Leslie Illingworth of the Daily Mail and Punch
Dr Tim Benson on Daily Mail and Punch cartoonist Leslie Illingworth
Leslie Gilbert Illingworth could be described as the last great penman in the line of English Social Satirists, starting with Hogarth, traceable through the biting and rambunctious broadsides of Rowlandson, Gillray and Cruikshank, continuing to the more moderate social comments of Leech, Tenniel, Keene and Phil May. It is fairly safe to assume that when the history of cartoon and caricature comes to be written, the name of Illingworth will have a valued place in the tradition of great political satire of this century, along with Will Dyson, Low, Giles Vicky and Osbert Lancaster
Keith Mackenzie, The Artist, June 1969
Richard Frederick Illingworth, Leslie’s father, was a quantity surveyor who was engaged in dock construction work in the thriving seaport of Barry, in the Vale of Glamorgan, South Wales. At the time, the Barry Railway brought coal down from the South Wales Valleys to the Barry dock. The coal trade was making Barry the largest coal exporting port in the world. Richard came from an old Yorkshire family that had settled in Wales in the 1890’s. His wife Helen, a former schoolteacher, was born of Scottish parents but brought up in Hull. The Illingworth’s were married in Cardiff in 1896 and soon settled in Barry. On 2 September 1902, a year after the retirement of the 19th century’s greatest cartoonist, Sir John Tenniel, Helen gave birth to a son who they named Leslie Gilbert Illingworth. She had already given birth to her first child, a boy named Vivian Richard Illingworth, in 1899 and in 1905, Phyllis Jean Illingworth was born. In that same year, requiring larger accommodation, the Illingworth family moved out of Barry and settled 17 miles away in the village of St Athan.
Leslie Illingworth’s aptitude for drawing was first noticed at the age of four. As a young boy his physique was small and undeveloped in comparison with other boys. This naturally led to him to being diffident and shy with people, and Illingworth’s outlet for self-expression was seen neither by kicking a ball around the back streets of Barry nor by getting up to mischief like most other boys of his age, but through a growing love for drawing. Illingworth spent all of his spare time drawing, especially caricature. His first attempt was of the village blacksmith in St. Athan, of a man by the name of Evan Hopkins, known familiarly as ‘Lanto the Forge’. As Illingworth later remembered:
He started me off as a caricaturist, for the first public drawing I ever did was of [isn’t this contradictory to last sentence in para above, where you say ‘His first attempt…?]Tom Llewellyn, Glebe Farm, with his arm in a sling. I did it on the tarred door of the forge with a lump of chalk that Lanto gave me.
When Illingworth was seven, the local vicar took a liking to him after he also had been drawn on the door of the blacksmith’s forge. After that the vicar allowed Illingworth to copy from the large range of illustrated books he kept at the vicarage, including volumes of Punch in his private collection. He later recalled:
I used to copy the drawings in his books. I didn’t have art lessons, you see. I got by.
At his primary school, his teacher was very concerned that he would draw on all his exercise and text books. She enquired of her superiors what she should do about it and was told to let him draw on whatever he wished. His talent was obvious to everyone even at that early age. Apart from drawing, Illingworth developed an early love of nature and animals and subsequently spent a lot of his childhood working on nearby farms. “I always wanted to be a farmer,” he later said, “but I won a scholarship to the local grammar school.” Here at Barry County Boys’ Grammar School he befriended Ronald Niebour who, coincidentally, was also later to become a cartoonist at the Daily Mail working under the pseudonym ‘NEB’. Niebour joined the Daily Mail as a pocket cartoonist in 1938, a year before Illingworth.
At 15, Illingworth obtained another scholarship, this time to the Cardiff Art School. He was proud of the fact that despite his parents not being wealthy he had benefited from a first class education, entirely due to the scholarships he had won:
Here I am. A poor boy with no real influence and yet because I have taken advantage of scholarships, my education had cost me nothing. I have been a ‘scholarship’ man all the way through from the start.
At Cardiff Art School, he won a gold medal for drawing and had four topical cartoons published in the school’s magazine, Pen and Pencil. Illingworth realised he had a natural talent for cartooning and saw that his next step was to get a foot in the door of a newspaper office - in his own words - “in any capacity”. He asked his father if he could help, and, by some considerable coincidence, his father regularly played golf with the Western Mail’s Managing Director, Sir Robert J. Webber. So one day while playing golf, Richard Illingworth, using all his persuasive skills, was able to talk Sir Robert into giving his son a part-time job in the Western Mail’s lithographic department in Cardiff. Leslie Illingworth was thrilled with this opportunity, especially since he was still at school. At the Western Mail, he was primarily employed in the lithography department printing maps and doing drawings on stone. As he had made a good impression, the newspaper soon offered him the chance to draw both a regular sporting cartoon entitled Dai Pepper for the weekly Football Express, which was part of the Western Mail, as well as cartoons for its daily evening title, the Evening Express.
The Western Mail was in fact one of the first newspapers in Britain to carry regular political cartoons. These had been drawn since 1893 by the paper’s chief cartoonist, Joseph Morewood Staniforth. Staniforth had also, since 1898, drawn cartoons every Sunday for the News of the World, which was owned by the same newspaper group as the Western Mail. Sir Robert Webber was so impressed with Illingworth’s progress and talent as a cartoonist that he encouraged him to try his hand at political cartoons by deputising for Staniforth whenever he was away or unwell. Illingworth was thrilled and could not believe his luck. This is what he now wanted to do for a living more than anything else. As he later said:
From the beginning I wanted to be a cartoonist. You’re not self-wrapped-up if you’re a cartoonist. You have to take attitudes about life.
In 1920, Illingworth won yet another scholarship, this time to the Royal College of Art in London, where he received enormous encouragement from its principal, William Rothenstein. Illingworth was still able to fill in for Staniforth while studying at the Royal College. However, after six months at the College, Illingworth was informed that Staniforth, whose health had been in serious decline for some time, had died. The Western Mail had no hesitation in offering the 19-year-old Illingworth a full-time position, at the princely sum of £6 per week. Illingworth accepted this opportunity, describing it as “untold gold” and “tremendous”. He returned immediately to Cardiff to take up his new post as a full-time political cartoonist. Illingworth realised it was time for him to get a sound grounding in political philosophy. He had up to now focused almost entirely on the artistic and gags side of cartooning. It was now, more than ever, important for him to understand the political scene if he was to succeed, as he later admitted:
When I was young I read Marx and even Engels. I read everything I could. I was very interested in politics. Where I come from in Wales they are very political. It’s near the coal area.
Illingworth moved back in with his parents and sister and set up his drawing board in a converted studio in his father’s barn. From there he cycled and later drove in to Cardiff each day to the offices of the Western Mail. The newspaper was Conservative in its political outlook, which jarred with Illingworth’s own left-wing views at the time. Although free to express his own political beliefs through his cartoons, he knew that, if he was to keep his job, he would have to follow the general editorial line of the newspaper. As he recollected:
Nobody suggested ideas when I started in the Western Mail; I knew very well what the politics of the paper were, and I knew which side of my bread was buttered. The cartoonist must have a pragmatic approach.
