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March 13, 2006

Donald McGill was a much better artist than George Orwell acknowledges, argues Christie Davies: The Michael Winner Collection of Donald McGill at the Chris Beetles Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

The Michael Winner Collection of Donald McGill
Chris Beetles Gallery
8 & 10 Ryder Street, London, SW1Y 6QB
14th March - 8th April 2006
Monday - Saturday 10am - 5pm

Most people have seen McGill postcards and have realised how far superior he is to his equally vulgar seaside rivals. Yet McGill was no better at serious innuendo than his now largely forgotten competitors and it is not McGill's superior naughtiness or notoriety that comes across from the Beetles exhibition. Rather it confirms George Orwell's view of McGill as having

a style of drawing all of his own
and as
a clever draughtsman with a real caricaturist's touch in the drawing of faces.
McGill's talents are even more apparent when you see the original art work, rather than the post-cards, though perhaps because it makes less of a demand on the eyesight. Orwell described seaside postcard drawings as characterised by
crude drawing and unbearable colours.
This is not true of McGill; he really is a cut above the rest.

Orwell is right to say that it would be:

dilettantism to claim direct aesthetic value [for him].
But, if so, it does tempt one to become a dilettante. It is difficult to see why Orwell should object to the postcard artists' liking for:
unbearable colours, chiefly hedge sparrow's-egg tint and Post Office red.
I have no idea what colour a hedge sparrow's egg is or how it differs from a house sparrow's egg – why did Orwell use such a simile? – but unless you are a fanatical Irish nationalist what is wrong with Post Office red? It is a feature of much modern art and indeed of modern fashion. Who has not seen a pillar of a woman in a red trouser suit with a Cherie Blair slit-like mouth and in addition missing front teeth, just asking for letters? Orwell's views on colour are not to be taken seriously. You choose a colour for what you want to do with it, not to fit in with the tastes of a not fully reconstructed old Etonian. What colour would Orwell himself have used instead for a fat lady's bathing costume - "Cameron pink"? It ain't over until the fat lady swims.

McGill's gift for caricatured faces can at times rival that of Henry Mayo Bateman, some of whose works also hang in Chris Beetle's gallery. Look at McGill's portrayal of two stock-character Scots, listening to a religious service on the BBC on a 1920s-style radio using two separate headphones. The husband suddenly cries out in horror:

Take off yer ear-phones, Maggie – they're aboot tae tak' up the collection.
There is a wonderful, high-eyed alarm on the husband's oval face, trapped between baldness and chin-whiskers. Contrast it with the serene complacency of his seated wife, more concerned with her knitting than the sermon. Look at the care McGill has taken with the colouring of the faces. Why did he take such trouble? The joke is funny anyway and Orwell seems to think that all that matters for him is, does it raise a laugh? McGill took trouble because inside he was an artist. His skill also makes the postcard much funnier but was he paid more for that extra laugh?

Look too at the face in Our sergeant-major's a nice man but he ain't half a chatterbox. It is a face that is supremely adapted to the barking and screaming of orders. Shades of Lionel Jeffries and Victor Maddern.

Now take a sneaky look across the hall at H.M. Bateman's The Psychoanalyst: The Sweet experience of Give - and Take, 1922 (also known as The Medical Psychotherapist). A respectable middle aged woman on a chair sobs into her handkerchief as she hands a substantial cheque, its physical size a metaphor for its value, to a psychoanalyst in 1920s Harley Street black jacket, striped trousers and spats. His right hand grasps the cheque between two fingers, the thumb hidden, the pinkie outwards, but his third finger bent right back.

I tried to imitate his manual contortion but failed. I doubt if even a senior Freemason could do it. It is as unnatural a grasp of a cheque as psychoanalysis is of reality. One impudent Swedish psychoanalyst, I jest not, has even claimed that the payment is an integral part of the treatment, it is all part of transference, the more you transfer, the more you are transformed. The index finger on Bateman's psychotherapist's left hand crooks and demands, demands and crooks. His face is one of such greed and slyness that he could only be a psychoanalyst – even Bateman's famous taxmen look more sympathetic. The Freudian-psycho's Harley Street and Davidson eye lights up and stares along his long horizontal nose that points at the patient like a gun as the mugger of the unconscious extracts his loot.

Bateman is acknowledged as being as great a distortionist as Gillray, but is McGill really so far behind? Look and decide.

When you see McGill's original artwork, all manner of detail and shades of meaning in the postcards becomes clearer. The postcard I'm coming home by rocket of a woman clutching a stick of rock as it takes off from the beach like a firework is neither funny nor striking. But the artwork reveals a woman in a brief two piece bathing costume clutching a huge, red, George Formby sized stick of rock between her thighs and clinging to it as it rises up. You now realise that the man in the background looking on in surprise is wearing a Captain Webb style swimsuit that hides all. The pale sand brings out and intensifies the red until it is truly a central post office red.

