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The Wilfred Owen of Cartooning?

By Laurence Grove, Professor of French and Text/Image Studies, University of Glasgow

Gilkison book cover

When Marianne Taylor, best known for her work as BBC correspondent on the referendum, contacted me concerning cartoons and a family connection I was intrigued to say the least. One meeting and a couple of coffees later it felt as though I knew Archie Gilkison personally.

Gilkison was from a theatrical family, born in Glasgow in 1885, and travelled to Dublin before returning to his home city. His satirical cartoons had appeared in the Dundee Chronicle and Scots Pictorial under the penname of ‘Baldy’, before he signed for himself in the Herald and the Glasgow Evening Times. It was these latter publications that initially saw his war cartoons, before their collective publication in book form by William Hodge and Company. The 1917 book was a posthumous publication, as Archie had died aged 31 in 1916 of pneumonia at military training in Berwick.

The cartoons display considerable erudition and artistry, with fine-line strokes reminiscent of the master printers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and a range of references including Shakespearean literature, history via the Battle of Trafalgar, and recent world events including the Dreyfus affair, but also popular lore such as the Loch Ness Monster. But what gives the collection its ‘wow’ factor is the way in which Gilkison pulls no punches concerning the horrors of World War I. He shows rotting corpses amidst the fire, the Devil himself looking onto the battlefield, the blood-strained hand of the Kaiser, and the use of lethal gases. Archie is fiercely patriotic in expressing his support for the Allies and disgust at the Germans with whom the responsibility lies clearly. Above all it is responsibility for a bloody massacre, devoid of glory, one that never should have happened and that will end in tragedy. Other artists such as Otto Dix, or much later Jacques Tardi, were vividly to express the trauma of World War I after the event, but Archie Gilkison is the only artist of his kind that I know to paint the horrors of war while it was happening. As such he is the Wilfred Owen of cartoons.

Marianne Taylor’s family has now generously donated a copy of War Cartoons by the Late Archie Gilkison to Glasgow University Library. The way in which Gilkison plays enigmatically between the title of the cartoon, the striking image and the subscriptio explanation makes it a perfect addition to our Stirling Maxwell Collection of text/image material. But having passed largely unnoticed for a century the work is also a treasure in its own right, with only seven other copies listed on Worldcat.

Already Gilkison’s cartoons have already attracted national and international attention from radio, TV and press, including  Marianne Taylor’s article and another BBC article with a short video clip.

Jean Rouard has reflected upon the implications for collective memory of building houses without attics. Wherever Marianne’s family kept Archie’s cartoons, their ‘discovery’ is now likely to affect the way we look we look at World War I.

The Reason Why

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The stark view of a fallen soldier, his skull-like head face down, with the birds of death circling above, is a marked contrast with the depiction of the war both sides were used to seeing. Gilkison’s soldier is a far cry from The Integrity of Belgium, resplendent in shining blue uniform, by Walter Sickert (the artist better known as Patricia Cornwell’s potential Jack the Ripper), or glory-peddling allegories such as Charles Butler’s Blood and Iron. But like the Renaissance emblem before him and the twenty-first-century ad to follow, Gilkison manipulates the interaction between title, image, and meaning: that the Kaiser’s promise of ‘never retreat’ was an ironic premonition of German massacre. Gilkison’s stark anti-war patriotism is the forgotten forerunner of the Vietnam Why? poster.

comparisons

Sickert’s The Integrity of Belgium, Butler’s Blood and Iron, and an anti-Vietnam poster.

The New Cupid

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Despite the bow with its arrow flying straight to the heart of the long-haired beauty, Gilkison’s Cupid has nothing of the Valentine Cards popularised by the Victorians just a few years previously, nor of the long tradition of text/image love emblems that came to the fore in the seventeenth century. Once again Gilkison distorts our expectations as the New Cupid merges with the Grim Reaper to contradict the cliché that ‘War is a Work of Love’, thereby mixing cultures as a rare, maybe unique, example of a cartoon from the war that criticises war. Culture is key here, and throughout, as Gilkison plays upon literature, history, current affaires and folklore challenging the viewer to tease out his iconoclastic references.

Gilkison's work plays with the cupid trope

Gilkison’s work plays with well-known tropes, like Cupid


The University of Glasgow is home to the Stirling Maxwell Centre for the Study of Text/Image Cultures, which focuses on the interaction of text and image, offering research and teaching into a wide range of topics within this theme. The Centre also provides a vibrant seminar series. The University Library holds the Stirling Maxwell Collection, details on which can be found here.


 

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