In November 1923, while Illingworth was still at the Western Mail, Owen Aves, the Art Editor of the humorous weekly Passing Show, sent him a joke featuring pigs to illustrate. On seeing the result, Aves invited him to submit work by post. When Aves left Passing Show soon after and set up as an artists’ agent, he shrewdly took on Illingworth and began to send down commissions for him to supply illustrations for the London market, in magazines such as London Opinion, The Humorist, Pearson’s, Strand, Nash’s, Good Housekeeping, London Life, Tit-Bits, and Everybody’s. Illingworth’s fee for illustrating a short story was a whopping 75 guineas. He later recalled, “I was a good artist, and I could make a lot of money.” Later that same year he returned to London to study part-time at the Slade School of Art in London University, while continuing to draw for the Western Mail and for Aves’s agency.
In May 1926, during the General Strike, the Western Mail’s print department refused to make the blocks for reproduction plates for Illingworth’s cartoons. So Illingworth felt no qualms about making them himself and was thus able to continue working for the paper. Not surprisingly, there were work colleagues and local miners’ families critical of him for showing no solidarity with the miners’ plight by continuing to work during the strike. “It was war, you know,” Illingworth later said, “I was a blackleg.” Despite this, Illingworth considered himself supportive of the miners and found the Western Mail’s uncompromising editorial stance in attacking the miners uncomfortable. He was certainly uneasy about defending the Welsh coal owners, but youth and a puckish sense of fun quieted any misgivings his conscience may have given him.
By late 1927, Illingworth, feeling the pressure of producing a daily cartoon and under the weather from overwork, decided he needed a break. He could now afford to do so as he was earning as much for his illustrative work as he was for his cartoons in the Western Mail. According to Sir Robert Webber, Illingworth was given a cheque and six months’ leave of absence to tour the art schools of France and America. In France, he settled in Paris where the devalued franc meant he could rent a sizeable flat and resume his art education at the Academy Julien. From Paris, he regularly sent back magazine illustrations on the Imperial Airways aeroplanes to the London agency. Then, after completing his art course, he sailed from Liverpool on the Cunard liner Alaunia to New York, to work for three months as a political cartoonist for Hearst newspapers. William Randolph Hearst owned the British magazines Good Housekeeping and Nash’s, to which Illingworth had been a regular contributor. He also drew for Life, then still the leading humorous magazine in the USA, which at the time was owned and edited by the famous American cartoonist, Charles Dana Gibson, illustrator and creator of the Gibson Girl. Illingworth then bought a car for £200 and for six months wandered his way around the United States until he reached San Francisco:
I saw San Francisco before they had built the Golden Gate. In those days the roads after Chicago petered out into dust tracks. If you had a rainstorm you could not go on.
Remarkably, Illingworth was able to sell the car in San Francisco for a profit. He then decided to leave the United States and returned to Paris for a while before moving back to England and settling in St. Johns Wood, London, studying periodically at the Slade School of Art. While there, he again began to contribute cartoons to the Western Mail. While he had been away, J. C. Walker had been employed in his place on the paper, so Illingworth agreed to share the cartoon slot with him until Walker took on the job full-time towards the end of 1929. After another trip to the United States in 1930, Illingworth moved his increasingly prosperous freelance operation back to the studio in his father’s barn at St. Athan. Throughout the 1930s he worked prodigiously, widening his remit to include advertisement illustration for clients such as Winsor and Newton, Kraft Cheese, Grey’s Cigarettes, Symington’s Soups, Eiffel Tower Lemonade and Wolsey Underwear. In 1937, The Artist described Illingworth as ‘among the half dozen most eminent magazine artists of our day’.
On 27 May 1931, Illingworth’s long association with Punch began when his first cartoon appeared in the magazine. However, the idea behind it, about a boy bursting a balloon-seller’s balloons, was based on somebody else’s joke. From thereon in he supplied Punch regularly with gag cartoons. However, the ‘big cut’, Punch’s weekly political and social comment cartoon (two were published in each week’s issue) was carried out by Sir Bernard Partridge and E H Shepard. When in 1937 the 70-year-old Partridge fell ill, Illingworth was invited to fill in for him. The ‘big cut’ was decided, as it had always been, by an editorial committee at the weekly Wednesday luncheon around the Punch ‘Round Table’. At the lunch the editor, Sir Edmund Valpy Knox, along with the art editor and cartoonist Kenneth Bird (Fougasse), would discuss the form and content of the cartoon with representatives of the owners of Punch. Once they had come up with an idea it would be discussed with the cartoonist, who would also be at the lunch. The cartoonist would then be expected to take the idea back to the drawing board and put pen to paper. Years later, Illingworth remembered fondly that it was never as easy to complete his cartoon for Punch as it should have been:
Very civilised it is. You sit there enjoying the conversation of some very nice people indeed. You drink some very nice wine and some brandy, and come away feeling very good indeed. It’s not always possible to start drawing afterwards.
The style of Punch’s political cartoons of this period was still in the Tenniel ‘Grand Manner’ of the previous century. They were expected to be noble and oracular; the very essence of Victorian gentility. Compared with Illingworth’s later work for the Daily Mail, his cartoons for Punch, although always beautifully and meticulously drawn with exquisite detail and line, lacked bite or any semblance of wit. As Partridge’s health continued to decline, Illingworth contributed an ever-increasing number of ‘big cuts’. When war broke out in September 1939, Partridge moved out of London and Illingworth went on to share the twice-weekly task as junior partner to E H Shepard. Partridge continued to contribute occasionally to Punch, where he was still treated with extreme deference, having worked there since 1891. Illingworth remembered being customarily bundled down the back stairs whenever Partridge came into the building. By the time Partridge died in 1945, Illingworth was considered better than Shepard and promoted to lead cartoonist. He continued to draw the ‘big cut’ until his retirement from Punch in 1968.
In 1936, with an increasing amount of his work continuing to come in from London, Illingworth decided it would make more sense for him to move back there. Browsing through the newspapers, he saw an advertisement in The Times for a flat to let at 53 Queensborough Terrace, Bayswater. Having answered the advertisement, Illingworth met the owner of the flat, Enid Ratcliff, who agreed to take him on as a tenant for 37s 6d a week. It was the beginning of a relationship that would last a lifetime.