The same attention to detail can be seen in I don't know what the vicar would think of this place, but it's OK by me. These words are spoken by an alluring woman on the beach in a bright red dress, again set off by bland sand, that is blown up by a sea breeze to reveal shiny-stockinged-thighs and her right suspender. Though she cannot see him, the vicar dressed in sober, formal grey and black is walking behind her. She leans back from the waist and the vicar walks, bent slightly forward, so that they constitute a single pattern of parallel bending. Normally McGill's stock-type vicars are naïve, shockable and middle aged, in a word silly. (Typical examples can be seen here, here, here, here, and here.) This one, on the other hand, looks wonderfully ambivalent. He is a hat and stick vicar, held on a leash by his tight, white dog-collar, and very over-dressed for the beach. But McGill has given him raised eyebrows and eyes that go straight to the heart of her thighs. The vicar is struggling with sin but not very hard, and he may simply be struggling.

McGill knew how to align his work, how to control the vertical and the horizontal and to place his blocks of colour just where they should be. Take a look at Here, Reggie, just hold Poogles a minute while I go in and save the country. An absurd short-skirted flapper in bright purple, one of those granted the vote in 1928 by the absurdly progressive Jix, Joynson-Hicks, hands a puzzled small dog (Poogles) to her dimwit boyfriend, so that she can go unencumbered into the polling station. She is an airhead but he is a vacuum-head, a silly round face from which a gasper (1920s variety) points out, he is a mere tube in a green suit, yellow gloves, bowler and spats. What is striking is the way McGill has pushed them into the left side of the postcard by an overshadowing wall, carrying the domineering notice "TO THE POLLS". The couple are further diminished by the way the kerb next to which they are standing curves round behind them and isolates them. They are the trivial frivolous beings whose votes the heavy state demands. TO THE POLLS is not a right but an order. Your country needs YOU – nearest polling station.

McGill's splendid image Very uncertain weather, ain't it, you reely don't know which clothes to pawn is the ultimate in middle-aged, proletarian, female ugliness. A red, crumpled, probably toothless face looks up at an equally red toothy, stretched face. The focus of the card is on the large bundles the two women are schlepping to the pawnbrokers. One has a large, spotted, ungainly bundle , shmutters wrapped in a furushiki, the other, a large brown-paper parcel of old clothes, pawn in a brown wrapper. The clothes to be pawned probably do not differ from the ill-fitting garments and crumpled, slipping stockings that they wear. None of their odd items of clothing match. One aligns purple against black with white spots, the other light blue against chequered fawn. One has a seedy fur collar, the other a jaunty man's seaside Panama hat put on at a funny angle. It took a great deal of skill on the part of McGill to construct such total disarray.

Orwell's view was that such cards expressed:

Inter-working-class snobbery - Much in these post cards suggests that they are aimed at the better-off working class and poorer middle class… Broadly speaking, everyone with much over or much under £5 a week is regarded as laughable.
It is a typical dogmatic Orwellian statement about class and humour. While it is true that there is an important status divide between the respectable and those who "just let themselves go" and slide into weasel-popping debt, the former were probably a majority of the population and not necessarily in close proximity to £5. More to the point, we know little about how the choice of humorous postcards is linked to a person's sense of his or her own social standing. This is especially true if he or she is buying the card to send to someone else, such as an ultra-proper impoverished but genteel aunt, for whom a card full of erotic innuendo would be inappropriate. On the card I have described with the two slatterns bearing pawn, might well be written the ambiguous message, "thinking about you" signifying both "you are always in our hearts" but also "this is what you are really like". We can but guess.

McGill also drew the Scotsman who helped the impecunious of all classes to stay in debt. He has opposite his door in bold letters:
Within the office Mr McNab is pawing his flirty, dolly secretary. He fondles her waist, preparing to go lower. The card is inscribed What my boss says is right. He certainly makes advances, as spoken by the not unpleased secretary. No doubt Mr McNab took the lowest form of interest in her and she had no security.

McGill's usual Scotsman is a loveable, harmless, traditional teuchter, a rustic Scot in kilt and sporran, bonnet and chin whiskers, looking after his bawbees. (See here, here, and here.) Mr McNab represents a more menacing stereotype, that of the grasping Scotsman on the make, a loan shark, a smaller version of the great Scottish bankers who force loans on people whom they know cannot afford them and later seize their assets. We make the money and the Scots take it from us (Chancellor of the Exchequer please note). Orwell claims that McGill's postcards are never political nor hostile to resented ethnic minorities. Well?

