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July 09, 2004

Censored Postcards of Donald McGill

Posted by Christie Davies

Censored at the Seaside: The Censored Postcards of Donald McGill
The Cartoon Art Trust
7-13 The Brunswick Centre
Bernard Street
London WC1N 1AF
25th May - 14th August 2004
Tuesday to Saturday 10am - 5pm

Donald McGill's postcards are familiar to anyone old enough and poor enough to have spent youthful holidays in seaside towns or intellectual enough to have read George Orwell's 1941 essay about McGill.

Most of us were aware that the more saucy seaside postcards were from time to time confiscated by the local Watch Committee of Blackpool, Bournemouth or Margate but not that McGill had actually been prosecuted and fined for a breach of the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. In 1953 postcard vendors in Cleethorpes were raided by the police. The DPP agreed that the Chief Constable of Lincolnshire should bring a prosecution and McGill pleaded guilty at the Lincoln Quarter Sessions in 1954. Postcard publishers faced with these prosecutions suffered considerable financial losses and some ceased trading altogether.

The prosecuted postcards are now on permanent loan from the Crown Prosecution Service to the University of Kent and have been assembled in this excellent exhibition together with notes on the prosecution and McGill's own comments. Today, when every seaside newsagent stocks the Daily Sport and Asian Babes it is difficult to see why anyone ever prosecuted McGill. 1954 is another country, a past that ended one year later with the start of the social revolution that was to sweep respectable Britain away.

At that time not just obscenity but even laughing irreverently at conventional sexual mores could lead to the prosecution or destruction of postcards. McGill was particularly fond of drawing silly vicars to act as a foil to ambiguous remarks. These were especially disapproved of in the Isle of Man. The one below was censored:

Silly vicar to woman pushing pram:

"And what is the baby's Christian name?"
Woman (of not particularly scrubberish appearance):
"Christian name! I have not had time to think of that. I have been six months trying to find a surname for him."
We have no grounds for thinking that we are any less censorious than we were in 1954. Today someone would be bound to complain that the card was demeaning to illegitimate children who do not know their fathers' identity or to those social classes and ethnic minorities in which this situation is common and acceptable. When there was an H.E. Bateman exhibition in London towards the end of the 20th century, one of his characteristic 'shock-horror' cartoons showed a visiting African politician turning round and criticizing the appearance of the British guardsmen lined up in his honour. Both the politician and his wife's African features were exaggerated to the point of absurdity, but this was equally true of his long-nosed, paintbrush-haired, pallid hosts. I was so delighted with Bateman's drawing that the next day I invited a Nigerian friend, who liked that kind of thing, to come and see it. When we got there, it was missing. On inquiring we discovered that it had been removed because of a complaint from a politically correct person. We are no less censorious today than we were in 1954; our reasons have merely changed.

The McGill exhibition is also a retrospective of his work from the time of his first drawings in 1904 and showing the influence on him of the masterly Phil May. McGill's cards were printed in Germany until 1914, possibly another indication of Britain's lagging behind in technology and excessive unionization in those years. During this period McGill produced the first of his many cards destined to be seized and destroyed (in the north of England in 1906). A man in a dressing gown stands impatiently outside the door of the bathroom in a hotel. The maid, in full Edwardian regalia, looks through the keyhole and says: "'e won't be long now, sir. I can see 'im a drying of 'imself."

British postcards were popular in France at this time and many of McGill's cards on display have bilingual inscriptions. In either country they seem to have liked their men and their women fat and bulbous. Today the cards would be banned for encouraging obesity. At that time, before the widespread use of the phone, postcards were a common means of casual local communication. It was only later that they became a predominantly seaside holiday 'wish you were here' to the folks back home. Sales boomed. In 1939 a million copies of McGill's cards were sold by one Blackpool shop alone. All human life was there – hen-pecked husbands, honeymoon couples, Scotsmen in kilts, mothers-in-law, weekend affairs, flirtatious women with ample curves and cleavages and men with red noses called Rollocks. McGill was a master of the comic cliché. Yet it should also be noted that he was a very skilled draughtsman and a master of line, setting and composition. He was a far better artist than his competitors.

The early 1950s were Britain's golden age of the censorship of smut. By the 1960s the censors were in retreat and at the end of the decade Blackpool's censorship board met for the last time. Only the Isle of Man held out for decorum and did not repeal its local legislation until 1989. Even so, irony was creeping in. In 1983 the Manxmen published a pastiche of McGill's cards to celebrate 50 years of censorship. McGill had become an institution. The images he had designed were so familiar to the British public that they could be built into political cartoons (Mrs. Thatcher: "Excuse me while I kick Fido."). In 1994 the Royal Mail brought out a set of commemorative stamps featuring McGill's postcards.

The McGill exhibition is well worth seeing as a piece of social history in which a saucy if popular outsider became an object of national celebration. No nostalgic, patriotic British citizen with a love of skilfully drawn vulgarity should miss it.

They should also watch out for future exhibitions, workshops and talks at The Cartoon Art Trust.

Update 13th March 2006: To read more on Donald McGill by Prof. Davies see: 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.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations (2002) about humour and The Strange Death of Moral Britain (2004) about social change.

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This is one of the clearest and best reviews of Donald McGill's work I have read - it is both informative of McGill's work, and the changing attitudes towards this work.

Posted by: Jim at February 20, 2005 12:20 AM

I know this exhibition is long past - but I was searching google for information on Donald McGill and found this article. I agree with the previous commentator - it is an excellent piece. Thank you.

Posted by: David Rogers at May 29, 2005 08:43 PM
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