After war had been declared on Germany in September 1939, Illingworth found to his cost that the illustration market had dried up as publishers and advertisers cut back. Despite the lack of work, Illingworth also felt an urgent need to express his antipathy towards the Nazis and knew the best way to do that was through cartooning. With the apparent success of his work in Punch, one imagines that Illingworth would not have found it too difficult to find a position on either a national or a provincial newspaper. Political cartoons were now very much in fashion. Newspapers that had never carried them now did so. For example, Philip Zec at the Daily Mirror, who had previously been an illustrator and had never drawn a political cartoon before, was employed as the paper’s first political cartoonist. Many of the provincial newspapers, which no longer carried sports cartoons because of the war, successfully employed their sports cartoonist to draw political cartoons instead. This happened most successfully in the case of George Butterworth at the Daily Dispatch, Arthur Potts at the Bristol Evening World and John Furnival at the Lancashire Evening Post.
In February 1938, Percy Fearon, better known under his pseudonym ‘Poy’, had retired from the Daily Mail after a long and successful career. He had been Lord Northcliffe’s favourite cartoonist. At the time the Daily Mail had the fourth largest circulation of any national daily behind the Daily Express, Daily Herald and the Daily Mirror. Despite this, the paper appeared to be in no particular hurry to find a successor although, as already mentioned, they had appointed that year Illingworth’s early school friend Ronald Niebour as an illustrator. When war broke out, the paper realised it needed a political cartoonist, like its competitors, to help raise the morale of its readership. Niebour was immediately given a regular slot to draw a pocket cartoon mocking the enemy. In October 1939, the Daily Mail advertised for a political cartoonist. When Illingworth’s friend and fellow cartoonist, Clive Uptton, was turned down by the Daily Mail through lack of experience as a political cartoonist, he decided to apply himself. Illingworth, however, was concerned that his somewhat anodyne work for Punch would work against him, as he later recalled:
I couldn’t tell them I was Illingworth because they would know me, I was doing fuddy-duddy drawings for Punch and I wouldn’t have got the job.
So Illingworth contrived to have a couple of cartoons inserted in a big batch of ‘unknowns’ submitted by his agent, Owen Aves, most of them the work of younger, less experienced, artists. He signed his two cartoons “MacGregor” (his mother’s maiden name) and drew them in a much simpler style than he had used for Punch and his illustration work. As Illingworth hoped, they caught the eye of the deputy editor of the Daily Mail, Gordon Beckles. However, unbeknown to Illingworth, Beckles was suspicious, as he recognised his style in the cartoons. Beckles then invited the so-called Mr. MacGregor to call round for an interview. When Illingworth arrived at the deputy editor’s door, Beckles, a very tall man, greeted him:
“Mr. MacGregor?” he asked.
“Ye-es,” said Illingworth, nervously
“You are sure,” said the editor accusingly, “your name is not Illingworth?”
Illingworth blanched and glanced fearfully up: “Yes sir, it’s Illingworth, sir, I’m very sorry.”
Illingworth, despite his worst fears and to his great surprise, was offered the job there and then at a salary of £1,500 a year, which rose to £2,000 after the first three months. At the age of 37, he was now working for a leading national newspaper and competing with the greatest political cartoonists in the land, such as Sidney Strube at the Daily Express, David Low at the Evening Standard, George Whitelaw on the Daily Herald and Victor Weisz (Vicky) on the News Chronicle. He was also, much to his relief, working in a reserved occupation, which meant it was unlikely that he would be conscripted, as his brother had just been at the age of 40. Illingworth admitted later with a fair degree of candour that he had also joined the Daily Mail “for nothing but cowardly reasons – I didn’t want to go into the Army.” He feared that, as in the First World War, as a soldier he would be nothing more than ‘cannon fodder’. Instead he had got that safe ‘desk job’, later stating, “Thank God I succeeded.”
The Daily Mail, like the Western Mail, was a firmly Conservative newspaper. Illingworth had few qualms over this. Earning good money throughout the 1930s had changed his political outlook and he was now firmly in the Tory camp. In any case, with Britain at war, party politics was largely irrelevant. Illingworth knew exactly on whom to focus his attentions. As he later recalled:
It was absolutely easy – there’s no doubt about it. We were against Hitler, against Mussolini, against Stalin to start with and then for him immediately as soon as he came in.
Unlike many of the cartoonists working on other newspapers, Illingworth had the advantage of having seen the Nazi leaders in the flesh. In the 1930s he had visited Garmisch, the winter sports centre near Munich, and had seen most of them close up. He later recounted:
Hitler, in particular, seemed peculiarly repulsive, with his pasty, flabby face and a certain effeminacy about his movements. The only one for whom I did not feel an instinctive dislike was Goebbels; perhaps it was because his features, though ugly enough, revealed a redeeming sense of humour – though it has since turned out to be a sardonic one.
Illingworth’s first cartoon for the Daily Mail - an attack on Government bureaucracy - appeared on Monday 30 October 1939. From then on, he produced three to four cartoons a week while continuing to draw the weekly cartoon for Punch. He even found time to continue his book illustration work in addition to wartime propaganda drawings for the Ministry of Labour and Ministry of Information. His association with the Daily Mail was to last 30 years and span nine editorships. The demands of the daily newspaper deadlines brought a new simplicity of style and forcefulness to his work, which was radically different from the dull, benign but intricate full-page drawings he was producing for Punch. The cartoons he was now drawing for the Daily Mail were similar in style to the ones he had previously produced for the Western Mail, but the execution of his line was now bolder and more self-assured. However, with the pressures of meeting the deadline on a daily cartoon, with time at a premium, Illingworth was left rarely satisfied with his finished drawing. From a purely technical point of view he much preferred the Punch work, for which he had a week to complete. Sometimes, as an expression of private dissatisfaction with a cartoon, Illingworth would simply leave off his signature. Once the drawing had been handed to the editor he never wanted to see the published version. As fellow cartoonist Keith Mackenzie later observed:
By a curious quirk, once the drawing is out of his hands he never wants to see it in print and cannot bear to open the paper with his drawing in it.
Although the ideas for Illingworth’s Punch cartoons were decided by a weekly committee, the procedure at the Daily Mail was different. As a staff cartoonist, Illingworth would come up with three of four ideas for a cartoon to show his editor, who would then choose the one he considered the best or the most appropriate. It would appear that the editor would often choose the subject matter for the cartoons as they were often used to illustrate articles in the paper and as the majority of Illingworth’s cartoons relate to articles in the paper itself this would suggest that the cartoonist was often told which story to cover. The difference was that the ideas for the Daily Mail unlike Punch were entirely Illingworth’s own, as he freely admitted:
I’ve never been told what to do. Never, never, never. The best editor is a man that will look at your roughs and say “Oh, wonderful! Good! That’s the one I want”.
