Sidney Bechet, with whom he got once to record, rated him among the best in the world. Fawkes played in many bands, including Lyttleton’s and then in the 70s with John Chilton and the Feetwarmers. In the 50s he recorded with his own band, Wally Fawkes and the Troglodytes. [The original Parlophone recording from 1951 of the hauntingly good ‘Trog’s Blues’, written by Fawkes and Webb and recorded by Humphrey Lyttleton and His Band, is a prize item in my collection of scratched 78s.]
In 1949 the proprietor of the Mail decided the paper could do with a strip-cartoon like one his wife had seen in the States. That was a decision that Viscount Rothermere might have later regretted, as the increasingly right-wing columns of the Mail came to harbour a subversive. Trog was given the job of drawing what became Flook and the writers teamed up with him over the next 35 years included Sir Compton Mackenzie, Humphrey Lyttleton, George Melly, Barry Took, Barry Norman and Keith Waterhouse. That was an extraordinary collection of talent, but it was Fawkes who had the last word and who ended up as artist, writer and sole creator in the final years of Flook, once ditched by the Mail and snatched up by the Mirror. Far from staying an innocent fantasy for children, the strip got topical and satirical, to the delight of its adult followers (who also enjoyed spotting the authentic London streetviews worked into the backgrounds). Richard Nixon popped up as shady sheriff Millstone Dixon and Enoch Powell was there as Ethelred Clotte, leader of the League of Insular Morons.
For the Observer, 1977. Photo: British Cartoon Archive
Fawkes had his run-ins with editors – his digs at the Mail’s hypocrisy over Zola Budd’s hi-speed acquisition of British citizenship were the cause of his notice from there. Fawkes could detect crap a mile off and, with good humour and a sharp pen, was ready to show up moral fault and political failure from whichever direction these appeared. Some of his finest work came from his time with The Observer, a fitting home for one so acutely observant.
Various covers from Rupert’s Punch magazine collection
As a caricaturist, Fawkes was outstandingly good. In a few lines – crisp, bold and assured – he could conjure up not just the perfect likeness but also the character beneath. Artwork by Trog was distinctive, attractive and instantly recognisable. His robust, chunky figures seemed ready to step straight off the page. They were done with humour and maybe even affection; they did not have venom (even if some at the time objected to the way he drew Royalty). Most memorable were the many eye-catching colour covers he did for Punch in the 70s, mastering light and shade to model and sculpt the flesh of those he drew. Roger Law has acknowledged the influence Trog cartoons had on the puppets of Spitting Image.
Frankie Howard by Trog
Excelling in caricature as he did with strip-cartoon, Fawkes went on to make his mark as political cartoonist, commenting on issues of the day. For The Observer he was the creator both of large editorial cartoons in the centre pages and of pocket cartoons on the paper’s front page. If that’s not versatility and genius, what is (though Fawkes himself would probably have been the first to play down such accolades)?
On one thing all agree: Trog remains one of Cartooning’s Greats.