Mr McNab is a picture of greasy middle aged desire with his fat neck and the few remaining strands of his light brown hair pulled tight across his baldness. It is another fine McGill composition. McNab the fat man in his vulgar blue suit and yellow tie, contrasted with her slim, alluring pink with tiny odalisque lozenges outfit, short, tight, low cut, slit at the sides. Mr McNab is seated and turning towards the secretary. She is standing and their heads are inclined so as to align her simpering eyes with his lustful ones. The card is dominated by the long, oblique, invisible line between their eyes that slopes down from left to right. It is offset by the solid corner of the card, a massive desk with phone and immediately next to you the wastepaper basket.

McGill may well have dashed the art-work off without much thought, from an imagined, if all too real, scene, suitably distorted for comedy. What sets McGill apart from his competitors is that he knew intuitively how to arrange space and use colour to best effect. McGill was crude but not slapdash – rather like much contemporary art. Weasel goes the pop.

At their best, McGill's cards are as well laid out as earlier attempts at humour, such as Volterrano's Parson Arlotto's Jest (La burla del pievano Arlotto) in the Pitti. The latter may display more care, effort and tradition but why should these be seen as virtues in themselves?

McGill's cards remind me of Ferdinand Erfmanns Man en Vrouw bij deurpost (Man and woman in a doorway) in the Frisia museum.
A man in a long dark coat, flat cap and with a cigar (and an expression rather like that of the Lincolnshire poacher William Warrener in Toulouse Lautrec's An Englishman at the Moulin Rouge 1892) enters to meet a massive, taller Dutch blonde in skimpy slip with huge thighs. Their eyes meet. The entire background is filled with flat surfaces in plain, unvivid colours so that the couple dominate the scene and fill the liminal space by the doorpost. There may or may not be comedy and innuendo here but why is McGill inferior because he is explicit and forces it home with a written message? But I am lapsing into "dilettantism", becoming a candidate for Pseuds' Corner.

Go and look at the McGills at the Chris Beetles Gallery to see if I am right. Even if I have become a pseud, you will enjoy a good laugh. A catalogue gives you smaller versions of all the cards and a chronology of McGill's life. John Russell Taylor, the prominent critic for The Times, has deigned to write the introduction. I am not the only cheerful pseud in town.

Prof. Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations, 2002 and The Strange Death of Moral Britain, 2004, both published by Transaction Publishers of New Brunswick, New Jersey. The later book is a study of the collapse of the moral world that both produced and was shocked at McGill. To read an earlier piece by Prof. Davies on Donald McGill see Censored Postcards of Donald McGill.

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McGill's work is not art it is smut. In a decent society it would be confiscated and destroyed as it is in the Isle of Man. McGill even had a criminal prosecution for his filth thanks to the efforts of Sir Cyril Osborne MP JP and an energetic Chief Constable. Christie Davies following in George Orwell's footsteps has tried to make him a national icon. Burn the lot of them I say.

Posted by: David Williams at March 14, 2006 12:25 PM

C.S.Lewis wrote somewhere that one could start an exposition of the Christian faith from the fact that we make dirty jokes. Elsewhere he writes:

Why, just because I raise an objection to your parallel between prayer and a man making love to his own wife, must you trot out all that rigmarole about the ‘holiness’ of sex and start lecturing me as if I were a Manichaean? . . . the moderns have achieved the feat, which I should have thought impossible, of making the whole subject a bore. Poor Aphrodite! They have sandpapered most of the Homeric laughter off her face.

Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Chap 3.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at March 17, 2006 05:27 PM

Donald McGill artwork, in my opinion is certainly the best humorous depiction of British social attitudes and standards of it's time. I am a devoted fan of Mr McGill and have a good size collection of his cards. I also have collected three of his original artwork and am looking for a postcard the same as the original. If anyone can help please contact me.

These are the two postcards I'm looking for:
1. "There's nothing much to report on this front!" Depicting a soldier and bikini clad lady on a beach.
2. "I'm not going to do what you think-----I'm a Lady!". A sweet looking young girl looking angelic and naughty at the same time.

Posted by: Robbie Evans at February 3, 2009 10:17 PM

Very interesting, on the money piece about about Donald McGill, a very humane and perceptive artist often traduced by one person or another, for one reason or another: by his publisher Joseph Asher in order to pocket the profits from his work; by George Orwell to profit his career by denigrating his work.

My only quibble is Christie's (mis?)use of rhyming slang which is confusing. For those interested, 'pop' is a pawnbroker and 'weasel' is Cockney for a men's suit. 'Pop goes the weasel' means you've had to walk your suit round to 'uncle's'.

Posted by: Richard Cook at April 23, 2012 08:54 PM
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