Illingworth loved his studio at the Daily Mail, a small private office on the fourth floor of Northcliffe House on the corner of Whitefriars Street and Tudor Street, close to London’s Fleet Street. Unlike David Low and Carl Giles, who preferred to work away from the newspaper so as not to be interfered with or disturbed as they produced their work, Illingworth revelled in a busy workplace. He loved the excitement of a newspaper office, the thrill of being at the centre of things. A colleague thought it kept him “fresh and young, fit and happy”. His room, according to Wally Fawkes, was always “stuffed with people” chattering away while Illingworth quite happily got on with his drawing amongst all the commotion. There were times when he needed his own space and solitude, and for this he rented a special garret room in Temple Chambers, equidistant from Punch and Northcliffe House, for the unhurried execution of his weekly Punch cartoon.
Despite the pressure of deadlines, Illingworth had immense patience. Pat Murphy, a colleague at the Daily Mail, recalled on one occasion how Illingworth had almost completed a scraperboard drawing for Punch with a theme based on Shelley’s poem ‘The Cloud’ and illustrating the line ‘like a swarm of golden bees….’ when all of a sudden disaster struck. Having intricately drawn about 650 bees with their four wings and six legs and a dense complicated countryside background, a gust of wind whipped the drawing off his easel and out of his office window. He walked over to the balustrade and peered down, muttering: “I bet it goes face down.” It not only went face down but a Daily Mail van drove over it, destroying the six or seven hours’ work Illingworth had spent on the nearly finished drawing. According to Murphy, “Leslie pulled out another huge board from his quiver of them and, saying ‘Oh! Aye, start all over again’, Illingworth began to do exactly that.” He was simply unflappable.
Illingworth’s natural good nature, patience and generosity to colleagues and friends were especially extended to younger aspiring cartoonists, who all referred to him as Uncle Leslie. When a young and exasperated Bernard Cookson went to see him for some advice on how to deal with an editor who did not appreciate his ideas for a cartoon that morning, Illingworth told him to “bend with the wind boyo! Bend with the wind.” Cookson believed this guidance on how to deal with difficult editors helped him throughout his career. Everyone who met Illingworth found him amiable. According to Wally Fawkes he had “huge magnetism” and always offered great encouragement to budding cartoonists. Another colleague on the Daily Mail, Colin Reid, found Illingworth had such an enormous zest for living that made being with him uplifting. Malcolm Muggeridge found him to be “a very loveable, original, gifted human being”.
During the Blitz, Illingworth found himself putting out incendiaries on the roof of the Daily Mail’s offices in Fleet Street. After volunteering to join theLocal Defence Volunteers (later the Home Guard) during 1940, he found himself two years later serving as a night time gunner with the Home Guard Battery Z (a rocket battery) in an anti-aircraft unit in Hyde Park. One evening, Illingworth’s old school friend Glyn Daniel, then an R.A.F. Intelligence Officer who would later go on to become a Cambridge professor of Welsh archaeology and find fame on the TV programme "Going for a Song”, met up with Illingworth while on duty at his anti-aircraft unit. They both looked towards the City of London which that evening was in flames and the distant crunching noise of exploding German bombs could be heard. In response, Illingworth turned to Daniel and said: “They won’t win, they can’t win. It’s all so evil and evil can’t win.”
Illingworth acquired a large flat in Knightsbridge for him and Enid (by now his housekeeper) to live in. This part of West London was relatively safe from bombing as the Luftwaffe generally concentrated on London’s East End and the docks. He also allowed Czech Jewish refugees to stay there. These included the political cartoonist Stephen Roth, who was then drawing sporting cartoons for the Daily Mail and political ones for the Sunday Pictorial. For weekend relaxation, Illingworth took a cottage in Surrey, where he kept a number of farm animals. Enid soon joined him and within a year they moved in to a larger property in Horley on the Surrey/Sussex border, which Enid had originally bought as a home for evacuee children from London with an inheritance from her father.
Illingworth very quickly developed a strong following amongst readers of the paper. When exhibitions of his original cartoons were held in department stores such as Kendal Milne & Co, Manchester, in 1940, and Lewis’s Stores, Glasgow in 1943, they proved to be immensely popular with the general public. In 1941, the Daily Mail boasted that figures of Illingworth’s creation had become “the political furniture of our minds. In momentous times like these such artists gain a secure position with posterity. Their work conveys at a glance more than later generations can learn from columns of print.”
As the war continued, Illingworth also became well known in North America, where an international version of the Daily Mail had become available. On 17 April 1944, for instance, Newsweek referred to Illingworth as “one of Britain’s best-known cartoonists – perhaps second only to the world-famous David Low. The tremendous circulation of the Daily Mail gave Illingworth a British-American audience rivalling the estimated 20, 000,000 of Low.”
Illingworth’s working day at the Daily Mail changed little over the 30 years he held his position there. On a typical day, he would listen to the early morning news on the radio as soon as he got out of bed and then review all the morning national dailies over breakfast. Illingworth’s nephew, Julian Lewis, remembers staying with him, where he would cook breakfast while ‘Uncle Leslie was soaking in the bath reading The Times in order to get an idea for that day's cartoon’. By the time he arrived in Fleet Street several promising ideas would be taking shape in his mind. According to cartoonist Charles Grave, if you asked Illingworth how he worked he would tell you, “He reads the newspapers and creates concrete symbols of the news. His trouble, he says, is that he doesn’t think in words, and he just can’t do snappy captions.” Illingworth, with several ideas in mind, would first grab a pencil and just doodle and in this way would quickly come up with rough compositions:
I do little doodles of the ideas I get. Doodles suggest something else. It’s a continuing process, you do another little doodle.
Wally Fawkes believed that what was so remarkable about Illingworth’s roughs was that they were so “full of vigour” and that his completed drawing would actually lose a certain amount of that ‘vigour’. Before lunch, Illingworth would present three or four of these roughs to his editor, who would decide which one to go with and then suggest the appropriate shape of the cartoon for that day’s page layout. After lunch the real work would begin. He would redraw the roughly pencilled design on a virgin sheet of board when the situation, likeness and background would then be rapidly drawn in with a fine pen, strengthened by brush, chalk, mechanical tint or wash. Fellow cartoonist Bill Hewison believed Illingworth had a “faultless pen and ink technique”. According to Hewison it was a technique that was “essentially naturalistic yet masterly in its variety of textures, arrangement of tones, and subtle atmospheric perspective. It is hardly cartooning.”
Illingworth was, surprisingly, the only cartoonist to occasionally use scraperboard for his cartoons. Its use when required would dramatise the effect of light and dark within a composition. Illingworth used scratchboard, a chalk surface drawing paper and a fine pointed tool or a penknife to delicately etch his lines out of the inky shadows in the manner of a wood engraving. The effect, according to John Geipel in his short history of graphic comedy and satire, was that by juxtaposing deftly wrought detail with areas of thunderous black, Illingworth achieved a richness and authority that distinguished his work from all his contemporaries.
