by Stacey Clapperton, PhD Candidate in History of Art, University of Glasgow
A British soldier, who may have spent endless months fighting in the trenches on the Western Front, finds himself in an army hospital with undisclosed injuries. We don’t know how long he has been lying in his hospital bed. We don’t know the last time he enjoyed the comforts of home. We learn, from the author of this scene that the soldier in question, Private Swish, has had his dug out blown in and is awakening from “dreams of beautiful nursing sisters and blue jacketed bliss”. Now this may not seem like a particularly humorous moment for this or any soldier, but in the expertise of a cartoonist armed with subtle humor, the scene transforms. Private Swish awakens to a barked command of “DRINK THIS” by an unsympathetic, sullen and knackered looking hospital orderly who looks like he’s about to force the patient to shift over, so he himself can have a lie down. This scene composed of a simple ink and wash drawing with white highlights, measuring a modest 29.1 x 22.7 cm, was created by Osborne Henry Mavor in 1916.
Prior to the war, Mavor had attended the University of Glasgow. He had been a constant contributor to the Glasgow University Magazine (GUM) from 1906 until his graduation year in 1913, whereby he experimented with writing verse and testing the patience and humour of his professors with featured caricatures. Cartooning was a constant feature during his time at Glasgow whilst he sat (and sometimes failed) exams in Zoology, Chemistry, Physics, Botany, Midwifery, Medicine and Surgery. His years with GUM would be the first and only time his cartoons would be published.
Mavor was responsible for training Royal Army Medical Corps personnel shortly after the war broke out and he was stationed at various dressing stations and aid posts once at the front. As a member of the RAMC, Mavor and his comrades were witnesses to the immediate aftermath of warfare, and the very worst cases of suffering and pain. Many would be surprised to find this was the perfect environment to provide inspiration for a cartoonist. Yet the merit of this small collection of cartoons which are today held in the Hunterian Art Gallery’s Print Room, arises from the humour that can prevail in the most desperate of situations. Aspects of suffering were explored in other Mavor cartoons from the front in 1916.
One cartoon depicts a wounded soldier lying on a stretcher, bandaged beyond recognition with a comrade looking down at him. The accompanying text reads: ‘Friend: “Is that you ole Bill” / Blesse: “Yus Ginger” / Friend: “You always was a lucky swine”’ The friend of course is not being cruel here, but rather he is referring to his friend’s ‘blighty’, the slang term referring to a wound not deemed to be life-threatening but serious enough for a soldier to be shipped home to Britain.
Another cartoon depicting an afflicted soldier is slightly unsettling. Whilst one soldier reclines in a doorframe smoking his pipe, he looks towards his comrade who is staring listlessly, almost crazed, into the distance, naked from the waist up, holding his shirt in his hand. The accompanying lines reveal; ‘”It’s not so much the little bit they do be after taking out of ye, / every now and again; but it’s the constant thramp-thramp-thramping up & / down your back that takes the heart out of a man.”’ The ‘they’ in this example refers to the lice which would infest the clothes of men in the trenches who were unable to wash properly. Hunting for lice in clothing was a thankless way of passing the time for many soldiers.
Despite the simple compositions of image and text, there is a degree of inconsistency in the presentation of Mavor’s cartoons. They are well developed; in some cases the original pencil sketches are visible underneath the bold lines in ink. Mavor often used full ink washes and white pencil highlights to flesh out his compositions. The cartoons are all in a monochrome palette, which may suggest the lack of availability of materials at the front. However, all the cartoons in the Hunterian are on quite thick, straight edged card of the same size which is more suggestive of pre-planning. Perhaps Mavor anticipated this activity for the frontline and brought his materials with him. These were not just quick doodles, but planned compositions which reveal the skill of their draughtsman, his sense of style, design and staging of scenes.
Mavor constructs his unique brand of humour through the relationship between text and image. His captions are always written in a colloquial language in order to represent the regular, working class soldier. These captions, often snippets of a conversation between comrades, allow their audience to understand how humour could be used to boost morale and break the monotony of daily life at the front by casting a comic’s eye over it. There are no politics, no horror or satire in Mavor’s cartoons. He was not aspiring to be the next Bruce Bairnsfather who achieved national success when his cartoon series ‘Old Bill’ was frequently published in the Bystander. During the war, cartoons featured frequently and their creators were championed by the popular press and were enjoyed by the public. T.J. Honeyman, once director of the Glasgow Art Gallery and friend of Mavor’s, revealed that the amateur cartoonist attracted media attention. ‘The Tatler was interested’ Honeyman claims, but a deal was never struck as Mavor ‘resisted their suggested amendments and was content to entertain himself and his friends’. Country Life magazine, in an edition dated 8th December, 1917, featured a four page spread entitled ‘Humour in a London War Hospital’. The article reviewed an exhibition held at the Camera Club which showcased the drawings and cartoons produced by patients and orderlies of the 3rd London General Hospital. This suggests that there was certainly an audience for the type of black humour which Mavor had been experimenting with.
However, Mavor’s cartoons would remain as personal musings and jokes between comrades, such as the instances where he poked fun at the language barriers working class soldiers were faced with on arrival in France depicted in the ‘Linguist’ dated 1916, with the caption; ‘If yer was my nipper I’d give yer a clout on the jor / toot sweet / Compree that?’ and ‘The Encyclopaedia’ from the same year; ‘Yus Pain is the French for Bread but you may say MONEY. She’ll understand you.’
These cartoons are of the soldier and for the soldier, with little aspiration to make any sweeping declarations for or against the present war. As Honeyman explains;
With O.H. much of his scribbling is merely an intimate chit-chat between himself and his thoughts. He is talking to himself… To watch him, it looked as if he started a line and let his ideas play around with it for a while.
The Hunterian does not hold any cartoons from Mavor after 1916 which deal with the war. We know from records that Mavor was invalided home in early 1917 after frequent attacks of fever and jaundice, yet he would see more of war when he was posted to Mesopotamia after his recovery. Despite being sent to the front once more, albeit a very different front, the war never featured in his work again. In his autobiography One Way of Living, first published in 1939, Mavor did not mention the war. Some insight into his wartime experiences however, can be understood from the letters he sent home which are included in Dr Mavor and Mr Bridie: Memories of James Bridie, the autobiography written by his son, Ronald.
In one letter, dated 29th September 1915, Mavor wrote; ‘I don’t want to write about the battle because I want to get the blood and mud and wet out of my head.’ Perhaps cartoons were one way, if only for a short time, in which Mavor was able to achieve this.
 T.J. Honeyman, ‘OH! DID THIS’ Scottish Art Review, vol.III, no.4, 1951, 5.
 Honeyman, (1951), 7.
See the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery online catalogue for more information on the cartoons:
To find out more about First World War collections in the Hunterial Museum and Art Gallery, see Stacey’s blog.