Illingworth saw everything in visual terms and to him cartoons were simply pictorial analogies of an actual situation. This meant that the main advantage of cartoons over newspaper articles was that, as visual images, they received immediate recognition from the reader and could be more quickly understood and appreciated by them:
I think cartooning can communicate to all the readers of the newspaper. I think that they can apprehend the cartoon quicker than any editorial. People do not need words; like animals, they are aware of things. If it comes to the surface, it comes as a visual impression. Literary people may think with words, but I am very suspicious of it. Words are a late thing. Basic communication does not need words. Feelings do not need words. Animals communicate with each other.
Although he was easily able to express himself in visual terms, Illingworth found it difficult to do so verbally. Not surprisingly, he avoided speaking in public. Once he complained bitterly about an editor who forced him and two competing cartoonists to talk about their ideas for that day’s drawing in full conference before choosing which of them got the job. As Illingworth recalled:
I hate to speak in public. I am not at ease with words. I forget the names and I am a man who thinks with pictures not words and so to sit among a gaggle of people who know how to express themselves and expect me to speak. It was awful.
Unlike most cartoonists, Illingworth did not rely on photographic references, preferring to draw things he knew well from memory. He believed, like all good draughtsmen, that it was important to draw things accurately whether, for example, it was an expression, a facial feature, a steamroller or a windmill. According to Illingworth:
You should represent the absolute truth even if you distort it. I want the barn to stay up and the motorbike to move.
It took approximately four hours to finish his daily drawing, after corrections and deletions had been done with either white ink (the forerunner of Tippex) or razor blade. Around the 7.30pm deadline for the Daily Mail’s Scottish edition, the drawing would be sent down to the Process Department to produce the line block ready for printing. Then every Thursday night, having completed his daily cartoon, he would settle down in his small room in Temple Chambers to devote time and care to his Punch cartoon. It was thought out before supper, pencilled in before retiring and executed as dawn crept up behind the dominant silhouette of St Paul’s, which filled the window. Indeed such was his devotion to his Punch work that he sometimes finished his weekly cartoon in the Daily Mail’s office. At times, he struggled to complete his workload and was often being chased for the finished drawing by editor and agent alike. He would also try to delay the cartoon’s departure, according to his nephew Richard, by soft-soaping the editor’s secretary whenever he was being chased because the deadline for his cartoon had passed. Left to him, Illingworth would go on working away on his cartoon indefinitely and sometimes, according to one of the editors he worked under, “it had to be snatched from him by cunning or brute force.” On one occasion, his agent burst into his office and demanded he produce the work immediately as it was well overdue. Illingworth turned to him and said:
I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll compromise. I’ll say I will and then I won’t.
In February 1944, Illingworth got the sad news that his only brother, Lieutenant-Colonel Vivian Illingworth, had died of leukaemia while on active service in Naples. An example of Illingworth’s enormous generosity was that he made sure that Vivian’s son, Richard, had a private school education by paying his fees throughout his time at Bedales Public School in Hampshire.
At the end of the war Illingworth was amazed to find that some of his cartoons, cut out from the pages of the Daily Mail, had been found in a safe in Hitler’s bunker. It was also discovered that his name had been put on a Nazi hit list of those who were to be executed should the Germans have succeeded in invading Britain in 1940. Illingworth considered it something of a badge of honour to have upset the Nazi hierarchy to the extent that they kept cuttings of his cartoons, as well as wanting him liquidated.
In 1946, he gave up his book and commercial work to concentrate on his cartoons for the Daily Mail and Punch. Illingworth also decided he had had enough of urban life and that year found exactly what he wanted – Silverdale, an early Victorian farmhouse outside Robertsbridge, East Sussex which he bought for £5,000.
As already mentioned, Illingworth was politically at home on the Daily Mail and in complete accord with the editorial column which he often illustrated. His cartoons therefore naturally found favour with the majority of the paper’s readership. He later said:
I think you must be at one with the people you are drawing for. I am lower middle class and I was drawing for lower middle class people and it is a good thing because I was in touch with them.
Wally Fawkes, his successor at the Daily Mail, thought that Illingworth was a ‘county conservative’ who believed that the Monarchy and the upper class elite that then made up the Conservative Party at Westminster were born to run the country. It was to him the natural order of things. Fawkes, who produced the Flook strip in the Daily Mail, remembered trying to defend the Labour leaders to Illingworth, who would have nothing of it, as he believed that, because they did not have the right accents, they were not the Country’s natural born leaders.
Illingworth was thus happy to preach to the converted. By doing so his cartoons were not, , contentious, unsurprisingly.He admitted that he never wanted to upset anyone, especially the readers. This today would be considered something of a disadvantage to a political cartoonist. Often the best cartoons are those that lead to the reader sitting up and taking note or, even better, making him or her rage with fury or indignation. Unlike Illingworth, David Low held political views that were diametrically opposed to those of the paper he worked for. This meant that his cartoons made a much bigger impact on the paper’s readers. There were often lively debates in the readers’ section of the Evening Standard after Low had drawn a cartoon attacking one sacred cow or another. Low was famously allowed to stretch the boundaries on issues that were then considered either taboo or in very poor taste. This would have been impossible in any case for cartoonists like Illingworth, whose editor would always have had the final say. Low worked away from the newspaper in his own studio and so produced what he wanted. The paper would of, course, have the right to refuse publication, but rarely did. But unlike those on the Left, such as Low and Vicky, Illingworth did not want to change the world, just to comment on it. This was a natural line for him to follow, because to him cartoons neither altered people’s opinions nor their political allegiances. Cartoonists therefore did not, according to Illingworth, have a large influence on the public, as they were simply to him just ‘a little froth on the surface of politics’. Illingworth, although in sympathy with the readers of the Daily Mail, believed that the paper’s readership still made up a spectrum of different views and beliefs and, in attempting to cater to all, the cartoon could lose any chance of impacting itself on the reader. According to Illingworth:
If a cartoon is for everybody, you cannot do anything except a bland thing.
Illingworth felt that those cartoonists who drew for a smaller audience – on a provincial or evening paper, for example – had more chance of making a greater impression on the reader:
When you draw for a national daily, you draw for such a large crowd that you cannot do it properly. But once you have a small thing – like Low had in the Evening Standard – a restricted audience, you can be all the more powerful. Low drew for the people at Westminster and I think he did have an effect on them.
Although a Conservative, Illingworth held no strong ideological beliefs and had a native distrust of zealots of all political backgrounds. To him politics was a pragmatic thing. It was the art of the possible and was all about making life better for the man in the street. He thought that any fervent political ideology, when put into practice, would always end in ruining lives not bettering them. As he once explained:
There has been more unhappiness in the world caused by people who supported communism or fascism. And they killed and tortured and it’s a tragedy to find people that believed in these things so much that they should forget man. I believe in a local politics, which has to do with drains, the cost of food and that sort of thing. But once you get into the romantic sort of politics you always start killing in the end, and it’s bad, bad. I am against that. I was not when I was young. I used to think that some people had money, some had little and they starved and that it was wrong. I gave up thinking so when I was 25 or so.
Illingworth was therefore poles apart from the likes of Vicky and Low, whose political convictions were an anathema to him. He even went as far to say of Vicky: “He’s sincere. He’s zealous, yes. And that’s why he’s an utter clot. I’m not a zealot in any way at all.” Despite his political zeal, Illingworth did think that Low was still the greatest cartoonist of the Twentieth Century. Sadly, Illingworth was always under the impression that Low disliked him, which most likely was because of their divergent political beliefs.
Illingworth was a born cynic and certainly did not take seriously those on the Left who believed it was possible to create a utopian New Jerusalem. For the sake of perspective, he preferred to see things from a distance, viewing the political scene with the dispassionate expertise of a mechanic dismantling an engine. Cartoonist Bernard Hollowood noted how Illingworth lacked passionate involvement. The advantage of taking such a detached view was that it allowed him to avoid resenting those he ridiculed: as David Low once said of malice, it all too frequently clouds the mind.
After the war, Illingworth was able to focus his attention on Labour’s first majority Government, which lasted from July 1945 until October 1951. He thought it a travesty that the British electorate had rejected Churchill, the man who had won the war. The Labour leaders were portrayed as hapless political minnows by comparison with Churchill, who were incapable of rebuilding post-war Britain. To Illingworth it was Labour that was responsible for all of Britain’s ills, e.g. the privations of shortages and rationing. The diminutive Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, and his cohorts Morrison, Cripps, Dalton and especially the inept Shinwell, were ridiculed mercilessly day after day in his cartoons in the Daily Mail. To Illingworth the Welsh firebrand Aneuran Bevan, came in for special attention after referring to the Conservatives as ‘lower than vermin’. Despite this, Bevan’s wife, Jennie Lee, requested an original cartoon she had seen in the Daily Mail of Bevan with no clothes on. On receiving the original from Illingworth she wrote back to him stating that it was exactly like him.
When Churchill and the Conservatives returned to power in 1951, Illingworth divided his attention between the divisions in the Labour Opposition and the Cold War. When Labour regained power in 1964, Harold Wilson became the central focus of Illingworth’s ridicule, closely followed by Foreign Secretary George Brown. Illingworth’s faith in the eventual triumph of goodness and right, as had occurred at the end of the war, began to falter as he drew with sadness and gloom post-war events first in Korea, then Hungary, Africa, Czechoslovakia and finally Vietnam. Of such things, he was often heard to say:
It’s all wrong boyo. It’s all wrong. We’re all going to hell!
It was not until the Punch editorship of Malcolm Muggeridge in 1953 that Illingworth found his most inspiring and incisive direction at Punch. Muggeridge recalled that since Illingworth “did not have a strongly political mind, a whole series of suggestions could be put to him without his reacting strongly.” As a result, this collaboration produced the cartoonist’s most powerful and best-remembered drawing, which appeared in Punch on 3 February 1954. This was his cartoon of an ageing Winston Churchill entitled ‘Man Goeth Forth unto his Work and his Labour until the Evening’, suggesting that it was time he retired as Prime Minister. This caused widespread indignation among Conservative publicists and politicians and caused a row between the editor and proprietors of Punch. This cartoon can be seen in Churchill in Caricature (PCS, 2005). Churchill was himself bitterly hurt by the cartoon: “Yes, there’s malice in it. Look at my hands - I have beautiful hands. Punch goes everywhere. I shall have to retire if this sort of thing goes on.” Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, was also shocked by what he considered a vicious caricature of the Prime Minister:
There was something un-English in this savage attack on his [Churchill] failing powers. The eyes were dull and lifeless. There was no tone in the flaccid muscles; the jowl sagged. It was the expressionless mask of extreme old age.
It must have pained Illingworth to have to draw it because he practically hero-worshipped Churchill. Worse still, Churchill had been a constant admirer of Illingworth’s work having written to him on several occasions congratulating him and asking for the original cartoon. It was rumoured that Muggeridge soon became well known in Churchill circles as ‘Buggeridge’. Angry letters poured in to Punch’s offices. One of these letters of complaint was from Christopher Soames, in defence of his father-in-law. As Churchill later recalled: “Christopher wrote to that awful fellow, Muggeridge. He knows him, lives in his neighbourhood. Muggeridge wrote back saying that he was a journalist. If he held opinions, he must express them; said that he was one of my greatest admirers, but that I was no longer up to the job.” Despite this episode, Illingworth enjoyed working under Muggeridge’s editorship. As he later recalled:
He was a very exciting and witty editor. I sat on his right side at the famous Punch table. On my right sat Sir John Betjeman; bless them they were very kind to me. I was conscious that I was a monumental bore, so I used to concentrate on the claret and keep as quiet as a cabbage.
Illingworth’s appearance might have been a better subject for caricature than the majority of those he actually included in his cartoons. He was of medium height, with a stocky build, a very large rugged face with pink cheeks, almost no neck and an underslung jaw. In his youth he had had bright red hair, which in later adulthood had turned white, with increasingly large bushy eyebrows spread above his steely bluish grey eyes. Basil Boothroyd, assistant editor of Punch in the 1950s, described Illingworth as having “the lineaments of an immensely genial monkey, with eyebrows like hedges and a radiant prognathous grin.” Illingworth believed his lack of neck was a genetic thing:
I have no neck. All the Illingworths have no necks. When I visited Mexico in the 1950s I came across a local businessman with the same name – and he had no neck, just like me.
As a consequence of his physical appearance Illingworth, having a very low opinion of himself, thought he was ugly, although there was never a shortage of female admirers. When a journalist once arrived to interview him for an article, Illingworth said in all frankness and modesty: “How nice of you to make me a celebrity. I’d better warn you that I’m not very pretty.” Although Malcolm Muggeridge considered Illingworth’s appearance and manner to be rough, he thought it absurd that, like George Orwell, Illingworth considered himself to be ugly. However, according to his friend Glyn Daniel, Illingworth enjoyed drawing himself in an exaggerated way as a hairy Neanderthal: “He enjoyed laughing at himself as he laughed at the world.”
In 1956, the then Daily Mail editor decided he wanted a more modern style of cartoon in the paper. Illingworth found, somewhat to his annoyance, that two other cartoonists were employed by the editor to alternate alongside him. They were John Musgrave Wood (Emmwood) and George Chrystal (Chrys). As a consequence, Illingworth’s weekly output was reduced to two cartoons. It seemed no coincidence that the editor, himself a Yorkshireman, had employed another in Emmwood.
Apart from completing his usual quota of cartoons, Illingworth made police court drawings for the paper. He also drew wanted men by Scotland Yard, including a projection of how the Great Train Robber, Bruce Reynolds, might look after plastic surgery.
Illingworth’s recreations might have been described as the acquisition of homes and the entertainment of friends. He bought one of the first flats put up for sale in the Barbican in the 1960s and allowed friends to use it on the many occasions he was not there. At Fleet Street haunts such as El Vino and the Mucky Duck, Illingworth would often be found surrounded by colleagues and acquaintances, many of whom knew that their most difficult task lay in trying to settle their share of the bill before he did. Glyn Daniel was amazed by Illingworth’s generosity to others:
There is a curious English phrase ‘generous to a fault’ and I never quite knew what it meant until I knew Leslie. He gave of his time, money and resources with almost prodigal generosity. It was a curious contrast in his character that while he always wanted his friends and his family to have things he himself seemed to care little for the material possessions of this world in his own life.
In 1965, Illingworth was given a Special Award for Distinguished Services to Cartooning at the Dorchester Hotel by the Prime Minster Harold Wilson, the guest of honour. It must have been an awkward moment for Illingworth, whose cartoons had derided Wilson and the Labour Party for years.
By the late 1960s, Illingworth had become the longest serving cartoonist in Fleet Street. His wartime counterparts were either dead, such as Low, Strube and Vicky (who committed suicide in 1965) – or in retirement, such as Zec and Butterworth. When a journalist asked Illingworth how he had kept going for so long, he rather tongue-in-cheek replied:
Ah my boy, I hide behind the door and when the editor comes in looking for someone to sack he doesn’t see me.
Towards the end of 1969, at the age of 67, Illingworth finally decided to retire after precisely 30 years at the Daily Mail. According to Wally Fawkes he was happy to do so, having survived nine different editors. He was by now, in any case, fed up with the political scene and, rather astonishingly, believed that the British public was getting tired of international politics. More significantly, Illingworth also knew that as cartoonists aged their work began to deteriorate. This was normally as a result of worsening eyesight, ill heath or simply being burnt out after decades of drawing daily cartoons. Illingworth wanted to go before he was pushed and to avoid the humiliation of being fired. According to Illingworth one is at one’s best as a cartoonist until “up to 50 - 55. After that you go down the other side of the hump.”
Illingworth had been forewarned. He had seen what had happened to those contemporaries of his who had gone on too long. For instance, Sidney Strube was sacked on his birthday after 36 years on the Daily Express. Michael Cummings, Strube’s successor, said that he had become “stale and repetitive”. Being sacked broke Strube’s heart and he only lived a further eight years, dying in March 1956. Carl Giles was also fired after his work had declined following a long and illustrious career at the Daily Express. David Low, by the late 1950s, was suffering from emphysema after a lifetime of smoking. This clearly affected his work, although at times he could still produce the occasional brilliant cartoon as he done so regularly in the past. By 1962, his work had become embarrassingly bad and the editor of The Guardian, Alistair Hetherington, did his utmost to get rid of Low and replace him full-time with Bill Papas, who was sharing the cartoon slot with him. Before he was able to do so, Low’s health deteriorated to such an extent that he was hospitalised, with his last cartoon appearing in The Guardian on 30 April 1963. He died five months later on 19 September. Illingworth watched the tragedy take place and believed that Low also suffered at the end because his dream of a socialist paradise failed to materialise. Low became disillusioned by firstly the obstinacy of the trade unions, and secondly by the fact that the Labour Party could not adapt to a society, caught in the consumer boom of the later 1950s, that simply wanted to better itself. According to Illingworth:
Even old Low you know in the end wasn’t very good. Mind, events defeated him. All the things he was advocating came to pass and he saw how horrid it was and he didn’t know what he could do.
Before he left the Daily Mail, Illingworth lined up Wally Fawkes to replace him. Fawkes had already been drawing political cartoons for several months for the paper alongside Illingworth, as Chrys had left. Lord Rothermere, however, had other ideas. He thought Gerald Scarfe would be more fashionable and so employed him instead as Illingworth’s replacement. After a short stint, Scarfe, who has always been more of a caricaturist concentrating on creating grotesque images of politicians than those one would expect from a political cartoonist, was dropped, and Wally Fawkes reinstated. Despite leaving the Daily Mail, Illingworth lived on as ‘Organ Morgan’, the Welsh farmer in Fawkes’ Flook strip, which had been going since April 1949.
In October 1970, an exhibition of Illingworth’s work was held at the Boston Public Library in the United States, organised by a young American cartoon historian and biographer of James Gillray, by the name of Draper Hill. Hill said at the official opening that Illingworth was “simply the finest draughtsman of our time to have devoted himself to editorial caricature.”
Illingworth retired happily to Silverdale, which now saw the growth of his other great love, farming. He had over the years visited neighbouring farms to watch how farm workers tended to their livestock. He expanded his farm at every opportunity. Every time a parcel of land adjoining Silverdale came up for sale he would purchase it, and he ended up with over 30 acres. As the farm grew, Enid would use a “great big handbell”, given to Illingworth by the journalist Henry Fairlie, in order to summon him when he was at work in some remote corner of his farm should someone arrive at his door to see him or want him on the phone.
Illingworth later said that if he had not become a cartoonist he would have liked to have been an animal painter like Landseer, or an animal illustrator like Warwick Reynolds. He loved being down in East Sussex because other cartoonists who lived nearby often visited him. For instance, Francis Smith ‘Smilby’, who drew for Playboy, lived at Trumpetts Farm near Hurstmonceux; Alex Graham, who drew Fred Basset, lived at Ticehurst and Wally Fawkes had a house in Hastings.
However, Illingworth, whose hospitality, as already mentioned,was legendary, kept up the same level of entertaining as he had done before retiring. Those Fleet Street sops who had earlier taken advantage of his generosity still continued to do so, and the upkeep of his farm, a Georgian terrace house in Dulwich and a Barbican flat for his visits to London meant that by 1973 he found himself not only short of money but also being chased by the taxman for back taxes. Remarkably, the pursuance by the taxman led to Illingworth fleeing to France. He answered an advert for a gardener for a French villa. The French couple that had agreed to employ Illingworth were amazed to see him turn up at their home in his Bentley along with Enid, his housekeeper. The problem was that Illingworth was soon homesick and found the villa particularly cold in the winter months. According to Illingworth’s nephew, the villa was not really suitable for occupation in the winter. A cousin of Illingworth’s agreed to bail him out with a loan so that he could pay his back taxes. One of the effects of this was that he had to start working again in order to pay back the loan.
At first, Illingworth was given the opportunity to stand in for the Australian Paul Rigby on the Sun for a month between December 1973 and January 1974. Upon his return, Rigby decided to give up his regular weekly cartoon for The News of the World as it was proving too much of a burden alongside drawing daily cartoons for the Sun. So he recommended Illingworth, who as a result got the job. His first cartoon appeared in the News of the World on 17 February 1974. Coincidentally, J M Staniforth, Illingworth’s predecessor at the Western Mail, had also drawn cartoons for many years for the News of the World at the turn of the century. Illingworth, of course, now only had the one cartoon to do, which was regularly drawn on a Thursday. “Messing about with farming”, as he called it, came to an abrupt halt while he digested every national newspaper daily for a clue to the political topic of the week. He would then take to the sunny wing of his farmhouse, perch himself on his elegant Victorian chair with cabriole legs, and start work at his heavy architects drawing board. Then, according to Illingworth:
I drive up to London every Friday to Bouverie Street to show it to the editor and his executives who suggest what should be drawn. Sometimes I take up three or four samples. Only once did I have to follow their ideas.
Despite having to work again, and this time commute from the country, he still preferred to live and work in Sussex. Life in Sussex was now, according to Illingworth, “more violent than even in Wales. There is an atmosphere of lawlessness… you could be astounded by a new bug you’ve never seen before.”
In July 1975, Illingworth, to his immense surprise and delight, was granted the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by the University of Kent at Canterbury, in recognition of his contribution to journalism. It was presented to him by the Chancellor Jo Grimond, the former leader of the Liberal Party. “They’ve started a cartoon archive there. I went up to Chancery Lane to be measured for my hat – I’ve a huge head. They’ve given me a degree not because I can read and write but because I can’t!” In his address to the Chancellor, on this occasion the Public Orator, Professor W Hagenbach, described Illingworth as one of the most outstanding cartoonists of this century.
In June 1976, he retired again after suffering a minor stroke. He told his nephew that as a result of the stroke his “brain had gone” and he was no longer capable of producing a daily cartoon. His lifestyle was catching up with him. Illingworth had never held back on his liking for rich and fatty foods. He had once told Wally Fawkes at his dining table to “eat the fat, that’s the best bit”. Indulging himself in food and drink had obviously contributed to the thickening of his arteries. Bristow creator Frank Dickens noticed how ‘red-faced’ Illingworth always was. However, Illingworth was not entirely unhappy at having to retire as he now admitted to having become disillusioned with, or more likely had just tired of, the political scene. He believed that “biting, trenchant, bitter cartoons are no longer with us. Cartoons are an extension of politics and I think politics are finished now.” It may be assumed that, being old school, he did not appreciate Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman, whose work he would have regarded as too cruel and the whose caricatures he would have considered too distorted to represent what he regarded as mainstream political caricature.
Illingworth was an incredibly modest man, believing he remained a better illustrator than a cartoonist and that his success as the latter had more to do with luck than judgement. In 1976, Illingworth stated that:
I am not a good cartoonist. The cartoons I like best were those I liked drawing. For instance, the one about the cats and the goldfish. I think the drawing is very good. I should have been an illustrator…I would not select any cartoon as representative of my best work, only drawings, I was not a good cartoonist.
Although Illingworth never married, he loved the company of women, referring to himself as “an optimistic bachelor”. He later put down never getting married to an early rejection, although somewhat tongue-in-cheek:
I’m not a misogynist. I knew a delightful girl, born in Hawaii. She was delightful, she lived on a lovely farm in Wales, and I adored her. She was five, I was 15. I’d made up my mind. When she was 17 and I was 27 I asked her. And she said “No”.
This in all probability disguises the fact that he neither wanted the commitment of a wife nor the loss of his own independence. The evidence appears to show that he was very much a misogynist. However, his relationship with Enid Ratcliff appears to have remained platonic throughout their years together. Her full-time role as housekeeper and confidante was all that he really needed from her. This seems to have been suggested in an interview she gave in the 1970s:
We never quarrel, never at all. Not a bit like the state of matrimony. No sexual connections. I’m not the breeding type. They’d all come out with undershot jaws and two long arms.
Illingworth was also a romantic and refused to treat women in the same way as he did men in his cartoons. On the few occasions he felt he had to include female politicians such as Edith Summerskill, Barbara Castle and even Margaret Thatcher in his cartoons, he did so with great respect.
I cannot caricature women. What I’d like to do is paint portraits in oils of beautiful young women. I like doing this very much.
Illingworth did have a network of female admirers, whose company he much enjoyed. They, in turn, became increasingly fond of him and treated him like a sort of genial uncle. These relationships, however, were certainly not just platonic. Illingworth once told the son of his housekeeper, Jim Hall, to get into the cupboard in his bedroom and watch him make love to one of his female admirers through the keyhole if the young lad wanted to learn all about the birds and the bees.
In 1976, Illingworth undertook a commission to draw some 25 illustrations for an American edition of Ripples on the River by Ewan Butler, which continued the characters of Rat, Mole and Toad from Wind in the Willows as defined by E H Shepard.
As Illingworth’s heart condition worsened, Enid found that she could no longer look after him. There was therefore little choice but for him to be moved into a home in Hastings where, several months later, he died on 20 December 1979. On 31 December, a Church service was held for him in nearby Salehurst, immediately followed by his cremation at Hastings Crematorium. His old friend, Glyn Daniel, gave the address in which he described the calibre of the man
There is a high place in heaven for the likes of him: not because of his skill and genius but because of his transparent goodness and integrity. Here was a man, admittedly with a genius for draughtsmanship, but to my way of thinking, an even greater genius for friendship. It has been said that friendship is a conspiracy for pleasure. If so, Leslie Illingworth was an arch-conspirator. He was the most friendly of men and never forgot any friends from whatever milieu they came. Here we are today – his friends from the Vale of Glamorgan, from Fleet Street, from Robertsbridge, to thank for his life of friendship and to do homage to him.
On 26 February 1980, a service of thanksgiving was held in St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street, the spiritual home of journalism. In his obituary of Illingworth, Malcolm Muggeridge claimed that Illingworth’s cartoons would, in the long run, wear better than David Low’s because Low’s cartoons related to an immediate situation which was soon forgotten, whereas, according to Muggeridge:
Illingworth’s went deeper, becoming at their best, satire in the grand style rather than mischievous quips; strategic rather than practical.
These were indeed kinds words by Muggeridge, who had a close and personal friendship with Illingworth. They had even been neighbours in Robertsbridge. Muggeridge, however, did seem to have a lifetime grudge against Low. He had written negatively about him whenever given the chance and his bigotry had once led him to describe Low as a ‘crypto-Jew’, which, of course, he was not.
As a political cartoonist, Illingworth may have lacked the fierce partisan attack and reforming zeal of a David Low, a Vicky, or a Will Dyson, but his real strengths lay in his exquisite draughtsmanship and mastery of technique. He was the last of the great practitioners of penmanship and an undisputed master of scraperboard drawing. As a human being, he was loved by all. His generosity and his generosity of spirit knew no bounds. As we have seen he almost bankrupted himself because of it. Throughout his life, Illingworth appreciated his talents and the rewards that came from them. He enjoyed life to the full. To those who knew him, Illingworth made a habit of saying in his lilting Welsh accent: “How good it all is, Butty. Now. Not yesterday, tomorrow or next week but now.” And for those that knew him, it always was.